Singles are 5,000 to 30,000 words long — short enough to read on a couple of train rides to work.
Updated: September 20, 2012 6:02AM
A lot of grandiose things have been expected of Kindle Singles, the feature on Amazon’s popular e-reader that allows users to download mini-stories, essays and articles.
It had been hoped that Singles would promote essays and short stories, provide an answer to supposedly shrinking attention spans or even save long-form journalism from the brink.
Singles purchased through the Amazon bookstore are short enough — 5,000 to 30,000 words — to finish on a couple of train rides to work.
But who actually reads Kindle Singles — a name that evokes everything from American cheese to dating sites?
Though Amazon won’t release numbers, the company told paidContent.org in March that more than 2 million Singles had been sold since the program started in January 2011. The number is difficult to compare to the immense success of full-length Kindle book sales, which Amazon said surpassed its print book sales for the first time last year.
Popular Singles sometimes crack the top 100 overall Kindle best sellers, with well-known authors dominating the list of best-selling Singles in March, including Lee Child’s “Second Son” in the No. 1 slot, followed by Stephen King’s “Mile 81”; David Baldacci’s “No Time Left,” and Karin Slaughter’s “Thorn in My Side,” according to information Amazon released to paidContent.org. Of those titles, only Slaughter’s story is exclusive to Amazon.
Amazon identifies short pieces as Singles and posts page lengths, but a look at a few Kindle message boards shows not everyone gets the whole Singles thing.
On the forum for John Hooper’s acclaimed “Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia,” one reviewer complains, “Like some of the others have said [sic] I was just getting into this book when I found myself at that last page, leaving me wanting for more. Too short to be considered a book really . . .”
Another said about Amy Tan’s 43-page “Rules For Virgins”: “So short it is a waste of money. I have read breakfast food boxes that are longer.”
Readers who have caught on might be attracted by the price of the stories, which range from $0.99 to $4.99, and the pleasure of being able to browse, download and finish a piece in one sitting. They also get to devour works from popular authors along with previously unknown writers, who are well-promoted in the Kindle library.
The idea for Singles was to allow a space for stories too long for a magazine but not long enough for a full-length book, says Kindle Singles editor David Blum, who worked as a magazine editor before joining Amazon.
The idea was to “allow writers the freedom to write the length that feels right to them, and more to the point, the length that feels right to the story,” Blum says.
There are more than 200 Singles in the Amazon library, with about three new stories available every week, including fiction and nonfiction stories that range from memoirs and long-form journalism articles to novellas and essays. Some stories come from other publishers, but most are carefully selected submissions edited by Blum. Writers who publish through the site get 70 percent of the profits.
Blum has edited Singles from many of his former writers at the New York Press and Village Voice, including Mishka Shubaly, whose nonfiction narrative “The Long Run” became the No. 9 Kindle Single best seller in March.
Shubaly said the story, which chronicles his salvation from drugs and alcohol through ultra-running, has sold more than 68,000 copies since its release in October 2011. His latest Single, “Bachelor Number One,” currently ranks ninth in the Singles best sellers list.
“I think the medical term is, ‘I made a buttload of money,’ ” Shubaly said.
Some writers have used Singles to explore unusual topics they might have had trouble greenlighting at other publications, such as one author’s tale about her own body hair.
Mara Altman, who worked with Blum at the Village Voice, said she has had a huge response from readers who identified with “Bearded Lady.” The single has sold more than 25,000 copies since its release in March, Altman said. “I had so many women write me and say, ‘Oh I’m so glad you wrote about this,” she said.
And the time it takes to publish a Single is much shorter than a full-length book, allowing for timely pieces such as Christopher Hitchens’ popular story, “The Enemy,” which came out two weeks after Osama bin Laden was killed.
“As magazines publish fewer and fewer of these [long-form] stories, there’s a vacuum we’re hoping to fill,” Blum said.
As the print world continues to shrink, Kindle Singles and similar digital long-form life preservers such as the Atavist and Byliner give readers options. And they allow up-and-coming authors access to millions of readers, who with one click can discover remarkable stories from fresh voices.
Emily Morris was a summer intern for the Sun-Times.