In a year when Amazon sold more e-books than dead trees and publishers poured precious funds into actual tech ventures, a few hazy harbingers of the Future of Publishing began coming into focus. One is an emerging format that this year encompassed works by Jon Krakauer, Walter Mosley, Tyler Cowen, Amy Tan, and more than one vampire romance writer: the short book.
Amid all of 2011’s obits for the 300-page object, it’s easy to forget just how limiting the one-size-fits-all template has been for publishing (that one size being about 100,000 words). Why should magazine articles, horror stories for children, and scholarly theses all be molded into one Procrustean bed? The great hidden virtue of e-books—hidden beneath the chatter about their effect on the bottom line—is that they allow stories to be exactly as long as we want them to be. It turns out that many of them work best between 10,000 and 35,000 words long—the makings of a whole new nonfiction genre occupying the virgin territory between articles and hardcovers. It may even be the case that Americans can tolerate serious policy work by academics (like economist Cowen’s e-book hit The Great Stagnation) so long as it isn’t padded out to 500 pages.
From one angle, the short book might look like another manifestation of the shrinking American attention span. From another, it speaks to our longing for a lot more depth than shrinking periodicals can handle. Though some of the publishing conglomerates seem to have caught on (the three-year-old Penguin eSpecials, which include Cowen’s book, and a new Random House partnership with Politico to produce four shorts on the 2012 campaign), the charge was led this year by two start-ups, both established by magazine refugees. John Tayman and Mark Bryant, old friends from Outside magazine, had the idea to package short, timely e-books years ago, but waited on Byliner.com until tablets and Amazon’s game-changing Kindle Singles—articles à la carte—hit the market. “It started with our own passion for long-form journalism, for great storytelling,” says Bryant, “and feeling that there was less opportunity to do that at magazines.” They made their first e-book, Jon Krakauer’s 23,000-word Three Cups of Deceit, available for free for three days, during which time 70,000 copies were downloaded. After they began charging, it was the No. 1 nonfiction title on Amazon for three weeks, and Byliner Originals now boast the bylines of Taylor Branch, Mark Bittman, and Ann Patchett. This week, they’ve expanded into fiction, beginning with Amy Tan’s story “Rules for Virgins.” Theirs wasn’t the first site with a short-book mission. The Atavist, launched in January, spikes its e-books with videos, timelines, and photos—just enough bells and whistles to enhance the experience without weighing it down. “Enhanced e-books” aren’t exactly flying off the e-shelves, but a start-up with low overhead and shorter products is the perfect place to play. “We’re happy to experiment,” says Evan Ratliff, a writer who co-founded the Atavist with New Yorker editor Nicholas Thompson, “without the pressures of having to sell 50,000 copies.”
They’re also licensing their multimedia platform to other publishers—“the same publishers,” says Ratliff, “that we went to in 2010, when they gave us a pat on the head and said, ‘That’s a clever idea. Good luck.’ ”
This article has been updated with additional information since its initial publication.