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New e-mag from Random House aims to brings back the essay

Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest trade-book publisher is making a bold move into the digital world today with the launch of Hazlitt, an online literary magazine, along with a related program to publish online-only essays under the same name.

The move is part of a new strategy that will see a total overhaul of Random House of Canada's digital presence, according to company president Brad Martin. "Traditionally, publishers have used their websites for sales and marketing," he said. "We believe publishers should also use their websites to publish."

Named for the 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt, the magazine will feature work by both in-house and non-Random writers, all of it informed by what the company calls "reader-first instincts."

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"The key to this is that it can't be strictly Random House content," Martin said. Hazlitt editor Christopher Frey promised to include "best-selling, award-winning authors alongside young, emerging writers." The magazine's first number includes a 20-year-old article on Andy Warhol by the late Christopher Hitchens.

The magazine will be available free of charge and will carry no advertising, according to Random House.

The company's Hazlitt Originals program is more obviously commercial.

Following the successful example of such programs as Kindle Singles and Byliner in the United States, it will be devoted to publishing digital-only, long-format articles at `a la carte prices. The first title to be published is journalist Patrick Graham's The Man Who Went to War, a memoir about the Arab uprising, which will sell for $2.99 online.

"Hazlitt Originals aspire to push the boundaries of the form to best suit the story," Random vice-president Robert Wheaton said, adding that it and similar ventures "have the capability to fundamentally reinvigorate the essay as a form."

Although some observers routinely deride the digital efforts of so-called "legacy publishers" – the ones they assume will soon be swept away by new technology – Random's move is a significant example of how the largest corporations are consolidating their control of a frontier pioneered by innovative outsiders. Despite the influence of e-readers, self-publishing and low-cost competition, the Big Six publishers still totally dominate the production of book-length content, digital or otherwise.

The latest example of that dominance was revealed this week in the first U.S. e-book bestseller list released by the website Digital Book World. Only two independent publishers – one of them Scholastic, an established publisher responsible for the Hunger Games series – cracked the top-25 list of best-selling e-books for the week ending August 18. Random House took the top four spots with its Fifty Shades of Grey franchise and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.

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As surprising as their source are the prices of the most popular e-books, which remain high despite the flood of cheap content available online. Only three of the top 25 were priced below $3. And none of them are digital originals, having been published previously or simultaneously on paper.

With the digital marketplace coming firmly under their control, traditional publishers are simultaneously benefiting from the receding threat of e-readers, which are proving far less disruptive than most publishers expected when sales first took off.

"Three years ago, everyone thought that people who bought readers would never buy a paper book again," Martin said. "That doesn't seem to be the case. These same people are still buying paper books."

"A reader just wants to read," Martin said. The format doesn't change that. "And at the end of the day," he added, "the Big Six are very good at what they do."

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