In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn’t Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?

To be sure, a sizable number of people in the independent sector have done exactly that. David Daley, for instance,

To be sure, a sizable number of people in the independent sector have done exactly that. David Daley, for instance, who edited the 20-minute fiction section of McSweeney’s #12, runs a Web site called FiveChapters.com where he serializes a previously unpublished short story every week, splitting it into five sections and posting one part every day. Then there’s Melville House Publishing, a small press based in Dumbo that has published a tall stack of novellas, from public domain classics like Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband to contemporary titles like Imre Kertesz’s The Pathseeker and Steve Stern’s The North of God.

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Most notable, perhaps, is One Story, a Brooklyn-based journal (for lack of a better word) that for the past seven years has been sending its subscribers a new short story in the mail every three weeks for just $21 per year. According to the publisher, a onetime staffer at Lingua Franca named Maribeth Batcha who started the project seven years ago with friends after completing her M.F.A. at Columbia, One Story currently has about 4,000 subscribers.

The corporate Manhattan houses could do worse than to emulate that model. Just imagine: Each publisher could make little menus like they have in sushi restaurants that list all the authors in their stables who write short stories with any regularity, and subscribers could check off the ones whose work they’re interested in receiving and pay a monthly premium for the privilege.

The most obvious way to go, distribution-wise, would be to use e-mail or RSS, but there’s also no reason why, say, Dan Halpern at Ecco or Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux couldn’t actually print up staple-bound limited editions and mail them to subscribers the way the Beatles did in the ’60s with their fan-club-only 45s. Or there could be an iTunes-style online store that sold stories for one or two dollars apiece, and maybe the Kindle could be involved somehow. Or, the iPhone! Whatever! The point is to sell the things one at a time and market them accordingly, hooking in those people who might very well like your authors if only their books were not all so long and daunting.

It’s possible, of course, that none of this would help the short story’s standing in the marketplace. Maybe people really just don’t like them. According to FSG editor Lorin Stein, it might have to do with the fact that they end so soon after they begin. “You always feel the end of the story coming up on you,” he said. “I think a short story is always making you think about death.”

lneyfakh@observer.com

In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn’t Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?