A Kindle Single recommended by the author

by Hugh Gilmore

Kindle Singles, that is. I’ve been having so much fun with them lately that I thought I’d recommend them to you. One of the marvelous capacities of the e-book format in general is its enormous flexibility. You can now buy individual stories whose lengths vary from about 10 “pages” (say on a typical typewritten sheet of about 300 words) to … well, I guess there aren’t any length limits).

The term “single” is meant to be analogous to a single song, as opposed to buying an entire album. Amazon.com was the first company to begin publishing these shorter pieces in e-Book format for the Kindle, releasing their first “books” in January of 2011.

According to their initial press release, Kindle books “are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a book.” Typically, then, they range from 5,000 to 30,000 words. They contain original work, not previously published (not even on a website), and they are self-contained.

Although Amazon has started to broaden the scope of its Singles, at first they were limited to “narrative nonfiction.” That term means different things to different people, but at its essence is meant to refer to stories, even if they’re nonfiction. And stories meant to do more than amuse or entertain. There’s a strong educational or philosophical element to them. Early on Amazon described the Singles as “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”

That’s a nice, but cold, phrase. What we have here is the rescue of long-form journalism of the exciting kind where the author/narrator is part of the story, or concentrates on the human aspect of the development of a new idea, art form, invention, or whatever the subject is.

I’ve read about eight of them in the past two weeks and now find them to be like potato chips. Finish one, gotta have another. I read them in the gym, on the train, and while waiting somewhere. Even at home, when I can’t stand the tension of wanting to know how a story ends.

A few examples will show you what the singles are like. The first single I tried was one released this past April by our neighbor, Buzz Bissinger: “After Friday Night Lights: When the Game Ended, Real Life Began. An Unlikely Love Story.” Buzz’s story relates his close, perplexing, frustrating, and inspiring friendship over the past 25 years, since “Friday Night Lights” swept the nation, with one of the young men who played for the Odessa, Texas, football team he chronicled.

The young man, James “Boobie” Miles, was an athlete of great promise until a football-related injury ended any future career he might have had as a professional athlete. Buzz neatly sums up a number of incidents that marked their friendship over the years and culminates the story with a trip back to Texas to see Boobie again and hang out for a few days.

The story is sad, wise, moving, touching and irritating (in the best sense). In print terms, the story is about 34 pages long. I read it in two gym cardio sessions.

That hooked me on Kindle Singles. I really enjoyed getting closure with just two reading sessions. Much better than my usual practice with gym books: not remembering much about the beginning when I get to the end a few weeks later. I browsed for more.

I saw a title that intrigued me: “The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression” by Jerry L. Thompson. The author was Evans’ assistant, so he’s in a particularly good position to tell this story.

Evans and James Agee produced the American classic, “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men” based on the photographs and interviews they conducted in the American South during the Great Depression. The Thompson book tells how they did it. It has both an epic sweep and gentle touch as it tells small, individualized stories about humble folks of great dignity. And the decades-later follow-ups with the subjects. I was genuinely moved by this book (about 49 “pages”).

Among the others I’ve read: “Heaven and Mel” by Joe Eszterhas. The author is a famous screenplay writer known for what many consider to be trashy hits (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”). Throat cancer helps him reform and become a devout Catholic. Late in life he also discovers that his Hungarian father was an anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator.

To atone for his own and his father’s sins, he decides to write a movie about the Maccabees. He hooks up with Mel Gibson, a fellow fervent Catholic, then at the peak of his infamy for wild temper tantrums and anti-Semitic rants. The book provides both a great “inside the real Hollywood” exposure and fascinating glimpses of Eszterhas and Gibson. Genuinely weird, in a fascinating way (150 “pages” a whole week’s worth of gym reading).

Kindle Singles sell for about $2 to $3 each. Authors get 70 percent royalties. Doesn’t seem like much until you realize that an author who has a following might sell a hundred-thousand books. Not many do, but still, the temptation to go with Amazon is strong.

Not all short Kindle pieces receive the Kindle Single designation. Amazon is recruiting mostly well-established authors for this series. They do allow anyone to pitch them, however. The pitch form is easily found on their website.

The Singles titles get their own categorization and much more marketing than regular Kindle stories. Recently Amazon has been allowing fiction to slip into the Kindle Singles category. I just read a neat new Nicky Hornby story as a Single.

Globally, after seeing that Amazon has sold about four million Kindle Singles, the rest of the publishing world is taking notice. This trend is especially notable in the world of university press books.

Concluding with a personal note: I’ve published two book-length and three Single-length books on Kindle this year. I’ve recently applied to Amazon to have my “Scenes from a Bookshop” (@ 65 pages) be accepted to Kindle Single Status. I’ll let you know what happens.

We’d love to see you Nov. 15 at our quiet, hopefully inspiring evening dedicated to Loren Eiseley and his writings. This Chestnut Hill Book Festival Speakers Series event will take place at the Chestnut Hill Hotel’s Bombay Room at 7 p.m. and last about an hour.