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The Globe and Mail

Kindle Singles: A lifeline for the long short read

mike ellis The Globe and Mail

Just over a year ago, Amazon launched Kindle Singles as a format for shorter stories – memoirs, essays, arguments, fiction – meant to be read on a Kindle e-reader but also available online by way of an app. They're a fast buy, a fast download and a fast read. Back then, Singles were mostly being touted as a way to circumvent the writer-agent-publisher triumvirate by allowing un- and lesser-knowns to sell substantial, stand-alone work that hadn't been published elsewhere. (Kindle Singles aren't promoted like books, but because they are an in-house product of the biggest online store in the world, they don't have to be.) By now, they have demonstrated a complicated potential to stand in for something else.

Singles are sold on Amazon with the too-easy "Buy now with 1 click" link, and cost between one and five dollars. They run from around 5,000 or 10,000 words to 30,000 words, whatever is the "length best suited to the ideas they present." But these days, even 5,000 words is a lot. A music-critic friend of mine wrote, "I wish I had 'Riff' space" on Gchat yesterday, referencing the 1,750 or so words that occupy a rotating, super-coveted Sunday New York Times magazine column, representative of the mostly disappeared space for a writer to, you know, write. That particular stretch, the five, ten, twenty-thousand-word stretch, which is still and crucially closer to an article about just one thing than a daunting, defining book, is where the possibilities of the Kindle Single begin for the writers who are releasing them.

With far fewer venues (and commensurately fewer ad sales and available pages and paycheques) to publish long-form work, both fiction and non-fiction, which were among the first kinds of journalism to go when the Internet tore through the industry, there was almost nowhere for even sure things like Christopher Hitchens (whose Single about Osama bin Laden is called The Enemy) or Stephen King (his is Mile 81, a short story) to pursue a mid-length piece. (I write columns for a monthly glossy, a weekly magazine, a daily newspaper and a popular website, but I usually can't afford to write anything longer than 1,500 words.)

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This is especially true in Canada. Derek Finkle, a journalist and the director of an agency that represents freelance writers, and who is developing a Canadian answer to the long-form problem, says "There aren't that many venues for long-form journalism in this country, period," even though Canadians "punch considerably above their weight class when it comes to purchasing long-form non-fiction online." (I write columns for a monthly glossy, a weekly magazine and a daily newspaper, but I usually can't afford to write anything longer than 1,500 words.)

The Amazon-legitimacy, high royalties and online utility of the Kindle Single is a not-insignificant prospect, if still a new one, for some writers. Sloane Crosley's books I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number? apply a smart-girl sensibility to the David Sedaris self-deprecation tradition; her Kindle Single Up the Down Volcano is described as "her first full-length essay since her second book," an essay that once upon a time would have been a few-dollars-a-word feature in a national magazine, or a chapter in the next book. That book, though, would require a few years of labour and promotion and a retreat from the Twitter cycle; a Single contains the same scope of an idea, with fewer risks to author and publisher, and far more right-now Facebook-frisson.

For readers – or "users," depending on your level of romanticism – a Kindle Single is an ideal purchasing prospect, very similar to the 99-cent singles and $9.99 albums on iTunes. In both cases, something familiar is reformatted and resold to conform to technology in need of fast, cheap content. In both cases, the content is so cheap that it can be forgotten immediately. Singles justify both an e-reader purchase and a low-commitment investment in reading something; they aren't aspirational like the high-designed special editions that might save real books, but there is a version of wantable scarcity that comes with such a custom, niche-y, one-off something.

For Amazon, the Singles lend a book-clubby sense of literary realness so different from the site's reputation as a gonzo online shopping mall, where a zebra-striped soccer ball is as readily available as a hard-to-find Harold Brodkey hardcover, and where the massive scale continues to punish the rest of the book business. Amazon makes it difficult to find any data on the Singles, as is their habit, but under "Best Books of 2011" there is mention of the Singles collection including five Pulitzer Prize winners and three National Magazine Award winners.

Jon Krakauer, of Into Thin Air fame, contributed a Single (via Byliner, a publishing company that only deals with work meant for Singles and others like it, such as Quick Reads and NOOK Snaps), called Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, which serves as a 75-page extended rant for Krakauer; a fresh, big-bite-sized piece for his gigantic readership, and an A-list journo to validate Amazon's project, just a few months in. Mike Albo did essentially the same thing with The Junket, a brilliantly written exposé and self-defence about being fired from the Times.

It's true that Amazon's effect on the book business has been profound, which for me was forever memorialized by the Adrian Tomine-illustrated New Yorker cover featuring a local bookseller's witness of a neighbour receiving a package – those packages! – from Amazon. (It was the magazine's Fiction Issue.)

There is not much left to say about the site's simple domination. But what the Singles, in particular, offer is a place for the work and writers that have been left behind and left out by everything that Amazon, that the Internet, has wrought. With the Singles, too, are opportunities for cool, Kindle Single-defining promotion and marketing strategies that Amazon hasn't created or capitalized on, likely because the Kindle doesn't yet exist in the collective consciousness. It might: Amazon sold more e-books in 2011 than traditional, sensual, paper-and-ink books. But it also probably should.

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Kate Carraway is a writer from Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @KateCarraway .

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