The Kindle Single Hasn't Killed the Novel Quite Yet

The Guardian's Julian Gough is arguing that the Kindle Single—an e-book platform intended for works that fall between 5,000 and 30,000 words—is "the future." Is it really, though?

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Over at The Guardian, Irish columnist and novelist Julian Gough is arguing that the Kindle Single—an e-book platform intended for works that fall between 5,000 and 30,000 words—is "the future."

The future of what? Certainly the Kindle Single is the future of the market for works that fall within that range—lengthy essays and novellas and the like—because until now, frankly, there wasn't a market for works that fall within that length. That's just the point, perhaps.

The Kindle Single format is not entirely new. It's been quietly gathering steam since its debut in January, 2011, as an Amazon substore; the following year, The New York Times' Dwight Garner mused on the format as a promising home for works "long enough for genuine complexity, short enough that you don’t need journalistic starches and fillers." (Some were less appealing; he blasted those as "so subliterate they made my temples ache.") Meanwhile, Byliner, a longform journalism site, announced that it had sold more than 100,000 "Byliner Originals" in just seven months.

Then again, nor is there anything new about the lack of a market for works of that length—it's been an issue for 500 years. The novella hasn't really been in vogue since about 1600, sadly, and as Gough explains, "the high fixed overheads of book production—printing, binding, warehousing and distributing a labour-intensive physical object—have tended to make books of fewer than 100 pages too expensive for the customer."

For years, writers have had to deal with the technological constraints of the book. Philip Roth, for instance, first found critical triumph with his wonderful 1959 novella, "Goodbye, Columbus." Had he been pressured to stretch it into a novel, it very possibly would have faltered. Instead, he packaged it together with five short stories, though the work more than speaks for itself.

But then came the advent of digital publishing and—you see where this is going, right? The single is bad news for print publishers, who cannot compete in that format, but great news for writers, including Stephen King:

Any writer can approach Amazon directly, as Stephen King did in January with Guns, a nonfiction essay too long, at 8,000 words, for most newspapers or magazines. If King had given Guns to his usual publisher, it might have come out in a hardback collection of essays in about eight years' time. He offered it to Kindle Singles on a Friday; they read it over the weekend, and it was published within the week. It has 1,654 reviews on Amazon.

And King may have made significantly more money per word from his Kindle Single than he makes from his mainstream published novels. Amazon pays authors who go directly to it 70% of revenue on Singles. It pays promptly every month, and allows you to retain the rights to your work.

Other big names in the fiction sphere—Amy Tan, George Saunders, Ann Patchett—are also writing Kindle Singles (Roth, a noted luddite who is "not at all sure what Twitter is," probably won't be hopping on board). Journalists have even more reason to celebrate: here, finally, is an outlet for essays and longform investigations too lengthy for a magazine slot but not quite weighty enough for a book deal. Writers could always share such pieces on their own blogs and the like, but isn't it nice to get paid? Hence the advent of sites like The Atavist and, more recently, Epic.

Gough warns—not too wistfully—that the proliferation of the Kindle Single could finally put brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, but that seems overly speculative. As Salon's Laura Miller argued in February, digital publishing, coupled with smartphones, has certainly changed how people read, but there's little evidence it has threatened the novel's longtime dominance over short fiction. Miller pointed to friends of hers who are indeed reading more fiction thanks to technological shifts, but they weren't lapping up short selections from, say, the Antioch Review. They were instead sinking into long classics like Middlemarch, "because for the first time they can carry around a 900-page tome in their shirt pocket." That's a tremendous convenience for those of us who read during our daily commute. (Ever try lugging Infinite Jest to and from the office five days a week?)

Certainly, the Kindle Single is the future of the pitifully maligned novella or the awkwardly sized nonfiction piece. But until we see more tectonic shifts in what people read rather than simply how people read, it's better news for writers than it is for the average reader.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.