Kindle Singles and The Future of Ebooks
"Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length." That's Amazon's tagline for their popular Kindle Singles program. And while Singles hasn't exactly been a major industry disruptor I believe it lays the foundation for some of the bigger, bolder initiatives Amazon is planning for the future. I also believe it's a model that will become much more common over time.
The formula looks like this:
1. End the practice of artificially puffing up content.
The greatest aspect of Kindle Singles is, of course, their short length. The first one I read was a Single about media and I remember thinking how a typical business book editor would have asked the author to turn this 30-page gem into a bloated 300-page mess. It happens all the time and it's a function of both physical shelf presence and perceived value. In the ebook world there's suddenly no physical bookshelf an individual title has to have a spine presence on. Now we just need to stop equating "shorter" with "cheaper"...more on that in a moment.
2. Adjust to shrinking attention spans.
Face it. With very few exceptions you're probably thrilled to read all this short-form content that didn't exist 10 years ago. Blogs, no matter what they're called, are very popular. Then came Twitter with its 140-character bursts of information. Let's also not forget about all the other terrific short-form content services like Byliner that we've grown to love. Shortened content is also why The Week is such a popular magazine. Kindle Singles is just tapping into our desire to find the Cliff's Notes on everything so that we can quickly read it and move on.
3. The distributor becomes the publisher.
Amazon has always been about disintermediation and squeezing margins. What better way to do so than by cutting out one of the food chain's biggest pieces, the publisher? Horror stories have always been told of how certain bestsellers were rejected by editors from multiple publishing houses. And just how much value does the typical publisher add to a book these days? That's become a very difficult question for publishers to answer, especially in light of all the self-publishing options that offer significantly higher royalty rates. Amazon continues creating new imprints and adding staff. Don't let flops like Tim Ferris' latest book throw you off; Bezos always takes the long-term view, so a few high-profile disappointments won't deter Amazon's plans.
4. Kill the competition (publishers and retailers).
Amazon didn't kill Borders but they certainly hastened their demise. B&N continues struggling. Publishers are cutting staff and trying to find their way forward. Amazon isn't going to wake up one day and discover they have the market to themselves...but every year they'll have more market share and clout. Think Microsoft of the 1990's, but multiply that by 2 since it's not just product dominance but retail/distribution dominance as well.
5. Eventually raise the prices of short content.
Amazon has been marginally profitable over the years but that doesn't deter Wall Street. Investors believe short-term losses will lead to significant long-term gains with Amazon. Although Amazon is OK with selling a lot of ebooks at a loss today, they won't be able to do that forever. And they won't have to. After all, once item #4 takes place there's no reason for Amazon to sell all those ebooks at a loss. There's also no reason for them to equate "short" with "cheap."
In short (pun intended), Singles go from being a publishing experiment in short-form, low-priced content to the standard model of content creation and consumption. Prices for Singles content go up over time too as Amazon realizes competition is limited and "short" really doesn't have to mean "cheap."
Joe Wikert is director of strategy and business development at Olive Software. Prior to joining Olive Software he was general manager, publisher and chair of the Tools of Change (TOC) conference at O'Reilly Media, Inc. Prior to O'Reilly he was vice president and executive publisher at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., in their P/T division.