October 15, 2010

Amazon to the world: I’ll be your huckleberry



As we’ve been reporting here on MobyLives, Amazon is now fully in the confidence game. Whether giving product reassurance via zombie commentators or supplying handy-dandy applications to help steal the services of your local bookstore, Amazon has just the thing (remove all barriers, as they say) to help you into one of their products.

Products, mind you, that are increasingly comprehensive.

This brings us to the newly arrived Kindle Singles product line. Want to make a guess what Kindle Singles are? No, it’s not a relationship-seeking network of e-book lovers. And no, they’re not a virtual form of hydrogenated oil cheese slice. This is somewhat sadly so in the latter case.

According to Amazon, Singles are, “twice the length of a New Yorker article or as much as a few chapters of a book.” They’re thinking ten to thirty thousand words a Single.

Who comes up with these oddly alienating names? Sigh.

The worst part about this story is the trumpeting going on at a few tech blogs. Jared Newman at PCWorld writes that, “Just as MP3s changed the way we listen to music, Amazon wants to shake up our reading habits with Kindle Singles.”

He goes on to site a few marvelous things that can be achieved with this new horizon. Among these futuristic vistas are single author short story collections and long form journalism. Flying cars here we come.

Perhaps the most comic (read: seriously damaging) suggestion is a new format for “Lite” forms of nonfiction. Here, I’ll let Mr. Newman explain.

Think of smartphone apps. Sometimes, you’ll find a paid app, and a free “Lite” version with fewer features. Non-fiction books could work in similar fashion, with Lite Kindle Singles sold as cheaper, less elaborate versions of the full book. That way, you can get the gist of one author’s political analysis or scientific theory, and move on to the long version if you’re really interested to learn more.

Right. Because there aren’t enough people roaming around with selective understandings of historical events!

While techies may be somewhat uninformed when it comes to discussing the history of the novella and the concept of a treatise they are not however naïve when it comes time to talk business implications of a new software. Like everything Amazon does, the Single is meant to compete with other services as much as render one for its users.

A little more perspicacious than PCWorld’s eager take is Damon Brown’s for BNET:

With less space in the traditional print publications, journalists have been taking to the digital realm for their works for years in blogs and other self-published materials. The Amazon Singles program just happens to put a brand on it. That said, the new program makes it even easier for long-form journalists to access all Kindle users, which, no doubt, is an audience equal to, if not greater than, the average narrative magazine. Amazon is slowly turning the platform itself into its own low barrier to entry magazine.

Brown also takes time to point out the somewhat cool reception long form journalism has had on the web and cites intelligent micro-aggregators like Flipboard for the iPad as an example of real competition for magazines.

As I said before, Amazon has always been more about competing with services rather than rendering one. Kindle Singles creates a platform where journalists, would-be as well as professional, can market and sell their work. I don’t feel it is a slippery slope to say that Amazon is strategically betting on this shorter format to be somehow more palatable to successful (read: published) writers. While a published author might think twice before publishing a novel directly with Amazon, they might not have as many misgivings about offering up a novella, essay or travelogue.

Kitchen appliances, linens, foodstuffs, squirt guns, books, music and now journalism too. Amazon is your huckleberry.

It reminds me of that old Johnny Cash song, “One Piece At A Time“ where a Detroit auto assembler slowly steals enough parts from cars off the line to build one for free when he retires. Yeah, sure, it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a car but it was free. Sure, a little here and there might end in the most bizarre media monopoly mankind has ever known but the important for Amazon is that it is them that gets to be the monster.

So the company that sells ice cream makers alongside books is now going to try its hand at the magazine business. Sort of. But let’s face it: Selling e-books is hard work in an increasingly competitive market and since zombies make poor book recommendations (they’re obsessed with awards and talk show recommendations) you have to bend a rule or two in order to successfully arrive as everything to everyone, everywhere.

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