Easi-Singles

by Henry on October 12, 2010

Ars Technica

Amazon is rolling out a separate section of its Kindle store meant for shorter content—meatier than long-form journalism, but shorter than a typical book. Called “Kindle Singles,” the content will be distributed like other Kindle books but will likely fall between 10,000 and 30,000 words, or the equivalent of a few chapters from a novel. The company believes that some of the best ideas don’t need to be stretched to more than 50,000 words in order to get in front of readers, nor do they need to be chopped down to the length of a magazine article. “Ideas and the words to deliver them should be crafted to their natural length, not to an artificial marketing length that justifies a particular price or a certain format,” Amazon’s VP of Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti said in a statement. (Anyone who has ever read a terrible “business” or “self-help” book consisting of a single idea furiously puffed up into 200 pages of pabulum will no doubt agree with this sentiment.)

While I’m not greatly enthusiastic about Amazon as a company, I am hopeful that this form of publishing takes off (for reasons I laid out a couple of years ago). I don’t particularly object to overly long self-help books or business books, since even if they were pithier, they usually would not be worth reading. I presume that the actual functions of these books is (in the case of business books) to provide a common, if conceptually empty, jargon for interacting with work colleagues, and (in the case of self-help books) to provide a symbolic substitute for actual self-help. Shorter electronic versions would not necessarily contribute to either of these functions.

However, I do object to books which have an interesting insight, but pad it out across several chapters to make it publishable. More essays around the 20,000 word mark, taking an interesting point and elaborating it more than would be possible in a standard magazine article, would be a very good thing.

{ 16 comments }

1

Helen Catterall 10.12.10 at 9:07 pm

They key issues are supply, demand and pricing, and the key question is: ‘Is there a market for this type of format?’ Surely these trials will soon indicate if this format will be popular or not. However, not having to pulp the results means that publishers are nore able to try different innovations like this.

2

John Quiggin 10.12.10 at 10:55 pm

Looking back at the previous post, kid bitzer offered the obvious snark about the kind of author who would take four or five blog posts on dead ideas in economics and pad them out into a book. But, at least from the prejudiced POV of a proud author, the process of turning blog posts into book chapters added a lot.

I would have liked to have one more chapter on central bank independence, but I just found it too hard to explain some of the details that could be skated over in a blog post and argued out in comments (most importantly, how does the current, or at least pre-crisis version of CBI differ from the version that prevailed in the Keynesian era. The difference is real but hard to pin down).

On the other hand, as a couple of reviewers have noted, the chapter on privatisation is probably the weakest, yet its the one that I had done the most work on before starting the book. So far at least, most people have liked the DSGE chapter, where the opposite is true.

3

Warren Terra 10.12.10 at 10:58 pm

I agree with you in principle – but in a world where I’m already fairly unlikely to spend money to get something when I can get something like it for free, two of the exceptions are that I buy books and I subscribe to magazines. When I pay my magazine subscription, of course I’m doing that to pay for the delivery of the content – but even if a particular essay in one of the twelve issues of the monthly magazine is precisely the reason I subscribe, I’m not at all sure I’ll pay 1/12 (or even 1/36) of what I’d pay for the magazine subscription to download and read the essay. Maybe if I were more accustomed to sending money to Amazon (via the one-click buying they patented, for example) this would become easier, but I rather doubt it.

I guess I’m saying that, while I adore the long-form essay, one of the things I really value is the commissioning editor, the ethos and voice of a person or a collective who decide which such essays will provide the content of a magazine to which I subscribe.

Still, this does raise a possibility: could there be a successful virtual magazine, an editor to whom you subscribe who every month chooses several essays from those available a la carte and delivers them to you, that content (and the service of their selection) being what you get for your subscription? Presumably the editor would get some sort of a bulk discount that could make this proposition work …

4

PHB 10.12.10 at 11:36 pm

I have been thinking this would happen for some time. In fact I was planning to write a short monograph proposing the idea and sell it on Kindle…. bit late now I guess.

It takes several years to write a book and another year to get it published. So by the time a book arrives on the shelves the idea it expresses can be three years old.

Back in the Victorian era, pamphlets, monographs and essays were the standard form for technical publications. 20-40,000 words is a pretty good length for most ideas.

