March 8, 2012

Amazon does not own long form journalism


Digital long form publishers like The Atavist are not Amazon's property.

It’s annoying enough to see a moniker as bad as the “Kindle Single” find a lasting place in the bibliographic lexicon, but it’s far more frustrating to find it understood as anything other than branding. In a New York Times article discussing the pleasures and pitfalls of reading long form journalism published as digital exclusives, critic Dwight Garner forgets a couple of crucial details in an otherwise enlightening article. Let’s see if you can spot them:

Here’s what Kindle Singles actually are: probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place. They’re works of long-form journalism that seek out that sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books. Amazon calls them “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” If I didn’t loathe the word “compelling,” I’d think that wasn’t a half-bad slogan.

I recently sat down and read 15 of these boutique minibooks. Most are blah; a few are so subliterate they made my temples ache. But several — like John Hooper’s reportage on the Costa Concordia disaster, Jane Hirshfield on haiku and Jonathan Mahler on Joe Paterno — are so good they awaken you to the promise of what feels almost like a new genre: long enough for genuine complexity, short enough that you don’t need journalistic starches and fillers.

That’s right: The article portrays these works as Kindle exclusives. Later in the article we find these two Amazon-reveling paragraphs:

Many of these minibooks have interesting premises but fail to deliver entirely. These include “Blindsight,” by Chris Colin, about the Hollywood producer of films like “C.H.U.D. II” who suffered serious brain trauma in a car accident and came back an oddly changed man. Mr. Colin is a fine writer, but this is an Oliver Sacks-type story that needed an Oliver Sacks.

Others ride blithely off the rails. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, has written “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” ($1.99). It’s about how money has ruined politics, and about how Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Streeters should collaborate to fix this problem. Mr. Lessig is right, but he’s insufferable. His book is earnest, patronizing and so dull that I flipped my Kindle over, searching for a snooze button.

Melville House hosted an event a few weeks ago with one of the leading publishers of long form digital nonfiction, The Atavist, and it was incredibly well-attended, entertaining and proof that the realm of digital journalism can still create a sense of community. That concept, as well as the individual reviews of these books in Garner’s Times article, certainly demonstrates how interesting and important such a publishing style can be. Where the article goes wrong is in its incessant branding on behalf of

The “Kindle Single” is just one company’s (Amazon) name for long form journalism published as eBook original. That’s it. There is no other magic arrangement. All of the books discussed in the article are available on the Nook and can be purchased on as easily as they can on Amazon. While some of the book in the article have yet to wind their into the Google eBookstore (Google Play, I mean) many of these books, like The Atavist’s My Mother’s Lover by David Dobbs, are available on Google, and therefore also from your local bookstore, like, say, WORD in Brooklyn. Buy it from them for $1.59 and help support a wonderful indie.

This of course is part of the problem with the reportage of the eBook market. Amazon’s advertising dollar has crept into the cultural subconscious, and the message being echoed is singular: We are the only game in town.

Meanwhile the market is increasingly diverse, and you can buy a wonderful publication from a cutting edge platform like The Atavist from your neighborhood bookstore. There are hurdles, no doubt. Google appears to be making yet another facelift to their eBookstore, and not all indies are as savvy as WORD, but if we continue along this homogenous portrayal of the eBook market we will end up with just that.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.