The Shorts List
Amazon's selling stories and essays for 49 cents. Is anybody buying?
The wisdom of Harry S. Dent usually doesn't come cheap. The financial pundit's monthly newsletter, which features his ruminations on demographic trends and beat-the-Street strategies, costs $199 per year. That's a bargain compared to the $50,000 Dent charges for a two-hour keynote address.
Those steep price tags make Dent's Bubble After Bubble in the Ongoing Bubble Boom seem like quite the steal. The 38-page booklet, which predicts a stock-market comeback, can be purchased from Amazon.com as an HTML document, PDF file, or plain-text e-mail for a mere 49 cents, as part of the online bookseller's new Amazon Shorts program. Since the first few dozen shorts debuted in early August, Bubble After Bubble has consistently dominated the category's best-seller list, beating out a Danielle Steel essay called Candy for the Soul, an anti-Bush polemic by Mark Crispin Miller, and a nine-page, shoe-gazing meditation from Gloria Vanderbilt. How did Dent rise to the top of Amazon's short-form heap?
Largely by taking responsibility for Bubble After Bubble's publicity. Aside from including the shorts in an author's search results, Amazon hasn't done much promotion. And neither have publishing houses, likely because they don't make any money off the deal; there is no mention of Candy for the Soul, for example, on the Random House Web site, which includes an otherwise exhaustive list of Steel's 52 best sellers.
That leaves the task of publicizing the shorts in the hands of the authors themselves. Most have done a cruddy job of it: Don't go looking for news about The Creative Spirit on Gloria Vanderbilt's Web site. But Dent has aggressively targeted subscribers to his newsletter, which is only available electronically. When subscribers log on to Dent's Web site, they're greeted with a prominent ad alerting them to Bubble After Bubble's existence, along with a direct link to the booklet's Amazon page. The short is touted as a "special update" to Dent's book The Next Great Bubble Boom. No wonder it's selling better than, say, Terry Brooks' Why I Write About Elves (which at the moment is No. 19 on the best-seller list).
Dent, who also takes care to mention Bubble After Bubble during his frequent radio spots and corporate seminars, isn't pushing his short in hopes that it will become a moneymaker. Rather, he wants it to serve the same function as one of those toothpicked food samples at the supermarket: a way to entice consumers to buy the whole shebang. "At 49 cents, it will never be a substantial source of revenue," admits Dent, who estimates that he's earned "a thousand or two" by splitting Bubble After Bubble's sales 40/60 with Amazon. (Amazon did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the shorts.) But if he can convert just a few dozen of the short's downloaders into newsletter subscribers, the project can be considered a success.
Judging by Dent's meager haul so far, Amazon probably hasn't netted more than five figures on the shorts since the program's inception this summer—a truly piddling amount for a company with third-quarter revenues of $1.86 billion. So, why is the bookseller even bothering? Because it has read the tea leaves on the future of media distribution, and it suspects the micropayment model is coming to the book business. Since the advent of iTunes, consumers have grown accustomed to purchasing individual songs instead of albums, and it's tempting to conclude that they're ready to buy bite-sized chunks of writing in lieu of entire books. Amazon certainly seems to think such schemes are promising: In addition to the shorts, the company recently announced a service that will allow customers to buy digital copies of individual pages of books.
But writing isn't music, and micropayment is not going to revolutionize the book industry anytime soon. For starters, writing is more slowly digested than music; in the time it takes a reader to slog through Bubble After Bubble, he could have listened to 10 or more MP3s. As a result, readers will buy far fewer shorts than they might songs, and the incremental fees won't add up the way they do with music. Keep in mind, too, that young consumers—particularly teenagers—are driving the digital distribution of music right now. Books tend to draw an older audience that hasn't been as quick to convert from CDs to MP3s.
The Amazon Shorts program also differs from iTunes because it is designed to circumvent the old-media intermediaries. Whereas record companies are delighted when their artists' songs sell through iTunes, publishing houses don't share in the royalties generated by the shorts. Dent notes that he had to get clearance from his publisher, Simon & Schuster's Free Press imprint, before making Bubble After Bubble available for download. "I think a lot of authors might have problems with their publishers," says Dent. "They don't want you publishing anything that will compete with your book."
Perhaps if those publishers knew exactly how little money was at stake with Amazon shorts, they'd be more inclined to grant their authors leave. It might actually be to their benefit, as the shorts are a great way to satiate fans in between books. It's no accident that the best-selling shorts authors, like Dent, are writers who depend on cult followings—writers like F. Paul Wilson (currently No. 3) and Grant Jarrett (currently No. 2). For them, publishing Amazon shorts is an excellent way to engender good will among their fans and keep readers hooked on certain characters. Wilson's short, for example, follows the further exploits of Repairman Jack, his trademark protagonist.
Given the tiny numbers of shorts that are currently moving, none of these authors should plan to quit writing long-form, dead-tree books. Still, Amazon deserves credit for at least recognizing that several years hence, the reading public will be much more accustomed to downloading media than to waiting for UPS to bring it. The big question is how long it will take for that inevitable shift in consumer behavior to take place. It may not happen until the young consumers currently driving the MP3 boom mature into their prime reading years, and start wondering why their elders ever read preprinted books in the first place.