Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Form, function, books, Amazon

If not for Michael Steeleworthy's post at The Zeds, it would have taken longer for me to learn about the Kindle Single.

Amazon’s Kindle store is getting more like a music store everyday. Now you can buy a whole book or just a single—an e-book that’s about twice as long as a New Yorker feature.

In a statement, Amazon called on writers, business types and other big thinkers to create Kindle Singles.

This move is a bit of e-commerce brilliance. Why? Amazon is moving to give you the meat of an idea—10,000 to 30,000—while saving you some time and expense. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be “priced much less than a typical book.” Bottom line: There will be a big audience for Kindle Singles.

The CNET article I linked to suggests that the Kindle Single might be an excellent move: it has the potential for cutting out troublesome and money-sucking publishers, letting Amazon deal directly with at least some authors; shorter pieces will work better on Kindles and Kindle apps than longer ones; the distinctive product will help the brand stand out. As Michael, notes, Amazon may well have boosted another literary form.

Face it, the Single is a marketing tactic that will encourage the production and consumption of a different (I don’t want to call it “new”) literary form. Perhaps our society’s collective ADHD, brought on by the very devices that gives us books in a digital format, will be a captive and willing audience for the Single, and perhaps the Single is just what we need – literary value found in something somewhat longer than a short story but nowhere near as long as a novel. It’s a novella, but not quite – it’s a Single. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s just what you need to finish your day while sipping a sugar-laden coffee-style drink in your favourite third place somewhere between work, home, and daycare.

The book retailing industry is threatened. As This Ain't the Rosedale Library (closed this year) and Pages (closed last year) demonstrated, bookstores need a strong and committed clientele (one reason why the first bookstore's move from its own Church and Wellesley haunt to Kensington Market was such a bad idea), and they need coherent business plans which extend beyond books to attract as broad a clientele as possible (as noted in an interview with the owner of the second bookstore). Stores which don't do that, and which perhaps lack the economy of scale available to chains, are going to lose out. The book as such--as a container for information, fictional and otherwise, presented according to certain constraints--isn't endangered, any more than it has by other changes.

The book – the physical object that contains the text – is dynamic, and the container has certainly affected the contents in the past.  Penguin Books developed the affordable paperback in the 1930s, which facilitated the production, promotion, and popularization of the longer text, and ostensibly turned the novel into the grand literary form we count on it to be today; Gutenberg increased accessibility to the written word, but so much of the texts from the early modern period are pamphlets; the great epic poems that we read in our Great Books and Classics courses often had no container at all and therefore were developed around mnemonic aids which helped the poet and speaker memorize the content.  Texts of high(er) literary value will continue to exist, regardless of the form of their containers.

Length-wise, at least, the Kindle Single doesn't seem to be much different from the established form of the novella. The idea, as voiced in some places, that Amazon is somehow perverting literary development is overstated. Besides, shorter pieces are common: this is a blog I'm writing and you're reading, you know, and my longest pieces extend into the low thousands only. (Pity; I want a contrast.)

I wonder: When Penguin introduced its cheap paperbacks in the 1930s, did people say similarly critical things about the format's impact on the popular literary imagination, about the cheapening-cum-demassification of literature and the opening up of audiences to less secure authors?
Tags: books, church and wellesley, computers, economics, internet, kensington market, neighbourhoods, non blog, popular literature, queen street west
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