Academic publishers, having to appeal to digital natives who are used to consuming quick, accessible information on the internet, have been granulising their content digitally for a while now—be it chapters of different authors' works bought together under set themes, or digital platforms making the reading and buying of journals easier.
Trade publishers are now beginning to follow suit. Leading the way is Random House, with its The Bodley Head-originated digital publishing strand Brain Shots. Under the tag line of "byte-sized books for busy people" the idea behind the original six "Shots", which were published in July 2010, was that they captured the essence of the original, full-length book, but in an abridged e-book and audio format.
Kay Peddle, editor at The Bodley Head, says: "The kernel of the idea came from the fact that a lot of people are interested in the topics we are publishing on, but don't necessarily have the time to read a 500-page book." For Peddle the main question driving Brain Shots is, at a dinner party, what do you need to be well read on? "We couldn't have done it before the advent of e-books and we are just responding to the way people get into current affairs now. Our lives are so fragmented and busy [and with Brain Shots] we can now introduce people to authors within a neat package, and they will then hopefully go on to explore their backlists . . . so it is about promotion as well as publishing and reaching new readers and new demographics. Our job now is to develop the brand with new series' of thematic publishing."
The first set of Shots included abridged versions of Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know by John Barrow and The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer—all six were priced at £5.11. Peddle says: "We developed it all in-house, with no budget and no precedent, so we had to create the systems and decide the best price point. We had no idea how many copies would be downloaded, but the reaction so far has shown us that an enthusiasm for short-form books is out there."
Upon his move to Random House in January, digital editor Dan Franklin began to develop the Brain Shots "dinner party" ethos further: "I'm really interested in that area of long-form journalism . . . the newspaper industry is contracting, and technology is often expressed as problems rather than solutions, but [Brain Shots] is an alternative avenue for journalists."
In July the second series of Brain Shots was published, under a Summer of Unrest theme, in the wake of the student protests and the Arab Spring. Franklin commissioned four straight-to-digital titles, published by Vintage Digital, including Kettled Youth by Dan Hancox, a freelance writer for the Guardian and New Statesman, and Revolution Road by the Observer's foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont. Franklin now has "some things cooking for the start of next year, including a new series looking at the end of the world", and is looking to commission some "heavyweights".
Neither Franklin nor Peddle looked directly to academic publishers for inspiration on granulising content, and Franklin suggests that although trade publishers are getting to grips with "proportionalising" non-fiction content, they are not quite there yet: "The commissioning of Brain Shots is a bit like being a Viking—we've raided a new territory, but now we need to go back to the boat and look at what we've got, we're not ready to establish a new kingdom yet. But we are looking to innovate and be ahead of the curve." He adds: "It's an ongoing communication for this sort of writing about what the format and price point should be. Pricing is a fluid thing, and the Summer of Unrest titles are already cheaper than the first set of Brain Shots titles. I've been told by retailers that £2.99 is a sweet spot—as it's not expensive but still communicates the value of our authors' work."
In January Amazon launched Kindle Singles, one-off pieces of non-fiction publishing and long-form journalism, which are priced between $1 to $5, running between 5,000 and 30,000 words. Similarly, at the start of this month the Guardian launched Guardian Shorts, a new series of short-term e-books "demonstrating the best of Guardian journalism", again ranging in word count from 5,000 to 30,000 with price points ranging from £1.99 to £3.99. So maybe that new kingdom isn't too far away.