Amazon Shorts

Online bookseller Amazon has started something called “Amazon Shorts,” in which selected authors are selling short stories and essays in electronic format for 49 cents. How is it for readers and authors? I decided to find out.

First on the reader end: I went and bought one of the Amazon Shorts (The War of Dogs and Boids : A Coyote Story, by Allen Steele). Anyone who already has an Amazon account will find the purchase process very easy. As soon as you purchase the story, you can access it in one of three ways: You can follow an html link, which pops up the formatted story online, you can have it e-mailed to you in plain text e-mail, or you can download the story as a pdf. I tried all three. The html version looked and read fine, and the text e-mail popped into my mailbox with typical Amazon near-instant speed. The first time I tried downloading the pdf I hit a glitch, but I downloaded it this morning without any problem and like the html document it was well-formatted and quite readable. Amazon says that once you’ve bought an Amazon short, a copy of it remains in your Amazon “digital locker” forever.

As far as I can see there is no digital rights management protection on these shorts. Depending on the author’s point of view this is a good or bad thing for them (I’ll get to that later) but it’s an unqualifed good for the reader: It means that once you buy an Amazon short, you actually own the damn thing and can format it how you choose, whether that means printing it out or stuffing it into the PDA-readable format of your choice or whatever it is you want to do with it. The idea that Amazon keeps a copy of the story for you on a permanent basis is also very nice, since as long as you’re able to sign on to Amazon, you’ll never have to worry about where that short story file is. As a reader, I like that someone at Amazon has made the executive decision not to treat its customers like potential criminals and chose not to DRM these shorts to the point of non-usability. To the extent that I buy short fiction and essays online, that philosophy will make a diffence.

Amazon’s price point for the stories — 49 cents — seems to me entirely reasonable: Low enough to be an impulse buy, but not so low that no one makes any money off the thing. I don’t know what Amazon’s cost is in doing this (anecdotally it appears to have some sort of staff devoted to formatting the stories in their various iterations and maintaining the Amazon Shorts area), but not having to create paper versions of the shorts is a clear advantage, since the actual distribution costs for electronic documents are miniscule.

At this point the major drawback to Amazon Shorts for readers is the lack of material; only a few dozen Amazon Shorts are available at debut. Amazon is soliciting new authors to participate, however, so one suspects that there will be more material quickly. And for the record, the story I downloaded was pretty darn spiffy.

So as a reader, my initial experience with Amazon Shorts was very good: Easy to understand, easy to use, good quality material. I do expect I’ll wander through the area again soon to see if there are any authors or stories I want to try.

But what’s good for a reader is not necessarily good for an author, so now let’s turn to the author point of view and see what the advantages and disadvantages are. Bear in mind that what follows is based on somewhat incomplete knowledge of the specifics of the Amazon Shorts program, since I am not a participant myself. This is all first draft stuff. I’m also going to cover this from the science fiction and fantasy writer perspective, as that’s where my experience is.

First off, the question is: How does the author get paid? Amazon’s own FAQ is mum on the matter, which is never a good thing. I asked around informally and heard back from more than one knowlegable party that Amazon is not paying authors upfront — what it’s offering is a fairly substantial cut of the sales gross. I was not able to get a definitive number here due to hedging from at least one of my sources, but the numbers I’ve seen hinted at suggest something in the 30% to 50% range. Amazon asks for a window of exclusivity of at least six months for each story. So in effect, the deal is Amazon gets first world rights in return for a cut of the sales revenue. As most writers know, this sort of payment system is rather different from how short stories are usually paid for. Traditionally a publisher offers a certain amount based on story length (in science fiction, SFWA considers professional pay to begin at five cents a word), and the author gets that amount as a flat fee up front, with no additional consideration.

Normally, the question of whether a short fiction writer should get paid upfront or as a cut of revenues isn’t actually a question at all: Short fiction writers should get paid, up front, always. The reason is simple: Publishers aren’t to be trusted with money, and the sort of publisher that would ask the writer to share the risk and costs of publishing is to be trusted least of all. The writer’s job is to write; the publisher’s job is to publish and sell the work. Yog’s Law: Money flows to the writer. If the money does not immediately flow to the writer there is a big problem.

Should Amazon be considered any different than any other fly-by-night “publisher” who offers to publish first, pay later? We’ll have to see, but provisionally, I can think of a number of reasons why the answer here would be “yes.” First: Unlike any number of nebulous “publishers,” Amazon does not appear to be saying that author payment is contingent on some vague profit goal or on whether the magazine/site sells advertising or whatever; what it appears to be saying is “you get a cut from the very first sale” — Meaning that as soon as Amazon starts taking in money, the author starts making money. If indeed this is the case, then Yog’s Law is not violated.

Second: Unlike any number of nebulous “publishers,” Amazon is Amazon, the industry leader in online retail, with a well-established history of working with (and paying) third-party vendors, which in this case is what the author would be. Amazon has nothing to gain by attempting to scam authors out of their work without paying them, and rather a lot to lose, since if it did so it would anger publishers, agents and authors, from whom Amazon derives one of its main sources of income, i.e., books. The proof of Amazon’s business practices for Amazon Shorts will be at the end of however Amazon has structured its payment periods, when the participating authors get cut a check. But until that time, given who Amazon is and its history in business, I’m willing to assume they’re not out to screw the authors.

The question authors need to ask is not “will Amazon pay me?” the answer to which I sincerely expect to be “yes.” What the question should be is “will I get more for my short story through Amazon Shorts than I’d get from traditional short story publishing?” And to answer that question, let’s go to the math.

