Amazon Changed Reading. Now It Could Change Writing

What if Dickens had analytics? Jeff Bezos's Kindle Serials might tell us.

Throughout its 17-year history, Amazon has helped change the way that books are sold, the format in which they’re read and how they are published. Now it could change how they’re written.

In addition to the Kindle Fire HD and the Kindle Paperwhite, Amazon introduced a subscription book format at a press conference in Los Angeles Thursday. These books, called "Kindle Serials," will be released in segments instead of in their entirety. Updates, or "episodes," automatically appear at the back of the book as they’re created or released without extra charge.

Charles Dickens popularized a similar format more than 100 years ago when he famously published many of his works as segments in weekly publications. Bezos invoked the author's works when announcing the new product, and some of them, including Oliver Twist, will be re-released as Kindle Serials.

Dickens, however, didn’t have the Internet. Or data about how readers responded to each of his chapters.

"[Kindle Series] Authors will be able to follow along with reader reaction and adapt the next installments based on the first ones," Bezos said.

Amazon will provide discussion boards for each Kindle Serials book. Unlike most book discussion boards, they may influence the outcome of the books. Unlike in Dickens' era, anyone reading can participate.

"Serialized fiction is perfect for contemporary book culture, where writers interact with their readers directly and books can be delivered with an immediacy that the old pulp writers never could have imagined," said Neal Pollack, author of a Kindle Serial called Downward-Facing Death (yes, it's a yoga murder mystery).

Publishing one segment at a time will enable authors, like app developers, to make decisions based on user activity. Data analytics will push that ability to another level. Do readers have high drop-off rates when a certain character appears? Maybe he should appear less in the next episode. Do they share a certain idea with their social networks? Maybe that idea comes up again.

Amazon publishers are currently little better off than Dickens in the data department. Amazon only gives them access to data regarding sales figures and royalties. But startups are already making book analytics programs that collect insights from readers using Kindles and other e-readers.

One of these companies is called Hiptype. Its plug-in shows publishers where readers lose interest, where they highlight most often and which book samples convert to sales best. Amazon competitor Kobo has an analytics dashboard that monitors metrics such as geographic location of readers. Amazon can’t be far behind.

Digital has transformed all media to some extent. News is a different beast online (in many cases, a furry, cute one…in a slideshow). Video creators work differently online and photos are no longer memorials of moments, but status updates.

The digital book experiment is just getting started. Most tweaks, like social features and sound, have changed the reading experience.

But what will change the books themselves are authors. And Amazon’s new serial format, combined with the rise of data analytics for everything, has potential to change their methods.

[Image: Flickr user HaoJan Chang]

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • Stephen Bradley

    Even better than analytics -- let readers propose their own additions, plot lines, characters... take the story off in new directions.  Truly collaborative storytelling to fully engage fans.  #authorbee

  • Timothyilldill

    I see a lack of authenticity in this process. If Authors are altering their work based on reaction, then they are only acting as a medium to what is ultimately created rather than acting as the sole creator. We already have those kinds of 'Choose your own' books out there.

  • Kerrin Naude

    This kind of analytics has almost single-handedly killed great advertising. Now they want to get deep stats on likeable characters (etc) within literature? Dickens by committee? Awesome...

  • AC

    Like some of the commenters noted, the idea has been around for a long time. Making it happen on digital media is what's new. A number of magazines from where I come from in India used to have this concept of fiction in installments most of them going on for multiple years.  The authors were able to tweak future installments based on letters (snail mail) to the editor or author from readers suggesting various outcomes or comments on characters in the story etc.

  • Byrdonbooks.wordpress.com

    Hawthorne, Melville and Poe published this way in magazines too.

  • Mel

     Amazon is not changing writing - it is just monetizing the online writing games many of us participate in online social networking.

  • Mike Haberman

    The serial methodology as been around for a long time. Dickens was not the only author that published his workthat way. Alexandre Dumas did as well. The Count of Monte Cristo sold many newspapers because people could not wait for the next installment. The popularity of this format made Dumas a very wealthy man.

  • Erik

    Thing to be aware of, the $1.99 price is for all the content you upload, think about that, 100k words for say $1.99, plus all the kindles have ads now, what's stopping bezos from inserting those into the serials or other eBooks. The user experience has just been screwed. I'd run from singles, hell, do it yourself, sure you don't have the auto download part, but if you are writer you are in the business of making money, why give so much away?

  • Laci Lewis

    If I am understanding correctly, books will come out more like magazines... just an issue at a time? I wonder how long they will take to study one installment before publishing the next... When I sit down to read a book, it's because I made time to do it and I want to get as far as possible. Waiting for the next "installment" would turn me off to the book entirely.