Ghosts in the machine

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.



Filed under Publishing, Short stories

16 responses to “Ghosts in the machine

  1. Thanks for this, Max. I think the publishing world is on the brink of some big changes, and I think that’s quite exciting. I don’t know that I’d feel that way if I worked in it though, to be honest.

    The post is a perfect example of ‘thinking outside the box’ (and I do loathe that phrase and here I am using it because it seems applicable for once). Reading the short story on a mobile phone would seem perfect for those short burst reads, and you are perfectly correct about reading one story and savouring and then digesting it before moving on.

    And then again, if you are like me, you don’t like to leave the house without something to read, and in your case, the mobile phone allows you to read without lugging books along.

    When I bought the kindle, I worried a bit that a) I was just caught up in a consumerist frenzy b) would I be able to adapt to reading on it? In my case I wanted to read OOP stuff that was available through Project Gutenberg, print on demand or really expensive used copies. The Celebrated Crime (Dumas) series is free on Gutenberg, for example, but would cost quite a bit if I bought the entire series in any other fashion. Or free on the kindle. Plus then there’s all the OOP Balzac that no one can be bothered to publish any more. So I bought the kindle and really like it. It’s no chore to read at all.

    We readers live in exciting times.

    Now off to see if those ghost stories are available for the kindle.

  2. I hope they are. The Carnacki tales are peculiarly suitable to ereading oddly enough. Carnacki is a modern sort of ghost-hunter, he makes use of electric pentacles and the like.

    Were he real and alive today, I’m sure he’d have a relevant app of protection.

    I’ll write them up once I finish the last two, but they’re actually quite good as ghost stories go, and quite unusual too in their implications of a wider cosmological structure hinted at but not explained. Were it explained, I suspect the stories wouldn’t be as good.

    I may even prefer him to MR James. I’m not quite sure. James at his best is hard to beat, but sometimes he eclipses other writers in the genre who also deserve attention.

  3. I found some of the stories and they are now on my kindle. Thanks. This is a new author to me.

  4. The Carnacki stories are I think interesting, and I enjoy them, but they’re not what he’s famous for.

    He was actually one of the earlier writers of weird tales, an influence on guys like Lovecraft. He wrote a novel called The House on the Borderland which is a marvel of strangeness. I’ve read it, and since I have a copy look forward to one day reading it again.

    He wrote another much longer novel titled The Night Land, which I’ve not read and which I understand is even stranger. Like some strange hybrid between Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon.

    He’s a sometimes clumsy writer, but for all that still strangely effective. A sentence I could have written about Lovecraft too I suppose.

  5. leroyhunter

    Carnacki sounds interesting, Max: anything that bears comparison with MR James has something going for it.

    I have a BlackBerry but only the most desperate situations will drive me to read on it. I’ve never used it for ‘pleasure’ reading.

    On the Kindle & e-readers in general, I am gripped by inertia while remaining open-minded. The space-saving implications can’t be ignored, of course.

  6. leroyhunter

    “I don’t think that sort of outright deception is common now…but the antipathy to short stories is still with us”

    The best recent example I’m aware of is David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, which is a collection of (linked) short stories and was sold originally in the US as such. Penguin discreetly repackaged it as a novel for UK / Ireland publication – a terrible betrayal of the author’s intentions, surely?

  7. An advantage is you can find them online, print off one and see how you find him.

    He is quite different to James, James is a traditional ghost story writer (possibly the best such), Hodgson is where the ghost story meets the weird tale.

    I genuinely don’t know how much it’s an issue of personal taste, I do of course love the fiction of Lovecraft, Dunsany, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, I love the pulps, so Hodgson is a natural for me.

    That said, MR James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen (who I do personally prefer to James), there was a rich vein of late Victorian and Edwardian supernatural fiction much of which is now overlooked. James is deservedly remembered, but the others deserve remembering too.

  8. Penguin did neither Vann, nor his readers, any favours with that.

    If it’s good enough to be published, publish it as what it is. All publishers mix books they think will sell with books they believe in but know won’t. Vann’s was clearly one of the latter, there’s very little gained by trying to turn it into one of the former.

  9. leroyhunter

    Bierce is a fine writer, and Lovecraft at his best has a powerful conviction that gets you past the purple bits. Blackwood is on the wish list, haven’t bought him yet as I’ve too many unread short story collections lying around already.

    I read your Dunsany posts a while ago and was interested – also you posted a couple of stories I think? Must go back and see if you recommend a specific title or collection.

  10. leroyhunter

    Luckily (for me, anyway) the Guardian review of Vann made a song-and-dance about the Penguin subterfuge so I read it with my eyes open, as it were. Can’t imagine what I’ve had made of it if I’d approached it as a single, coherent book.

    I’d love to know Vann’s feelings – he must be pissed – but then again maybe the royalty cheques help soothe ruffled feathers…

  11. If you like Bierce and Lovecraft, you owe yourself also Robert W Chambers (the horror fiction, not the romantic fiction he actually wrote far more of) and Arthur Machen. Both are splendid.

    Arthur Machen is horror that for me is perhaps so well written as to also be literary fiction. I wouldn’t say that of Chambers, but I would say that his 1895 collection titled The King in Yellow is very good indeed.

    Edit: I did post a couple of Dunsany stories, a commenter mentioned they were from his weaker period, but I liked them for all that.

  12. leroyhunter

    Appreciate the suggestions, I’ll look out both Chambers & Machen…

  13. Also downloaded a bunch of Blackwood titles for the kindle. All free.

  14. Pingback: Tweets that mention Ghosts in the machine « Pechorin’s Journal --

  15. Hi Max,

    Trust you’re well. Interesting thoughts and a wonderful aspiration. Your observations come at a time when I’ve opted to revisit Franz Kafka after a decade or more abstention, whose short stories are among his finest achievements. It rather highlights the curious paradox about the medium when it comes to publisher’s mindsets as there are many classic authors whose short stories remain a staple of the culture (Fitzgerald, Saki, Raymond Carver, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Ian McEwan spring immediately to mind) and publishing’s current busness model .

  16. I’ve not read Kafka since I was a teenager, I’ll be fascinated to hear how you get on with him. I suspect I missed a lot back then, though you never know.

    Good choice of short story writers, there’s been a series in the Guardian on the short story which has been very good. Some writers I hadn’t heard of. Some of those you mention are quite out of fashion now, Saki for example whom I always think of in the same breath as Maugham for some reason.

    But yes, their stories are well regarded, but struggle to be published. There’s a definite gap there, but of course it’s a myth that where there’s a gap the market will always move to fill it. Like things that you’re liable to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.

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