Exclusive: How Much Do Kindle Singles Authors Make?

The top-ten list of bestselling Kindle Singles includes a number of big-name writers. But how is the format working for writers who don’t have the brand of a Stephen King or Jodi Picoult?
In addition to sharing overall sales information about the Kindle Singles program, Amazon allowed Kindle Singles authors to break their non-disclosure agreements and share their sales figures with me. I chose about a dozen authors, out of the list of over 100 or so, to speak with, and interviewed them without any restrictions from Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). Excerpts from the interviews are below.
A few notes before the interviews: The authors’ background varies, but most have previous writing experience and many have been published by traditional book publishers, newspapers or magazines. (This differentiates the group from many of the authors uploading their works to Kindle Direct Publishing.
Authors I spoke with had varying experiences in terms of how closely their work was edited. Blum told me “the amount of editing varies significantly, depending on the writer and the piece. We work with many Singles authors to develop and refine an idea, and some authors go through multiple drafts before their work is accepted. Others deliver work that is ready for publication as is, with only copyediting needed.”
In some cases Amazon pays Kindle Singles authors stipends or fees for reporting a Kindle Single. (Author Oliver Broudy refers to those stipends below.) The company did not give me a range for how much it has paid in advance. “There’s not a goal for using one particular business model or another,” Kindle VP Russ Grandinetti told me.
Excerpts from my interviews:
Author: Mishka Shubaly
Bio: Musician; bassist for The Freshkills
Kindle Singles:Shipwrecked,” $1.99 (4/2011), “The Long Run,” $1.99 (10/2011), “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” $1.99 (3/2012). “The Long Run” is the ninth-bestselling Kindle Single overall, by units.
Sales: “Shipwrecked”: 21,024 copies, “The Long Run”: 60,567 copies, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”: 11,406 copies.
Estimated royalties ([price * number of copies sold] * 0.70): $129,544.82
“I first met Dave Blum back when he was working for New York Press and I was writing these druggie slice-of-life memoirs. I was working a couple of nights a week at a bar, and also working off craigslist, and I had basically just given up on writing.
[Blum told me about Kindle Singles] and I said, ‘Dave, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know anybody who owns a nerd pad, and there’s all this free stuff out there so nobody’s going to buy anything, and if they buy anything, why would they buy my stuff? And I’m sober now, I don’t have any more stories.’
He said, ‘Don’t you have ONE more story?’ and I said, ‘Well, I did get shipwrecked that one time.’
That story went on to sell over 20,000 copies [as a Kindle Single]. I thought this was a fluke and would never happen again. Dave said, ‘I have your next story for you. You used to be a pretty hardcore drunk and drug user and now you’re running 50-, 60-mile races. You’re going to write about that experience and it’s going to be called The Long Run.’ I was like, ‘No way. I hate recovery memoirs and nobody’s going to want to hear about bad situations that I created through a series of poor decisions, and then my fancy little feelings about getting sober and putting my life back together.’ Then, once again, I was totally wrong, and thank God I have the sense to listen to Dave and to trust him.
When I got my first royalty check from Amazon, I went to my boss at the bar and was like, “Mike, I quit, dude,” and he was like why, and I was like “Look at this check, man,” and he said, “I’d quit too.”
This is what I’m doing now. My three stories that are out have now sold in excess of 93,000 copies, and I have another Kindle Single that I’m working on for later this year, and hopefully working on a book.
[If I write a full-length book] it’s definitely going to go to Amazon for them to see it. I do honestly believe that all big corporations are evil, by definition. I play in punk rock bands and I still believe in the punk rock ethos of doing things yourself, and that small, independent businesses are better. However, every single person I’ve spoken to at Amazon has been incredibly nice and incredibly committed to books and reading. Out of loyalty to Dave and gratitude for the way they’ve treated me, of course I’ll definitely go to Amazon. But we don’t have an exclusive relationship. I’d be happy to work with a traditional publisher.
I’m going to name my first child Amazon. I’m incredibly grateful to them. There’s no other way to put it but that working with Amazon totally changed my life for the better.”
Author: Oliver Broudy
Bio: Former managing editor of the Paris Review; writer for Men’s Health
Kindle Singles:The Saint,” $1.99 (3/2011), “The Codex,” $1.99 (10/2011)
Sales: “The Saint”: 41,826 copies, “The Codex”: 5,009 copies (both figures through January 2012)
Estimated royalties ([price * number of copies sold] * 0.70): $65,241.16
“I wanted to do something more than magazine work was allowing me to do. It’s hard to squeeze more than 4,000 words into any magazine piece. The story stepped in front of me and I stepped on board. It took me to India and various other weird places.