Let’s say I write a 5,000 word science fiction short story, and miracle of miracles, I sell it to Asimov’s. Asimov’s pays five to eight cents per word, meaning I’ll get somewhere between $250 and $400 for my story (given that I’m a reasonably new SF writer with no short story record, the $250 figure seems more in line). The good news is I’m assured of at least $250; the bad news, such as it is, is that there is no way I will make more than $400 (this formulation disregards future sales through reprints; we’re talking one sale at a time). Either way, my job as a writer is done — the publisher takes the story, promotes it and presents it to its audience.

Now, let’s say that instead of selling the story to Asimov’s, I instead put it up as an Amazon Short (NB: This presumes that Amazon, in its wisdom, has accepted me into its Amazon Shorts program — for the moment, at least, it is invitation only). The good news is that theoretically there is no end to amount of money I can generate with this one sale — as long as people keep buying the story, I keep earning my cut. The bad news is that it’s entirely possible no one will buy the story and I will earn no money at all. Indeed, in order to make the Asimov minimum wage for the story (and given the stated royalty range above), I’ll need to have between 1,000 and 1,700 people buy my short story. Are there 1,000 to 1,7000 people willing to shell out fifty cents for my short story? See. That’s the question.

My feeling about Amazon Shorts is it’s best suited for writers who already have a significant and self-sustaining fan base. i.e., writers who are rather popular already. In the SF/F genre, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if Neil Gaiman or Orson Scott Card or Connie Willis dropped something into Amazon Shorts, they would be likely to make a fair chunk of cash in short order. Some other writer whose name recognition is slightly less luminous — a comfortably mid-list writer, in other words — might not see a difference one way or another. But strictly in terms of the money, most writers (and I would include myself here) would probably be better off going to the venue where the money is offered up front, unless said author is ready, willing and able to flog the Amazon Short to all and sundry on a regular basis. If you’re not an inveterate self-promoter, this probably won’t be your bag.

Aside from the money issue (heh), there are other things to consider. Writers who are paranoid that pirates will steal everything they ever write (arrrr!) will blanch at the utter lack of DRM on the Amazon Shorts, although I submit in this case, as in most cases, writers should worry less about piracy and more about obscurity; most writers will never be pirated because not enough people care about their writing to pirate it. There’s also the matter of whether having a copy of a story permanently for sale on Amazon will have an impact on the story’s resale value; I can see a situation where an anthology editor might choose not to pick a story originally published as an Amazon Short because he doesn’t wish to have to compete with an a la carte offering of something in his book.

Let’s note the potential upsides as well. For one thing, the Amazon Shorts page that accompanies each short is an excellent spotlight for the author: Allen Steele’s Amazon Short page not only has the story available for purchase but also features biographical details and links to all his longer works available on Amazon; in essence it acts as a potential gateway to more (and more substantial) sales. That’s an advantage no print magazine can offer. It’s also, simply, another sales market in a world where the short fiction market is both small and not especially well-paying.

I’m not sure whether the Amazon Shorts staff acts as an editorial gateway, accepting and rejecting stories submitted by the authors, or if it merely accepts authors into the program and then allows them to post what they want. If it’s the latter, I can see some authors choosing to present short stories that way because it allows them to skip the aggravation of rejection and/or pernicious editing to present their stories to their fans (whether this is actually a good thing for the writing itself — or for the fans — is another question entirely; most writers need editors and the occasional rejection).

One other thing I see Amazon Shorts (or something like it) offering writers is flexibility in writing forms. By its very name Amazon Shorts is designed to promote shorter works, but I don’t see why one couldn’t do more with it. One could easily serialize a novel there and allow readers to pay by the chapter. Alternatively, one could dispense entirely with the novel form and create an ongoing serial story, a persistent fiction world with story arcs and characters dropping in and out of the action. There’s no particular reason something like that couldn’t work, should someone choose to do it.

I don’t imagine something like Amazon Shorts will constitute much of a threat to traditional short story markets because in terms of money and other less tangible benefits, most authors will continue to be better served by those markets. But I do see Amazon Shorts as a potentially healthy alternative market for writers, and particularly for authors who bring their own fandom to the party. As long as the money is flowing to the writers, new markets are a good thing.

(Update: Author Nick Mamatas offers his perspective here. Not entirely surprisingly, his perspective is “not only is this glass only half full, there are invisible shards of glass floating in the water.” I’ll post more author blog links when I see them and/or I get around to it.)

46 Comments on “Amazon Shorts”

  1. Can I do some more math? With novels this time:

    The average story on AS seems to be about 4900 words. (Okay, I rounded it to that to make the math easy.) If you’re right, and the writer’s getting 24.5 cents, that’s one cent per 200 words per reader.

    My novel SO YESTERDAY is 51,000 words. In hardback, it sells for $17 for which I get $1.70/copy. (All data rounded for easier math.) That’s one cent per 300 words per reader. That’s certainly comparable to AS.

    Note that most of my books are longer that 51K words, especially the adult titles, but most hardbacks also cost more than $17. I suspect that most hardbacks will come in at one cent per 300-400 words per reader.

    Then comes the trade paperback version, where I only get 64 cents per reader. Now I’m down around a cent per 800 words per reader. (And mass market gets much worse.)

    So I guess one way to look at Amazon Shorts is that it’s kind of like selling a short story in hardback format. (Though without all those library sales.) That is, it’s a first-run audience that’s paying a lot (more than they would for ten stories in a magazine, for example), and the writer is getting a lot out of it, per reader, anyway.

