If you're a journalist or an author who enjoys writing nonfiction stories, e-book singles represent a new revenue stream for you. In some cases, authors can net more than $100,000 for 60-page effort.
Of course, the big money is in fiction ($250,000 and up for a short piece if it gains widespread popularity) but you've got to be a big name author to crack that list 99 percent of the time. And if you've pulling in that type of money, you don't need to listen to me. You're doing just fine.
Thin Reads has been tracking the Kindle Single nonfiction and fiction best-seller lists since the beginning of 2013 and every Sunday, I publish the Thin Reads best-seller list. Thin Reads defines an e-book single as a written work between 20-100 pages in length and priced between 99 cents and $4.99.
From studying the movement of books landing on the list, there are some clear lessons that I've learned. So before you decide to sit down and write your way into a new tax status, pay attention to the advice below. This is not sure-fire advice. But if you want to improve your odds of cracking the top 10 titles in the nonfiction e-book single category, your book should have one of the following characteristics.
Be Topical: This is a critical element and it often distinguishes e-book singles from long-form books. E-book singles can be published mere weeks after big news happens. None other than Stephen King came out with an e-book single, Guns, a month after the tragic shootings in Newton. Writers have to think like a newspaper or magazine editor and play to stories of immediate topical interest. (See "Six E-Book Singles That Should be Written Now.") One of 2013's most successful e-book nonfiction singles has been Lincoln's Little Girl, a slight look inside the Lincoln White House. However, it was pegged to the theatrical release of the Spielberg film, and it benefitted by the film's Oscar nominations and DVD release. Another popular title this year: The Rolling Stones Discover America, which was timed to the band's 50th anniversary (read the Thin Reads interview with author Michael Lydon). Other topical best-sellers this year include The Battle of $9.99, Always Right and To Have and Uphold.
Be Personal: Let's face it. Reporting is hard work and takes time. It's much easier to mine one's own experience and turn it into art. It's also more rewarding. These types of nonfiction e-book singles have performed well, especially is they are dark or personally embarrassing. I sometimes call it the Literature of Personal Shame. Among this year's best-sellers in this category: Falling: The Story of a Marriage, Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites, The Long Run and Mara Altman's That's What She Said. Altman also had a big hit last with The Bearded Lady, a funny look about her body and facial hair (read the Thin Reads interview with Mara Altman). The Brooklyn-based publisher (natch) The Thought Catalog is especially skillful at bringing these types of e-book singles to market written by and aimed at knowing 20somethings.
Be Funny: Comedy is hard. But if you're funny, there's some serious money in the e-book single market. Plus, the length is ideal: who can be funny for 250 pages? Among this year's best selling, humorous e-book singles: Andy Borowitz's An Unexpected Twist (published almost two years ago and also very personal), The Onion's Joe Biden parody The President of Vice, Fred Stoller's My Seinfeld Year (published 18 months ago and still cracking the best-seller list), and Brian Donovan's Not a Match (also very personal; about his online dating disasters).
Be a Sleuth: True crime sells. Want proof? The Yoga Store Murders has been the best-selling nonfiction Kindle Single for more than a month (read Thin Reads' rave review). Before that, Doug Preston's Trial by Fury: Internet Fury and the Amanda Knox Case perched on top of the nonfiction Kindle Single list for most of the spring. Josh Hammer's The Honeymoon Killers also made the best-seller list this year. The downside: these types of e-book singles require extensive reporting.
Be Social: Make sure your Twitter handle is easy to find. Put it on your email signature. Have it prominently displayed on your business card and website (and if you don't have one, start building one today). Thin Reads (@thinreads) loves to tweet about favorable reviews and author interviews, but it seems like we spend hours a week trying to find author Twitter handles. I can't draw a straight line proving that this will drive sales, but it's an important marketing tool and it enables conversation with your audience.
So those are my general tips. Some big e-book single nonfiction best-sellers simply defy easy explanation for why they succeeded except that they were damn good reads. Kevin Jackson's Mayflower: The Voyage from Hell and Victor Gregg's Dresden: A Survivor's Tale were on the best-seller lists for months this year.
And of course, don't forget to apply to Amazon to become a Kindle Single. Not being selected as a Kindle Single will severely impact your ability to sell a lot of books. The Kindle Single store is by far the world's most important digital real estate for authors writing nonfiction e-book singles. If you're not included, your extremely well written, clever, timely and Twitter-friendly e-book single might possibly turn into a ghost story and vanish into thin air.