One of the bigger stories in the literary world this week was the launch of Amazon Shorts. As you may have read, the program allows authors to sell short works (the program offers many varieties of fiction and non-fiction and includes essays, book chapters and short stories) at the flat rate of 49 cents a piece, and it allows readers to access these works in three different formats with relative ease. Amazon has long been innovative in how it sells books, but its execution is sometimes clunky. In this case, it looks like Amazon has done some things right, but they are, perhaps, missing a big opportunity.
First, the good. The downloads are offered in three formats: well-formatted HTML for on-screen reading, PDF for printing out and plain text email, so that you can have it with you always. Every account I’ve read has described the purchase and download process as easy. What’s really remarkable, though, is that Amazon has decided not to worry about “evil” customers copying and distributing these shorts all over the world. There is no clunky anti-piracy system, and the “shorts” do not expire. As with many successful online initiatives in recent years, Amazon has decided to trust its customers rather than fight them (if only record labels would start thinking like this.) Which is not to say that Amazon is simply making a statement about the good of humanity here. If these shorts were the only products that Amazon sold, they might be more reluctant to distribute them in such an easy to copy format, but, you may have noticed, Amazon sells books, too, and they’re a lot more expensive.
So, while Amazon Shorts are certainly legitimate content and probably worth 49 cents to their readers, Amazon is also, in effect, selling advertising for its other products. Give the readers a cheap taste of an author and see if they take the plunge on a 25 dollar book. Quite brilliant really, but herein lies Amazon’s great missed opportunity. The program launched with just 59 authors, all of them with some level of name recognition, and with other, longer works to sell. Take a look at Pico Iyer’s essay “A Place I’ve Never Been”, and notice how prominently his “Complete Works” are displayed on the page – even for Amazon, they take up a lot of real estate. The page feels like a publicity package for the works of Iyer. This will work just fine for established writers, but it seems like there probably won’t be much room in the program for newcomers trying to reach a wide audience. On the “Shorts” page, it asks “Are you an author, publisher, editor, or agent who would like to participate in Amazon Shorts?” and, perhaps I’m reading between the lines here, but I can’t help but see the word “established” sitting in front of the word “author” in my mind’s eye.
This is where Amazon’s vision falters. Rather than marketing longer works through the “Shorts” program, Amazon could become the great digital marketplace of ideas. A young fiction writer could sell a short story directly to readers, rather than waiting weeks for rejection letters from small literary magazines with limited reach. An amateur scientist working outside of the academic mainstream could try to fund his research by selling his theories at Amazon. the possibilities are endless. If 50,000 people each sold an average of 50 copies of their “short” a year, the revenues would be above 2.5 million dollars – and that, to my mind, is a conservative estimate on the number of potential participants. Sure, they wouldn’t want to set the bar too low – you don’t want the Unabomber selling his manifesto on Amazon – but the intellectual wealth of an inclusive marketplace is a tantalizing prospect. The one caveat here is that “micropayments” for digital content have failed to take off as a successful model, but if anyone could make it work, it’s Amazon.
For more on the topic, have a look at John Scalzi’s post (and check out the comments, too.)