  2. Well, I don’t know jack about the author side, but I can chime in regarding the math. The key variables here are the six months of exclusivity and the reduced expectation of selling the work elsewhere once it’s on Amazon.

    Let’s assume, for a second, that Asimov is willing to buy John’s 5,000 word story for $250, whether he posts it on Amazon or not. If he does post it on Amazon, then Asimov has to wait six months before they can buy it. With a 5% discount rate (I’ll assume John isn’t making a large return on such a small sum), the $250 in six months is worth $242.83 today, a difference of $7.17. So John would have to sell roughly 15 copies on Amazon to make it worth his while. I say roughly, because this assumes he sells 15 copies on the first day. If it takes a few months to sell them, then they’re worth less (time value of money again), and he’d have to sell more than 15 to break even.

    Now, let’s assume that Asimov is less likely to purchase the story once it’s been on Amazon (although I would think this could go both ways – if something is very successful when it’s free, others may pay for it – look at Agent to the Stars). In any case, let’s assume Asimov is 25% less likely to purchase it. That reduces the expected value of the payoff to $250 x 75%, or $187.50 (present value = $182.12). So now John needs to sell 139 copies to break even in the long run (i.e., if he has four short stories & Asimov purchases three of them rather than four because of Amazon, then he’d break even if he sold 139 of each online).

    My point: if you look at Amazon as a substitute for other publishers, then yes – you need to sell 1,000-1,700 to replace your fees. But in reality, one does not necessarily preclude the other, which reduces the pressure on Amazon to make up the total fee 49 cents at a time.

  3. Brian Greenburg

    “Let’s assume, for a second, that Asimov is willing to buy John’s 5,000 word story for $250, whether he posts it on Amazon or not.”

    I’m not entirely sure I follow the math that follows this, but I expect the fault lies with me, not Brian.

    However, Asimov’s entry in my Writer’s Market suggests that it purchases reprints “only occasionally.” Their primary interest is in previously unpublished works. So overall it’s not a good bet to assume that Asimov will be interested in the story at all.

    Which is not to say there is not a reprint market for SF stories. Simply that we’re discussing the first sale — the sale that, on average, is the one with the highest potential for income generation (reprints generally pay less).

  4. I don’t know…I’m somewhat intrigued by the iTunes-esque possibilities here. If there isn’t a true editorial gateway and everyone who meets a certain standard (complete sentences, not so painful grammar) so new authors can go up just as easily as established ones, and Amazon had some good staffers pulling out shorts to “feature,” I could see this being an excellent venue for breaking (in a good way) promising new writers. Maybe not a huge money maker, but certainly a viable forum for the medium.

  5. Lee Goldberg ( suggested that Amazon Shorts was destined to go the way of Xlibris and the other vanity presses. If there’s no barrier to entry, I agree: if Amazon doesn’t exercise some form of editorial control (which some of the whackos will call ‘censorship’) Amazon Shorts will become an unusable cesspool of bad writing.

    But Amazon has shown that they have some smarts, and they’ve had a few lessons in what happens when you allow anybody to write anything they like on your site, so it is possible that AS won’t turn into Self Publishing Hell.

    It’s all up to Amazon, really.

  6. Admittedly, I’m not an author, but I think that this sounds great from an author’s perspective. IF Amazon is trying to make this feature open to any author, then this is basically the iTunes of short stories. And as John has posted in the past about how authors need to accept that times and revenue models change, I think this would be a good thing.

    (Ok, so saying that a new business model needs to be discovered doesn’t mean that any one that comes along is automatically good, but I can’t think of a way that Amazon’s model should be improved. Maybe get rid of the 6 months’ exclusivity, but that’s it. Not even Nick Mamatas’ reaction that John linked to complains about the features of the system. Instead, it just says that Amazon can’t handle it. Maybe that’s true, but if Amazon can’t do it, who can? This is certainly better than a few million authors all trying to set up their own BitPass accounts.)

    I don’t know what the chances are of getting your short story accepted into Asimov’s, or another periodical. I’m guessing that most stories never get published, though. Of course, many of those stories are REALLY BAD, but that doesn’t change the fact that the realistic expected income for most authors is currently $0. This system gives them a way to make money based on the story’s quality and readership, rather than just on whether it gets past an editorial board.

    I can think of several bloggers, on-line cartoonists, etc whom I would gladly buy a cheap short story from. I don’t think that many of these people would have much chance in publishing that story through traditional means, though.

    As for some of the other concerns about this system:
    Will it scare publishers away from buying pre-published material? Maybe, but I think that this is also comparable to the state of the music industry. If you’re an up-and-coming band, you need to put free songs out on the internet to attract attention. After you get a contract, your whole album is going to end up on iTunes. Even the prehistoric music industry has figured out that that’s not such a scary thing.

    Will authors have to self-promote? Only to the extent that they want to. One of the big lessons that Internet success stories have taught us so far is that everyone finds a different path. If self-promotion comes naturally to you, then that’s great! If you already have a fan base from something else, then that’s also great! If you just want to write stories and have someone else do the work for you, then there’s already a system out there for people like that. I’m betting that if Amazon’s new feature catches on, there will be a need for “publishers” whose job is to put the story on Amazon, hire a publicist, and take a share of the profits. Authors who want to use that system will have to convince a company that their story is a good investment, but that’s no different than the current system. And without the high cost of a physical print run, there will be much less danger of the company losing money on new authors. That’s just good for everyone — authors don’t have to spend months or years worrying about the consequences of failure (they still might not profit, but at least they won’t owe their soul to the company that lost money on them), and consequently there will be more new authors who are given a chance.

