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.

Is the real-time web helpful for books?

Business Insider reported last week that the half-life of YouTube videos is now hovering around six days. For those who aren’t scientists or web developers, what this means is that 50% of the average YouTube clip’s viewers see the clip within the first six days that it is put up on the internet. This number has dropped from fourteen days in 2008. The half-life of YouTube clips is getting shorter – and we can theorise that a big reason for this is the real-time web. The ‘real-time web’ is a fancy way of saying Twitter, and the way that Twitter has affected other social media platforms. You could say (if you wanted to be entirely simplistic and make a crude generalisation based on these statistics) that we are now so efficient at instantaneously sharing and distributing pithy little videos around the internet that the majority of us never see something unless we see it within a week.

What, you might ask, has this to do with books? Well, with the increasingly close integration of social media and books (the latest firmware for the Kindle includes the in-built ability to post what you’re reading and quotes to Twitter and Facebook) we might reasonably expect the shelf-life of books to decrease along with other digital media.

Or can we? Interestingly, Google is putting a lot of effort into trying to turn web video into an experience that mimics television. Particularly regarding how much attention we pay to television – and for how long we watch it. The web – which by its nature privileges active browsing over passive viewing – is not very easy to monetise. This is obviously very important when your primary income comes from advertising. With the announcement of Google TV this week, we can see that the next frontier for the search giant is colonising our living rooms.

Is it reasonable to draw a similar line between Google and TV and Google and books? Shelf-life (or at least profitable shelf-life) for books that are published today is about six weeks at the maximum. Books that haven’t sold much in six weeks are very unlikely to sell more. Can the publishing industry survive a shorter shelf-life? Or will it just mean we buy more books (and perhaps read less)? Or are books by their very nature entirely different to other kinds of media – and therefore immune to the vagaries of the real-time web? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.