Shorts and Singles

I’ve been asked if I have any thoughts about the newly announced “Kindle Singles” thing from Amazon. The idea would be to publish shorter works via Amazon — 10k to 30k words is the range I hear batted about — and price them commensurately. The question then becomes whether there is a sufficient market for such things, and whether it will Save Short Fiction, etc. So here are some thoughts on that.

1. I think it’s reasonable that short fiction (or other short work) will sell electronically, and I have some real-world experience for that, because short fiction of mine has sold reasonably well. The God Engines is selling solidly as an electronic release, both on Amazon and elsewhere, as is “After the Coup,” the short story I wrote for Tor.com. And of course Clash of the Geeks, which is a short anthology of very short works, performed admirably just off this site alone. I acknowledge I may be an outlier due to my personal level of microfame in science fiction/writing circles. Even so, I suspect that there’s no real bar to selling shorts, as long as they’re reasonably priced for their length, and the writer in question has an established base of readers to flog.

Philosophically, I would love it if a work could be its most effective length and not a length required by publication necessities, and to the extent that electronic publication can help that, bring it on.

2. That said, there’s no guarantee that Amazon is going to be the one to effectively exploit this particular market. Amazon’s gone to this well before; some of you may remember the “Amazon Shorts” program which launched from the retailer more than five years ago. If you don’t remember it, that might also tell you something. It ended up not working particularly well.

2010 is not 2005, in no small part because rather more people now have eBook readers and are otherwise more used to reading electronically. But in many ways the issue isn’t consumer trends in reading, the issue is whether Amazon (or whomever) is committed to making its short works market viable. Part of that will be editorial selection and part of that will be marketing. If the “Kindle Singles” program ends up being yet another avenue flooded with marginally-edited, really-shouldn’t-be-published material, and people have to work to find things worth reading, then it’ll pretty much die on the vine.

Authors can be as much of a problem here as Amazon, incidentally — I suspect the “Kindle Singles” program will be an excuse for some of us to trek to the trunk and pull out the stuff we couldn’t sell elsewhere, so why not throw it up against the wall here and see if it finally sticks. But, you know. Trunk stories are very often trunk stories for a reason.

3. As with everything, the devil will be in the details — I’ll be wanting to see how Amazon plans to administer rights and divvy up payment and so on. I would expect that Amazon would also be wanting some sort of exclusive window on the material (i.e., on Kindle only) and that would have to be factored in as well.

Absent of any information at all from Amazon about the details, I’d say the first question I would have as a writer is what does this program offer that I can’t do for myself or can’t be done with one of the publishers I already have a relationship with. If I write a novella, for example, would it be better for me to release it as an Amazon Kindle, or to see if Subterranean Press wants it, because it would release it first as a lovely printed book and then electronically in all the major formats and outlets? If I write a novelette, might I not be better trying Tor.com first, with its established presence and marketing apparatus and its non-insulting per-word payment, which I am paid up front?

Alternately, I might choose to keep my options open and publish it myself, and use Amazon as an agent rather than as a publisher (just like the big boys!). It’s probably more work for me, but then it would also probably be more direct income to me as well. I’m not unknown; I could probably do just fine. Now, again, my situation is different than the situation of some other writers, although I know other writers of my acquaintance who are in a similar place. But every writer should be asking him or herself the question above. Just because Amazon (or whomever) offers a program doesn’t mean it’s a smart fit for what you do, or that it’s better then how you could do elsewise.

In sum: I think shorter works could sell electronically; I’m not 100% convinced Amazon knows how to do it based on past experience; I’m waiting to see the contracts for the details; I think it’s smart to know all your options. And there we are.

16 thoughts on “Shorts and Singles

  1. More coffee please… opening Whatever this morning, I saw an article on “Kindle Shingles” and pictured kindles plastered all over the roof of my house.
    Seriously, I think I would be interested in single short works of fiction. Sometimes I buy an anthology for one story. This can be a win, when other stories in the book open the door to reading new, excellent authors. Other times it is a definite waste when my $10 – $15 was spent on one good story, with the rest not to my taste.

  2. Remember 45 rpm records? I loved those! At first, in grade school, I couldn’t afford whole albums, but well into college my whole record collection was comprised of “singles”. I didn’t start buying albums until I had favorite artists that I was interested in hearing the stuff that didn’t make it to the radio (David Bowie’s “Station to Station” was my first). I love authors who sell short stories on their site, but love the idea of having a store where they all are!

    Also, I’m not worried about “Kindle Only” anymore. Amazon offers free Kindle apps for everything. Heck, I have on on my laptop. Like Michael Stackpole says, “If your device has a screen, there’s a Kindle app for it.” The app will also read any book/story in the .mobi format – I’ve purchased ebooks outside of Amazon in .mobi and read them just fine in the Kindle app. If your book is only available in epub, I may have to think twice about whether I want to download yet another app to read it.

