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.

The Return of the Short Story

There’s a popular idea that the rise of the internet has given us short attention spans. It’s something book and long-form journalism publishers have been bemoaning for years. The internet is a compendium of short form content – short videos, pithy reportage, compendiums of weird and wonderful things and, of course, there’s 4chan. Content was originally limited by bandwidth, but now that technological constraints have been lifted? Content on the net is still short – but it’s limited instead by our attention spans. If I see that a YouTube video goes for more than about five minutes, I will sometimes not bother watching it. Seriously. It’s become that bad.

Although this short attention span has (arguably) given us lots of good things (nobody with a long attention span could have thought up Twitter), it’s also made it more difficult to sell books. Even with digital books, which take out much of the chore of going to an actual bookstore, browsing for a book, buying it and then thumbing through pages – books still sell to a limited range of people. People no longer have the free time or the levels of concentration required to read a whole lot of books.

But, of course, people have never really had a lot of time (or concentration) to read a lot of books. It’s just that back in the days before the internet, TV and radio there were fewer other things to distract oneself with. Back in the bad old days, people would sometimes read this thing called a short story. And now Amazon (at least to begin with) intends to bring it back.

Last week Amazon announced Kindle Singles, their attempt at rejuvenating the short form with two heavy-handed blurbs: “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length” and “Kindle Singles, Which Can Be Twice the Length of a New Yorker Feature or as Much as a Few Chapters of a Typical Book, Coming Soon to the Kindle Store” both of which manage to make this announcement sound like the most boring thing of all time. Nonetheless, the announcement is a very interesting one for publishers and authors, many of whom have complained about being forced into a cost effective length in order to make publication in paper form possible. Well, actually, it’s only the publishers who say that. The authors say, “I’ve got this great idea for a short story,” which the publisher quickly shuts down because it isn’t cost effective to publish it. Even short story collections are pretty rare nowadays. They’ve become like the literary equivalent of a Best Of album – only ever awarded to writers at the end of their career. And so the short story has been forced to the margins – awarded to the already-successful author, or sold by hand for $2 a pop by a crazy person on the streets of Newtown.

So what do you think about this development? Would you be tempted to buy an attractively priced short form text? Or is this just not something you’re interested in? Will the lure of other short form distractions get the better of readers and distract them from this new/old one? And authors – are you excited to get a chance to bring that short story to the masses? How successful can this endeavour actually be? Let me know what you think in the comments.