  7. Dean said:
    “if Amazon doesn’t exercise some form of editorial control (which some of the whackos will call ‘censorship’) Amazon Shorts will become an unusable cesspool of bad writing.”

    Not really. The Internet is already a cesspool of bad writing. That doesn’t keep me (or anyone else who is reading this thread) from using it. We have search engines, links, and favorite authors to help us find our way. Similarly, 90% of the books that Amazon sells are probably crap. That doesn’t bother me, because they aren’t a physical bookstore, and the presence of the bad stuff doesn’t get in my way when I look for something good. Hell, Amazon could double the amount of bad books in their catalog tonight, and it wouldn’t get in my way. I wouldn’t even notice!

    If they did decide to use editorial control, I wouldn’t call it “censorship”. I would just call it “a lost opportunity”. That would just mean that Amazon decided to be a publisher, instead of an online merchant. There’s nothing wrong with that (I certainly don’t call it censorship when a brick-and-mortar book publisher rejects a story). Like I said in my previous comment, I think there will always be a place for publishers to promote good authors — whether that publisher is Amazon, Tor, or someone else. But the promise of the Internet is that anyone can take the DIY path and get their work out there. Amazon Shorts certainly isn’t necessary in order for someone to self-publish, but it sure would be nice.

  8. John – Just FYI. If you write any short stories and publish them on Amazon, I will buy them. I imagine a lot of your other readers would too and you would not even need to flog that hard. Honest.

    While the discussion here is interesting in an academic sense, why not get some practical data? Write a short story and see how it goes.

    Maybe a short story about one of your OMW charachters that did not quite make the cut for the novel…What about the lady who worked the desk at the registration site? She’s got some stories to tell, I bet.

  9. Here is a tangentially related question that you could probably shed some light on:

    I followed the link you posted to Nick Mamatas’ site, and noticed the jabs taken at self-/vanity publishing. I had seen this issue on your site before, so I did some Google searches, and it seems that there are a group of established writers out there who have more or less made a part-time job out of denouncing and ridiculing self-publishing.

    Not that they don’t have a point. They are correct in saying that a)PublishAmerica,etc., etc. offer a bad deal, and b)only a tiny percentage of those who take *any* self-publishing route are likely to make any real money.

    But here is my question: why all the shrill hostility from the establishment? I work in the software industry, and there are tons of shareware programs out there that individual software developers are trying to market. Most of them (like most self-published novels) are doomed to obscurity. But that is the way a competitive market works. No one spends their time pointing out that most shareware programs suck.

    If a novice writer doesn’t take the time to read the PublishAmerica contract, then why do some traditionally published authors feel a nearly evangelical obligation to spend so much time and energy pointing out the obvious?

    A software developer (and we have entities in our world that are analogous to PA) would shrug and say, “that doesn’t look like a good deal,” and move on. They wouldn’t get their shorts in a bind to the degree that writers do.

    Disintermediation *is* going to have some sort of impact on the publishing industry. What Amazon is trying with the short story market seems to be a step in that direction. However, it seems that fiction authors place a great emphasis on the importance of being blessed by a corporate sponsor (publisher).

    For software developers, the key is how many users you reach. If you can do it using the internet without the interference of a corporate intermediary, more power to you. Writers, on the other hand, seem to spend a lot of time debating about what it really means “to be published” by a corporate entity.

    My closing point is this: if self-published authors are no good, everyone will simply ignore them. So what? Why do authors who have corporate publishing contracts spend so much time pounding on this issue?

  10. Michael:

    “Why do authors who have corporate publishing contracts spend so much time pounding on this issue?”

    Inasmuch as I offered Agent to the Stars as shareware for years prior to its hardcopy publication, you’re probably asking the wrong guy about the hostility. I couldn’t care less if people self-publish.

    However, in the case of PA, much of the hostility is directed toward the company, not the authors. PA pretends that it’s offering its authors a genuine publishing experience when in fact what it’s doing is preying on the ignorance and insecurities of people who really really really want to be published in order to make a marginal profit off of them.

    Also, be aware that Nick’s bile-o-meter is terminally pegged into the red; that’s just who hw is (online, at the very least), and he attracts like-minded folks to his commments. I enjoy reading Nick, but I mentally turn down his volume a bit as I read him.

  11. John:

    I hope you didn’t take my post as a personal accusation. I am aware of your success with Agent to the Stars and OMW (I read the latter, in fact)using self-publishing/self-promotional techniques. It just seems that writers, overall, are more beholden to the ivory towers than hackers are.

    If Microsoft were to buy one of my programs, I wouldn’t turn them down. But if I could make a million without them, that would be even better!

    As for Nick Mamatas: I spent some more time on his site, and he does seem to be a bit of a scatological crank who is best taken with a very large grain of salt. I didn’t mean to equate you with him.

    Thanks for your insights.

  12. Generalizing wildly from personal experience and tastes, I predict that this could be a fair-sized win. I appreciate short science fiction, but not enough to eat the costs and hassle of purchasing, filtering, managing, and disposing of F&SF or Asimov’s. So in practice, this means I find a few authors I appreciate, and make sure that I buy their short story collections when they come out. This leaves a lot of potential value on the table, as I’m willing to pay more for short fiction than I currently do, and consume a lot more short fiction than I currently do, but there seems to be no way to meet these demands in the current short-story marketplace. Given the fair amount of hassle in acquiring magazines and the variable quality of magazine fiction, I can’t imagine I’m alone in these preferences. Amazon Shorts seems like a reasonable way of bridging this gap, assuming that they can get a large enough body of work available (about fifty times what they have now seems like a good start). It’ll also help if they get it linked into their justifiably famous datamining technology (“Customers who liked this book by Charles Stross also liked this essay by Bruce Sterling”), and get a decent database of customer reviews. That sort of thing would certainly push out a few more units, at least to me.

