Epublishing and the short story
Publishers don’t like short stories. Why? Because the public don’t like them. Short stories don’t sell.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, I only read science fiction (well, and some fantasy and horror but let’s not let facts get in the way). Every now and then a science fiction writer would bring out a short story collection, but science fiction fans seem to like short stories even less than other people, how to sell them?
The answer used to be to pretend they were novels. The back cover would talk about one of the stories as if it were the whole book, any trace of evidence that it was a short story collection was expunged. You bought a book about strange discoveries on a Jovian moon or whatever and it was only when you started reading you made your own strange discovery, that you’d bought a short story collection.
Times haven’t changed that much, I don’t think that sort of outright deception is common now (though it wouldn’t surprise me if it came back), but the antipathy to short stories is still with us. Except, and so far it’s only a little exception in the West, there’s a new medium which is perfectly suited to the short story.
At the moment, I’m reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. It’s brilliant, but it needs attention and I’m working long hours. I’m not getting time to get stuck into it, so in the meantime I’ve been reading some short stories. That’s not so unusual, what’s unusual for me is where I’ve been reading them – on my phone.
I recently bought an iPhone, it has ereader software on it, so I browsed online to see what was available free. While there, I spotted an old favourite, William Hope Hodgson’s Edwardian ghost stories, Carnacki the Ghost Finder. I downloaded it, and just finished the last story in the download.
Now, Carnacki was published in two editions, the 1913 edition with six stories and a 1947 edition with nine. The version I downloaded was the 1913 one, so I’ve ordered the 1947 version in normal book form and I’ll write up the whole thing as soon as I’ve read the last three. For the moment though, I thought it worth a post about reading on the iPhone.
The first thing is, you have a pretty small screen, about two paragraphs worth at a time. The visual display isn’t nearly as friendly as paper either, so you don’t want to read it for too long at a sitting. That makes novels a drag, I read a while back Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage on my then PDA, but the format did the novel no favours.
Short stories though, that’s a different matter. They don’t take that long to read, they also don’t benefit from reading too many at one sitting. In fact, my problem with short stories normally is that I struggle to stop myself reading a collection like a novel, so diminishing their individual impact.
With the Carnacki stories, I read one at a time, days apart, when I had a spare moment. I was stuck working long hours, opportunities to read rare, but I had my phone on me. When tired, travelling in a taxi home, the light’s not good enough for a book but the phone is backlit. Put simply, it works.
Now, I’m not the only one discovering that short stories work ok on a phone. There are dedicated apps, both general ereaders and now one designed for short stories. Publishers are starting to look closely at iPhone releases. Some are already arguing that smartphones are the real ereading revolution, bypassing Kindles and Sony eReaders and the like. People like their phones, increasingly they’re accustomed to consuming content (to use a horrific phrase) on them. Novels don’t work, but short stories do.
And of course I’m not even talking here about the Japanese experience, where there’s been an explosion in mobile phone based short story collections (mostly I’m not talking about it as I’m not persuaded it’s transferable outside Japan actually).
Here‘s a link to Ether Books, a company hoping to make a living by publishing short stories on mobile phones. Note the author list, Hilary Mantel, Alexander McCall Smith, the company’s still in the process of its launch but what’s immediately noticeable is that the author list isn’t just the usual bunch of out of copyright material taken from Project Guttenberg. Some of these are living authors I’ve actually heard of…
So, the smartphone, a new venue for the short story. I don’t think it’s guaranteed, but I think it’s a definite possibility as a new market, a new way of bringing short stories to people. And it frees the story from the collection, a format which isn’t always to an author’s benefit.
On a last note, apart from smartphones and digital delivery, I’m also reading a format called Picador Shots. Tiny format books containing a couple of short stories, essentially a sampler for a writer. Penguin has of course tried similar concepts, taking a small excerpt of a larger work or a single short story and publishing that in a back-pocket-sized paperback. It works, but it’s not as good as the smartphone option. The book doesn’t fit well on a shelf, it’s lost among its neighbours, but on the plus side it’s a quick read and easily thrown in a pocket or bag.
Going back to the ’80s, I recall we liked science fiction short stories in magazines, there was appetite for the form. Just not for collections. Sometimes a collection exists because of a thematic unity, but more often I think it’s just because books are sold in certain sizes and to get a short story to the desired size you have to package it with several of its fellows. Trouble is, when people buy a book of that size, they tend to expect a single narrative they can immerse in.
Free the short story of the collection, and you might encourage people to read them a bit more.
For the curious, here‘s a Guardian article about that Ether Books company, they’re not unique though, they just seem so far the most ambitious.