No, I'm not talking about online dating services or individual music tracks. eSingles are short (usually 30,000 words or less) eBooks, most often non-fiction. Amazon calls them Kindle Singles (hence the eSingles name); Apple calls them Quick Reads. There have been printed short stories and novellas almost since the birth of Gutenberg's printing press, but short non-fiction books haven't fared as well, especially in retail bookstores. There's an implicit connection in consumers' minds between the length of a book and its value: A thin book is simply worth less money than a thick one.
The manufacturing costs of books--printing and binding--are affected much less by the number of pages in a book with a given page size than they are by how many copies are printed and bound at a time. A 300-page book costs more than a 100-page book, but nowhere near three times as much. If consumers are predisposed to pay more for a bigger book, that makes the bigger book more profitable than a smaller one. The result is that publishers set word- and page-count targets for their authors that are intended to create bigger, higher-priced and more profitable books. In turn, the books are often padded out with unnecessary information--case histories, sidebars, interviews, etc., that may be interesting but that don't really contribute to the core value of the book. In other words, filler is added to increase the page count.
eBooks have changed how consumers perceive books, in that they no longer judge books by their cover (or, in this case, their size), and instead pay more attention to other factors: The author, subject and reviews. This has enabled eSingles to become viable. Seth Godin's The Domino Project, for example, publishes short non-fiction eBooks that are either primarily motivational or that focus on a single topic. Italy's 40Kbooks is bringing the same approach to fiction. Magazines and newspapers are publishing eSingles that either feature compilations of previously-published articles or new works; The U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper, for example, recently published an eSingle explaining how it broke the News International phone hacking story.
eSingles are generally less expensive than full-length eBooks--for example, they're typically priced between $1.99 and $7.99 at Amazon. Their short length means that they can be written, edited, designed and released much more quickly than full-length titles. That means that they can be more current than full-length titles from the "Big 6" trade publishers, which often take a year or more to get from submission of the manuscript into the hands of consumers as a printed book. Also, both writers and publishers can spread their risks across far more titles; a writer could potentially write and publish as many as four eSingles a year, vs. one full-length title.
Another factor in favor of eSingles, especially for self-publishing authors, is the aggressive royalty that they can get. Amazon, for example, will pay as much as a 70% royalty on each eBook sold, depending on the price and whether or not it gets exclusivity. Given that the Big 6 typically pay only 12% to 15% of the wholesale price to authors, self-publishing authors can make significantly more per copy, even at a much lower sales price.
Here's an example:
$19.99 eBook sold on agency terms (30% to reseller) = $13.99 wholesale price
15% author's royalty (before exclusions and deductions) = $2.10 per copy
$6.99 eSingle sold exclusively through Amazon with 70% royalty = $4.89 per copy
In this example, the author/self-publisher will have to pay all the costs of copyediting and design, but will still end up making substantially more money. That's why I believe that authors will gravitate to eSingles, non-conventional book publishers will embrace them, and "old line" publishers will be forced to respond.