  13. Re: PublishAmerica, briefly:

    Failure to read their contract isn’t the problem.

    if one reads a contract from your average publisher-with-books-in-bookstores, it won’t say things like “your book will be available through major distributors” and “your book will be returnable” and “retailers will be given a 40% discount on your book’s cover price.” They don’t say it because that’s what publishers _do_ when they want to get books on bookshelves.

    PublishAmerica’s contract doesn’t say any of that either. So reading its contract and comparing it to another company’s? Isn’t necessarily going to help.

    Also, shareware and novels are not a really good comparison. If I need, say, a program to record streaming audio in MP3 format, or a program to tell me what codex a video file uses–I *know* that’s exactly what I need, and I can use a search engine to find it. In contrast, I’ve never said “I need a novel with a cow and the missing black woman on a quest for a rose at the center of the universe” and then gone and searched for it. When I’m looking for fiction, I’m choosing among things I’ve already heard about or can browse through. Self-published fiction, or PublishAmerica fiction, is extremely unlikely to be on my radar.

    (This is why specialized nonfiction is listed as an exception to most cautions about self-publishing that you see.)

  14. dave:

    So in practice, this means I find a few authors I appreciate, and make sure that I buy their short story collections when they come out. This leaves a lot of potential value on the table…

    This is a really good point. Just in case anyone from Amazon is listening – there’s quite an opportunity here, if an author were to publish a significant number of short stories on Amazon, for Amazon to “self-publish” an actual collection, and sell it through their bookstore (book-tab?) at regular prices.

    Of course, I have no idea how the author gets paid in that scenario…

  15. I’m not a professional author (I’ve written a stack of books but they were all work-for-hire stuff used in technical training, etc.) but assuming Amazon is somehow able to manage the system, I don’t see why it would be so bad. First off, there is a limited market today for short science fiction (or short fiction of any flavor). Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF form a very limited market in terms of number of stories and they have very limited readership. (I don’t understand how they can stay in business; I suppose the low price range paid for stories is the only answer to that.) So a story published in one of the magazines might be read by twenty or thiry thousand people. In actuality, fewer might read it. (I’m afraid that I often lose track of where I have laid a magazine down before I have read every story in it — it’s been a few decades since I was a 14 year old with the free time to devour a magazine cover-to-cover at a single sitting.)

    We are talking about a huge potential market here. Yes, a story might only attract two or three hundred readers, yielding maybe fifty bucks to the author. (Of course, perhaps that story was already turned down by the magazine market?) But it could read far more readers. The magazines are damned hard to find on newstands and magaine racks these days. There’s Amazon, available to any browser 24/7. If a writer really managed to catch attention, couldn’t five thousand or ten thousand readers buy that story?

    Was it Heinlein who said authors were competing for the reader’s beer money? At 49 cents, the competition isn’t beer money, it’s chewing gum money. 49 cents — that’s when you get a coffee and a donut at a coffee shop and say keep the change. Isn’t that about half the price of an iTune?

    Sell a story to a magazine for $250. Put it on Amazon and what might happen? You might make two hundred… or you might make two thousand… plus the links to books (if any) and some of those people who were happy with the results of their 49 cent purchase might be more disposed to take a chance on the mass market $6.99 paperback or the $12.99 trade paperback.

    Also, one of the things Amazon has done is to give books a longer shelf life. Before Amazon, how long did a mass market SF original paperback stay on sale? Not very long. I don’t know how many times in the past that I’ve read a review and then have never seen the book for sale. Now, with Amazon, if I read about a book or an author, I can go online, check it out, buy it then or set it aside for later. So what is the shelf life of a monthly magazine? Hmmm, probably somewhere around one month. Then it is gone. These stories will be available online for a minimum of six months. That’s enough time for a bit of word-of-mouth or word-of-blogosphere to spread around…

    It seems to me that I’ve read that the motion picture industry now makes more money from the sale of the DVD version than they do from the theatrical release. Sure, maybe this story venture on Amazon won’t work, but also maybe it could be a really sweet deal for some writers (and not just the big Brand Name ones).

  16. Kate:

    I agree that PublishAmerica is a rip-off. My point was the many of the published authors screaming about them (I cited Nick Mamatas in particular, but there are others.) are using the PA issue to attack self-published writers in general. (Read the Mamatas post.) It is probably true that most of the novels published through PA are just plain bad. But for Mamatas and his ilk to repeatedly harp on this point is bad form and gratuitous elitism–very ironic coming from a far left lefty like Mamatas.

    You are also correct in noting that self-published fiction is tough to market and sell. My argument again is not that this makes economic sense; but rather, why do folks like Mamatas expend so much energy savaging these writers? It is kind of like a professional baseball player going out of his way to note that players in the minor leagues aren’t of the same caliber.

  17. Michael, I was responding to these comments of yours:

    If a novice writer doesn’t take the time to read the PublishAmerica contract

    which seemed to suggest that reading the contract by itself would have helped, which isn’t true, and

    For software developers, the key is how many users you reach. If you can do it using the internet without the interference of a corporate intermediary, more power to you.

    which seemed to be drawing a comparison between distributing software and distributing fiction.

    That’s all. I wouldn’t presume to offer opinions on the motivations of Nick Mamatas, who I don’t know at all.

    (I would point out, however, that the terrible quality of most PA books means that the good books they publish are even more screwed, because they’re tainted by association.)

