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Single, and loving it

books Updated: Jul 16, 2011 02:14 IST
Karthik Balasubramanian
Karthik Balasubramanian
Hindustan Times
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It's neither a book nor an article. You won't find excerpts in newspapers and you won't see it in bookstores. Yet, My Mother's Lover by David Dobbs is on the list of Amazon's current top 100 best-selling ebooks. Unlike most other ebooks, Dobbs' work has no print version. It is an example of what is now known as a 'Single', a new writing format Amazon introduced last October, with a separate section for it in its online Kindle store. My Mother's Lover now tops Amazon's bestseller list for all memoirs, and is ranked second in its best-seller list for Singles.

"My Mother's Lover reached as high as 16 on the Kindle overall bestsellers' list, a level that most traditional book publishers would count as among their biggest successes," said Evan Ratliff, founder and chief editor of the New York-based start-up Atavist, which commissioned and published this work, in an email interview.

Usually about just one event or idea, Singles are longer than feature articles in magazines such as The New Yorker but not as comprehensive as a book. They can be read on any device with a Kindle application, such as Kindle for iPhone, and cost roughly $1 to $5 (about R50 to R250). It is too early to say how entrenched the form will become, but writers are clearly showing an interest — 69 Singles are now available in Amazon's Kindle store. So far, this list is dominated by non-fiction: of the dozen top-selling Singles, only one is fiction. http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/HTPopups/050711/16_07_11ph14a.jpg

The non-fiction Singles are, however, varied: Undead, by Frank Delaney, is a comic exploration of the vampire genre's history; The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield is about the 17th century Haiku poet Matsuo Basho; Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer questions American humanitarian Greg Mortenson's work, and Dobbs' work is about his mother's World War II experiences.

Since Singles are short and digital, they can be published unusually fast: William T Vollman, a journalist, published a Single about his journey to Japan's Fukushima on May 1, close on the heels of the earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster there.

There is a possibility that would-be writers looking to publish their works might see the Single as a less daunting way to enter the market. But Huzir Sulaiman, a Singapore-based playwright, feels not many new, untested authors have used the Single yet. "They are mostly written by people with reputations in off-line sources." But Sulaiman has hopes for the form, likening the Single to pamphlets of the 18th century.

Already, a few start-ups involved in non-fiction long-form publishing have entered the Singles market. Krakauer's piece was commissioned by byliner.com, a start-up that has since produced several more Singles, and Dobbs' work was commissioned by the Atavist and released on June 5. These start-ups engage writers to plan, research and produce Singles, and split the profits with them.