Monthly Archives: October 2010

Kindle Singles: Is Amazon Becoming the New Gatekeeper?

I originally wasn’t going to mention Kindle Singles here, as it seemed pretty well covered just about everywhere else. For those not in the know, Amazon announced a new format last week for shorter works. In their words: 

Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch “Kindle Singles”—Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book. Today’s announcement is a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.

The consensus here and there agrees that this is a splendid hing. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s read a mediocre non-fiction book that would make a magnificent essay. I’ve even written a few books where I had to add a certain amount of fluff. We needed enough words for a book, so that the price charged for the work would make the whole thing float. This marketing constraint no longer matters in the ebook world. Written works can be whatever length they need to be. And there is definitely a hole in the market for works longer than a solid article, but shorter than a full-fledged book. It’s amazing no one has called it out explicitly until now.

Then today I decided to visit this glorious Kindle Singles Store to see what was rising to the top of its bestseller list, only to realize that the coverage is really just about an announcement, not the actual product launch. There’s no Kindle Singles section of the Kindle Store, yet. The press release finishes with: “To be considered for Kindle Singles, interested parties should contact digital-publications@amazon.com”.

That’s the most interesting part of this announcement. There are tons of novella-length works already in the Kindle Store. (Check out “Honolulu Hottie” by my writing buddy Lancer Kind for just one great example.)  Amazon seems to be explicitly calling on non-fiction writers, and trying to curate some big-name fiction authors for the launch. That raises many questions. Is Amazon setting itself up as a new gatekeeper? Will they ultimately make all submissions available? And who exactly is at the other end of this e-mail alias? What do they think constitutes a “serious writer”?

My hunch is Amazon is looking to collect well-known names to roll out with much fanfare at the store’s launch, and then they’ll open the floodgates to all takers. But it’s an interesting approach to the free-for-all market that has defined the Kindle Store from the start.

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Trawling Through Powell’s World of Books

Wow, two whole weeks since my last blog entry. How highly negligent of me, though I do have a good excuse. I got lost in Powell’s.

I made the trek to Portland from Seattle, thinking a weekend in a different city would do me some good, then pretty much spent the whole time in Powell’s. (For those who don’t know, Powell’s Books is quite likely the biggest bookstore in the world–plus there’s no sales tax.) I started in the gold room (science fiction) then hit the rose room (middle grade and young adult) and then the purple room (history) and finally ended up in the red room (travel and mythology). Looking over the handy online map, I see that I missed trawling through the classics section in the blue room. Why don’t more bookstores have a dedicated classics section?

Powell’s website claims that they get 6,000 visitors a day. Judging by how cramped many of the aisles were, I don’t doubt it. There was also a huge line at the cash registers. Between offering the most fantastic physical bookstore in the world and a great online experience, Powell’s should survive any transition to digital just fine.

There is something about a world class bookstore that can’t be replicated online. Yes, picking up the actual book and flipping through the pages is nice, but that’s just the beginning. Online it’s all about what I already know or new titles with sufficient sales velocity, but there’s nothing to record how much pulp a particular book managed to commandeer over the decades. In the real world, I can visit a section of the bookstore where I’m only vaguely familiar with what’s been printed–like US history books–and immediately zoom into Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s got a whole shelf. That’s what makes it easy to notice a writer. A whole shelf. Some authors get there with one book that takes the world by storm, like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Others get there with a single title that’s been selling steadily through multiple editions, like Mythology by Edith Hamilton. And others get there with a series like the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.

I loved looking at all the old editions of books piled up next to the new ones. It was easy to scan a section and see what the big titles are just by the sheer space that they take up. Then there’s the depth, really digging in and looking at thousands of titles in an hour. And of course, there’s peeking at what other readers have plucked off the shelf. No online bookstore comes even close to offering this type of browsing experience. And they never will.

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