    I don’t blame you for wanting to wait and see what the details are, but I have my fingers crossed!

  3. I think this could be more successful in non-fiction. I never buy any political books, because there seems to always be about 40 pages of good material stretched into 200. And that annoys me on multiple levels (waste of my time, my money, my bookshelf space, trees, author/editor time, etc, etc). But selling those political books instead as “extended essays” or whatever, and charging $4.99 instead of $19.99, that could tip it for me and I might actually be interested to pay to read, for instance, what Matthew Yglesias has to say about how higher inflation will help America.

    I think fiction writers have a lot more tools in their belt to stretch a short story into a novel and have it not suck. In fact, from what I understand, that is where a lot of great novels came from. Political non-fiction writers, not so much. And perhaps if they didn’t have to make their works so long, they wouldn’t feel the need to fill their pages with hyperbole and personal attacks, and could just give us the ideas.

    So anyway, I think you guys might not be the strongest market for this program. When I look for fiction, short is a bug, not a feature. Fiction is entertainment, and I typically want more entertainment, not less. If I am going to be reading fiction short works, it is because either 1) it is a continuation of earlier works I read (or at least in the same universe) or 2) it is a collection with a lot of other short work with similar theme. Either way, the short work is part of something larger.

    Of course I am not everyone, but I’m looking for more from my fiction writers, and less from my political writers. Hey, you get paid by the word right? So that’s a good thing for you!

  4. It really all comes down to the pricing, IMO. Like right now I have Analog and Asimov’s subscriptions on my Kindle, for $3/month each. I’d guess that each month is generally about the same as a short novel in word count, so say 120k/150k words? so 99 cents each might be about ok, except for one thing.

    With Analog/Asimov’s, I know what I’m getting from an editorial standpoint, so that’s part of what I’m paying for. that will be absent here. Although with Asimov’s, they’ve been more miss than hit for my tastes this last year, I really should cancel it.

  5. Coincidentally, Carl Zimmer (the noted science writer) has just posted about his experience self-publishing (re-publishing, actually) a couple of related articles into a sort of non-fiction novella:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/10/how-writers-can-turn-their-archives-into-ebooks/64451/

    He didn’t use the Kindle Singles program, but it sounds like that was because it didn’t exist until this week, and that it fulfills a need that he’s had for a while w.r.t. eBooks.

    His other big take-away from the experience: there’s still a role for editorial and production support, even without print- thus reiterating a point that many authors (including our host, as well as Charles Stross, etc.) have been making for quite a while now.

    As Zimmer says: “Yes, we now live in an age where you can upload a Microsoft Word file directly to an eBook seller. But then you’re the author of a Microsoft Word file. Who wants to be that?”

  6. There’s one particular detail that I think is going to be a problem — with multiple dimensions — for this effort:

    Amazon is essentially acting as a “publisher” that has completely outsourced all editorial efforts.

    Not every author is a John Cheever needing his Gordon Lish, or a post-war NYC author needing Max Eastman… but I suspect that a high-enough proportion of authors are, but cannot/will not see it, that this is going to prove problematic. In turn, this is going to result in a potential hole/realignment opportunity: Works of short fiction with an “edited by” credit, with nobody knowing what effect that has on either quality or sales (just like nobody really knows the effect of different in-house editors at Tekno Books has on quality or sales), except for certain “celebrity editors.”

  7. I have to agree with Steven Bedrick’s point that Zimmer said. There must be something satisfying about having a pretty book with your name on the spine sitting in bookshelves across the country. If you are only creating e-books, you miss the experience of being the creator of a physical object. There is a bit of immortality to that which you can’t get with e-books.

    I write software for a living, and I am oddly more proud of the kid’s playscape I built in the backyard than I am of even the most complex code I’ve ever written. Yet not so proud that I didn’t re-read our Umbrella policy before I let the neighbor kids play on it…

  8. Umm…hello?

    Fictionwise has been selling short fiction for $.50-$2.00 or thereabouts for over a decade. I have almost every short story the late Kage Baker ever wrote electronically. (Did I mention I’m slightly obsessive about her work? No? Oh, well…) Since you mention it, there’s a ton of Silverberg’s older stuff on there, as well as a lot of Mike Resnick.

    My guess is that Amazon will make a small boat-load of money on their attempt. B&N doesn’t seem to be bright enough to exploit Fictionwise, even though they bought it. On the good side, your B&N Nook should eat the stuff up like candy. Just remember to put a throttle on your purchases. Electronic short fiction can be dangerous. “But it’s only $0.75…can I get it, can I, huh?” :)

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

  9. Jack Tingle:

    As you obliquely note, fictionwise is not necessarily a good example for selling short fiction online, since it doesn’t do a particularly good job of marketing it. Marketing really is a big issue here, I think.

