Francis Hamit on Amazon Shorts

I asked Francis Hamit to tell us a little about his experience with Amazon Shorts and he graciously sent me these comments:

This began in August 2005 as a way to promote established authors and their books. Amazon sells books. Authors usually have unsold stories, articles, extra chapters and like materials laying around in their files. In recent years magazines have published less and less fiction, and some longer forms , like the novella, have virtually disappeared. Smaller magazines are often overwhelmed by submissions. In other words there are less opportunities for even well established authors to publish their work. Added to that is the abdication by mainstream book publishers, to literary agents, their role in scouting and promoting new talent. No one wants to do smaller works, especially in fiction, because there is no money in it. Amazon.com saw an opportunity, but avoided being submerged in amateur work by specifying that only those who already had a book in their catalogues could submit. They also have an editorial review process.

Submission is no guarantee of acceptance. And the Amazon Shorts team is small. So the main effort is simply devoted to filling the shelves. Publication in any form demands a lot of mechanical work first. Copyediting, typesetting, and layout must be professional if the underlying text is to have any hope of being read by anyone. This is also a cost.

Amazon Shorts are offered in forms that can be e-mailed or printed out as well as read online. You can download them to your PDA. Reviews by readers are encouraged and authors are requested to maintain personal blogs to increase reader interest. Despite all that, and over 400 authors in a wide range of genres and topics , with (so far) over 1,500 titles, most people have never heard of the program. It takes awhile for an innovation like this to gain traction in the public imagination.

The Law of Unexpected Consequences has also been at play here. I am one of several authors on Amazon Shorts who has chosen to return to the serialized novel as a means of distribution. It worked well for Charles Dickens, but he didn't have to compete with the one hour television dramatic serial form for attention. Printed books and magazines are the most convenient means for readers, but my neighbors in this very rural part of California not only do not read, but are proud of the fact. They buy audio books, which is a whole other level of production. The current electronic serial form of The Shenandoah Spy is what is available now and while the royalty is great, this form of distribution is, and always will be a niche market. I get a big royalty compared to print, but that is balanced by the fact that fewer people are buying electronic text publications. Maybe that will change in the future, but this is the current reality.

Publication this way does qualify the novel for various awards. It does get it reviewed. That will eventually lead to a print version of the entire novel down the road. However, we tried offering a free electronic review copy to various publications and had no takers. Having been a book reviewer myself for the Los Angeles Daily News for several years (those old reviews can be found on the Newsbank database at your local library), I know the huge volume of printed books that are sent to reviewers. Literally hundreds for every book that is reviewed. This is where the major publishers, with their publicity departments and ability to put a book into every bookstore in the land, have a huge market advantage. There is no point in reviewing a book which cannot be found in a bookstore. Simply put, most people are lazy. They are not going to to make a big effort to find any book when there are so many choices out there and so many ways to satisfy their appetites. Awards committees demand printed copies to read, and so do reviewers. We obliged them, at some expense, with a replica of the Amazon Shorts version, which was, yes, produced with Print on Demand technology. This allowed us to do a short run for publicity purposes, but creating a version for sale at an economical price would require reformatting the entire text to reduce the page count; a lot more labor than we can handle just now. A retail price on the current version would be about forty dollars because distributors and retailers have to make their profits as well. Better to wait for a conventional published version. In the meantime, those really eager to read "The Shenandoah Spy" can buy the entire serial for less than seven dollars and print it out themselves. (I recommend three hole paper and a three ring binder).

And we are having trouble even finding reviewers. Newspapers everywhere are cutting back on book reviews and those that still have them tend to buy syndicated features that have already run in publications like the New York Times. This is actually less expensive than paying a local freelancer like myself to do them. But it limits the conversation about new books. Especially those only available online, which tend to be mislabeled as "amateur" or "self published" because so many are. Blogging has blurred the line here and professional standards have also eroded. A certain amount of "noise" has crept into the conversation.

Amazon Shorts may migrate from a promotional device to the world's largest literary magazine. There are now message board conversations there as well. Amazon.com has done American literature a valuable service by creating a venue and forum for new work of all kinds and picked up the torch that conventional publishers threw away. Our biggest problem is that most people still don't know about this feature, which is a shame, because, at 49 cents each, Amazon Shorts are the best reading bargain around.