Earlier this week, the Amazon Kindle Singles store released the first short story by bestselling novelist Tom Rachman (The Imperfectionists). The story is titled “The Bathtub Spy”, sells for $1.99 and, like most things involving books and Amazon these days, begs the question of whether authors will bypass traditional publishing avenues–in this case, literary journals/magazines like The New Yorker–in favor of the e-tailer’s more innovative channels.
The question is: what’s stopping Amazon from gathering a store of “more literary” short stories from respected writers and releasing them every week, putting them directly in competition with The New Yorker? They’ve already challenged every publisher, Apple, Barnes & Noble (not to mention killed Borders), Wal-Mart, and basically every other retailer in America. So why not start the siege on the old guard of literary journals and magazines? If Amazon decided, could they succeed?
Quality of content will always be first, so let’s take a look at the other main issue here: money.
If we think of “The Bathtub Spy” as an alternative to The New Yorker‘s weekly fiction offering (which is “El Morro” by David Means this week), we can compare some figures. As mentioned above, Rachman’s Kindle Single is $1.99 (and you can loan it once), and an issue of The New Yorker is either $5.99 (cover) or $1.49 (subscription). Rachman’s story is 15 pages; the current issue of The New Yorker is 84 pages.
For readers, is $1.99 too much for 30-45 minutes of entertainment? On average, we pay $8 for a movie ticket, which, if you say is two hours of entertainment, going to see a movie and buying a story from Amazon come out to the same price. With Amazon, assuming you like the story, you also have the benefit of keeping it on your Kindle or sharing it with someone.
For writers, are Kindle Singles the new New Yorker–are they the best way to get your story to a large number of people and make a good amount of money? “The Bathtub Spy” is listed as a title directly sold by Amazon Digital Services, and as a Kindle Single it’s eligible for Amazon’s 70/30 split, even though it’s below $2.99. If we assume the $1.99 story follows the 70/30 model, this means that $1.39 of every sale goes directly into Rachman’s pocket. The closest estimate for how much The New Yorker pays for a short story is $7,500 (though this former staff writer stated he received $3/word), which, at that rate, means Rachman would have to sell about 5,400 copies of his story through Amazon to equal what he’d make publishing through The New Yorker. Amazon has always been tight-lipped about sales, but “The Bathtub Spy” is currently #46 in the paid Kindle store, and #2 in the Kindle Singles store. It’s hard to believe that in the long run, his story will be downloaded less than 5,000 times. However, we don’t know exactly what rate Rachman would command at The New Yorker, so if he were to receive something in the ballpark of $3 per word, he’d be getting closer to $20,000 for a story in the magazine, which, obviously, would be much harder to surpass through Amazon (he’d have to sell about 14,500 copies to equal this higher rate).
So, there are arguments for both The New Yorker and Kindle Singles. If you’re a reader, you obviously get more bang for your buck if you pick up The New Yorker, and you get a lot of quality content surrounding the short story if it turns out you don’t enjoy it. However, if Amazon were to start putting up quality short stories every week (and you could argue they already have), the consumer has the benefit of picking and choosing stories to put down money for every week. If Amazon released a story that didn’t sound good to you, you could just save your money and wait for next week’s story.
But ultimately, we go back to quality of content. If more respected writers like Rachman decide to shift over to Kindle Singles, we could see another area of media–the literary magazine–disappear in Amazon’s shadow.