An evening with Kindle Vella: First impressions of Amazon’s new attempt to reimagine reading

Amazon’s new Kindle Vella episodic reading platform in the Kindle app for iOS. (Amazon Images)

The serialized story is a mainstay of the literary world, a tried-and-true formula for creating a tantalizing tale, from opening hook to closing cliffhanger.

But it’s the rare author who can keep readers engrossed in a narrative when the unparalleled drama of their own lives is just a tap or click away.

That’s the fundamental challenge facing Kindle Vella. I experienced it myself while spending a few hours with Amazon’s new “episodic story platform” after its official release Tuesday afternoon. Despite the “Kindle” in the name, Amazon isn’t offering Vella via its line of e-readers, at least not yet.

Instead, Vella is available in the Kindle app for iOS and on the web. Without the immersive reading experience offered by magazines, books and dedicated reading devices, Vella is competing against text messages and Facebook posts and every other damned distraction delivered by our smartphones and web browsers.

Overcoming that challenge as an author requires special skill. Blame my modern brain, and the scourge of mobile notifications, but based on my experience so far, most of the indie authors submitting content to Vella aren’t quite there yet.

Several times I found myself responding to a text or liking a Facebook post, and realizing I hadn’t finished the Vella “episode” I started a few minutes earlier.

There are exceptions, among them “The Marriage Auction” by Audrey Carlan and “Ragtown” by Kelly Stone Gamble, both of which I discovered in Vella’s “Top Faved” section. But now I’ve gone too far in this story without proper exposition.

Here’s what Vella is and how it works:

  • Amazon calls Vella “a new mobile-first, interactive reading experience for serialized stories,” presented in episodes ranging from 600 to 5,000 words.
  • The first three episodes in each story are free. After that, episodes are purchased using a specialized system of tokens that can be purchased in bundles (below). It’s an interesting move into virtual currency, and it will be worth watching to see where Amazon goes with this.

  • Readers who buy Vella tokens are granted one “Fave” per week, which they can allocate to “the story they enjoyed most that week,” as Amazon explains.
  • This is notable in the context of Amazon’s larger struggle with fraudulent product reviews. Faves are a major factor in determining which stories get surfaced. Readers will need to pay to offer this valuable form of praise.
  • Authors can add notes to the bottom of each episode to communicate directly with readers and offer behind-the-scenes details.
  • Vella is an extension of the Kindle Direct Publishing platform for independent authors, so it includes many accomplished authors but also plenty of ambitious amateurs. I noticed a few subject-verb disagreements and other basic mistakes that one wouldn’t expect in an edited book.
  • Amazon offers Kindle Direct Publishing authors 50% of royalties based on the amount readers spend on their Vella episodes. This compares with a tiered system of 35% or 70% for normal KDP royalties.
  • Most of the stories available in Vella are fiction, including romance, mystery, science fiction and action stories. Based on my initial look through the catalog, there’s not much in the way of strong narrative non-fiction. Vella could provide an interesting opportunity for serialized journalism.
  • Although Vella isn’t available in the Kindle app for Android, I found the experience to be perfectly fine in the Chrome browser on Android.

Vella will be closely watched given Amazon’s history of influence in the literary world, from its roots as an online bookseller to its launch of the Kindle e-readers to its acquisition of the Audible audiobook giant.

There’s lots of room for improvement. Apart from making the service available on a distraction-free device, Vella would benefit from some big names.

Not to diminish the hard work and talent of KDP authors, but I was left wondering what Vella’s debut would have been like with some standout work by the likes of John Grisham, Malcom Gladwell or Delia Owens to headline the launch.

Of course, this is just the first episode in Vella’s story. Can Amazon overcome the odds, and reinvent reading again? Stay tuned to find out.

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