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Amazon Starts Publishing Program

In August, Amazon.com launched a program that offers customers short stories and essays in a digital format for forty-nine cents each. With over eighty titles available so far, the online bookseller hopes that the program, Amazon Shorts, will “fuel a resurgence of sorts for short-form literature,” says Kristin Mariani, a spokesperson for Amazon.com.

Any author who has at least one book available for sale on Amazon.com may submit a previously unpublished piece of fiction or nonfiction of two thousand to ten thousand words to Amazon Shorts. Not only established authors, but also self-published writers whose books are sometimes sold on the site (those published by iUniverse, for example) are eligible. The procedure for submitting work—sending an e-mail to amazon-shorts@amazon.com so that the company can confirm that the author meets their “baseline criteria” for the program—is the same for individual authors, agents, and publishers. “We’re not judging the quality,” says Mariani. “We’re just looking at some very basic elements to make sure that it’s a legitimate piece of content for offering through the program.”

Once a short story or essay is posted on Amazon.com, paying customers can view it as a Web page, a downloadable PDF file, or a plain-text e-mail. Amazon.com also keeps a customer’s previously purchased files in a “digital locker” so that they can be accessed at any time, and all formats can be saved to personal computers and printed. The system is designed to give customers unlimited access to material that Amazon.com hopes will serve as a gateway to other titles available on its Web site.

“Perhaps the shorts will function as a sort of hors d’oeuvre, and people will be hungry for more essays, stories, and even poems,” says Audrey Niffenegger, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife (MacAdam/Cage, 2003), whose agent encouraged her to post her short story “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels” on Amazon Shorts. “The program seems to me to have a huge potential readership. Perhaps it will be an electronic return to the days of broadsides and pamphlets sold on the street.”

While Amazon.com has high hopes for the new program, the effect that Amazon Shorts will have on the publishing industry is unclear. Trade publishers will likely use it as a marketing tool, offering “teaser” stories to satisfy readers between the publication dates of their favorite authors’ books and to introduce emerging talent. Self-published authors may take advantage of the centralized location and reliable payment system to sell their work and gain exposure.

The program also offers an intriguing option for authors with a proven track record and sizable readership, who can now choose between submitting their short stories to traditional magazines and journals, some of which pay a flat fee for rights, or posting it on Amazon Shorts, where they are given a percentage of the price of each file sold. But they can’t do both—Amazon.com requires a six-month window of exclusivity; authors cannot publish the work with any other magazines or publishers during that time.

The success of Amazon Shorts remains to be seen, but facing a notoriously difficult market for short stories, some authors and publishers will likely see the program as a new answer to the old question of how to sell their shorts without losing their shirts.

For more information about Amazon Shorts, visit www.amazon.com/shorts.

Doug Diesenhaus is the editorial assistant of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“The system is designed to give customers unlimited access to material that Amazon.com hopes will serve as a gateway to other titles available on its Web site.”

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Amazon Starts Publishing Program (November/December 2005)

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