Amazon Makes Like a Publisher With Kindle Singles

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Correction appended: November 9, 2011

In January, Amazon.com, the world’s largest online bookseller, launched its Kindle Singles sales campaign. The mini-eBooks were specifically designed for the company’s popular eReader and apps, and each is comprised of what Amazon describes as “a single killer idea” that runs between 5,000 and 30,000 words, longer than a long magazine article but shorter than a short book.

The Singles range from memoirs and original reporting to essays and short stories. Since the beginning of the year, more than 100 have been published.

A catchy idea, for sure. (There are other players too, like the Atavist, a boutique publishing house now producing original digital short-form nonfiction.) Still, with more than 300,000 books published in the US annually, why are these tiny digital tomes so alarming to American publishers that not a one would agree to speak on the record about Amazon’s project? Simply put, they’re both dependent and fearful of the company.  “Amazon is their biggest customer and potentially their biggest competitor,” says Jim Milliott, business and news editor for trade magazine Publishers Weekly. “I’d say they’re watching them with a very wary eye.”

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Lately, there’s been a lot of activity to watch. Aside from the Singles, the bookselling giant plans to publish more than 120 full-length books this fall alone, in both print and digital formats. “Publishers are pretty unhappy about Amazon’s general publishing initiatives, which look more and more like a traditional house,” says Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information. And if publishers feel elbowed aside, it’s not an accident. “I think a lot of what Amazon wants to do is basically own the road between the consumer and the content. It’s been a big part of what the Kindle’s about.” (The company also seemed to be moving in on the library business with its Thursday announcement that it would free up 5,000 or so books for rental to Amazon Prime members.)

The Kindle Singles program has already been able to entice some big-name writers like Stephen King and Jennifer Weiner to take part. “Authors are able to sell their work directly to customers and to earn a very relatively high royalty—70 percent,” says David Blum, editor of the Kindle Singles program and former editor of the Village Voice. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for writers to participate directly in the profits from the sale of their work.”

Norris is a bit more cynical. “My guess is that a short story that is otherwise rotting in their desks can just be cleaned up a little bit and published,” he says. Editor Blum is unperturbed by Norris’ suggestion that these shorter pieces can’t hold their own. “We felt that this middle-length content was something that really hadn’t had a place previously. Authors were either forced to cut down longer work or at other times puff up [shorter work] to be a conventional-length book.”

Another lure, particularly for journalists and pundits, is the short turnaround time. If a newspaper is the first rough draft of history, then a Kindle Single is one step closer. “We’re able to help authors publish their works very quickly when the situation warrants,” says Blum. Christopher Hitchens’ The Enemy, which explores the death of Osama bin Laden went on sale two weeks after the killing of the al-Qaeda leader. “He finished writing it on a Friday; it was for sale on a Monday morning.” Another new title, 
October 1, 2011: The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge, by Pulitzer-winning journalist Will Bunch, immortalizes the Occupy Wall Street movement while the protesters are still huddled in Zuccotti Park.

Kindle Singles are recession-friendly, with the least expensive just under a dollar and the priciest running $4.99. But at such puny prices, can these really be a moneymaker for Amazon? It’s hard to know, says Michael Cader, editor of the trade e-magazine Publisher’s Lunch. “It’s the traditional Amazon dark hole of data,” he jokes of the secretive company, which rarely releases any sales figures. Also, its Kindle Singles store “is very limited. There’s a relatively small catalog next to size of the eBook catalog.” But profits may not be the main issue. The program both provides content for Kindles and gets authors used to working directly with Amazon, rather than with their previous publishers.

Ultimately, Amazon’s goal in publishing its own content may be something altogether different. “Publishers’ suspicion and fear is that they want to continue to use books as, if not loss leaders, low margin items to lure people to the site to buy other products,” says Publishers Weekly‘s Milliot. “That’s what publishers suspect is at least part of their strategy, and something that they worry about the most, because obviously it’s a strategy they can’t combat.” Why not? “Because,” says Milliott, “they have to make money on what they sell.”

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The original version of this article said that Lee Child published his short story as a Kindle Single. It was sold on Amazon as a Single, but also available for purchase elsewhere.

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