Will Digital Publishing Bring Back the Short Story?

Digital publishing gives authors, publishers and agents lots of exciting opportunities that they do not have in print. The ability to play around with form is perhaps one of the most interesting. Not only have we seen interactive books, book apps and ‘vooks’ since digital publishing began to take off a few years ago – we’re also seeing a massive increase in the amount of short stories and shorter works available.

The blog TheNextWeb reported last week that Ars Technica (a popular and very detailed tech blog) made more than $15,000 in 24 hours on the Kindle store by releasing the 27,300-word review of Apple’s latest operating system on the Kindle store as an ebook. The review was available for free on Ars Technica (all 19 pages of it), but it still made thousands of dollars for the blog.

Although Amazon (as always) isn’t willing to talk numbers for their curated Kindle Singles program, the fact that it’s still going (and bringing in around three new works per week) means that it must be making headway. And that’s only through the curated program. A brief flick through any ebook store’s pages and you’ll come across thousands of shorter works (or collections of short works) from self-published authors (see Blake Crouch’s collection above). Most are priced very low – between $0.99 and about $4.99 – but considering their length this is a far more profitable and reasonable amount of money than the low-priced full-length self-published novels.

It’s not just ebook vendors that are making these shorter works available. Boutique publishers like the Atavist and Longreads are putting longer works of non-fiction into the hands of readers. They’re doing it in different ways – the Atavist provides editorial feedback as well as curatorial work, while Longreads is a kind of archive for longer form journalism on the web. But both are ultimately aiming squarely at the attention spans of a newer generation of time-poor readers. Longreads even gives readers the option to filter the archive by the amount of time available for reading (less than 15 mins, 30-45, 45-60 and 60+).

The availability of shorter works of fiction and non-fiction to readers is a boon for publishers and vendors alike. It creates viable price points for work that is either simultaneously available for free or would otherwise not be able to be sold for any amount. The overheads associated with traditional publishing have long ruled short stories (and even anthologies) out of mainstream publishing houses in all but the most popular or worthy cases.

Of course there are problems associated with this brave new world. If shorter works and longer ones are all mixed in together on an ebook vendor’s store, how is a reader supposed to know that they’re not paying $2.99 for a novel rather than a 10,000-word short story? Although vendors are trying to get around this by getting publishers to include page-length information in their metadata, a cursory look of the reviews on some of the better selling shorter works on the Kindle store shows that some readers are not getting the hint.

Publishers and ebook vendors will have to work closely to ensure that readers are informed about their purchases before they lay money down – and before the confusion becomes a problem that puts readers off entirely. Readers, concurrently, will hopefully soon learn that ebook stores have all kinds of work available and make a point of checking the available metadata before purchasing.

Not every experiment in form will work. Not every experiment will produce something that works as content or makes money. But early evidence seems to be suggesting that people are willing to part with (small amounts of) money to buy shorter works of fiction, non-fiction and longer form journalism, and this can only be a good thing in this era of newspapers and magazines failing and the race to the bottom for pricing ebooks.

Sound off in the comments if you’ve read any interesting bits of short writing in the past few weeks that you’d like to share, or any other thoughts on the future of reading.