August 22, 2005
Online bookseller Amazon has started something called "Amazon Shorts," in which selected authors are selling short stories and essays in electronic format for 49 cents. How is it for readers and authors? I decided to find out.
First on the reader end: I went and bought one of the Amazon Shorts (The War of Dogs and Boids : A Coyote Story, by Allen Steele). Anyone who already has an Amazon account will find the purchase process very easy. As soon as you purchase the story, you can access it in one of three ways: You can follow an html link, which pops up the formatted story online, you can have it e-mailed to you in plain text e-mail, or you can download the story as a pdf. I tried all three. The html version looked and read fine, and the text e-mail popped into my mailbox with typical Amazon near-instant speed. The first time I tried downloading the pdf I hit a glitch, but I downloaded it this morning without any problem and like the html document it was well-formatted and quite readable. Amazon says that once you've bought an Amazon short, a copy of it remains in your Amazon "digital locker" forever.
As far as I can see there is no digital rights management protection on these shorts. Depending on the author's point of view this is a good or bad thing for them (I'll get to that later) but it's an unqualifed good for the reader: It means that once you buy an Amazon short, you actually own the damn thing and can format it how you choose, whether that means printing it out or stuffing it into the PDA-readable format of your choice or whatever it is you want to do with it. The idea that Amazon keeps a copy of the story for you on a permanent basis is also very nice, since as long as you're able to sign on to Amazon, you'll never have to worry about where that short story file is. As a reader, I like that someone at Amazon has made the executive decision not to treat its customers like potential criminals and chose not to DRM these shorts to the point of non-usability. To the extent that I buy short fiction and essays online, that philosophy will make a diffence.
Amazon's price point for the stories -- 49 cents -- seems to me entirely reasonable: Low enough to be an impulse buy, but not so low that no one makes any money off the thing. I don't know what Amazon's cost is in doing this (anecdotally it appears to have some sort of staff devoted to formatting the stories in their various iterations and maintaining the Amazon Shorts area), but not having to create paper versions of the shorts is a clear advantage, since the actual distribution costs for electronic documents are miniscule.
At this point the major drawback to Amazon Shorts for readers is the lack of material; only a few dozen Amazon Shorts are available at debut. Amazon is soliciting new authors to participate, however, so one suspects that there will be more material quickly. And for the record, the story I downloaded was pretty darn spiffy.
So as a reader, my initial experience with Amazon Shorts was very good: Easy to understand, easy to use, good quality material. I do expect I'll wander through the area again soon to see if there are any authors or stories I want to try.
But what's good for a reader is not necessarily good for an author, so now let's turn to the author point of view and see what the advantages and disadvantages are. Bear in mind that what follows is based on somewhat incomplete knowledge of the specifics of the Amazon Shorts program, since I am not a participant myself. This is all first draft stuff. I'm also going to cover this from the science fiction and fantasy writer perspective, as that's where my experience is.
First off, the question is: How does the author get paid? Amazon's own FAQ is mum on the matter, which is never a good thing. I asked around informally and heard back from more than one knowlegable party that Amazon is not paying authors upfront -- what it's offering is a fairly substantial cut of the sales gross. I was not able to get a definitive number here due to hedging from at least one of my sources, but the numbers I've seen hinted at suggest something in the 30% to 50% range. Amazon asks for a window of exclusivity of at least six months for each story. So in effect, the deal is Amazon gets first world rights in return for a cut of the sales revenue. As most writers know, this sort of payment system is rather different from how short stories are usually paid for. Traditionally a publisher offers a certain amount based on story length (in science fiction, SFWA considers professional pay to begin at five cents a word), and the author gets that amount as a flat fee up front, with no additional consideration.
Normally, the question of whether a short fiction writer should get paid upfront or as a cut of revenues isn't actually a question at all: Short fiction writers should get paid, up front, always. The reason is simple: Publishers aren't to be trusted with money, and the sort of publisher that would ask the writer to share the risk and costs of publishing is to be trusted least of all. The writer's job is to write; the publisher's job is to publish and sell the work. Yog's Law: Money flows to the writer. If the money does not immediately flow to the writer there is a big problem.
Should Amazon be considered any different than any other fly-by-night "publisher" who offers to publish first, pay later? We'll have to see, but provisionally, I can think of a number of reasons why the answer here would be "yes." First: Unlike any number of nebulous "publishers," Amazon does not appear to be saying that author payment is contingent on some vague profit goal or on whether the magazine/site sells advertising or whatever; what it appears to be saying is "you get a cut from the very first sale" -- Meaning that as soon as Amazon starts taking in money, the author starts making money. If indeed this is the case, then Yog's Law is not violated.
Second: Unlike any number of nebulous "publishers," Amazon is Amazon, the industry leader in online retail, with a well-established history of working with (and paying) third-party vendors, which in this case is what the author would be. Amazon has nothing to gain by attempting to scam authors out of their work without paying them, and rather a lot to lose, since if it did so it would anger publishers, agents and authors, from whom Amazon derives one of its main sources of income, i.e., books. The proof of Amazon's business practices for Amazon Shorts will be at the end of however Amazon has structured its payment periods, when the participating authors get cut a check. But until that time, given who Amazon is and its history in business, I'm willing to assume they're not out to screw the authors.
