Kindle Singles Out Book Publishers

Yesterday was potentially a very big day in the publishing world with two announcements that could capitalize in the rapid shift toward e-books. As a measure of that shift, USA Today’s list of the top 50 bestselling titles revealed that 46% of those works sold better as ebooks than print copies in the previous week.

The first news was that Amazon’s Kindle launched its new Singles program for long-form writing. It is easy to get over excited about the Singles program but it does create better visibility and cultural authority for a new class of shorter e-books sold at a price lower than the cost of a single magazine issue.

The second news was the New York Times announcing its first e-book to be published in conjunction with a major story in the Times. The e-book is a compilation of Times articles on and around the Wikileaks controversy.

The Times is putting all its firepower behind the ebook. An excerpt appeared online yesterday and will be published in the Times Magazine on Sunday as Keller’s debut in a new role as columnist. The ebook will be published the following day.

This ebook won’t set the world on fire. Keller’s account of his dealings with Julian Assange is more of defense of the paper’s propriety than anything compelling. The best bit of insiderism we get is this scene involving Richard Holbrooke as Keller attends a party in the run-up to release of State Department cables:

A voracious consumer of inside information, Holbrooke had a decent idea of what was coming, and he pulled me away from the crowd to show me the fusillade of cabinet-level e-mail ricocheting through his BlackBerry, thus demonstrating both the frantic anxiety in the administration and, not incidentally, the fact that he was very much in the loop.

The rest of the book, we’re told from the Times’s own press release, is a grab bag of Wikileaks related material, including:

among other items, expanded profiles of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder, and Bradley Manning, the Army private suspected of being his source, and original essays on what the episode has revealed about American diplomacy and government secrecy. Times correspondents will provide detailed analyses of the documents and the e-book will reprint the full text of all the cables and war logs published on The Times’s Web site, in addition to 27 new cables selected for this volume. The e-book will also incorporate opinion essays by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, among others.

The timing of the e-book seems a bit off which illustrates one of the key issues that will crop up quickly with e-book publishing. It is hard to know, when chasing a story, how long it will remain urgent or, even, relevant. Wikileaks offers a good example of how this works. The New Yorker’s profile of Julian Assange was probably read more widely long after its publication.

The same could happen with the Times’s e-book. If Wikileaks scores again with its Bank of America trove later this year, the e-book will be relevant and salable again.

The New York Times’s publishing plan somewhat trumps Amazon’s announcement of its Kindle Singles program. But that’s alright. Everyone’s working from the same script here.

Kindle Singles are works that are too long to fit into a magazine but not long enough to present a reasonable value as a precious little tome. The real goal is to create a new genre at e-friendly price point of 99 cents to a few dollars.

The idea isn’t new or revolutionary. Short books have popped up from time to time as novelties and succeeded now and again. What is new about Kindle Singles is the way that it circumvents publishers. Amazon has gone to writers and asked them for these orphaned works or asked them to write such works to promote the idea.

For authors making 70% of the a dollar or two, the proposition begins to make sense if they can sell a few thousand copies of their work. With the narrowing of magazine writing opportunities, this should be a boon to authors.

The only problem is the missing ingredient: publicity. As anyone who has tried to publish digitally or physically will tell you, the biggest challenge is not writing the book but finding an audience. Authors will go to great lengths to get someone to notice, mention and recommend their work.

Indeed, the most valuable currency in the writing game is name recognition and a loyal following. That’s what David Sedaris and Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis all have. Many equally well-known figures don’t. Take Steve Martin, a movie star and a talented writer. His novels are not guaranteed bestsellers. Other celebrities suffer too when they try to publish.

Amazon knows this. They have cleverly partnered with TED and Pro Publica to create these works. TED has three titles in the launch and Pro Publica has one 13,000 word report on the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Like the Times, it seems as if Pro Publica is warily testing the waters here with a low-risk project.

TED will take half of the author’s 70% as compensation. Pro Publica will probably pocket all of it since their staff is getting paid.

This is very important because Amazon is offering well-known media outlets–those with the audience and name-recognition so essential to successful publishing–a higher margin outlet for their work. TED plans to publish monthly and one hopes that Pro Publica will be releasing longer versions of more current stories in the future.

For both media companies, the Kindle Singles present another revenue channel. Amazon’s ubiquity make this almost seamless. With Apple charging the same 30% distribution fee on the apps, there’s not much incentive for the TED or Pro Publica to go elsewhere. Of course, the start-up costs and promotion that come with Amazon are attractive too.

If the Singles program gets traction, it will be another blow to the publishing companies who have long sourced their best works from magazines and newspapers with loyal readers. Social currency is evanescent. A hot story will generate demand for more information much sooner than most book publishers can bring books to market.

That won’t be the case with Kindle Singles. Publishing through Kindle will allow the media outlet a chance to benefit from the success of writers they helped establish without depriving the writer of royalties.

Current ebook royalties are 25% of the publisher’s net receipts. That means the author would get 70 cents from a $3.99 ebook. Under the Singles model, the author will get twice that if he or she splits the royalty with TED or The New York Times.

Everybody wins in this new model except the book publishers who are cut out of the game. All that the author gives up is a physical book. Even there, the new model offers some wiggle room. It makes more sense–and generates more dollars–to publish a series of 20,000 word pieces in this manner. That would leave book publishers the opportunity to buy the rights to sell hard-copy versions of 80,000+ compilations.

Admittedly, that’s not a very glamorous position for publishers to be left in.

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