Making Millions in the Digital Middle

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The digital revolution brought forth a frenzied hoard of futurists who declared the publishing industry is dying. They say publishers simply can’t compete with authors who can self-publish or the growing dominance of Amazon. I disagree. I don’t think the end is near. I think we’re looking in the wrong direction. Rather than look at the end, we need to look down the middle.

To illustrate, draw a horizontal line and write “Free” on the left side and the number “$9.99” on the right side:

The Digital Middle 1

Free represents content that readers can get at no charge, such as book samples, blog posts, free resources, etc. The number $9.99 represents the typical price used to sell digital e-books. To date, most publishers and authors concentrate their efforts on either end of the line. They give away free content to promote their titles and entice readers. Then, they charge consumers around $9.99 or more to purchase a digital e-book.

Notice the wide gap between free and $9.99. I call it the “Digital Middle,” and I believe there are millions of dollars to be made in this middle space. However, this money can’t be realized until publishers and authors stop fixating on long-form content on the left side of the line. The 250-page trade book (and e-book) can still remain the basis for publishing fiction stories and non-fiction ideas. But, the growth opportunity is in the digital middle using shorter-form content at various price points. Someone is already making millions in this middle space…guess who?

Amazon is known as a company that rarely turns a profit. Yet, they’ve found profit in the digital middle with their Kindle Singles division. They don’t sell $9.99 e-books. Instead, they sell original short-form content at prices ranging from $.99 to $4.99. Content length is between 5,000 – 30,000 words and the topics include interviews, short stories, memoirs, humor, essays, etc. According to the New York Times, the Kindle Singles division has sold over five million units and made over ten million dollars in less than three years – and they did it profitably!

Amazon has proven there is a growing market in the digital middle between free and $9.99. Other companies are expanding into this space as well, such as Atavist and Byliner. But, most publishers and authors are sitting on the sidelines, which doesn’t make sense. Publishers and authors are the biggest content creators in the industry. They have the easiest opportunity to repackage backlist material or adapt frontlist content to maximize the digital middle. Why limit the ability to make money by focusing only on trade books? The middle space is a field ripe for the harvest. Why wait to experience the following benefits?

1. More products to a wider audience of readers
A publisher’s biggest competition isn’t Amazon. It’s the average American’s disinterest in reading. Millions of well-educated Americans don’t read because their attention-span and busy schedule don’t allow time to sit down with a long book. Short-form content is a way to get this audience involved and monetize their desire for concise material. The digital middle can help create new revenue streams and simultaneously grow the overall pie of readers for everyone.

2. Limit risk and get paid to test new ideas
Most publishers will admit that launching a new trade book is like a crap-shoot. Nobody really knows if a book will be a financial hit or miss. It takes a lot of money to acquire, edit, print, and distribute a book. What if you could minimize the risk to publish a new book and even make money testing the content? The digital middle allows authors and publishers to audition new material on readers and monetize the reaction. Start with a short story or a non-fiction concept at a limited length. If the material bombs, you haven’t invested much (and you can even make a little money) to gauge reader response. If the response is favorable, you make money while gaining proof of concept that a trade book could be successful.

3. Monetize backlist content
A lot of authors and publishers are sitting on a gold-mine of backlist material that’s dormant and just gathering dust. The digital middle allows this content to be repackaged, revised, or reformatted into new digital products that readers appreciate. Take a non-fiction book and break it into smaller chunks with a more distinct focus. Combine content from different books into a new product. Resurrect lost chapters, back stories, or alternative endings from a novel. Rewrite old material with updated content to make it relevant for today. Almost anything can be brought back to life in the digital middle.

4. Stay connected with readers in-between books
For most authors, the lag time between new books can be several months to several years. During this lag period, fans can lose interest or get distracted by other options. The digital middle allows more frequent opportunities to stay connected and offer new products to a reading audience. You can test content for an upcoming book as a digital short, release standalone original content, or repackage backlist material. Musicians use this technique by releasing singles, EP recordings, or a collection of greatest hits in between major albums. The digital middle helps minimize lag time and enable authors and publishers to keep hungry readers satisfied with new material.

By the way, my definition of the “Digital Middle” doesn’t mean products must only be priced between free and $9.99. I’ve personally made thousands of dollars with my own short-form digital products at higher price points. For example, I took nuggets of material from my published trade book, Sell Your Book Like Wildfire, and repurposed it into a 4-page Marketing Plan Template for Authors that sells for $19.99. My experience has shown that readers will gladly pay a higher price for concise content that answers a direct need. Time is money, and readers will pay for the convenience of getting material they want that is succinct and focused.

The Digital Middle 2

The digital revolution doesn’t spell the end of publishing. Instead, the door has opened to monetize content in ways not possible ten years ago. The future is bright with possibilities. All we need to do is look in the right direction. Look down the middle…the digital middle.


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