Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
National Geographic announced Thursday, March 15 that on March 20 it will release the first title in its new National Geographic Shorts series. The quaint ebook, Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Greatest Shipwreck, like the four other planned digital shorts for National Geographic this spring, will run between 5,000 and 15,000 words.
It appears that National Geographic has taken a page from the book of Amazon, which released its Kindle Singles program back in January 2011. The concept behind Kindle Singles is to make stories available “at a length best suited to the ideas they present.” And apparently, Amazon has been quite successful at doing so.
PaidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen reported last Monday, March 12, that she had been granted a rare exclusive look at Amazon’s sales figures, as well as those of the authors in the Kindle Singles program. In the last 14 months, over 2 million Kindle Singles have been sold, with an estimated 1.12 million in net sales to pad Amazon’s pockets (this figure was based on an average unit price of $1.87 and Amazon’s 30 percent take on each sale). Amazon’s digital shorts run from 5,000 to 30,000 words.
Two digital short books-only publishers, the Atavist and Byliner, have also reported a positive reception for the new format. The Atavist said earlier this year that it has sold well over 100,000 copies of its 14 e-single titles. All Atavist titles are available on the Atavist app for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch; the Kindle Singles Store; B&N.com; and the Kobo bookstore. Byliner’s sales of its 20 original stories have also surpassed the 100,000 mark, using similar distribution channels.
All of this makes me ask, at what point did we decide that the traditional book form had just gotten too long? Are our attention spans getting so short in the digital age that we’re no longer able to digest anything longer than 30,000 words? Is the popularity of digital shorts indicative of a change in our reading habits?
Wired magazine doesn’t seem to think so. When the Kindle Singles program first debuted last year, Wired blogger Charlie Sorrel heralded its entrance to the book publishing industry as a long awaited outlet for long-form journalists. “In the past, there was no way to easily sell work of this length,” Sorrel explained. “Magazines just aren’t big enough, and book-buyers want to get their money’s worth in terms of page-count. Electronic publishing has no such limits.”
More recently, New York Times columnist Dwight Garner described digital shorts as “long enough for genuine complexity, short enough that you don’t need journalistic starches and fillers.”
As an ebook enthusiast, naturally I was compelled to give these itty-bitty books a try. Consulting the Kindle Singles bestseller list, I chose the top-ranking Atavist e-single, Mother, Stranger, by Cris Beam. (Please rest assured, I downloaded the Atavist app for my iPhone to purchase the book, so as not to ruin my 129-day Amazon sobriety.) Priced at $2.99, I got the enhanced edition which comes with an interactive diary, complete audio reading of the book by the author, character profiles, timelines, maps, and more. According to the description of the book on the Atavist listing, its length is the equivalent of 37 print pages.
It’s hard to describe how I feel about this story. It is extremely powerful, sad, and at many times, disturbing. Told from the first-person perspective of the author, the book is mostly a recollection of troubling childhood memories of her mother, whom we’re told from the beginning has just passed away after 22 years of no contact. The mother is emotionally and physically abusive to both the author and her younger brother. She makes wild accusations and claims that the author can’t always believe, including tales of her mother’s own childhood abuse.
The format of the e-single definitely felt different than other books. The pace was rapid: it was like there was no time to stop and describe the scene or give more in-depth characterizations—we had to keep moving. I know very little about any character other than the author’s own, and even that felt limited. But was that detrimental to my understanding of the story? I don’t think so—I hope not. In any case, I didn’t want to put it down, and didn’t, until I was finished reading it. Doesn’t that usually speak to the quality of a story?
I do struggle to understand why an author would choose this format over a more standard one, though. Much of the story’s action takes place in the author’s childhood home, but I can’t tell you what it looks like. I can’t even tell you what the main characters look like, aside from the mother. There are many questions left unanswered, and that bothers me; why did her father walk out on them, knowing what a psychotic their mother was? Why wasn’t the author angry with him, too? How could the author have left her little brother behind when she was 14, abandoning him in a dangerous and unstable home?
So I’m not sure if I would recommend this particular book to others. The feeling I had after reading it, that there are so many things left unsaid, unexplained, leads me to think it could’ve benefitted from a longer format. Has anyone else felt this way after a digital short book?