    And while we’re talking PA, I have to throw this link in: The Only Thing You Need to Know About PublishAmerica.

    Okay, tangent hopefully done now.

  18. Michael:

    “Why do folks like Mamatas expend so much energy savaging these writers?”

    Have you asked Nick? He’s right over there, in his LiveJournal.

  19. Hey, John. Your write up on this new Amazon market was informative and well thought out, I hadn’t even heard of it but here’s a ton of clear information that I didn’t expect to find! Good stuff.



  20. As an avid reader, I really like the Amazon Shorts approach. I find I’m less and less willing to shell out 10 bucks or more on an unfamiliar author unless they’ve been highly recommended by someone I trust (and I don’t count Amazon’s ‘People who bought this also bought …” suggestions unless I can get a hard copy of the book to thumb through first). But 49 cents for a sample spoonful from an unknown? Hell yeah, I’d spend that without batting an eye. And the odds are good that if the short’s enjoyable, I’ll take the plunge and buy the author’s full-length work next.

  21. I have to admit I’m going to side with the naysayers, due to my own experience.

    I had a story here:

    For just under two years. In that time, I got a few hundred page views of the opening chapter. And two buyers.

    Now, it could be argued that the story wasn’t very good. Or that perhaps the story, while interesting, wasn’t all that well written.

    But I’ve had people – people who actually work in publishing, who know a good story, people who have paid me, and well, for my writing – say that it’s pretty kinetic. They picked it up and didn’t put it down until they finished the very last page.

    So I Scalzi’ed it.

    (You can judge for yourself if the story is any good, should you choose.)

    Point is, I think a big-time author (King, Grisham) could make some pretty good money. But I suspect it would be less than if they put the story into a book and sold it that way.

    Someone like our host, given what I’m sure would be a daily link to the story, would probably get one-or-two-thousand sales, which means he’d probably make about the same amount of money, or perhaps a little more, than he would have made selling it to a magazine.

    But your average no-name author (me!) would probably rack up the same two sales I got with my e-novella.

  22. You might find my recent article about
    article about, ebooks and chump change to be useful.

    One thing commonly overlooked about amazon is that they offer free mp3 downloads AND a rather well-done tipjar system (which assesses a transaction fee of about 7-8%). It’s just a matter of time before they figure out that they could offer free content AND put tipjars on the same page.

    Then again, if your fiction/download site gets good traffic (and my fiction site gets 6000+ unique visitors a month), people can end up on amazon (i.e., the tipjar page) instead of starting there.

  23. Very interesting! Tangentially, I believe it was Michael who said:

    Not that they don’t have a point. They are correct in saying that a)PublishAmerica,etc., etc. offer a bad deal, and b)only a tiny percentage of those who take *any* self-publishing route are likely to make any real money.

    I’m an editor for two self-publishing companies and I’ve edited for a mainstream publisher, as well as individual authors. When publishers put out the works of authors, they have to pay their editors, printers, and sundry others. In the self-publishing field, that payment comes from (a) the author and (b) whatever percentage of the sales the publisher retains.

    While I can’t name names (I do have to earn my living, after all), Publisher A charges various fees for publishing in print or online, editing, number of words, and so on. If the author chooses to have editing, the fee is determined by the publisher. This particular publisher keeps 60% of the fee and pays the editor 40% after asking the editor if s/he wants to edit it, and telling the editor just how much the job is going to pay. (I need to earn a living. I’m not proud. I’ll take whatever they send me, so long as it’s not poetry.)

    Publisher B lists the editors (with their bios) on its website and lets the author select an editor. The author and editor negotiate a fee, and the editor forwards 20% to the publisher upon completion of the job and receipt of the check, while the publisher sets a fee for publishing the manuscript. Can you tell I love them?

    Given that Amazon is targeting known authors, I don’t see the self-publishing field being unduly impacted. But (hypothetically) if Amazon were to take on unknown authors, I would think the authors would have to meet *some* standards of writing aside from decent grammatical structure and a real plot, and an editor or someone to review the shorts would have to come into play. That person would have to be paid. Who would pay? The author? A minuscule one-tenth of one percent of the short story’s fees?

    Given what I’ve edited in self-publishing, I’m definitely *not* paid enough for editing some of the dreck I see out there. And I’ve run across some real gems.

    Just my $0.02 worth…

  24. A Mix of Publishing Links

    There has been alot going on in publishing over the last week or so. Amazon Shorts – The internet retailer has started a program of selling short form fiction. Whatever has the best post on the new program. Conde…

  25. I think the future of this is fiction which doesn’t fit conventional publishing ( too long, too experimental, etc)and a return to the serial format. Releasing a novel one chapter at a time could help build readership. I’d be willing to try it.

  26. Podcasting your book and Amazon’s play for independent publishers

    In older news (still playing catch-up), continues to try to develop its image as a vehicle for independent publishers. They have announced Amazon Shorts, a line of short fiction that readers can purchase for 49 cents a download. See “Amazon …

  27. The comments above from Nevin are right on the mark. It doesn’t matter whether exercises “editorial control” over the content being posted for sale. Jeff Bezos has made it clear in interviews that he sees no reason that Amazon can’t “stock” an infinite number of products–ideally products that do not require warehousing or inventory on the part of Amazon itself. In that sense, Bezos has banked everything on the unparalleled ecommerce application that Amazon has developed, with its sophisticated recommendation engine (see Chris Anderson’s original “Long Tail” essay). In fact, the company has already demonstrated its intention to act as the means of distribution for unfiltered content by purchasing the self-publishing company BookSurge. In this goal their primary competitor is actually Google, which seeks to become the gateway to all content, independent of its retail environment. Amazon’s ambition might be described best as to become the ‘Wal-Mart of the Web.’ But the trouble with that strategy–from the standpoint of the author/publisher–is that Amazon then dictates the terms of the transaction. In the Advantage Program, they demand 55%–that’s not really fair or necessary, in my opinion. By comparison, you can publish and sell a book on, which takes on ly 20%. CafePress can be slightly more or less depending on the final selling price. But the revolutionary thing about the web in terms of content distribution is that it offers the opportunity to remove the middleman–the difference should then fall to the artist, not the retailer.

