Adventures with e-books, Kindle single edition

By Felix Salmon
September 13, 2011
The Gated City, is a bargain at $1.99.

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Ryan Avent’s 90-page Kindle single, The Gated City, is a bargain at $1.99. It was produced in close consultation with the Kindle Singles editor, David Blum — the gatekeeper who determines what gets chosen to be a Kindle Single, and what gets relegated to the long tail of Kindle Direct Publishing.

We’re running a great excerpt of Ryan’s book here at Reuters — it’s headlined “How home prices helped kill the first tech boom”. Basically, soaring home prices in Silicon Valley discouraged entrepreneurship, encouraged the flight of qualified workers to other locales, and meant that during the dot-com boom, Silicon Valley actually created fewer companies, per capita, than the country as a whole. With any luck, reading it (or other excerpts, here) will encourage you to buy the whole thing.

Meanwhile, last week Gothamist published its own debut 72-page feature story, in the same format — a 72-page e-book. After putting out a call for pitches in July, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin decided that the first $5,000 commission would go to Patrick Kirkland — one of the jurors in the infamous New York “rape cop” trial. He’s not a professional writer, and the story is a bit clunky at first, but he becomes very fluent during the crucial central part of the book, where he explains exactly why and how the jury managed to unanimously acquit both police officers of rape. As someone who found the verdict quite shocking, I can say that he convinced me, too, that the jury made the right decision.

Interestingly, Amazon’s Blum rejected Kirkland’s story as a Kindle Single, calling it “an interesting piece”, but not “right for Singles”. What difference does the rejection make? Well, the Amazon business model is that Amazon takes 30% of the proceeds of e-books, while the author/publisher gets 70%. That’s the deal Avent got. But if you just upload your book to the Kindle store, as Gothamist did, then you only get 70% of the proceeds if you’re charging $2.99 or more. If you stick to the $1.99 price point, then Amazon takes 70% 65%, and you’re left with just 30% 35%.

This is a serious incentive to get past David Blum’s velvet rope — not only will he help you with promotion, cover design, and the like, but he can also give you a much greater share of the proceeds for books sold for less than $2.99.

So when Gothamist published the book, it was $1.99 on iBooks, and $1.99 for the direct PDF download — but $2.99 on Kindle. And then things went exactly according to plan. Apple featured the book on the front page of the iBooks store, and Amazon — as it’s allowed to do — unilaterally cut the price of the book by 33%, to match Apple’s pricing. But it’s still governed by the initial pricing plan, so Gothamist gets 70%, rather than 30% of the current $1.99 price. (So, buy it!)

We’re still in the very early days of micropayments for books, but my gut feeling is that people are increasingly willing to pay small sums for shorter pieces in the 5,000 to 30,000 word range — much as they’re increasingly willing to pay small sums for apps. And the pricing models are, of course, still very much in flux. But if Amazon’s willing to give their Kindle Single authors 70% of the proceeds even after helping them with design and marketing, they should also offer the same deal to publishers who do all that work themselves.


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I hope this isnt’ too off topic here. I’m finding myself completely freaked out that most of the books I’ve looked at recently on Amazon were _more_ expensive as a Kindle download than as a paperback. Pretty much the only counterexample was an $89.95 textbook that was “only” $79.95 as a Kindle download. What went wrong?

Posted by David239 | Report as abusive

I’ve yet to buy a single e-book despite the fact that I was given a Kindle for free by a friend who upgraded to an IPad.

Why? Because e-books are way too expensive. As David239 noted, many e-books are more expensive than their physical equivalents. Then consider the abundance of free content on the web, the fact that library books are still free, and the fact that it’s not too difficult to find used books for under a dollar at library sales and flea markets.

Then add in the fact that e-books are much less expensive for publishers to produce.

Now ask yourself why ANY e-book is being sold for more than $2-3?

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

I’m guessing that Amazon demands higher profit margins on their e-books than on their physical books. This eats up any potential cost savings from the printing.

Printing a standard textbook perhaps costs $10? (I have bought similarly sized books new at that price.) It shouldn’t be that much cheaper in the electronic version.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Not willing to deal with the proprietary Kindle format, I have a Nook (although I understand that recently Kindle has enabled library lending of its format, something Nook has had since its inception). So your pushing Kindle publishing does many of us no good, and it’s not at all clear that Kindle has the superior format.

