Amazon Kindle Singles nailed an interview with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, a boon for the economy car of publishers.
Singles launched in 2011 with great fanfare about saving long-form journalism. The editorial staff hand selects stories that run from 5,000 to 30,000 words, an awkward length somewhat between a magazine story and book. Kindle Singles are, to bastardize Stephen King, “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.” He was talking about novellas, which are really just short novels, but the same could be said of the Single. Seventy percent of each e-book sale goes to the author, giving short fiction and non-fiction writers a way to make money off awkwardly sized stories.
Kindle Singles has evolved over time, and the Obama interview is a marker of its creeping maturity. It may not officially be a grown-up in the world of narrative non-fiction storytelling, but it’s getting there.
When I was at Columbia Journalism School in 2011, few of my classmates had heard of Kindle Singles. Although major writers like Stephen King and Susan Orlean had penned stories, the platform wasn’t exactly viral. Instead of spreading quickly through the short-form-literary-and-non-fiction-loving masses (do those even exist?), Kingle Singles was slowly building towards becoming a prominent player in the media world.
In early 2012, author Terrence McCoy pitched his 36-page story about Chinese development in Cambodia to traditional long-form journalism outlets before he tried Kindle Singles. After discussions with The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine fell through, he went the Singles route, a choice he’s glad he made. “One of the greatest benefits of Kindle Singles was that it allowed a story like that to live at its intended length,” McCoy says. “If it had been hacked down to 5,000 or 6,000 words to fit inside a Mother Jones or New York Times magazine it would have lost some of its impact.”
McCoy wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and as 2012 passed by Kindle Singles crept into the public eye. The New York Times wrote a glowing article, saying that Kindle Singles was “the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place,” despite the fact that the platform name “sounds like a new kind of prefabricated fire log, or a type of person you might meet on the dating service eHarmony.” Soon after, the Washington Post selected McCoy’s Kindle Singles story as one of its top 50 nonfiction works of the year, listing the Kindle Singles name alongside more traditional, established publishers like Penguin Press and Simon & Schuster.
Now, a year later, Kindle Singles is in the thralls of a bookish adolescence. Nailing an interview with the President of the United States is an impressive rite of passage for any journalism organization, and one that few get to undertake. The Kindle Singles editor David Blum himself seemed surprised at his good fortune. In the opening lines he describes his shock when the White House called, asking him if he’d like to interview Obama after the president gave a speech on jobs at the Amazon warehouse. “I…somehow concocted a plan to interview the President of the United States myself,” Blum says. “Nothing quite prepared me for the feeling of sitting opposite Barack Obama.”
Blum was somewhat in awe of Obama, a fact he admitted himself, and the interview reflected that. He asked open ended questions about Obama’s motivations and sentiments, which I enjoyed. That said, the e-book reads more like a transcription of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” than a New York Times article.
Of course, the interview was not a stroke of pure luck. The White House spoke at the Amazon warehouse for a reason — to align itself with the company’s creation of jobs, a controversial event that independent booksellers protested against. The fact that the White House called David Blum to see about a post-speech interview, and not the other way around, is indicative of the difference between a mature journalism outlet and Kindle Singles. Obama has an agenda, and Kindle Singles just happened to suit its need.
That doesn’t change the fact that Kindle Singles is inching ever closer to the realm of traditional journalism publications. The Obama interview comes on the heels of another Singles presidential e-book: an interview of Israeli president Shimon Peres by journalist David Samuels. Furthermore, freelance reporters are turning to the platform as an outlet for their work. John Hooper, who writes for The Economist and the Guardian, reported on the Costa Concordia disaster in a Single, and Jonathan Mahler, a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine, did the same on Joe Paterno’s fall from grace.
Obama said it best himself in the interview, which is free to download on Amazon: “What we have to recognize is that those old times aren’t coming back. We’re not going to suddenly eliminate globalization. We’re not going to eliminate technology … If that’s the case, then where are the new opportunities?”
Perhaps Kindle Singles is exactly that sort of opportunity, breathing life into the previously awkward non-fiction novella.