I ended up with a really nice, totally unsellable 30,000-word manuscript. I congratulated myself for being a total moron and spent the next nine months sending it around and realizing it couldn’t sell anywhere. I had literally just sent it off with a $25 payment to some online magazine, when I got wind of Evan Ratliff’s project, The Atavist. I met with Evan, he put me in touch with Dave Blum, and I ended up deciding to publish with Amazon.
‘The Saint’ was included on Amazon’s ‘Best of April 2011’ e-mail. I sold $21,000 worth of books in that one month. There’s also the Kindle Daily Deals program. Dave really advocated for me to get ‘The Saint’ included there, and it was the first single included. It was really cheap. The asking price of the book is $1.99 and it was selling for $0.50. That helped the numbers, but it didn’t come close to the April promotion. Now the Amazon Crossing translation imprint recently picked up ‘The Saint,’ and they’re going to be translating it and distributing it through their Spanish language division.
My second single, ‘The Codex,’ didn’t do nearly as well as the first one, possibly because it was competing with the first one. Amazon does a lot of the promotion in-house, so that can sometimes lead to a fishbowl effect. Part of the reason ‘The Saint’ did so well is Amazon promoted it and sold it at the same time. Nobody else did. They couldn’t really provide the same level of promotion to ‘The Codex’ because they had put all their weight behind this other book and it would be weird and distracting to promote two books by the same author.
Dave Blum lost significant money on the second single because of the advance that he gave me, which I needed because the book required some travel. But he still signed me up for a third with the same advance. The loss they sustained on my last single is nothing to them, nothing. They don’t care. They’re trying to develop an editorial brand here, and this is the price they’re willing to pay, much as they’re willing to take a loss on e-books because they want to sell Kindles. There’s definitely a literary culture within the Kindle Singles program, and that’s a very good thing. Once they have total market saturation, then promoting this kind of literary culture may cease to be a priority, but that remains to be seen.”
Author: Sloane Crosley
Bio: Author of two books, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number? (Riverhead)
Kindle Single:Up the Down Volcano,” $1.99 (12/2011)
Sales: N/A
“Amazon reached out to me when they were just starting the program. I didn’t have anything appropriate at the time so I sent them a ‘thank you/maybe down the road’ note. Frankly, I didn’t think down the road would come. Then I found myself with this 12,000-word mountaineering adventure behemoth on my hands.
Everything’s in the author’s control, down to the price. There’s copyediting but no editing. The cover process has a very quick turn-around (especially in my case, as I gave them a photograph I took), as does the ‘jacket’ copy. In both journalism and book publishing, I am accustomed to very long incubation periods during which every detail is up for debate. This has its obvious advantages, especially with a book-length work, and in my opinion that will never change. But it was refreshing to work hard on a piece of writing, declare it done, then submit it, and ship it within a few weeks.”
It’s been fascinating to watch as an example of how readers shop online. If there’s a dollar difference between two paperbacks in a bookstore, that’s not going to be a factor in someone purchasing a book they walked into the store to purchase. I should say I am a bit of a Luddite and don’t own a Kindle, but it seems to me that people shop for e-books the way I shop for music. If I know I want a song, a 99-cent price difference is not going to stop me. But if I’m browsing and a song is a dollar more, sometimes it will. There’s no real reason for this aside from an online shopping psychology that taps into every cheap impulse I’ve ever had.”
I look at my Single a kind of appetizer portion of my writing before people commit to buying one of the books. It’s not the most romantic way of being a reader but I respect the logic of it.”
Author: Will Bunch
Bio: Senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News; author of three books: Jukebox America (St. Martin’s), Tear Down This Myth (Free Press), The Backlash (Harper)
Kindle Singles:October 1, 2011,” $0.99 (10/2011), “Give It To Steve!” $1.99 (1/2012)
Sales: “October 1, 2011”: 3,000 copies, “Give It To Steve!”: 3,350 copies
Estimated royalties ([price * number of copies sold] * 0.70): $8,845.55
“In 2009 and 2010, I rapid-fire published two political books. The second one was about the Tea Party and was called The Backlash. I put it together in an amazingly short period of time, so it came out before the 2010 elections, but the book didn’t do very well. It kind of convinced me that it’s getting harder and harder to get people interested in a $20 book when they’re reading about the same subject on the internet for free.
I was looking for an easy way to write about current politics more quickly. I contacted Dave Blum and said I wanted to write something about Occupy Wall Street in the style of Norman Mailer’s Army of the Night. It turned out he wrote his thesis on that in college. We talked about it in early October. It was his idea to focus on the one-day march on the Brooklyn Bridge and tell the story of the movement through that one day when people were arrested. I have these unpaid furloughs at work now, like most of these newspapers, so I took my unpaid furlough and reported like crazy. It was published like three days after that.
