6 May 2013 - 6:58 pm

Amazon: enemy of the short story

Is this the first nail in the short story coffin? (Picture by Cayusa)

Is this the first nail in the short story coffin?
(Picture by Cayusa)

I came across a post recently about Amazon cracking down on short Kindle ebooks. It seems that they are asking authors of ebooks less than 2,500 words to expand or remove their work. Here’s a copy of the email that was sent to one writer:


During a quality assurance review of your KDP catalog we have found that the following book(s) are extremely short and may create a poor reading experience and do not meet our content quality expectations:

(Name of Short)

In the best interest of Kindle customers, we remove titles from sale that may create a poor customer experience. Content that is less than 2,500 words is often disappointing to our customers and does not provide an enjoyable reading experience.

We ask that you fix the above book(s), as well as all of your catalog’s affected books, with additional content that is both unique and related to your book. Once you have ensured your book(s) would create a good customer experience, re-submit them for publishing within 5 business days. If your books have not been corrected by that time, they will be removed from sale in the Kindle Store. If the updates require more time, please unpublish your books.

(original source)

My first reaction is one of exasperation and disgust. This is an arbitrary and stupid ruling; short stories under 2,500 are perfectly valid, so why crack down on them?

However, it’s not as simple a subject as it first appears. The comments on both of the links above are interesting. Let’s break it down into who seems to be making the comments (paraphrased by me; my comments in italics):

  • Readers:
    • Good, it’ll stop people from publishing chapters and releasing them as ebooks. (Wait, who is doing this? Why? See next.)
    • It’ll stop people from publishing serials they never finish and charging people for each episode/chapter. (First, I’m surprised that authors would serialise this way – there are services out there that are designed specifically for serials, and KDP isn’t one of them. Second, this measure won’t stop that. 2,500 words is not a maximum length for a chapter; I know many serial writers who post more than that per episode/chapter, and I frequently go over that limit on my own serial (which is not published this way). Also, no-one is forced to buy installments, so is serialisation through KDP really the problem here? (Note: serial != series.))
    • I can’t filter out short books from search results. (This is something Amazon needs to fix; it’s a failing in the store, not the products on its shelves.)
    • A trilogy isn’t a collection of 3 ‘books’ that are under 20 pages each. (I agree, but this minimum length isn’t going to change people trying to do this.)
    • It’ll stop authors releasing each short story individually, and then collecting them together into a cheap anthology at the end, ripping off customers. (Releasing individual books/stories and then releasing an omnibus or anthology for cheaper than the individual parts is a long-standing sales technique, and unlikely to change. If it bothers you, then wait for the collection at the end.)
    • Short stories under 2,500 words are valid, and longer than some magazines publish (and pay for).
    • Page counts for ebooks are not always present and their reliability is questionable. I don’t know what I’m buying. (Again, Amazon needs to fix their store. This annoys me, too!)
  • Writers:
    • Self-publishing has revitalised the short-story genre, but now they’re stopping it.
    • I’ve had good sales and reviews with my short stories.
    • I only ever release anthologies because I think selling individual stories will annoy readers.
    • Having a bigger library (more books) is better for an author’s sales than a small library. (This has been stated in many sources of advice on self-publishing, too.)
    • There is a short story category available in Amazon, so authors can already classify their books appropriately. (But apparently it’s not being used properly, or it’s not obvious enough to customers.)
    • Amazon is going after porn/erotica.
    • Yay, Amazon is going for quality. (Quantity does not equal quality! Should authors add fluff to short stories to bump it over the wordcount line? Should they add in extra filler around the story (acknowledgements, etc), so that it looks longer than it is? How is that going to improve the quality of the product or customer satisfaction?)
    • It will unclutter the marketplace, which is full of 2,000-word books people spit out. (Better search results and store mechanics would also help with this.)
    • Other forms will also be affected: poems, articles, in-depth product reviews.
    • I’ve never had an objection to the length from readers.
    • I hope they don’t apply this to children’s books.

Phew, that’s a lot of opinions (and I only looked at the first page of comments on each post). But each of them have their points, and we have to boil it down further before we can get to what’s really going on here.

What is the problem that Amazon is looking to solve? A poor customer experience. From the morass above, this seems to be caused by:

  • Customers unable to predict what they are buying. What they end up with is not what they expected, and this makes them angry and upset.
  • Customers unable to find the kind of ebook they’re looking for. If they buy anything at all, what they end up with is probably not what they wanted, which has the same effect as the point above.
  • Ebooks not being complete stories, but parts of stories or individual chapters.

Amazon is attempting to fix these problems by restricting the wordcount of the content and claiming it is for ‘quality’. I said it above and I’ll say it again: quantity does not equal quality, so having quantity as your yardstick is automatically a flawed measure.

