Monday, December 7, 2009

Some Good News in Publishing (for a change)

I'm a writer.

That first sentence wasn't a complaint. Or not much of one. After all, worse things could happen to a person than being a writer. You could be, for example, an actor, where the odds are even worse, the pay inequity between the top and the bottom even wider, and the rejections far more personal (and usually delivered to your face).

So I count myself lucky. And I'm even luckier than it might seem: I'm a novelist. I could have been born a short-story writer. Oh, I know the advantages of writing shorts. Your head isn't buried in the same damn thing for months or even years. Each individual rejection means less. You can explore ideas that are interesting but not plottable enough for a longer form. You can play with style, perspective, or narrative form in a way that might be annoying, cloying, or just plain too precious at book length. You can take strange risks.

But where do you sell short stories nowadays? Especially if you are thinking you ought to be paid...? There are many places to publish short stories on the web--if you want to give them away--but the classic outlets for short stories, the magazines, have progressively published less fiction.

There were loud cries of dismay a few years back when The Atlantic--which, along with The New Yorker and Playboy, were the flagships of non-academic short fiction in the US--announced it would no longer be publishing short stories on a monthly basis, but would instead convert to putting out an annual Fiction Issue.

Well, after that long preamble, here's the good news. Although The Atlantic has not decided to expand the fiction content of it's monthly issues, it has decided to publish short stories on the Amazon Kindle, beginning with one from Christopher Buckley and another from Edna O'Brien.

As the article mentions, this opens up some interesting possibilities. In effect, stories will now be published on a a stand-alone basis, without the associated content of a magazine, but with the imprimatur of the Atlantic's editorial staff. And the Kindle is a more flexible medium than print; it can just as easily handle short-shorts or stories that would have been too long for magazines, but too short for publication as a book. This development even offers some hope for the novella--arguably the most perfect of fiction forms, but one that has never really been able to find a market in the world of print.

Some things about Kindle make me nervous in a sci-fi paranoia way (I'll post again on that later). But The Atlantic's move strikes me as cause for celebration. I don't like short stories, but I do enjoy reading them, and am happy to see someone giving writers some incentive to produce them.

Not that short-story writers seem to need any encouragement. The supply of short stories seems to have no relationship to whether or not anyone is buying them (or even reading them). The short-story coat of arms ought to read Ars Gratia Artis...except for the fact that MGM Studios already uses that as their motto.

Even if deciding to remake the movie Fame calls into question their devotion to that principle. After visiting a brothel that catered to, umm, specialized tastes, Voltaire famously observed that "Once is philosophy, twice is perversion." Well, sometimes even once isn't philosophy. Or Art.

9 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

As someone who writes both novel-length and short stories, but feels that certain of his strengths are really highlighted in the briefer format, this is definitely good news!

David Isaak said...

It's good news for me, too--but only because I enjoy reading short stories.

Writing them only serves to highlight my shortcomings--which do a fine job of highlighting themselves without needing a showcase.

C. N. Nevets said...

I used to dream of getting one of those jobs as a staff writer at a 1940's or 1950's fiction rag.

Tim Stretton said...

I still regret the demise of the 50s pulp sf market. God, some of that stuff was trash. It was a real chance to learn on your feet, to serve an apprenticeship in the way that just can't happen now.

Quite agree on Fame. I can just about see the point of remaking something that was good the first time (Ben Hur, say); but something that was crap to begin with? Zoopety-zoop!

Jake Jesson said...

That sounds like excellent news to me, as both a reader and a writer of short stories. I will really have to get a Kindle or something similar one of these days...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, the demise of the pulps followed by the disappearance of the crank-em-out paperback originals has certainly limited the options for apprenticeship.

The whole "remake" thing is odd, really. On the one hand, why remake a masterpiece? On the other hand, why remake junk?

Though I suppose one could argue that there is more upside potential to remaking junk (ie how could one do worse?). Although I notice they mainly seem to remake junk that was profitable first time round...

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jakester--

Yeah, I don't havea Kindle yet either. It's hard for me to justify to myself when I have a towering stack of unread books by my bed...

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Matt Curran said...

Hi David

I like "ur blog" too, but for reasons other than spam!

Actually, like you I embrace this news. The short story has been neglected by publishers of late, and as the markets for the short form shrink ever more, there's really only the indie press left that champions it. In the US the last bastions of pulp in Science Fiction and Fantasy i.e. Asimov's, Analog and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, are still going strong-ish, but in the latter case they've been forced to go bi-monthly which historically is never a good sign. Like it or not, the short form is being well-clobbered like everyone else, yet they are in a far more fragile position that publishers of long fiction.

I reckon the e-book format lends itself very nicely to short stories, and I have been wondering recently whether or not it would be worth doing a collection from the MNW stable, of current writers and older ones. Will and I discussed this in the past and I think the costings were an obstacle, but there's nothing to pay out in with e-books is there? As long as we get the e-book out for free - say as a sampler - there isn't a problem of royalties either, as it's purely a publicity tool, which is what short stories are - in the main - to novelists...