  28. Publishing tidbits

    Seth Godin over at Seth’s blog makes the case for Amazon’s new foray into short stories. I don’t know, do we really need Amazon to become a publisher, too? Or is the short story about to make a comeback? John

  29. Publishing tidbits

    Seth Godin over at Seth’s blog makes the case for Amazon’s new foray into short stories. I don’t know, do we really need Amazon to become a publisher, too? Or is the short story about to make a comeback? John

  30. Don’t see Chris Anderson’s original Long Tail essay, see the rewrite. I’ve been working with Chris to come up with a new estimation to replace the original assertion about over 50% of Amazon sales being on the Long Tail, which was plainly wrong. Bezos himself put the number around 20%, I ran a number on analysis putting the range between 10% and 36%. A discussion on Chris’s blog can be found here.

    Getting back to the subject of Amazon Shorts, I just noticed yesterday that they started including Shorts in the rankings for the Top 100 E-Books. SInce E-Books now share ranks with paper books (although Shorts don’t) it gives us a yardstick to judge their sales. It doesn’t amount to much. I estimated that Amazon is grossing less than $150 a day from the sale of Shorts, perhaps less.

  31. i have nothing against self-publishing company or traditional publishers like PA… i guess, authors should consider sharing their works to the readers around the world without thinking about money or sales (even just for once)… If an author does not write “great books”, and does not earn “any at all”, then what’s the big deal… the book itself that he created is the “treasure”…

  32. On Amazon Shorts:

    IMO this will cahnge the way literature is bought and sold and everyone with a print magazine runs a considerable danger of only having second rate material submitted.

    I am publishing on Amazon Shorts (one novella so far- take a look, please). I also am republishing some of my own material as “e-documents” and e-books, which are sold on Amazon and many of their online affilates and competitors.

    So let me make the business case for Amazon Shorts from an author’s point of view.

    First of all; there is an editorial review process and you have to already be in their system to apply (i.e. a published author with ISBN numbers).
    The idea is to use a writing sample to push your other material, including your printed work.

    However, the shorts themselves have value and once this feature becomes widely known, many more authors will participate.

    Let’s run the numbers. The user population of is about 50 million people. The least response that any piece of direct mail advertising has is about 1/2 of one percent (good ads draw about five times that much). That means that any Amazon Shorts author can expect to have his name and work seen by 250,000 people over the first year. That translates to a gross of about $125,000. The author gets 40 percent or $50,000.

    The most any publication in the world pays for a short story is about four dollars a word. Most can be no longer than 5,000 words. Rgar’s only $20,000. When Stphen King did his experiment with “Riding the Bullet” he made $450,000 in one day. But that’s because he’s Stephen King. He didn’t repeat the experiment because a lot of customers didn’t pay.

    Amazon does get paid and does pay third parties very promptly. I’ve done business with them as a bookseller for about two years now. It’s been a nice little sideline. (Full disclousre: I also own their stock).

    What do most print magazines offer an author? Exposure and brand name publication. Some high toned literary magazines offer only that for publishing a story, pleading poverty and relying upon the very narrow channels open for publicaiton. What Amazon is doing here is opening a new channel, with better payment terms that is potentially a firehose rather than a soda straw.

    49 cents is a price point so low that it is greeted with disblief when I mention it to people. It’s like that old joke; “We lose a little on every sale but we make it up on volume”.

    And as for Branding, Amazon is already such a powerful brand that only major publications like Playboy or The New Yorker can compare.

    I think this is going to change the way that literary ficiton and non fiction is published.

    I used to calculate my fees for the magazines I wrote for at between a peeny and a nickle per subscriber (Who knew how many people actually read the stuff?). Here you have a much mor direct relationship with the reader, who can actually chip in a review or rating of the work. That places more of the editorial burden on the author, but things have been going that way anyway for the last 15 tears or so. All of that cost cutting has finally caught up with the print publications.

    If your expectation was $250 for a story, then your break even point is about 1,300 copies sold. A print magazine went to at least 5,000 readers for that money. Here if you have 5,000 readers you have $950…and the promise of more.

    In other words, writers might actually be able to make a living at this!


    Francis Hamit

  33. Wow! Great post. I’ve been searching the Web for a couple of days looking for more info on Amazon Shorts, and I got a lot of great background here.

    Since Amazon launched it “Connect” blogging feature a few weeks ago, it’s occurred to me that Shorts and Connect could be used together, as cross-promotion tools or as a way to sell additional content about one of your titles. (I’m thinking of nonfiction, but maybe it could work for fiction too.)

    Say, for example, you have a book for sale on Amazon, and you’re posting blog comments about that topic on your book’s Amazon product page. And you come up with 5,000 words of additional material on your book’s topic, perhaps resulting from interaction on the blog. You could publish this additional material as an Amazon short, mention it on your Amazon blog, and get some additional revenue.