None of the responses I have read have gone into the quality of the product. The biggest problems seem to be about reader expectations and ebook searchability. Basically, the packaging and presentation of the ebooks in the store, rather than the actual content. Amazon is both the publisher (they’re going after authors who have published through KDP) and store in this case, so their responsibility is twofold.

Here’s what I think Amazon should be doing:

  • Make purchases more predictable. Customers are not getting what they expected, and that’s a labelling issue. There are several ways Amazon could tackle this:
    • Add wordcounts to ebook listings. This is the simplest and most straightforward thing they can do. They already have access to this information (otherwise they couldn’t target short books on a wordcount basis); all they need to do is display it on the ebook listing in an obvious way. Take a look at Smashwords’s store for a good example of how to do this.
    • Categorise ebooks according to length. This could be as simple as having wordcount bands and attaching it to the listing as a label, so customers could easily distinguish between short stories, novellas, novels, epics, and collections. Obviously, this would only apply to fiction, but it’s a step in the right direction.
    • Add the ability to mark a book as a collection, rather than a standalone story.
  • Improve searchability. Customers must be able to find the sorts of things that they’re looking for. If they want epics only, they should be able to search for that. Search results should also include all the pertinent information a customer needs to locate the right result for them, which includes length.
  • Get rid of page counts on ebooks. They’re meaningless and backwards, and usually incorrect. Apparently they’re also missing in many cases.

Here’s what I think Amazon shouldn’t be doing:

  • Cracking down on wordcounts. This is a completely artibrary measure that is more likely to have adverse effects to the ebooks on sale, because:
    • Authors are being encouraged to pad out their short books with additional material. This means that they’ll add random content to get over the wordcount line and not extend the story itself, which means that the core customer issue isn’t addressed at all (they’re still getting a very short story for their money). Or, worse, it means that they’ll pad the story out, and reduce the quality of the story the customer is buying.
    • Authors may choose to release only collections instead. This reduces the number of overall offerings, and will negatively impact sales.
  • Demanding ‘complete stories only’. I was of two minds about this, but the more I think about it, the more I think a measure like this wouldn’t be feasible. There are a couple of ways I think this would be detrimental:
    • Completeness is very subjective and therefore very hard to police. How would you distinguish between legitimate parts of a series of stories and parts of stories? One reader’s satisfying ending is not the same as another’s. Authors will always claim the story is finished. I can feel the arguments brewing already.
    • Authors would be encouraged to hide serialised works to avoid being rejected as an incomplete story. This negatively impacts customer predictability, as again they’ll end up with something other than what they had expected to buy. Customer happiness will go down, not up.

But Amazon aren’t the only ones who can affect this matter, and I think that’s important to recognise. There are also things that authors should be doing:

  • Label your ebooks clearly. Amazon’s information is insufficient? Then add the pertinent stuff to the listing yourself. Help your readers by making your ebooks as straightforward and predictable as possible (as a purchase, not as a plot!). The next time I add or update a listing on KDP, I’ll be putting wordcounts into the product description.
  • Label your ebooks honestly. Readers do not like being misled or lied to. I don’t care if you think that tricking someone into buying your book is awesome, because hey look, more money for you; you will piss off the readers and then Amazon will go and do something stupid. Like come down on wordcounts.
  • If you’re releasing a serial, be obvious about it. Very similar to the honesty point above. Readers will get pissed off if they expect a complete story and are forced to shell out more money because you’ve only actually given them a part of it. Again, if you annoy the customers, you risk forcing Amazon to crack down on serials and cut off this avenue for you entirely. Alternatively, use a serial service, like Kindle Serials, Jukepop Serials, or Tuesday Serial.

Authors, I think we all need to step up and help in this situation. Not by writing longer stories or padding things out to appease Amazon’s arbitrary ruling, but by keeping our audience in mind. And I think we all need to remember that even if we give customers the information they need, they won’t necessarily read it. A good friend of mine publishes dark adult humour with cutesy covers, with obvious warnings that it is full of swearing and not a children’s book in the description, and she still gets reviews that say ‘omg, so much swearing!’ and ‘I was horrified when my child read this!’. But let’s try to reduce the chance of this happening.

Because when ebooks first became established on the scene, I was witness to the rush of enthusiasm that came over writers. Part of its beauty is that size doesn’t matter: the freedom from the contraints of physical print meant that there was no minimum length to make the cost viable, and no maximum before the book became too unwieldy or physically impossible. You can publish a one-page poem or a 1,000-word short story, or a million-word epic, and it’s all the same in the electronic world. Making money (and even a living) from short stories and poetry suddenly became viable, when it was very difficult before.

This is why the restriction by Amazon makes me shake my head and roll my eyes. They’re moving backwards. They’re missing part of the awesomeness of ebooks, when what they should be doing is capturing it and showing it to the readers who want to spend their money on it. As a result, everyone loses out: Amazon, authors, and their customers.

Let’s try for something better, people.

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