Amazon’s Kindle Serials: Probably not the next ‘Great Expectations’

When I talk to people about my job, one thing I hear about a lot — besides the good old chestnut “I still love the feel of paper books” — is Charles Dickens. Literary devotees are like, oh, he issued his novels in installments, they were super popular and people would fight each other to get them when he released a new one: why doesn’t anybody do that now?

At Thursday’s Amazon press conference in Los Angeles, Jeff Bezos brought up Charles Dickens, too. After touting the success of Kindle Singles — 3.5 million sold since 2011, up by about 1.5 million since March 2012 when we reported their sales for the first time — Bezos said, “for our next invention, we reached back into the past for inspiration.” Lo and behold, it’s Kindle Serials. Amazon is releasing eight of them to begin. Each priced at “an introductory price” of $1.99, they’re exclusive to Amazon.

Serialized ebooks aren’t a new idea. Startups have experimented with them before: Coliloquy publishes “active fiction” for Kindle, which is published in installments and lets readers choose how the story is going to go (kind of like choose-your-own-adventure for adults). And the Los Angeles-based teen ebook publisher Backlit sells ebooks as $2.99 “episodes.” Traditional publishers, too, have released series of e-singles.

The difference between those projects and Kindle Serials, though, is that with Kindle Serials, you only pay once and then the downloads are automatic: i.e., buy the first “episode” and all of the remaining ones are free. As new installments are published, Amazon automatically adds them to the end of your existing book. Readers don’t have to remember to check for new episodes and they don’t have to pay for them. “Seamless and hassle-free,” said Amazon Publishing VP Jeff Belle in the press release.

Amazon is also inviting readers to discuss the serials on message boards as they’re published, so that authors can adapt the story as they write installments. That’s a lot of work for authors for a low price point that they only get paid once, unless Amazon has figured out some other type of royalty scheme (it’s presumably also paying authors a flat fee for writing one of these). Note the $1.99 price is “introductory” and it seems likely to go up.

Anyway, here are the eight Kindle Serials available so far. Three of them are published by a “new literary studio,” Plympton, which I’ll be writing about more next week.

Overall, the simple buying process could be the reason that Kindle Serials succeed where other experiments with the format have, if not failed, not achieved Dickens-like popularity. The question remains, though, whether anything can achieve Dickens-like popularity in an age where there are a lot more books and other forms of entertainment competing for people’s attention.