E-Readers And A Renaissance For Short Fiction?

The New York Times recently published a piece heralding the rebirth of short stories, thanks to the increasing frequency of e-readers.

The New York Times recently published a piece heralding the rebirth of short stories, thanks to the increasing frequency of e-readers. “The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation,” Cal Morgan, the editorial director of Harper Perennial Originals, says in the story.

Salon’s Laura Miller disagreed with the piece, citing the lack of evidence of any resurgence in the appetite of readers for short stories. “Just because publishers are, in Kaufman’s words, `sensing a market opportunity’ does not mean that a new market — let alone a booming one — actually exists.”

I think what’s going on is more of a “test phase” that may or may not have staying power with readers. It’s undeniably true that e-readers open up the possibility of selling many different non-novel varieties of fiction, from flash stories through novellas. Serial works, which are experiencing a resurgence, are perfect for this model. And this potential is in no way restricted to fiction. Essays — whose current state is the subject of a recent piece in The New Republic — and journalistic pieces too long for magazines but too short for books would fit right in. It’s not too different (though I recognize the limit of the analogy) from iTunes selling music by the song rather than by the album.

Publishers of all kinds are looking to exploit this nascent market. The Kindle Single by Stephen King I wrote about last month is one example. Johns Hopkins University Press is launching a set of digital shorts next month. Random House announced a series of digital-only imprints last fall. As a writer, I got firsthand experience with the latter.

These imprints – focused on romance; science fiction, fantasy, and horror; mystery and suspense, and new adult – accept submissions of works in the 15,000-30,000 and 40,000-60,000 words ranges. I submitted one of my works to them, and while they decided not to move forward with my submission, there were advantages: my 55,000 word barely-a-novel didn’t fit in many other places, I didn’t have to go through an agent, and I received an individualized response from an editor (which is more than most agents will give on a cold query). That is pretty good treatment for a writer in this day and age.

I think it’s premature to know how reader demand will respond to these new venues, and I agree with Laura Miller that it’s too early to call it a trend. But since this technology is not going anywhere, I’d be surprised if more appetite for non-traditional forms doesn’t develop and become sustained.

This diversification will probably be good for writers, and I’d like to think this means it will be good for readers, too.

Are any of you consumers of Kindle Singles or shorter e-works? Any writers wish to share their experiences with or thoughts on this?

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