Could Digital Publishing Restart Pulp Fiction?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really ‘get’ e-books. I understand the principles, but I’m just old fashioned that way. That’s as much about the collector in me as it is the physical qualities of the reading format. I think there’s an ephemeral nature to digital content at odds with the permanency offered by books. I like looking at a shelf full of books more than a list of files on a computer screen. Then again, I thought the same about my CD collection but now my iTunes library is far larger than anything I would have bought physically, and when the day comes that I can have a TV or digital box-thingy that can store movies I suspect my DVD collection will go the same way (I have a stupidly big LCD TV, why would I watch movies on my PC monitor?). Then again, CDs and DVDs are just a storage medium, there’s nothing physical about their qualities that differentiates them from any other. Books are special

In one area in particular, though, I can see huge potential for digital publishing. Most of the modern fiction genres we all know and love really came into their own through the medium of short stories. Short horror pieces, detective stories, penny dreadfuls, dime novels and pulp magazines were like the movie matinees that created the modern film industry – giving readers a little and often. These days it is the accepted wisdom of publishers that short fiction is generally nowhere near as popular as novels, which is a crying shame. Part of the problem is the expense versus income of putting together an anthology or running a fiction magazine, and even the most popular short fiction magazines have circulation woeful in comparison to their heyday.

Digital publishing changes that. The idea of the monthly serial can return through the computer screen. Already some writers publish their works chapter-by-chapter in this way but that just seems to be a means to an end rather than an end in its own right. I would like to see (and write) short digital fiction for its own sake, with low commitment costs for publishers and consequently low investment cost for the reader. The ability to choose and download single short stories – either to investigate a new author or keep up with an already favoured one – is a logical step that removes some of the hit-and-miss people associate with short fiction collections.

The strength of ‘pulp’ fiction is in its ideas and its availability, unfettered by the narrative constraints of a novel, giving authors and readers freedom to explore and innovate in many directions. By removing the costs of physical publishing, e-fiction can let loose the shackles of commercial pressures and allow that exploration to enter a new phase. What would genre fiction have been without the windows of opportunity available to the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and many others? Many of them would never have seen the light of day, their works deemed unsuitable for the modern publishing industry – nobody reads short stories, after all…

Published in: on November 12, 2008 at 11:47 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s assuming people will actually pay for something they can obtain freely (if illegally) with virtually no effort. Yes, there are still fools like you and me who like buying music (though I prefer the physical medium to a digital download), but there are plenty who think content should be ‘free’, regardless of the time and effort put into it by the creator.

    I really, really hope I’m wrong, of course.

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  2. I had a free download rant brewing even as I wrote that post, which I will undoubtedly unleash upon the world very soon. Mostly inspired by the puffing internet blowhards who seem to think that software developers placing copying restrictions on their own product is somehow immoral or unconstitutional.

    And people have been able to get books for free for decades – from libraries!

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  3. Perhaps the Internet should move towards a library model; if you can download films or music legally and easily, and there’s some way for the authors to get paid as a result, then everyone wins.

    I have issues with DRM but they mostly stem from the restrictions they place on use – thankfully the awful rootkits and non-standard CDs that flooded the market a few years ago have been got rid of, but similar (and more intrusive) DRM restrictions still exist on computer games. I don’t think everyone who objects to DRM is necessarily a hardcore pirate, and it’s important to keep the two distinct.

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  4. There are already library-like moves going ahead in some spheres, so we can all hope.

    http://www.thebookseller.com/news/70364-barnsley-e-book-has-real-future.html

    I think the book industry has a chance to get ahead of the curve where movies and music has consistently been trying to catch up with their communities. However, as in the home markets for those two industries we will have to endure a period of commercial competetion until systems and formats become more standardised and the technology becomes more readily accessible. I suspect ten years from now publishing will be as different as the current music industry is from the 1990s.

    And anything that gets more people reading is always a good thing!

    PS an interesting take from someone else: http://pawnstorm.wordpress.com/2007/08/08/the-future-of-short-stories-part-1/

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  5. Short story magazines are still the best way to be picked up by mainstream publishers here in the U.S. Electronic publications, however, aren’t. Most New York publishers don’t pay attention to them, and largely with good reason. The majority of e-magazines are crap and many of them pay little to nothing.

    That isn’t to say the e-books are bad or free online publications are useless. Look at Scott Sigler’s Infected, which came out almost a year ago. The most powerful marketing tool he used was distributing free e-book copies of the entire book. Included in the front was a simple message:

    “If you like this, pick up a copy and feel free to send a copy of this to a friend.”

    If I recall correctly, he was in amazon’s overall top 10 sales list when the hardcover was released.

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  6. Nice blog…thanks.

    I am new here.

    Gav – Hello! Welcome aboard. Have a look around and make yourself at home :-).

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  7. Online writing is just like the rest of the internet – 98% nonsense and 2% useful and/ or good (my personal %ages, of course!). Clearly typing ‘short story’ into Google or Yahoo isn’t going to do the trick, which is where the need for established publishers to ensure they take a role exists.

    My current contention is that the accepted lack of a mainstream short fiction market had now become something of a vicious circle. The expense vs reward of publishing short stories means that most publishers leave it to indepedents or small imprints, which of course means a lack of budget for marketing and distribution. The paucity of funds mean that most readers are instead bombarded daily with novels, celebrity biographies and the like, further reinforcing the decline of short fiction.

    This seems an odd way to go, given the fact that short stories are an ideal format to get people reading in their ‘busy’, modern lives. Many folks who do not consider themselves readers will happily pick up a newspaper every day. A 5,000 word short can easily be read in a tea break or on the bus to work and it occurs to me that publishers are missing a trick.

    The little-and-often approach taken by TV series can easily be applied to a writing model, but is currently limited by the expense of physical publication (and thus expense of the consumer).

    Digital publication can offer part of the solution in this regard. Of course, it’s never going to be quite the same as something that can be picked up on the news stand but publishers need to be aware of the ever more digital-savviness of coming generations.

    Having a short story download-of-the-week subscription service seems a logical extension, the same as e-papers and e-zines should be looking at customisable content. Perhaps Reader’s Digest should take up the torch… 😉

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