The vexed question of that extra length has resurfaced in the blogosphere, with content industry critic Joe Wikert posting his latest evaluation of the state of Amazon’s online strategy and the way the ebook ecosystem is going. And it’s not hard to guess the direction of his thinking from the post’s title: “Kindle Singles and the future of ebooks.”
Two of his points are fairly general, and not especially about size – as well as fairly often made in other contexts. “Amazon becomes the publisher” and “Kill the competition (publishers and retailers)” are analyses – or accusations – frequently noised around by politicians and cultural figures, as well as publishing and new media execs. Personally, I don’t believe it will happen, because no amount of friendly ties to the Obama administration will spare Amazon U.S. anti-monopoly rulings if it truly manages to drive its key competitors out of business, and they hardly seem ready to steal its lunch anyway. But even without that level of market lock, I do agree that Amazon will probably be able to execute the rest of the components of the strategy if it really wants to go that way.
For according to Wikert, Kindle Singles are going to become more like the New Normal. Thanks to them, publishers (which basically means Amazon in his analysis) can “end the practice of artificially puffing up content.” No more length for length’s sake, to hit the bare minimum word count for a standalone book. Wikert also believes that “Attention spans are shrinking.” Given the public’s addiction to lengthy multi-season serials, and endless sequels and follow-ups in novel cycles, I’d question that too. But I wouldn’t dispute that there can be a market for shorter titles, and Amazon has already cornered the most profitable single franchise in this niche with … yes, Kindle Singles.
The final move in Amazon’s endgame, Wikert reckons, is to “raise short content prices to today’s longer content levels.” With the market in its hands, Amazon will be able to set the terms and move prices up. Kindle Singles will become “the standard model of content creation and consumption.”
Why don’t I believe it will happen? For one thing, I’m not so convinced that attention spans have declined, not just because of the reasons above, but also because digital formats actually make reading in short bursts much easier. (From the author or the publisher’s point of view, do you really not have the attention span for their 1000-page blockbuster if you sprint-read it in ten-minute spurts off your smartphone rather than carrying that doorstop-sized chunk of salami-sliced woodpulp around with you until you herniate or your discs slip?)
The other reason is because it already has. What are long magazine articles than Kindle Single-size titles? Aren’t there enough novella-length or even short story titles doing the rounds now? Aren’t enough readers downloading their favorite short tales off Project Gutenberg one by one instead of reading them in the big gumballs they used to have to consume? And above all, haven’t full-length titles fallen dramatically in price, especially in the self-publishing arena, to the point where some lengthy novels are available for less than the price of others’ short short story? Length has basically been decoupled from value entirely, as befits a virtual product. And other criteria are going to determine price. The future is all about quality, not quantity.