  10. I could see this working if it had some sort of in Kindle notification when an author you’ve read and liked previously released something new, and good integration with Amazon’s recommendation/user rating system. That, coupled with some free offerings to hook people in might generate some revenue.

    I don’t see this working well for authors putting up a single story, aside from those already well known like our host who could just as easily sell it to Tor.com or such.

  11. Actually, I think Amazon is trying this as a reaction to the fact that folks are already trying to print short fiction and novellas to the Kindle store, under the books section. A number of people have already put up shorts there for 99 cents. Others have tried small collections of 3-5 shorts for the same price.

    In general, these stories are selling, but not superbly well. One acquaintance of mine put his work up and seems like he might be garnering about ten sales a month. That’s only $3.50 a month for a three-short mini anthology. But considering that they might earn that for years, and that it’s his first work in print, that’s not terrible. We have very strong evidence that the more work you have in the Kindle store, the more sales each item will make – and that every time you add something new, all your older work gets a boost as well.

    So there are already folks selling shorts, but they’re largely getting mediocre sales. I think the price is too high at 99 cents. What if you could sell a short story for 50 cents though? What if you could sell it for a quarter?

    Suppose someone started writing a short story a week, every week, for a year. By the end of the year, he’d have 52 stories up on Kindle, each powering the sales of the others (I am assuming they are well written and good stories – otherwise, you’re toast no matter what!). Now suppose Kindle Shorts lets him sell them for a quarter apiece. He earns 17.5 cents per sale. At that price you might literally be able to pull in thousands of sales for each work. A quarter is an impulse buy, and one people don’t hesitate to make. Plus, the stories keep selling…and selling…forever, as new readers find his work and want to read more.

    I’m exaggerating for effect on the 25 cent bit (I think!). But this is exciting for SF, because SF short fiction is just about dead. Which is sad, in a way, because that’s where a lot of the genre was born – in short fiction and serialized works for pulp magazines. Used to be, one could be a short fiction SF author and do as well careerwise as a novelist. Nowhere near true, today.

    But if Kindle Singles works, it could be again.

  12. i have a hunch there will be vast quantities of marginal work on amazon. I would bet that alot of bestselling authors will dump trunk stories out there also.

  13. I think the most important bit is the editorial selection part. I left the fanfiction scene many years ago because I got tired of being the equivalent of an unpaid slush-pile reader, and there’s no way in hell that I’d actually pay someone else for that ‘privilege’. This is going to need the equivalent of an editor to get my attention at all.

    Price/marketing is also important; if price drops to the $0.99 level a couple of people mentioned and they aren’t marketed enough to make it up on volume (I emphatically don’t believe in ‘if you post it cheap, they will buy'; see the bit about unpaid slush-pile reader above, my time is too valuable to pick up stuff just because it’s cheap. This stuff will need to be marketed.), I have trouble seeing why serious writers would want to participate. And without strong participation by serious writers, we’re right back to that slush pile.

  14. Amazon is behind the curve on this. Writers and publishers are already releasing stand-alone short stories for the Kindle.

    I have a handful of short stories available for sale on Amazon, with more to come. The stories released by a publisher are original; all but one of the stories I’ve released myself were previously published, so the little bit of pocket change I earn is just icing on the cake.

  15. Now that it’s been a few months, it’s interesting to see there are currently only 23 Kindle Singles available. That’s not a good sign.

    But one of those is by Jodi Picoult, so who knows.

    It seems that the method for uploading ones Kindle Single is through what is now Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly Digital Text Platform), which allows you to post larger, full-length books as well. From what I can gather, you can choose to receive a 70% royalty rate on certain books, or else 35% royalty. The 70% rate sounds okay, but 35% sounds rather stingy (since it doesn’t sound like they do anything other than make the ebook available on Amazon). And that’s after they deduct the cost of delivering the ebook ($.15 per MB, rounded up to the nearest KB). A graphic-free ebook would be relatively small – I’ve seen 1MB per 200,000 words as a rough rule of thumb. Even with a few graphics the delivery cost should be under $1 – for a $9.99 ebook you could expect at least $6 per ebook sold (at the 70% rate).

    The biggest hurdle is getting the volume to make it viable. And I’m betting you’re on your own for that…

  16. Also, as far as rights go: The extent to which they care if you publish your book elsewhere is only in the price you charge on Amazon vs the other outlet. They expect your price on Amazon to be at or below the price elsewhere (which is understandable). They don’t demand exclusivity, nor do they require DRM (although it is offered – once you DRM a title, you can’t remove it).

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