How Popular Are Amazon’s Kindle Singles?

Covers of Amazon Kindle Singles

The New York Times ran a fascinating profile of David Blum, the editor of Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” store. But along the way, they also took a look at the whole phenomenon of Singles — and what it means for the future of books. Amazon has sold nearly 5 million Kindle singles over the last 27 months, according to the article about Blum, who tells the newspaper that “Every day I become more obsessed with how brilliant the concept is…” But it’s got me wondering just how popular the Kindle Singles really are…

Blum tells the newspaper he’s now receiving more than 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts each month, from which he “cherry-picks” the best ones (and helps select their cover artwork). There’s also a gushy sentence where the Times writes that Amazon’s Singles store is “helping to promote a renaissance of novella-length journalism and fiction.” But I like how they ultimately identified Kindle Singles as “a small, in-house publishing brand – analogous to a grocery store that makes an in-house brand of salsa to compete with other manufacturers.” They make the point that Amazon is trying to establish its own publishing imprint partly because traditional bookstores are refusing to carry Amazon’s printed books.

I just assumed Amazon was selling the Kindle Singles because it gave them a way to sell ebooks at a cheaper price. But apparently authors like them too, because they get to keep 70% of the money the Singles earn. “The idea that writers would participate in the publishing model is just very bold,” Blum tells The New York Times proudly. Yet it’s all happening against the backdrop of a massive struggle-to-the-death in the larger publishing industry.

“With magazines folding or shrinking because of financial pressures, long-form storytelling has few places to flourish,” the Times reports, adding that along with some other digital publishers, Amazon “has leapt firmly into that void…” They’ve published Kindle Singles by best-selling authors like Stephen King, Susan Orlean, and Lee Child, and this article intrigued me for two reasons. First, I hadn’t thought about how “Kindle Singles” fit into the larger publishing industry. But secondly, the Times was actually able to dig up some real numbers about just how many Singles Amazon was selling!

Yes, they’ve sold 5 million Kindle Singles since they launched the program back in January of 2011 (which breaks down to 185,000 Kindle Singles a month, or just 6,000 a day). But what makes this more interesting is that Amazon has only published a total of 345 Kindle Singles. That means each one has sold an average of less than 14,500 copies. And Amazon confides to the Times that in fact, more than 245 of those 345 Kindles Singles have actually sold less than 10,000 copies.

This suggests that the remaining 100 were unusually popular — which seems to be the case. Amazingly, 5% of the 5 million sales all came from just one Kindle Single — Second Son by author Lee Child. (It was a 40-page story about Jack Reacher, the character from his best-selling series of action novels, set when Reacher was just 13 years old.) According to the Times, Amazon sold more than 250,000 copies of just that one Kindle Single.

Amazon also tells the newspaper that they’ve had 28 Kindle Singles which sold more than 50,000 copies. Doing some quick math, that leaves 72 Kindle Singles which sold between 10,000 and 50,000 copies. (And 245 — about 71% of the total — sold fewer than 9,999 copies). Still, writer Mishka Shubaly was able to publish one of the best-selling Kindle Singles ever — a “mini-memoir” titled The Long Run which according to Amazon is about “his transformation from alcoholic drug abuser to sober ultrarunner.” The author tells the Times that he’s currently living off the money that he’s earned from his Kindle Singles. And I like what a rival publishing house told the Times about Amazon’s program. “They actually make a concerted effort to find something great…”

Ironically, just as I was reading the article, Amazon sent me a promotional e-mail about their Kindle Singles. (“Nothing tastes better than a bite-sized piece of writing, and these best-selling Kindle Singles offer high-quality writing meant to educate, entertain, excite, and inform.”) Amazon’s e-mail ended with a dare I’m used to hearing about potato chips — “We bet you can’t read just one.”

And I have to admit that I’m getting curious what all the excitement is about…

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