Short Story, Tall Order: On adapting short fiction for digital audiences

Self-employed in publishing

This is a guest post from Jasmin Kirkbride. Jasmin is a regular blogger for BookMachine and Editorial Assistant at Periscope Books (part of Garnet Publishing). She is also a published author and you can find her on Twitter @jasminkirkbride

There’s no way around it: short fiction is having a moment. With events like the London Short Story Festival growing an extraordinary amount each year, the publishing industry’s liminal little brother is taking its fair share of the limelight. And it’s got a few things to teach us into the bargain.

A short history of short fiction

The short story in the modern day form, outside the folktales and poetry of Scheherazade and The Canterbury Tales, sprang into existence at some point in the mid-19th century. Through the first short story was arguably Walter Scott’s The Two Doves, short stories really took off outside the UK, mainly in Northern America. Short fiction did not become fashionable in Britain until the 1880s, when writers such as Kipling, James and Wells brought it to the fore.

In the 1920s, the proliferation of magazine publishing helped short stories to flourish and different styles started to develop. The short story was here to stay. The public’s interest in short stories has never completely diminished, though some decades have been more successful than others.

Publishing short fiction

Nowadays, it is very hard to make big bucks selling short stories and the market is skewed towards longer fiction. Large publishing houses tend not to publish short stories unless they are dealing with a big author name that will guarantee sales, for example, the recently published Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Macmillan).

In 2013, however, short-story authors Lydia David and Alice Munro won the Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize respectively, throwing short fiction into the spotlight. Since then, they have continued to enjoy a growth in popularity, experiencing a long-overdue renaissance.

Fuelled by public interest, literary magazines have been sprouting up all over the world, particularly in the UK, breathing new life into the short fiction scene: from renewed interest in classic outlets like Granta, The Paris Review and The London Magazine to fresh magazines such as Open Pen, Hark and Haverthorn.

The new models

As with everything, the short story scene is having to adapt to the digital revolution: there are multiple new publishing models being invented to accommodate readers of short fiction. Subscription services offered by magazines often vary, giving access to digital-only content, or a print subscription, or both.

Interestingly, however, they seem to be approaching the situation with more imagination – and arguably success – than much of the mainstream publishing industry. There are a slew of new short-fiction apps, such as Connu, which offers short stories written by unknown authors and recommended by famous ones; Ether, which offers readers the chance to preview stories before buying them from 69p; and short story publishing and reading platform Movellas.

What’s more, social media is remarkably suited to short-short-fiction and flash fiction. The famous six-word-story have become very popular online. Similarly, hashtagged 140-character tales are all the rage on Twitter. The reasons why these stories are shared varies, but whether it’s as part of a wider marketing drive or whether they’re being shared for the pleasure of the story, there can be no denying their growing success.

Small but mighty

These developments and experiments are possible for two reasons.

First, because of its length, short fiction is extremely agile content. It lends itself to subscription services and being read on mobile devices, as it can be read quickly.

Second, as there is little money to begin with in short fiction, running experiments with the content comes at less risk. Short fiction publishers are allowed to play with the content more freely, be braver, and jump father – and they have been doing so at the sidelines of our industry for years already in order to survive.

With this in mind, it’s fair to say that whatever the future of short fiction publishing holds, it’s sure to be exciting.

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