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The Short Form: Brief history, Prosperous Future

gutenberg When Johannes Gutenberg perfected his printing system in the 1450s he triggered a revolution in media. For the first time you could mass produce books (importantly for him, the bible included) rapidly allowing for an easier distribution of ideas and news. However whilst productions of texts like the bible and law codes were certainly undertaken it was the short stories, histories, plays, announcements, testaments etc which were the main beneficiaries. As the process became more developed, the technology for printing advanced and the manufacturing process of the paper became cheaper the long form gradually established its dominance. Now publishers expect texts to be a certain length to justify a certain price. Market forces and all that.

As a result short fiction, essays and the like have found themselves in an uncomfortable position. Unable to find publication outside of anthologies or journals except in rare cases. It has proven a major headache for students for decades being forced to purchase or borrow (from an under resourced university library) texts which they only need access to one article out of 500-1000 pages.

The information technology age always promised something different. Theoretically you should have been able to access individual articles, stories, essays instantly over the web. For various reasons – outdated distribution models, copyright systems, stubbornness – this has only been to limited effect. After all, the people teaching students never had these resources so aren’t familiar with it themselves. Now I am doing the vast majority of my essays for my PGCE by accessing articles on the Athens network, some of my colleagues haven’t touched a computer. People have their own preferences, always will. However the advantages of instant access, no waste, no risk of loss are finally becoming ever more prominent in further education. Middlesbrough College has even uploaded ebooks to their ‘Blackboard’ network cutting the need to own twenty copies of the same book. With the kind of cuts we’re seeing in education budgets, this use of alternative techniques can only be encouraged.

Yet through all this, short fiction has until recently continued to be marginalised. Now however several options for writers has appeared thanks in large part to the popularity of smart phones and e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader.

Ether Books are one such company who are publishing short form (1,000-15,000 words) writing directly to mobile phones through their APP. Currently only on the iPhone system they have plans to move to Android, Blackberry and other operating systems as they grow and expand. Think about this as a writer. How many people have Smartphone’s? How fast is that market growing? People do not need to go to a shop, or pick things off a shelf at home. Most people keep their phones near them. Publish on the Ether Books or similar system and you have instant access to a market of millions at no cost to yourself. They handle the distribution and admin, you drive traffic to yourself with an online author platform and collect 20% royalty on each sale. For writers starting out and trying to build that platform, its a fantastic means of getting out there in a crowded market. I also cannot think of a better incentive for continuing writing than to see people actively buying your work for a nominal fee and not just reading it on your blog for free. Though I personally recommend if you have built up a following thanks to something such as twitters ‘#fridayflash’ phenomenon then to continue publishing those stories for free online and use it as leverage for sending traffic to more ‘exclusive’ stories people might be prepared to pay for.

Amazon have also got in on the act this time for academics and those researchers out amongst us. Their “Singles” platform aims to directly solve that student pickle over needing an entire textbook for one article. They have also cited the perfectly good research which never sees the light of print because of its length. There are some criticisms of this as with any kind of self-publishing in that peer review may not take place but the online space is quite efficient in self regulating via reviews and ratings. I myself have a personal research project on a lifetime history of psychiatric nursing, which I intend to base on oral testimony of former and current nurses working in psychiatric care. It will never be a long enough piece for full book publication but may be an appropriate size for the Amazon Singles. Amazon are looking for non-fiction works in the region of 10,000 to 30,000. Email them if you have a work you’d like considered.

So far no word from Amazon’s competition, but it would be limited the scope of their business if they didn’t follow suit in some form. Of course, you can always self-publish any length of work with Amazon’s DTP.

I’m an optimistic guy. I am a huge fan of 1930s-1950s pulp fiction. The quick, unpolished, high drama works that appeared in the likes of Black Mask Magazine. The current moves to once again commercialise the short form of both fiction and non-fiction makes me believe that a prosperous future lies ahead. At least we don’t have to all get bogged down writing The Novel, which after all, is a fashion itself.

What do you think of short form publishing? Have you used the Ether Books APP or contacted Amazon Singles? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Posted by on October 21, 2010 in Publishing

 

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