    And there could be some folks who purchase the Short who haven’t purchased the book, but reading the Short convinces them to buy your book. Some interesting possibilities here.


  34. Just wondering if any of the shorts in Amazon is available for download on PDA’s or devices like that. If I download a story to my PC, could I then transfer it to a PDA for reading while traveling?

  35. How would serialization of a novel work? Would the reader pay 49 cents for a couple of chapters, and then if they like the book pay a set amount for the remaining work?

    “One other thing I see Amazon Shorts (or something like it) offering writers is flexibility in writing forms. By its very name Amazon Shorts is designed to promote shorter works, but I don’t see why one couldn’t do more with it. One could easily serialize a novel there and allow readers to pay by the chapter. Alternatively, one could dispense entirely with the novel form and create an ongoing serial story, a persistent fiction world with story arcs and characters dropping in and out of the action. There’s no particular reason something like that couldn’t work, should someone choose to do it.”

  36. Any thought on It offers the same “shorts,” but seems like anyone can publish/sell her works. Plus, they only charge 19%. Except, of course, it doesn’t command the kind of credibility or traffic has.

  37. As a writer of literary short fiction, my perspective is a little different – i.e. I have little or no expectation of making money. We’d all love to sell a story to the New Yorker or have an Oprah book out there, but we know that the 9-to-5 job is what pays the bills. We make persistent efforts to place stories in the literary journals and when they’re kind enough to say yes, we rarely get any financial compensation. Most often it’s 2-5 free copies of the journal which may have a print run of 1500 but more likely issues 500 copies or less. We get from this the joy of knowing that somewhere, womeone is reading that story and we can hope that somene is agent, editor or publisher who can parlay it into a book deal, but generally, we’re working for the publication credits to build up a resume and for some confirmation that we’re developing and growing as writers. If we make any money at all, it’s generally from awards adn fellowships. Often these are based on submission of unpublished work. Sometimes a story will win an award that does not include publication so we may have a little money come in and still retain pubishing rights. Then we shop it around to a literary journal that pays us only in free copies. So the issues of having readers and making money can seem almost unrelated. With regard to publishing credits, we all hope to eventually pubish a short story collection. For that purpose, previous publication of any given story is not a problem and can be an advantage in the sense that it assures the publisher that he’s not the only one who’s ever wanted to read that story. We won’t know until Amazon has established a track record whether Amazon Shorts will create or boost anyone’s career but at the moment it looks like a good opportunity for stories to get readers. And that’s a good thing.

  38. I have just recently had a story added to the site. A few pointers to address some of the comments on the site:
    a. They do have a selection process and some editorial decisions are made. They rejected my first story.
    b. I’ve worked hard to promote my story–mailing to yahoo groups to the tune of about 75000 members. Not all will read or buy, so maybe 750 will.

    c. All new writers, even those published by traditional publishers have to promote their works until they build a following.

  39. An update on Amazon Shorts: I now have a novel being serialized there. “The Shenandoah Spy” will be 14 parts total. Meaning that, yes, it will cost almost seven dollars!!!! Several other authors have taken this approach.

    Because of some tax problems no shorts are currently available in the European Union or Cananda. There are 569 different shorts as of this morning and more to come.

    I’ve bought and reviewed a few Shorts myself. I find the quality high. And you might notice that there are a lot of big name authors in the program.

    There is a link from Amazon Shorts to Amazon Connect, but so far, I haven’t gotten much feedback on my various posts.

    The program is now over a year old. I would say it’s building nicely. I plan to do more material for them.

  40. I hope Amazon Shorts Program managers read your post and the following comments. Because, you have all done a great job for a comprehensive reappraisal of the benefits and long term prospects of the progressive literary venture.

    I am already on Amazon for my “Scarlet Tears of London” and now looking forward to see my short stories on the Amazon Shorts.

    We should not judge the value of a story by the length. Because, a masterpiece is a masterpiece no matter the size.

    I won’t even accept $5,000 for my latest short story, because it means more to me than even my full-length book on Amazon. And I see it selling over a million copies on Amazon Shorts and those who have read the extracts are already calling it a bestseller.

    The bestselling Amazon Shorts are over 2,000 copies sold per title so far.

  41. An Update:

    The number of Amazon Shorts titles went over a thousand this week. That includes parts of seven different novels. Serialization works better if all the parts are put up close together. Amazon Shorts authors are not allowed to disclose how much the royalty is. There are now over 400 authors in the program. In an effort to get reviews for “The Shenandoah Spy” in conventional media we had printed galleys of the entire novel made up and are sending them out to selected reviewers and opinion makers.

    And I will be breaking new ground shortly with my first travel writing article, which includes photographs. It is called “Cruising With The World Poker Tour Boot Camp” It’s a lot longer than you will find in a print publication…one of the advantages of the electronic form.

    And look for some shorter fiction which I will be sending them soon.

    It is still very much a work in progress at Amazon Shorts

  42. 2 May 2007
    I believe this new idea to allow readers (a nearly extinct species} a chance to read the work of authors, such as myself, who are not yet a household name, is a great idea, and will remain. I currently have 6 books offered on that big amazon’s jungle bookstore, and if the literary agency that just requested the first 50 pages of my historical novel CARIB INDIAN ~warrior–cannibal~ likes what they read, then there will soon be 7. I’ve submitted 4 stories that I wrote specifically for Amazon Shorts, and am working on #5. As more authors learn about it, they’ll submit, because this is potentially great advertising, PLUS instead of paying for it, we actually get paid–granted, not a lot, but pay is money in any language…don’t care if they give me rubles or quid…I enjoyed my time in Russia and loved Great britain.

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