Feature Request: Kindle Second Acts

A selection of my contributor copies.

A selection of my contributor copies.

The short version of my idea: 1) Amazon should open up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays that have been previously published by a curated group of print literary journals. 2) They should hire me to manage this.

The longer version: University-affiliated lit journals could partner with Amazon to make a little more money than they currently do, and benefit the careers (and wallets, a little bit) of the writers they publish. Here’s how:

Amazon has its Kindle Singles program, but at the moment, it’s only for previously unpublished writing (from the Singles Submissions Policy: “Original work, not previously published in other formats or publications”).

At the same time, we have this whole world of fantastic lit journals that have back catalogs of high-quality writing, much of which is only available in print, or for university-affiliated readers who have JSTOR access. Some lit journals might balk at the idea of a partnership with Amazon (see my one caveat, below). But if Amazon opened up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays previously published by a curated group of reputable lit journals who mostly publish in print, it would achieve the same purpose of having Kindle Singles be by submission and not a free-for-all. Essays published by AGNI have already been vetted by Sven Birkerts; stories published by The Paris Review have gotten the go-ahead from Lorin Stein. The cohort of lit journals itself would be curated (this is where I come in, Amazon)—again, to keep the program from being a free-for-all.

Lit journals and authors could split Amazon’s usual 70% royalty. Everyone wins: Amazon, the journals, and the writers make a little bit of change, and the writers get a slightly wider audience than they currently have.

I should add that I agree wholeheartedly with Emily Wojcik at The Massachusetts Review in her blog post from this past February (“Rethinking the Future of the University Quarterly”): “The capital offered by the university literary magazine is not financial but cultural, and should be measured accordingly.” I.e., I’m not at all arguing that university-affiliated lit journals are obligated to carry their weight. But I do think that a new way for journals to reach readers would be both a financial and cultural victory.

Here are some readers for whom this would be awesome:

The frugal: A reader might want to spend $2 for one story or essay by a favorite writer, rather than spending $10 or $12 to buy the whole lit journal in which it was published.

The curious: A reader might be interested in a particular writer, but isn’t sure yet whether she or he wants to spend the money and time on her or his whole essay or story collection.

The fans of the not-yet-collected: There are plenty of writers who have published dozens of stories and essays who have not yet had them published in collected book form.

The completists: A writer might have published a collection, or even more than one collection—but their book(s) might not include all of that writer’s work.

Have I covered all the possible scenarios? Let me know if not!

I want this program to happen for selfish reasons (and not just because I want Amazon to hire me to run it). I have a story collection manuscript, but I haven’t yet found an agent or a publisher for it. The collection has twenty-two short stories and short-short stories, twenty of which have been published. Some are online, but quite a few are not; none of the four stories in the ms that are over 5,000 words are available online. They’ve been published by amazing journals, ones that I’m honored to have had select my work—Printers’ Row Journal, One Story, The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review—but again, $12 is a lot to spend if someone might want to read just my story “The Man in the Moon Is a Lawyer.”

Also, personally, I feel like you can read short-short stories on a web page, but a full-length story is a whole other business. I know not all readers feel this way, but I do think that many readers like the way in which either a physical book or an e-reader doesn’t have the constant temptation to multitask, to flip over to some other app or program that wants to take them away from the submersive experience of reading (what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream”).

Part of why I think this could work brilliantly is because Ploughshares is already doing it with Ploughshares Solos: for example, you can buy my friend Alix Ohlin’s (not-yet-collected) story “The Brooks Brothers Guru” for $1.99 either on the Ploughshares website or on Amazon. This is totally great. And it makes me think that surely there’s a market for a larger program, one that includes a much wider range of established journals.

Possible names for the program: Kindle Second Acts? Kindle Take Twos? Kindle Duos?

Once more: Hey Amazon! If anyone there reads this, and if you want to hire a tech-savvy editor with great literary/publishing world connections and to launch and run such a program: I’m available!

And finally, one small caveat: I’m well aware of the criticisms of Amazon—monopsony, the Gazelle Project, etc. But since Amazon’s not going away anytime soon, my feeling is that what they do incredibly well—what they do better than anyone else—can surely still be harnessed for the much vaster project of literature itself.

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