I had started working on a book proposal in 2011. The part of the proposal I was most interested in was the story of the 1948 NFL Championship Game that was played in the middle of a blizzard. It would never be a full-length book, but I thought 20,000 words would be perfect [and published it with Kindle Singles]. The goal was to get it online a couple weeks before the Super Bowl, but there were a few delays and it ended going up about a week before.
Dave’s one of those editors who’s great on ideas. He’s not a particularly heavy-handed line editor when the copy comes in, as long as he likes the general idea. The editing touch for me was really light. One thing I learned the first time around: Amazon’s not a traditional publishing company so they don’t really have proofreaders. I’m a terrible proofreader myself, and after the first one, ‘October 1, 2011,’ we had to go in after a couple of days and fix a fair number of mistakes. The second time, I made sure other people read behind me and proofread it for me.
[Amazon’s] ideas about publicity and marketing are a lot different from a traditional publisher’s. They basically market to Kindle users through Kindle. When they approve you for a Kindle Single and you get published, they do a week of heavy promotion through the Kindle and e-mails. Kindle users see it when they turn the device on. That’s like a guaranteed couple thousand copies, probably, right there. But they don’t have a department that tries to line up interviews for you or that sort of thing. If you want to do that, you’re on your own.
The second one sold more copies than the first one. I figured the second one would do better because there was such a huge increase in the number of Kindles out there between October, when ‘October 1, 2011’ was published, and late January, when ‘Give It To Steve!’ was published, and Amazon’s main marketing is to people who have Kindles.
Explaining how to read it was a big part of it. I tried to be a lot more proactive the second time. I got a lot of e-mails from people who had been at the 1948 game and wanted to read [my single]. People who were 75, 80 years old. I tried to e-mail them back and explain how to read it, explain how they can download [a Kindle app] to their computer. But people begged me to send them a *Microsoft* Word copy or something. There’s the universe of people who would be interested in what you wrote because they’re really interested in the topic, and the universe of people who have Kindles and feel comfortable using the Kindle format. If you did a Venn diagram, the overlap would not be that big, but it’s going to get bigger.
I wouldn’t automatically rule out publishing [a full-length book] with Amazon. There are a lot of issues I’d really have to explore before making any decision. Right now, I think, the majority of conventional bookstores would not carry your book if you published through Amazon. That would be an issue. It would depend on the subject and the dollar amounts involved.”
Author: Frank D. Gilroy
Bio: Author of the 1965 play “The Subject Was Roses,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award
Kindle Single:Lake,” $1.99 (11/2011)
Sales: 12,500 as of February 2012
Estimated royalties ([price * number of copies sold] * 0.70): $17,412.50
“How I got involved with it was serendipity, the way most good things happen. ‘Lake’ was very unusual in form and in content.
I happened to be at a birthday party for one of my sons and one of his friends was Dave Blum. I didn’t even know what Kindle Singles was. He said, let me see it. I sent it to him and he responded enthusiastically. It’s like a whirlwind. They move so swiftly.
The short answer to how I like the experience is that in the next few weeks I’ll be launching a second book with them, so I’m obviously delighted.
As of Super Bowl Sunday, David told me that we had sold over 12,500 copies of ‘Lake,’ which was really nice to hear since they don’t advertise at all or anything. It’s all, frankly, word of mouth, which is the best way to go and most flattering way to go.
What I sense is, it’s a place for the adventurous reader and the adventurous writer who is going off the beaten track, and readers who are enticed by that. Frankly, I’m pretty much of a Luddite, but now it’s so funny for me to be at the cusp of this new technology.”
Author: David Dobbs
Bio: Contributing editor to Scientific American Mind; writer for publications like the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Scientific American; author of Reef Madness (Pantheon), The Great Gulf (Island Press), The Northern Forest (Chelsea Green)
Kindle Single:My Mother’s Lover,” $1.99 (6/2011). Publisher: The Atavist. “My Mother’s Lover” is the tenth-bestselling Kindle Single overall, by units.
Sales: Over 40,000 (through Amazon only; other platforms not specified) as of November 2011
Estimated royalties ([price * number of copies sold] * 0.70): $55,720
“The story about my mother’s affair in World War II with a flight sergeant is one that had been on my desk for almost a decade. I’d just finished my recent book. About the time she died, I dug out the story. The editor I had at Knopf was not wild about it. I pitched it a couple of different times as a magazine story. I pitched it as a 7,000-word piece to the New Yorker and they nibbled at it. [The Atavist ended up publishing it.]
This has very much changed my thoughts about possibilities for ideas I get that previously I would have had to categorize as either a magazine story or a book.
One of the considerations is what magazine editors and book editors believe can work for them. I think most of the time they’re right about what can work for them. I also think some of the time they might be wrong, and when my belief in something is stronger than theirs, now I have a way to publish it.”
For more on Amazon’s overall Kindle Singles sales, see this post.