Short-Form Digital Grows at University Presses
September 19, 2012 | 11:03 am
Back in March, the Digital Digest profiled Princeton Shorts, a new short-form e-book program launched last fall by Princeton University Press. At least two more AAUP presses have launched short e-book programs this spring: Stanford, with Stanford Briefs, and North Carolina, with UNC Press E-Book Shorts.
The basic idea of short-form digital is not original to university presses. Anticipating the evolving desires of e-readership, Amazon launched its Kindle Singles format in January 2011, canvassing for medium-length (5,000-30,000) word pieces (“longer than a magazine article, shorter than a book.”) Publishers Weekly reports that they are selling just fine, with the top two or three Singles consistently ranking among the overall Kindle top 100. Amazon claims sales of well over two million on about 200 titles.
For Princeton and North Carolina, the digital shorts content comes from already-published, bestselling titles. Princeton Shorts and UNC E-Book Shorts re-package excerpts of full books—as North Carolina describes it, “essential concepts, defining moments, and concise introductions.” In contrast, Stanford’s Briefs are made up of all new content.
Each program has its particularities. Princeton’s content favors a diversity of press bestsellers, while North Carolina’s first batch was strictly Civil War material. Stanford has added a print-on-demand option for its original Briefs, perhaps because there’s no original print book to purchase.
Stanford Director Alan Harvey thinks the adjusted length can be a very effective format for scholarship—in some cases, more effective than the traditional book. “For the Briefs, we’ve worked with authors to strip out extraneous material in order to present the core argument. No need to summarize the prior 100 years of research (with full citations), or acknowledge the work of every tangential scholar. Simply keep to the argument. That cuts many books down to Brief length. Of course, it doesn’t work for everything […] But I think every field could benefit from a dose of Briefs.”
A few of North Carolina’s E-Book Shorts have “stretched the definition of ‘short,'” acknowledges Editorial Director Mark Simpson-Vos: “The Battle of Fredericksburg,” for example, from Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, tops 300 pages. But that’s less than half of the original. “We’ve heard from scholars and general readers that George Rable’s account of the Battle of Fredericksburg is one of the best available […] the primary battle narrative comprises only a part of the whole. Fortunately, publishing technology has given us a way to excerpt that part easily and make it available as a standalone work.”
The emphasis at each press is clearly on in-depth, quality scholarly content; on getting to the heart of a matter, despite—or even because of—the format’s brevity. Depending on the press and title, they could attract general, curious readers or serve well for course adoption (where many readings are chapter-length by nature).
One theory behind the blossoming of the Princeton and North Carolina excerpt-based programs is that especially engaging shorts could hook readers into buying the complete original (all already available in both digital and print formats). Whether that will become a reality is hard to foresee: “It’s been hard to tell,” says Princeton’s Rob Tempio, the editor in charge of the Princeton Shorts project, “there is no direct way of tracking these.” At the least, selling excerpts does not appear to be preempting sales of the complete work: “The paperback of [best-selling economics book This Time is Different] has been selling well and steadily since its release not long before the release of the short. Did sales of the Short drive that? Doubtful. Did sales of the Short detract from the sales of that? Almost certainly not.”
As with many new digital projects, it’s still unclear whether the shorts programs will pay off more through pure revenue or more abstractly as a marketing and public-relations boost, showing off the presses’ capabilities to “stay ahead of the e-curve.” Says Tempio: “We are living through the book equivalent of the space race with publishers scrambling to get into e-orbit or even land an e-book on the moon […] We have learned a lot from this program about ‘chunking,’ about the illusory ease of merely extracting content from existing books and selling it, about the challenges of promoting e-only products, etc. We are a wiser organization for our efforts.”
Tempio also points out the difference between publicity for the series and publicity for the individual Shorts; with the first round released, “the publicity we tended to generate centered on the program itself, not the selections. That was, of course, great, but it was harder to get the individual Shorts noticed […] We’ve adapted a bit for our second batch of Shorts and started targeting key bloggers relevant to the individual shorts as well as some sites specializing in e-content. We also tried several different types of electronic ads.”
Sales profits and exposure are both great reasons for presses to pursue shorts. But how do authors respond? Do scholars prefer a traditional book-length publication deal, because of tenure requirements or otherwise? Harvey says no, that even in Stanford’s case, where the Briefs are all original content, authors are as excited about the possibilities of the new format as the press. “After a few minutes they seem to completely grasp the concept and, for the most part, are eager to participate. We’ve had a few question whether it is a ‘real’ book, but that’s quickly addressed by reminding them they are peer-reviewed and published by the Press and thus should meet all the usual publication criteria.”
But do they still expect a full-length book contract to follow?
“That isn’t something we’ve raised with authors and hasn’t been on our road map […] But we’re also doing something slightly different in allowing authors to publish a Brief as an update to an existing book. We have a title on the Healthcare debate that is in need of an update. Rather than a new edition, we’re going to issue an extra two chapters as a Brief.”
For a broader look at the latest digital publishing trends at university presses, be sure to revisit our 2012 Digital Book Publishing Survey Report, released in June.
Communications Coordinator, AAUP