The Kindle Single is not a promising name. It sounds like a new kind of pre-made log, or some kind of person you might meet on the eHarmony dating service – maybe a lonely independent bookstore owner bankrupted by Amazon.com.
Here is what Kindle Singles are in fact: probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place. They are lifelong works of journalism that strike a balance between magazine articles and hardcover books. Amazon calls them “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” If I didn’t hate the word “convincing” I would think it wasn’t a half-bad slogan.
I recently sat down and read 15 of these mini boutique books. Most are jaded; some are so illiterate that they hurt my temples. But several – like John Hooper’s report on the Costa Concordia disaster, Jane Hirshfield on haiku, and Jonathan Mahler on Joe Paterno – are so good that they awaken you to the promise of what almost feels like a new genre: enough long for true complexity, short enough that you don’t need starches and journalistic loads.
Amazon hardly has a monopoly on this form of novel length. Digital publishers love Byliner and the atavist order items of this length that can be purchased and read on any e-reader, or on laptops or phones. But Amazon selects the best and commissions its own articles and essays under the direction of journalist David Blum.
For writers, there is money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The best-selling single of all time, a short story titled “Second Son,” by British-born thriller writer Lee Child, was originally released by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $ 1.99 and has sold over 180,000 copies.
Amazon has released over 160 Singles so far, 3 per week. He has pretty strict rules for the non-fiction he selects. No extracts from books. Usually no expanded versions of articles published elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither offers original material.
The first Kindle single that made noise was âThree Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Wayâ by Jon Krakauer ($ 2.99), released last April. Mr. Krakauer’s 22,000-word article, commissioned by Byliner, was a well-known teardown by Mr. Mortenson, author of the bestselling “Three Cups of Tea.” It sounded like the work of a modern day pamphleteer or someone throwing a pernicious boil.
Since then, the doors have opened wide. There are now interesting short books from writers such as Taylor Branch, William T. Vollmann, Stephen King, Mark Bittman, Ann Patchett, Walter Mosley, David Margolick, Sloane Crosley, and Amy Tan. The Singles bestseller list has anointed new stars, like Michka Choubaly, the offhand but ancient memorialist who writes about sex and stimulants and the bands he’s performed in.
For the purposes of this article, I’m sticking to Kindle Singles, the primary market for this work. I also stick to non-fiction. There are some great stories on the Amazon Singles list, but the length doesn’t seem to put new possibilities in the hands of novelists.
Three types of stories that often seem bloated when they arrive between hard covers are biographies, disaster stories, and memoirs of illness. Some of the more spirited singles fall into these categories.
We are destined to see many books on the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, which struck a rock off Tuscany on January 13 and rolled over on its side. But John Hooper, Rome correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian, is here with “Fatal journey: the sinking of the Costa Concordia” ($ 1.99), the first wide-angle account of these events.
For Italians, the reclining liner “seemed unbearably iconic,” he said, thanks to the debt crisis in the eurozone and years of botched government by Silvio Berlusconi. Mr. Hooper’s book is both thriller and elegy.
Another type of disaster happened last fall at Penn State University after football coach Joe Paterno was fired over allegations that one of his assistant coaches sexually abused him. children. These events, the legend of Paterno, are carefully pinpointed in “Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno” ($ 1.99), by Jonathan Mahler, a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine. It is an elegant book with a perfect balance between reportage, biography and criticism. He gently pulls Joe Pa from the pedestal on which he has stood for a long time.
Andy Borowitz is the funniest human on Twitter, and that’s not praise. His first original e-book – the best-selling single currently – is a serocomic memoir called “An unexpected twist” (99 cents), about a blockage in his colon that nearly killed him. This funny book has a sneaky emotional gravity. As at the time of his illness, he had only been married for a few months, and his little book became a rather big love story.
Two other singles that I admired are those of Ann Patchett “Getaway car: a practical dissertation on writing and life” ($ 2.99) and that of Jane Hirshfield “Heart of Haiku” (99 cents), which functions both as a short biography of 17th-century Japanese poet Basho and as an introduction to haiku in general.
These singles allow real writers to stretch their legs. It’s the literary equivalent of a week of sailing, not a Thor Heyerdahl race across an ocean, with a reader and writer strapped to the mast.
There is also an unexpected moral bonus here. I enjoyed shopping, a la carte, for these coins and making micro-payments (from 99 cents to $ 2.99) for them. Writers set their own prices, Amazon said.
Many of these mini-books have interesting premises but fail to deliver in full. These include “Blindsight”, by Chris Colin, about the Hollywood producer of films like “CHUD II” who suffered a severe head injury in a car accident and returned a strangely changed man. Mr. Colin is a good writer, but it’s an Oliver Sacks type story that needed an Oliver Sacks.
Others blithely roll off the rails. Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School, wrote “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” ($ 1.99). It’s about how money has ruined politics and how the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Streeters should work together to solve this problem. Mr. Lessig is right, but he is unbearable. Her book is serious, condescending, and so boring that I turned my Kindle around looking for a snooze button.
Sara Davidson’s memoir on Joan Didion, âJoan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didionâ ($ 2.99), are warm but paleless. It’s dense with clichÃ©s (âbreathtaking prose,â âa crowd of top playersâ) and makes Ms. Didion less interesting, not more, despite details like Ms. Didion’s rebuff of Warren’s practical advances. Beatty in the early 1970s.
Custodians of magazines I love – from The New Yorker to Oxford American, and New York magazine to The Paris Review – won’t be fired anytime soon by Singles. A typical issue of any of these magazines is still the best and most reliable.
But I am optimistic about this form.
This despite what could be the biggest disappointment of the Kindle, at least on its cheaper versions: when left unattended, it displays advertisements on its screen. Among the many admirable things about books, they don’t turn into commercials for Omaha Steaks when you don’t grab them between your optimistic fingers.