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On Saving Short Fiction

Ok, I promised grndexter I'd post on this.

There's been a lot of talk lately about how to save short fiction as a literary form. Now, leaving aside the questions of (1) whether or not short fiction is really in danger and (2) whether or not it's worth saving, let's move ahead to the question of (3) If it is in danger, and it is worth saving, how can we do so?

There are a lot of answers to that question, and most of them are good ones. Here's one that I haven't seen anybody mention yet:

We save short fiction by unpackaging it.

What do I mean by that? Simple. Short fiction usually comes in a package: A magazine, an anthology, the back of an author's business card... Short stories come packaged along with something else. Why? Because it's not economically feasible to deliver them individually. It costs about as much to to assemble, print, and deliver 15 stories as it does to deliver one.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that the short stories we want often come packaged together with stuff we don't want. It's very rare for readers to like every single story in a magazine or anthology. The sheer bulk of them is a problem, too. One of the reasons I don't subscribe to many magazines is because they pile up faster than I can read them; the stories come in such mass quantities that it's overwhelming.

The increased availability of stories via the internet has done a lot to alleviate this problem. Between Fictionwise and the online magazines, readers are getting direct access to the stories they want without having to pay for extra clutter. But downloadable stories come packaged with something a lot of readers don't really want: an electronic format. You've either got to sit in front of the screen to read it or print it out on 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheets. Both options are awkward.

Now, we authors are willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience in order to get the stories we want. This is our industry, after all. It's important for us to know what's going on in it, even if that means reading a couple of stories that aren't our style, or sitting in front of a computer screen for a few hours.

But the average reader off the street? He doesn't put up with it. Why should he buy a grab-bag of stories that he may or may not like when, for the same amount of money, he could buy a novel by an author he loves?

Do you see what's happening? The way stories are packaged is killing their chances with the reader off the street.

It would be nice if we could unpackage the stories. Or rather, it would be nice if we could give the customers the ability to package stories however they like. That way, they could have the monetary benefits of an anthology or a magazine without the unwanted stories.

Enter AnthologyBuilder. Ok, so it's not total flexibility. You can't get the stories in pure electronic format, for example. But it's moving in the right direction. My theory is that as AnthologyBuilder and similar approaches become more widespread, we'll see an increase in short fiction reading, not just among authors, but across the board.

In the heyday of pulp magazines, variety was a benefit. You couldn't find much speculative fiction back then. Readers were hungry for a broad spectrum of possibilities. Today, variety isn't the issue. You can walk into any bookstore and find a whole bookshelf devoted to science fiction and fantasy. It's specificity that we need.

The world is changing. And the short fiction market will either have to change with it, or wither up and die.


Dec. 17th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
I think AnthologyBuilder is such a cool idea! My only hesitation right now is wondering exactly how much benefit it'll actually be to the authors involved...having read the contract, it seems like the average payment per anthology inclusion is round-about 15 cents, authors won't get any royalties until their payments add up to at least $20, and I strongly suspect that that might well never happen, which would mean basically giving the stories away for free...I'd like to feel a little more certain that it really is a good thing for individual authors before giving it a try.
Dec. 17th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
But isn't it just reprint rights? It's not FNASR or anything like that, as I understand it. These are previously published stories (in the main) and it allows someone to pick and create an anthology of stories of the particular style they like (or from a few particular authors, or whatever).

As the inventory grows, some kind of "if you liked this, you might like..." linkage is going to be key to get people to try new authors. It might be worth offering a "free" extra story of something people don't select, but somehow algorthmically linked to their selection. People like free stuff and I am sure I'm not the only one who is sometimes reluctant to try something "new" yet capable of enjoynig it hugely when I do come across something that engages my interest.
Dec. 17th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
the free idea is a good one. My recommendation in that area would be to rather award buyers, give prolific buyers a free antho by a variety of authors and hope to snare them one ones they don't know. Or, alternatively, what one of our book chains does, is they have a club, and members get points for every purchase. After a certain amount of points, they get a discount voucher. Either one of those, or even both, could work really well.
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Dec. 17th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
I've got a couple of Big Names in mind that I'd like to approach, actually, but I'm holding off on that until the site has been up and running for a bit longer.

We're still in Beta release, and I'd like to make sure the thing is flawless before inviting the VIPs on board.
Dec. 17th, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
Looking at the contract, I'm willing to give it a shot and see what happens. Normally I'd be very hesitant to join in on something this experimental, but the fact that the contract is non-exclusive, and can be terminated by either party at any time, went a long way toward reassuring me.

I can't imagine it being a huge money-maker unless the site really takes off. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of Amazon Shorts, only with a better contract. But I've got a few published stories that aren't doing anything for me right now. And I wouldn't mind getting in early on something I think has potential...
Dec. 17th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)
picking up on what tchern said - no, the writers won't get much money, at least not to begin with and the odds are still stacked against all but a handful.
However, these are all reprints, the minimum requirement being that all stories must have been published previously in a paid market.
Leaving aside the idea of something like Anthobuilder as a primary source of publication, the idea does fill a massive vacuum in the short fiction field - longevity.

This can be the sum total of the idea so far as I see it - right now, most writers sell a story, it has a brief moment in the sun and then it's gone unless the author can somehow convince a publisher to put out a collection, which is usually limited in numbers as well.
This way, the stories can remain perpetually available, a gift to fans of writers who start slow and only build big over years times. Also, very specific to online stories, it gives readers the potential to own an online story, in print.

re: royalties - true, it's very little, and very few writers could make bucks of this right now, or possibly ever. But the opportunity is there, and it's not unlike the novel field where the real money lies with the advance (the original payment for short fic), and royalties are much smaller and slow in coming anyways.
Essentially, the writers cannot give the stories away for free, because they have already received a paycheck for them. This is an opportunity to possibly make additional monies over the long term, but all that truly matters is that the fiction remains available, something which is not currently possible in all but a very small select cases in short fiction.




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