In June 2010 our associate marketing director Leslie Nangle raised the notion of publishing short e-“works” – that is, content shorter than a book but longer than a magazine article. The thought was that with the explosion of smartphones, dedicated reading devices, and tablets, we had an opportunity to distinguish ourselves by providing short content to non-fiction readers interested in an in-depth look at a topic. Subsequent meetings took place and with management’s blessing we moved forward.

A committee was formed with representatives from all departments at the Press who would be involved and whose experience had some relevance to the venture: editorial, production, marketing, sales, rights/permissions, design, and digital publishing. We made sure to include people with lengthy tenures at the Press who have a deep knowledge of our backlist. Since it all begins with content, Executive Editor Rob Tempio (philosophy, political theory, and the ancient world) seemed the logical choice for chair.

Our Process

To get us to the point of actually releasing the Shorts into the marketplace, the following topics were raised, considered, and resolved – not necessarily in this order, and not necessarily with optimal forethought! After all, we were plowing new ground.

  1. Content selection. We briefly considered publishing for Kindle Singles, but since that program requires original content and we weren’t at the point of undertaking the full editorial process for “born digital” of any length, we decided to turn to our existing content for pertinent/timely/edifying selections. There is a successful print precedent at PUP for this approach – in 1963 we published A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960, by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwarz. It quickly became a classic, and the chapter on the Great Depression caught on with economists. In 1965 the Press published it as a stand-alone book, The Great Contraction. (Our bestselling Short is The Second Great Contraction, taken from our bestselling both in print and e, This Time is Different, by Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff.)
  2. E-rights. Do we have them?!
  3. Frontmatter. Backmatter. What should the copyright page contain/look like? What introductory material did we want and who was going to write it? Who was going to edit it? Approve it? Should we have a series statement? Should we list the full works/other works in the Shorts series?
  4. Naming the series. Much discussion and ultimately a debate ensued about whether to include “e” or “electronic” in the series name. Finally it was determined that a reference to digital wasn’t needed, as these were to be published only electronically, so they were obviously, well, e-books. And better to keep the brand image simple and clean. (And if we ever did decide to publish these in print, we wouldn’t have to deal with a pesky “e” reference.)
  5. Designing the covers and content “pages”– the series “look.”  The goal of course was to maintain the look, feel, and integrity of the Press brand but with a treatment that says something new. Designer Jason Alejandro and an intern on premises at the time achieved this with elegance. Leslie adamantly advocated for live links from within the Shorts to web pages for their related full works, and to the new PUP web page for the Shorts.
  6. Titles. Should they reference the full work? We decided yes, and to manage this with subtitles, thus:  Title of Short:  From Full Book.
  7. Should the extracted content be repaginated or carry the page numbers of the original? We debated this as in some cases the Shorts selection referenced content in another chapter of the book. And in this first round we hadn’t planned on editorial intervention to the extent necessary to deal with those references. So we didn’t re-paginate, but regretted this later, as they looked odd and the conversion houses thought the source files were missing huge chunks of content, causing production and publication delays.
  8. Where should we sell them? We decided all retailers and all library aggregator partners. Why not test them everywhere?
  9. Metadata. We had to figure out how to construct metadata to associate but not confuse the Short, with the longer work. It took us awhile to work this out: some Shorts displayed on Amazon detail pages as hundreds of pages long (the length of the full book from which the Short content was lifted).
  10. Pricing.  In consultation with marketing, we decided no price higher than $4.99. Prices were ultimately finalized by Rob. We discovered that Amazon required minimum euro and pounds prices of .99 and .79, respectively. (Slightly higher than what we would have preferred for our $0.99 selection from Thoreau, On Reading.)
  11.  Conversion formats. Since we planned to sell them in the usual channels, we got the usual conversions – web pdf and epub for all.
  12.  Press databases. Our in-house programmers configured a new product type for our databases.
  13. Marketing.  Created web pages and catalogue copy. Advertised in catalogues, at academic meetings, through email campaigns and social media. Press release.  Ads in the Boston Review and NY Review of Books.

Challenges,  Rewards, and Measuring Success

All agree that this project was much more complicated than expected. This was uncharted territory in many respects, and we did not have a full production workflow in place from the start. Consequently and notwithstanding the enthusiasm and best intentions of the project team, at times steps were skipped; repercussions of missed deadlines misunderstood; and folks were fuzzy about who was supposed to do what – and why – and when.  Clearly, lifting content from existing books to produce short e-books involved much more than “cut, paste, and plop” (into a simple template).

As a consequence, a formal production process was put in place for Shorts Round II, and all is going swimmingly for achieving our April 16th release date. Designs of source files have been refined: Art Director Maria Lindenfelder has been bothered  by e-books in which frontmatter and backmatter are static, while the main text is dynamic. She’s overseen the design of a template for flowable PDFs, to create a more holistic design.

The jury is still out on how we will measure the success of the Shorts publishing program. We’ve enjoyed positive publicity, which is always a good thing. Authors are delighted. And the actual production costs are minimal – composition, conversion, and storage. But there is a real cost in staff time – human resources. Ultimately success will need to be measured in terms of sales. The measuring stick for units and dollars is unique for Shorts – we haven’t figured out what the threshold needs to be. Obviously they don’t have physical counterparts to drive sales in bookstores or online. And though difficult to identify, there may be an uptick of sales of the original work advertised within each Short.

In Conclusion:

We all came away with greater insight into what our colleagues in other departments do, and appreciation for the details and variables they contend with and of which we are often unaware. And it was a welcome change of pace to work with people we don’t normally get to work with. Team members’ comments follow:

 “since we were doing this de novo, we were in a sense inventing the wheel and there were lots of choices to be made”

“a short course in entrepreneurship and its transition to a mature business”

“I did appreciate that if I had an opinion about any of the areas I wasn’t an expert in, I had the freedom to make a suggestion”

“I learned how complicated e-book publishing is and also what a vast open space the possibility of e-books in all their variations has made in the world of publishing at large”

“many of the processes we have in place for regular print books are there with good reason and having to operate outside them feels a bit like anarchy”

“I really enjoyed seeing the whole thing launch and receive such great press”

“something that sounded easy actually required lots of problem solving and cross-departmental teamwork to patch together disparate elements into a digital product”

“I think the program may open the door for the Press to talk about other types of e-initiatives”

“digital does not equal easy despite what some authors may think”

“in the course of two rounds of Shorts, I saw change from a chaotic creative phase [Fall ’11  Shorts] to a more regulated production phase [Spring ’12 Shorts]”

“the name ‘Princeton Shorts’ has caught on, and we are seeing other publishers using the word “shorts” to describe their electronic content”

By Priscilla Treadwell, Digital Sales Director