In Short


During a trip down to the Information Today, Inc. offices, I listened to one of my favorite new-to-me podcasts: the Slate Audio Book Club. It's been a long time since I was in a literature class where I argued the merits of Toni Morrison's Beloved or gushed about To Kill a Mockingbird, and I miss it. Moreover, I loved the convenience of using what could have been a tedious 3-hour car trip to let the folks at Slate tackle David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest for me because I just don't know if I have that kind of reading stamina.

By the time I was back at my desk in Connecticut, I was running out of podcasts about books that I had read-or never intended to read and therefore didn't mind a few spoilers-but I did stumble upon one about a couple of short stories familiar to anyone who ever took an introduction to short stories class in college: Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and John Cheever's "The Swimmer."

I'll admit I've never been much for short stories. I like novels with big sprawling plots and fully realized characters that I can invest in. However, Flannery O'Connor has always spoken to my slightly twisted sense of humor. I remember laughing uncontrollably as I attempted to read "Good Country People" aloud in class. Joy/Hulga was an endless source of comedy for me.

If you're not familiar with the story, it's about a girl named Joy who is missing a leg. Joy is so miserable that she insists on stomping around her house, making a racket with her wooden limb to bug her family, and changing her name to Hulga out of spite. A Bible salesman shows up at her door and starts romancing her, but we later find out he's only interested in getting his hands on her fake leg because he keeps a macabre collection of false body parts in his briefcase. Eventually, he leaves poor Hulga stranded in a hayloft without her leg. Some people probably find this story depressing, but I think Flannery O'Connor and I share a warped sense of humor.

Slate's exploration of the two stories got me thinking about short stories as a form. For many years, they seemed sort of pointless to me-only to be enjoyed by graduate students in fine arts programs. Then, serendipitously, I received an email about a new app called eChook. The press release states, "Taking from the idea of the chapbook-small, single-chapter books that were the latest technology in 16th-century England-[Tessa Smith] McGovern developed eChook, an app that turned her linked short stories into digital chapbooks."

An app for short stories? Of course! You can't turn a corner without hearing about our dwindling attention spans. Then you turn the next corner and you hear people are reading more than ever-just not in book form. The short story is, however, the perfect format for people who like a good story but don't have the time or attention to devote to the novels I hold so dear. What's more pertinent to EContent readers is how perfectly short stories lend themselves to mobile technology.

Short-form content doesn't just have to be about books. A long time ago, television shows figured out that short webisodes were a great way to keep viewers engaged between new episodes. Relatively minor but beloved characters-I'm thinking about Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock-got their moments in the sun thanks to webisodes, and fans became more deeply involved with the show.

Publishers have a real opportunity to engage readers with short-form content from their authors. eChook isn't the only app out there that has figured this out. Ether Books put out a short-story app a little over a year ago, and there are certainly more out there. This idea, though, could prove to be yet another wedge in the traditional writer-publisher relationship. Apps are just one more way for authors to get their content to the public without the help-or hindrance-of a traditional publisher, but it doesn't have to be that way. These apps also have the potential to be a great tool for publishers to engage readers and provide value to authors.

These apps can be more than just content delivery tools-they can be great marketing devices. Why not offer the first three chapters of a book for free through an app to lure in readers? Or publishers could release free or inexpensive short stories by an author in the months leading up to the release of his or her new book. If I were willing to shell out $1.29 for a Lady Gaga song on iTunes, I'd certainly be willing to pay $1.50 for a new essay or short story by Barbara Kingsolver while I wait for a new novel. Your readers probably feel the same about your content. So what do you have to offer them?