New York Times, March 6, 2012
Miniature E-Books Let Journalists Stretch Legs By DWIGHT GARNER
The Kindle Single is not a promising name. It sounds like a new kind of prefabricated fire log, or a type of person you might meet on the dating service eHarmony — perhaps a lonely independent bookstore owner put out of business by Amazon.com.
Here’s what Kindle Singles actually are: probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place. They’re works of long-form journalism that seek out that sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books. Amazon calls them “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” If I didn’t loathe the word “compelling,” I’d think that wasn’t a half-bad slogan.
I recently sat down and read 15 of these boutique minibooks. Most are blah; a few are so subliterate they made my temples ache. But several — like John Hooper’s reportage on the Costa Concordia disaster, Jane Hirshfield on haiku and Jonathan Mahler on Joe Paterno — are so good they awaken you to the promise of what feels almost like a new genre: long enough for genuine complexity, short enough that you don’t need journalistic starches and fillers.
Amazon hardly has a monopoly on this novella-length form. Digital publishers like Byliner and the Atavist are commissioning articles of this length that can be purchased and read on any e-reader, or on laptops or phones. But Amazon cherry-picks the best and is commissioning its own articles and essays under the editorship of the journalist David Blum.
For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.
So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.
The first Kindle Single that made noise was Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way” ($2.99), published last April. Mr. Krakauer’s 22,000-word article, commissioned by Byliner, was a well-reported takedown of Mr. Mortenson, the author of the best seller “Three Cups of Tea.” It read like the work of a modern-day pamphleteer or like someone lancing a pernicious boil.
Since then the doors have swung wide. There are worthwhile short books now by writers including Taylor Branch, William T. Vollmann, Stephen King, Mark Bittman, Ann Patchett, Walter Mosley, David Margolick, Sloane Crosley and Amy Tan. The Singles best-seller list has anointed new stars, like Mishka Shubaly, the glib but antic memoirist who writes about sex and stimulants and the bands he’s played in.
For the purposes of this article, I’m sticking to Kindle Singles, the prime marketplace for this work. I’m also sticking to nonfiction. There are some good stories on the Amazon Singles list, but the length doesn’t appear to put new possibilities into novelists’ hands.
Three kinds of narratives that frequently seem bloated when they arrive between hard covers are biographies, accounts of disasters and illness memoirs. Some of the friskiest Singles fall into these categories.
We’re destined to see many books about the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, which struck a rock off Tuscany on Jan. 13 and lurched onto its side. But John Hooper, a Rome-based correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian, is here with “Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia” ($1.99), the first wide-angle account of these events.
For Italians, the canting liner “seemed unbearably emblematic,” he says, thanks to the debt crisis in the euro zone and years of sloppy rule by Silvio Berlusconi. Mr. Hooper’s book is equal parts thriller and elegy.
A different kind of disaster played out last fall at Penn State University after the football coach Joe Paterno was fired in the wake of allegations that one of his assistant coaches had sexually abused children. These events, the Paterno legend, are neatly pinned in “Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno” ($1.99), by Jonathan Mahler, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. It’s an elegant book with a perfect ratio of reportage, biography and criticism. It gently pulls Joe Pa off the pedestal upon which he has long stood.
Andy Borowitz is the funniest human on Twitter, and that’s not mean praise. His first original e-book — the current best-selling Single — is a seriocomic memoir called “An Unexpected Twist” (99 cents), about a blockage in his colon that nearly killed him. This funny book has a sneaky emotional gravity. As the time of his illness he’d been married only a few months, and his small book becomes a rather large love story.
Two other Singles I admired are Ann Patchett’s “Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life” ($2.99) and Jane Hirshfield’s “Heart of Haiku” (99 cents), which functions both as a short biography of the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho and as a primer on haiku in general.
These Singles allow real writers a chance to stretch their legs. They’re the literary equivalent of a week’s sailing trip, not a Thor Heyerdahl slog across an ocean, with reader and writer lashed to the mast.
There’s an unexpected moral bonus here too. I enjoyed shopping, à la carte, for these pieces and making micropayments (99 cents to $2.99) for them. Writers set their own prices, Amazon said.
Many of these minibooks have interesting premises but fail to deliver entirely. These include “Blindsight,” by Chris Colin, about the Hollywood producer of films like “C.H.U.D. II” who suffered serious brain trauma in a car accident and came back an oddly changed man. Mr. Colin is a fine writer, but this is an Oliver Sacks-type story that needed an Oliver Sacks.
Others ride blithely off the rails. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, has written “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” ($1.99). It’s about how money has ruined politics, and about how Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Streeters should collaborate to fix this problem. Mr. Lessig is right, but he’s insufferable. His book is earnest, patronizing and so dull that I flipped my Kindle over, searching for a snooze button.
Sara Davidson’s memoir about Joan Didion, “Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss and Friendship With Joan Didion” ($2.99), is warm but wan. It’s dense with clichés (“breathtaking prose,” “bevy of A-list players”) and makes Ms. Didion seem less interesting, not more, despite details like Ms. Didion’s rebuff of Warren Beatty’s hands-on advances in the early 1970s.
The gatekeepers at the magazines I love — from The New Yorker to the Oxford American, and from New York magazine to The Paris Review — are not going to be made redundant by Singles anytime soon. A typical issue of any of these magazines remains the better, and more reliable, value.
But I’m bullish on this form.
This despite what might be the biggest bummer of the Kindle, at least on its least expensive versions: When it is left unattended, it displays advertisements on its screen. Among the many admirable things about books, they don’t metamorphose into ads for Omaha Steaks when you aren’t grasping them in your optimistic fingers.