Ebooks: The Long and the Short of It

Ebook readers report that one of the biggest benefits of digital books is the inherent portability. By their very nature, e-readers and tablets have a huge storage capacity and offer the ability to keep an entire library in the palm of your hand. Books that are back-breakers in hardcover, or even entire series of books, can be easily carried wherever you go-sometimes even in your pocket. However, shorter works, such as short stories and articles, novellas, even pamphlets and newsletters, are gaining traction among those who e-read.

Short stories and shorter-form fiction have traditionally been a hard sell in print. The cost of producing a novella is almost the same as publishing a novel, and the price has to be set accordingly. But when readers compare a skimpy novella to an epic novel, they sometimes feel they're getting less for their money. Anthologies of short-form fiction or essays can be tricky when a reader prefers only a few of the authors included, and collections of short stories from one author-even big name authors-don't usually sell as well as their novels. Then again, this year's PEN/Faulkner Award went to Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories by Benjamin Alire Saenz, which just goes to show once again that there are no absolutes in book publishing.

It used to be that new authors could use a short story in a magazine to reach a new audience and build a following for their novels. Now, as print magazines find it harder and harder to stay financially viable, many of the usual print outlets for short fiction and nonfiction have disappeared. But that loss has become the internet's gain. Of course it's very easy to create a free blog and post stories there for anyone to read, but most writers are looking for paying markets. As more magazines go digital, they are also digitizing their archived content. Magazine articles and short fiction can now be split from the original source and sold separately as individual content. More media outlets, as well as the authors themselves, are taking advantage of the new possibilities of digital and existing content.

Instapaper is an app that allows the user to pick and choose the web, magazine, and newspaper articles they want to save for later reading in an ebooklike form. Byliner is a database of articles and short forms of narrative nonfiction that can be read or purchased from their linked sources.

In late 2010, Amazon introduced Kindle Singles, curated individual shorter works available for digital download at very low prices, usually around $2. PaidContent?reported a year later that sales were strong, both for well-known and not-so-well-known authors. Anyone can upload and sell short stories on Amazon (as evidenced by the large amount of short erotica available), but Kindle Singles was Amazon's first foray into selected material for publication.

In March of this year, Amazon announced a move even further into content acquisition and announced a new literary fiction imprint, Little A-which will include a line of digital short stories by debut authors called Day One. This is a huge step for Amazon, one that the large publishing houses have long been nervous about. With its own imprints, Amazon will be able to control both the publishing process and the distribution of titles.

If Amazon imprints' ebook titles aren't available in any other format than the Kindle's MOBI, readers will be forced to use Amazon's proprietary software, effectively cutting out the competition. Monopoly? Well, not really. The author still has the ability to choose which publishing route to take-though this doesn't necessarily address a reader's concerns. If Amazon's terms aren't equal to or better than other publishers, most authors probably won't choose to go with them since they'd be effectively cutting off other methods of distribution. For the obvious reasons, authors want all the distribution outlets they can get.

But as I mentioned before, there aren't many distribution channels left for short fiction and nonfiction writers. People enjoyed reading shorter form writing in the predigital age, and they still do now. Amazon correctly identified that hole in the literary market and used its platform to figure out a new way to fill the gap. The company is developing new ways to monetize and distribute shorter work as mini-ebooks. Of course, while Amazon may have the lead now, others are sure to follow, but they better shift into high gear before it's too late.