New formats in literature are rare, and disruptive. They usually accompany a change in technology. Amazon was the first big player to realise that digitisation would allow for a new literary format. In January 2011, it quietly launched a substore on its US website to sell something it called a Kindle Single: Compelling Ideas Expressed At Their Natural Length, as a press release headline blandly put it.
“Typically between 5,000 and 30,000 words, Kindle Singles are editorially curated and showcase writing from both new and established voices – from bestselling novelists and journalists to previously unpublished writers.”
Those lines may not sound like a call to revolution. But they are. Writers can seldom express ideas “at their natural length”, because in the world of traditional print only a few lengths are commercially viable. Write too long, and you’ll be told to cut it (as Stephen King was when The Stand came in too long to be bound in paperback). Worse, write too short, and you won’t get published at all. Your perfect story is 50 pages long – or 70, or 100? Good luck getting that printed anywhere.
Hence the revolution. Because the new length exploits this hole in traditional publishing.
The hole has existed for 500 years; it’s baked into the print model. The high fixed overheads of book production – printing, binding, warehousing and distributing a labour-intensive physical object – have tended to make books of fewer than 100 pages too expensive for the customer. (And print magazines and newspapers can take works of only 10, maybe 15 pages, max.)
But although commercial print publishers have never liked novellas or novelettes, authors always have. Indeed, many writers have done their best work at that length, despite the difficulty of finding publication (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener; Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). However brilliantly written, though, they have often been disrespectfully published, awkwardly bundled up with other stories to pad out a commercially viable print book.
Worse, many writers have taken a strong 70-page idea and stretched it into a weak 300-page book because that was what the industry demanded.
I know an excellent young author who feels she ruined her second novel because her contract demanded 100,000 words; the story should have been told at half that length. And I know several short-fiction writers who have wasted painful years writing bad novels instead of superb short stories and novellas.
Digital pricing can vary smoothly with length, as physical print pricing cannot. The hole in the heart of publishing has been fixed. And the Single is now being embraced.
In the US, writers such as Chuck –Fight Club – Palahniuk, Susan Orlean, Amy Tan, George Saunders and Ann Patchett are writing Kindle Singles. Niall Ferguson had a big transatlantic hit in April with his short biography of Margaret Thatcher, Always Right. The Booker prizewinner Howard Jacobson has released a Kindle Single. And Margaret Atwood (the only winner of both the Man Booker and the Arthur C Clarke award) is publishing Positron, a long work of erotic science fiction, Single by Single.
Given that Kindle Single is a trademark, it would be useful to have an open-source word for the format. I suggest adding the affectionate Irish diminutive suffix -een to the sturdy Anglo-Saxon “book”.
Writers have been publishing bookeens for years, of course, but they were seen as oddities, fragments lost among the big books. Without a name, they couldn’t fully exist. But Amazon, in giving the format a formal identity, has put the bookeen on a solid commercial footing. Kindle Singles have sold “only” 4m or 5m copies thus far, but they are coming from a base of zero. Crucially, the Kindle Singles programme is not a closed shop: Amazon both publishes its own signings and distributes curated works by other publishers under the Kindle Singles brand. Many of the most successful Singles come from small, nimble new digital publishers such as Byliner, Atavist, DailyLit and TED Books. It was DailyLit, run by the literary novelists Yael Goldstein Love and Jennifer 8 Lee, who commissioned my own bookeen. I wrote it; they showed it to Amazon; it was taken on.
Any writer can approach Amazon directly, as Stephen King did in January with Guns, a nonfiction essay too long, at 8,000 words, for most newspapers or magazines. If King had given Guns to his usual publisher, it might have come out in a hardback collection of essays in about eight years’ time. He offered it to Kindle Singles on a Friday; they read it over the weekend, and it was published within the week. It has 1,654 reviews on Amazon.
And King may have made significantly more money per word from his Kindle Single than he makes from his mainstream published novels. Amazon pays authors who go directly to it 70% of revenue on Singles. It pays promptly every month, and allows you to retain the rights to your work.
A traditional print publisher will pay you, at best, 15% of retail on hardback books and 8% on paperbacks. For Kindle Singles? At best, a disgraceful 25% of the 70% Amazon gives. (The new digital startups often split that 70% 50/50 with authors.) A traditional publisher pays those royalties only twice a year, six months in arrears, and will potentially own the rights until you’ve been dead for 70 years.
The attractions for authors are powerful: more freedom and more money. But even a small swing towards Singles could prove damaging to Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and the independent bookshops. Soon they will have the albums of the industry – the novels, the big non-fiction books – but they won’t have the hit singles; they will have the books but not the bookeens. And a bookshop that can’t stock the new one by Stephen King, Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood … Ouch.
Well, that’s just the way it is: technology changes art, and then art changes retail. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to work on my next piece of fiction. I reckon it’ll be about 20,000 words long.
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