Another nice byproduct of the Nook format is that it has enabled sites like the Gutenberg Project ( to offer free versions of out-of-print books, completely legally. Thanks to this, my reading habits now include works that I never would have read otherwise.

It seems that just about every mention of e-reading is accompanied by complaints about pricing. Most of the e-books I buy are anywhere from $1 (paperback) to $10 (hardcover) less than equivalent print books. However, price should never have been part of the compelling reason for e-readers. Instead, it’s really about changing reading habits, and carrying an entire library with you.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

That’s how it sells in Italy”Kindle Price: $4.59 includes VAT & free international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet” A VAT joke.

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

James Patterson offers free samples that are usually about 25-30 percent of the book, giving readers ample opportunity to decide whether to buy the rest. Another thriller author I read authored a free e-book short story as a lead-in to his latest novel. Both are great marketing tools that simply would not be possible in the print era.

Yes, I would buy low-cost shorter works, primarily because the purchase and delivery process is so seamless.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

“Then add in the fact that e-books are much less expensive for publishers to produce.”

Hmmm…not so much. The largest cost saved, printing, normally accounts for about 5-10 percent of the cover price of a book. Warehousing and distribution are also significant costs. Of course, the retailer, Amazon or whoever, still wants their margin. Author royalties? For physical books, this is 5-15 percent of the cover price (depending on format); ebook royalties usually have a different structure.

The book still has cover art? Somebody has to do that. Good art and design is not cheap. Editing? Copyediting, proofreading? How much do you like poorly written, disorganized writing with typos? Admittedly, even in traditional publishing these functions are getting squeezed (note Felix’s comment: “He’s not a professional writer, and the story is a bit clunky at first, but he becomes very fluent during the crucial central part of the book”–suggests that someone spent a little effort polishing up part of it, but let the rest go).

Of course there are promotional costs, if you want someone to actually know about the book. Apple featured the book? All right, I am not privy to Apple’s arrangement with the publisher, but my guess is that that didn’t come for free. When you go into a bookstore and see a book prominently displayed in a visible location–the publisher has paid for that.

Sure, some ebooks will be cheap, and some should be cheaper than their paper equivalent. And a $3 price point may actually be pretty fair for what amounts to a lengthy magazine article. But for most books it won’t actually support professional publishing. Self-published slush material, maybe, but if you want anything decent, it’s still going to cost money.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

The PDF version of the Gothamist book is atrociously typeset.

Posted by guanix | Report as abusive

I’m not asking to save 50%, I’d be perfectly happy saving 20%. The savings in printing, warehousing, packing and labelling, and shipping (which is often free if you don’t live in Japan) have to be something. And they don’t put a lot of effort into the Kindle editions, so there aren’t major costs there. Producing and delivering a physical object is really hard and when I click to buy a Kindle edition, it’s a way simpler interaction thany buying a physical book, so programming costs aren’t gross.

Whatever, it’s insane that the Kindle version is ever more expensive than the paperback. Insane.

(It crosses my mind that I don’t look at best sellers, so my sampling is horribly skewed towards academicy things; science, poli-sci, international relations.)

Posted by David239 | Report as abusive

David–the costs you describe are mainly the ones borne by Amazon, not the publisher. And I think what you want is that when Amazon saves costs, they pass those savings on to the customer, rather than keep them for themselves. But what is their incentive? If you want Kindle format books, you have to buy from them.

But I agree that it doesn’t make sense for the ebook to cost more. It may be just a quirk of the publisher’s discount scheme for academic titles. Which is to say, it’s sold to Amazon as a short-discount book, and Amazon applies different markup to the ebook.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

Well, yes, those are the Amazon costs. The point of this brave new paperless digital world was supposed to be that the end user wouldn’t have to pay to kill the trees. So I’d like to not pay for the stuff I’m no longer buying, thank you.

You say “If you want Kindle format books…” Well, if they cost more than the paper version, then I really don’t want them and won’t be buying them.

I doubt that it’s going to be just me: digital books have disadvantages, too: formatting infelicities, photos and color charts look terrible (although other readers do better), getting around is more awkward. So I’d think that people for whom the advantages aren’t overwhelming (e.g. travelling light with lots of reading) will be passing as well.

Posted by David239 | Report as abusive

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