5

Ebenezer Scrooge 10.13.10 at 12:05 am

As a corporate drone in good standing, I’ll have to disagree with Henry. Business books do not provide a common jargon for communication. (I’ll agree, however, with Henry’s “conceptually empty.”) They provide a set of euphemisms, which obscure communication. Euphemisms being euphemisms, one has to learn a new set every year or three. And no two organizations (or sub-organizations) use exactly the same euphemisms the same way.

The “function” of business books is to persuade business people that they are engaged in an intellectually serious activity: fully equal to that of their academic brethren and far more remunerative. Now I’ll grant that business is serious stuff for serious people. And it isn’t easy. But its difficulties are seldom intellectual ones.

6

Vivian 10.13.10 at 12:42 am

Warren, would you be satisfied if your favorite blog had a “recommended essays” tag, or weekly feature, or occasional roundup of the longer-form paid essays? A virtual magazine, with a tip jar instead of subscription? It’s a separate question from whether the subscription model you suggest could fly. But my point is, you don’t need to buy the anthology-list from the same place you buy the essays.

7

Warren Terra 10.13.10 at 12:58 am

Vivian, I’m OK with what you say in principle. My only question with it is whether I’ll really go buy essays, even if linked to them by someone I mostly trust, or whether I’m more likely to subscribe to a curated essay subscription (at a discount, of course).

8

Vivian 10.13.10 at 1:30 am

that makes sense.

9

PHB 10.13.10 at 1:32 am

Now the strange thing about the kindle is that it does get people buying e-books.

Before I bought the kindle I had never bought a single iTune, pay per view movie or any other e-content. Which was perhaps not too promising given that I was meant to be working on an Internet micropayment scheme from time to time.

As soon as you get the kindle you have a direct choice between buying the book and buying the ebook for less. And that gets people to open their wallets.

The thing about kindling is that it gets burned up setting light to the fire.

10

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.13.10 at 7:20 am

The company believes that some of the best ideas don’t need to be stretched to more than 50,000 words in order to get in front of readers, nor do they need to be chopped down to the length of a magazine article.

Sure they need to be chopped down to the length of a magazine article. If you can’t present it as a magazine article, it’s probably not one of the best ideas anyway. And if I’m impressed by the article, I’ll buy the book.

So now, if I’m impressed by the article, I should buy the short book first, and then, if I’m still interested, the whole book?

11

Random lurker 10.13.10 at 8:55 am

@9

If you’re impressed by the [halfway between an article and a book] you’ll have to buy a whole saga, like in Harry Potter (“zombie economics” -> “liberism strickes back” ->” the return of the keynesian”)

12

Jon H 10.13.10 at 2:47 pm

I seem to recall that novellas and other longer-than-a-short-story, shorter-than-a-doorstop fiction had a hard time finding a market.

This might help with that.

13

Jon H 10.13.10 at 2:47 pm

… but I’m sure Amazon’s selection will have loads and loads of self-published or Amazon-Vanity-published dreck.

14

Robert Speirs 10.13.10 at 7:27 pm

Maybe readers in the future will be given the choice of a long form or short form (“abridged”) version of whatever story they feel like reading. You could get an entire history of the Roman Republic and Empire or just the parts about Nero or Augustus, with enough introductory and analytical material to make it understandable. Then later you could buy other parts as you like. Maybe authors will write continuously, never stopping and saying, “OK, the book’s done!” unless they get bored with the topic.

15

Harald Korneliussen 10.13.10 at 8:14 pm

Books that make good points but could benefit from being shorter that I can think of right now: Amartya Sen’s “Identity and violence” and James Hansen’s “Storms of my grandchildren”. I suspect I have less tolerance for verbosity than most CT writers.

16

Dingbat 10.13.10 at 8:51 pm

Quoth Warren, “Maybe if I were more accustomed to sending money to Amazon (via the one-click buying they patented, for example) this would become easier, but I rather doubt it.”

Perhaps if Amazon hadn’t patented one-click ordering (or the USPTO had had a pair of balls and asserted the idea’s obvious obviousness), then we would all be more accustomed to micropurchasing.

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