By Jacob Silverman
December 11th, 2009
On December 4, Motoko Rich reported in the New York Times about a partnership between Amazon and The Atlantic to bring short stories to the Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader. The first two stories appeared in the Amazon Kindle store last Monday. Written by Edna O’Brien and Christopher Buckley, each story sells for $3.99 and is readable exclusively on the Kindle. (As of this writing, both stories are featured in Amazon’s Kindle Exclusives store.) Another story by Curtis Sittenfeld will go on sale in January. So far, then, we have three well-known writers, but Amazon promises that two new stories “by both well-known and up-and-coming authors” will appear each month.
In considering what this means for what many have called the potential iTunes-for-short-fiction market, it’s important to balance considerations of cost, format, medium, and user preferences. First, $3.99 is far too high a price for one short story, even a 15,000-word piece of fiction like Christopher Buckley’s. An issue of Electric Literature, which contains five stories, can be purchased for $4.99 for Kindle, $9.95 in paperback. Prices for that magazine and a host of others, including this one, are even lower if you invest in a subscription, and new and used paperbacks can be had for similar prices. It may seem strange to debate the economics of a single short story, but that’s exactly what this new market does—place a dollar value on something that had heretofore been sold as part of a packaged product, whether a magazine or book-length collection. In so doing, it potentially reduces the thing, this digital bundle of words, leaving it prey to the kind of race-to-the-bottom price cuts that Walmart, Amazon, and Target are conducting over hardcover bestsellers.
If Rich’s NYT report is correct, the revenues are split between Amazon, The Atlantic, and the writers, each of whom received a four-figure fee—a generous amount for a short story in any publication. I brought up Electric Literature because that magazine has received much attention for its ability to leverage new media. I reached Andy Hunter, co-founder of EL, via e-mail, and he was similarly reticent about the new Amazon/Atlantic partnership, writing that The Atlantic will have to sell “at least a thousand copies of each simply to pay the writer. That’s a lot of stories for literary authors.”
But the authors do receive their fees and some exposure. The main loser, then, seems to be The Atlantic, who will be stuck paying four-figure fees to two writers a month, finding and editing the stories, and hoping that their partnership agreement contains some clause stipulating that Amazon must do a certain amount of promotion of the stories. (E-mails to Amazon PR and The Atlantic asking for comment went unreturned). Because without that institutional support from Amazon (say, by adding social-networking features or Facebook Connect on the Kindle and Amazon marketplace), without some way of featuring these stories prominently in the Kindle store, they’re guaranteed to sell in low amounts. There simply isn’t an established electronic market for short fiction—not even an iTunes store section or Amazon short-story bestseller list. Back to Hunter: “The Kindle audience, while increasingly robust, is composed primarily of readers of genre and nonfiction. Literary readers are the most sentimental about books, and will likely be the last demographic to embrace e-readers.”
So these are the main challenges going forward. The Atlantic dropped fiction from its pages in 2005, save for an annual fiction issue, yet this recent move is being trumpeted as a way of reaching more fiction readers. It’s not. The Kindle market is certainly growing, but The Atlantic has ~400,000 readers, and far more of them would read fiction in the physical magazine than that published exclusively for one e-reader under The Atlantic imprimatur. Ted Genoways, the editor here at VQR, said much the same, writing in an e-mail, “Will they be able to convince a half million people to buy fiction on their Kindle? I doubt it. So, this looks like making fiction more widely available, but, in reality, it’s dramatically curtailing its potential audience.”
But this kind of experimentation is important, and it should be welcomed, despite its obvious shortcomings. It’s something embraced here at VQR, as with the recent serialization of Jason Motlagh’s 19,000-word investigatory report on the Mumbai terror attacks. To figure out a way forward in publishing—whether short stories, books, magazines, or newspapers—will take some risks and false starts, and not everyone will agree on the definition of success. For this partnership to work, The Atlantic will have to promote heavily its writers to both its print and burgeoning online audiences, and if it is planning on making money off of stories by new writers—a goodhearted pledge that many publications make but don’t always fulfill—it will take an even greater effort. The electronic short story market, with the proper social networking, software, and promotional tools built up around it, could be a great way for unestablished writers to develop an audience, especially if they come endorsed by an established magazine or journal. For now, however, simply throwing up a new online store and calling it the iTunes/Hulu/Netflix of [choose your embattled industry] is not enough.
The following sentence originally appeared in this article: “But the authors do receive their fees and some exposure, though Amazon retains electronic rights to the story, meaning it can’t be included in the e-book version of a future collection.” The exclusivity agreement between The Atlantic and Amazon is not actually that broad, so everything following “some exposure” has been deleted. We regret the error.
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