The question authors need to ask is not "will Amazon pay me?" the answer to which I sincerely expect to be "yes." What the question should be is "will I get more for my short story through Amazon Shorts than I'd get from traditional short story publishing?" And to answer that question, let's go to the math.
Let's say I write a 5,000 word science fiction short story, and miracle of miracles, I sell it to Asimov's. Asimov's pays five to eight cents per word, meaning I'll get somewhere between $250 and $400 for my story (given that I'm a reasonably new SF writer with no short story record, the $250 figure seems more in line). The good news is I'm assured of at least $250; the bad news, such as it is, is that there is no way I will make more than $400 (this formulation disregards future sales through reprints; we're talking one sale at a time). Either way, my job as a writer is done -- the publisher takes the story, promotes it and presents it to its audience.
Now, let's say that instead of selling the story to Asimov's, I instead put it up as an Amazon Short (NB: This presumes that Amazon, in its wisdom, has accepted me into its Amazon Shorts program -- for the moment, at least, it is invitation only). The good news is that theoretically there is no end to amount of money I can generate with this one sale -- as long as people keep buying the story, I keep earning my cut. The bad news is that it's entirely possible no one will buy the story and I will earn no money at all. Indeed, in order to make the Asimov minimum wage for the story (and given the stated royalty range above), I'll need to have between 1,000 and 1,700 people buy my short story. Are there 1,000 to 1,7000 people willing to shell out fifty cents for my short story? See. That's the question.
My feeling about Amazon Shorts is it's best suited for writers who already have a significant and self-sustaining fan base. i.e., writers who are rather popular already. In the SF/F genre, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if Neil Gaiman or Orson Scott Card or Connie Willis dropped something into Amazon Shorts, they would be likely to make a fair chunk of cash in short order. Some other writer whose name recognition is slightly less luminous -- a comfortably mid-list writer, in other words -- might not see a difference one way or another. But strictly in terms of the money, most writers (and I would include myself here) would probably be better off going to the venue where the money is offered up front, unless said author is ready, willing and able to flog the Amazon Short to all and sundry on a regular basis. If you're not an inveterate self-promoter, this probably won't be your bag.
Aside from the money issue (heh), there are other things to consider. Writers who are paranoid that pirates will steal everything they ever write (arrrr!) will blanch at the utter lack of DRM on the Amazon Shorts, although I submit in this case, as in most cases, writers should worry less about piracy and more about obscurity; most writers will never be pirated because not enough people care about their writing to pirate it. There's also the matter of whether having a copy of a story permanently for sale on Amazon will have an impact on the story's resale value; I can see a situation where an anthology editor might choose not to pick a story originally published as an Amazon Short because he doesn't wish to have to compete with an a la carte offering of something in his book.
Let's note the potential upsides as well. For one thing, the Amazon Shorts page that accompanies each short is an excellent spotlight for the author: Allen Steele's Amazon Short page not only has the story available for purchase but also features biographical details and links to all his longer works available on Amazon; in essence it acts as a potential gateway to more (and more substantial) sales. That's an advantage no print magazine can offer. It's also, simply, another sales market in a world where the short fiction market is both small and not especially well-paying.
I'm not sure whether the Amazon Shorts staff acts as an editorial gateway, accepting and rejecting stories submitted by the authors, or if it merely accepts authors into the program and then allows them to post what they want. If it's the latter, I can see some authors choosing to present short stories that way because it allows them to skip the aggravation of rejection and/or pernicious editing to present their stories to their fans (whether this is actually a good thing for the writing itself -- or for the fans -- is another question entirely; most writers need editors and the occasional rejection).
One other thing I see Amazon Shorts (or something like it) offering writers is flexibility in writing forms. By its very name Amazon Shorts is designed to promote shorter works, but I don't see why one couldn't do more with it. One could easily serialize a novel there and allow readers to pay by the chapter. Alternatively, one could dispense entirely with the novel form and create an ongoing serial story, a persistent fiction world with story arcs and characters dropping in and out of the action. There's no particular reason something like that couldn't work, should someone choose to do it.
I don't imagine something like Amazon Shorts will constitute much of a threat to traditional short story markets because in terms of money and other less tangible benefits, most authors will continue to be better served by those markets. But I do see Amazon Shorts as a potentially healthy alternative market for writers, and particularly for authors who bring their own fandom to the party. As long as the money is flowing to the writers, new markets are a good thing.
(Update: Author Nick Mamatas offers his perspective here. Not entirely surprisingly, his perspective is "not only is this glass only half full, there are invisible shards of glass floating in the water." I'll post more author blog links when I see them and/or I get around to it.)
Posted by john at August 22, 2005 06:48 AM
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