Let’s face it, the heyday of the short story as a popular art form was decades ago, probably as far back as when F. Scott Fitzgerald got rich and famous selling stories to the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Except for would-be writers, required reading for students, fan fiction fanatics and a damn few diehard short story lovers, the marketing of short stories is almost invisible to the average citizen of our pop culture country. Is the short story art form unpopular because readers don’t like them or because short stories are so poorly marketed?
The short story art form hangs on by a thread, like the art forms of poetry and playwriting. I expect the remaining for-profit scifi, fantasy, mystery and literary magazines to die off in the next 5-10 years unless something drastically changes. The question is, can a drastic change be made?
Is there anything that can be done to revive the short story art form to popularity? The first question to ask is: What do the popular art forms have that the unpopular ones don’t? Movies, television shows, songs, video games and novels are the most popular art forms in our world today, ranked roughly in that order. A single movie, TV show, song, game or book can be admired and loved by millions of fans, and wide consumption in these artistic endeavors are routine. When was the last time a short story was popular enough to have a 1,000 readers in one week? How many people actually read the short story in each issue of The New Yorker?
Besides legions of fans, the most important factor that popular art forms have and short stories don’t are Hit Lists. Movies, TV shows, songs, games and books are extremely well reviewed, charted, rated and ranked by sales and popularity. Each art has legions of critics working hard to stay current and teach how each example of their craft fits into an overall history.
Every week we are well informed about the most successful premieres of each art. Hell, weekend movie sales figures often get touted on the national morning news shows, and sometimes on the nightly news. Book readers all know about The New York Times Bestseller lists. We have the Nielsen ratings for TV shows and the Billboard 100 for pop songs. There are countless websites and magazines that track the success of computer games. And songs are marketed by hits on the radio and on online stores like iTunes.
As a culture we love keeping up with what’s popular, but is what’s popular just the stuff we track with Hit Lists? I think so. If short stories were ranked weekly would they gain popularity? I think they might, but many factors would have to come into play.
Most important, the Short Story Hit List 100 would have to be weekly and track all genres of short stories. Separating them out into story types is deadly. We don’t rank blockbuster movies or best selling books by topic. The Oscars and Emmys aren’t divided up by genre. It would be a total water cooler buzz kill to divide short stories out into special interest groupings. A hit story must be one that people want to read and talk about because of its popularity, not because it puts the reader into a sub-culture.
Next, its vitally important that short stories be sold as singles, and not part of albums (magazines or anthologies). Few people like to buy a magazine full of unknown short stories. It’s like getting a free music CD with a music magazine – most of the songs are mediocre and the CD is a disappointment. People want hits, and that has to apply to short stories too.
For short stories to make a comeback they need a marketing site like iTunes. They need to be sold for 99 cents in a standard digital format like MP3 songs. Unfortunately, ebook readers, smart phones and computers use a variety of ebook formats that hurt the concept of making short stories popular, so the iStories site needs to offer all the possible formats but hide the dirty details from the buyers. Fictionwise.com illustrates well how this is possible.
Ultimately, this universal format needs to be DRM free so short stories can be easily stolen and shared – or if they have to have a DRM, then it needs a mechanism for limited sharing between friends. Unfortunately, the unethical viral marketing of copyrighted material is too good of a selling tool to ignore. And I think in the future, this universal digital short story format should be roomy enough to contain graphics, music, video and audio readings. In other words readers can read the story, listen to the story read on audio, read with eyes and listen with ears at the same time, read the story with background music turned on or off, and see illustrations or photos to enhance the story. But this super ebook format isn’t an issue right now.
Short stories need to get away from printed formats as their premiere venues (but nice chapbook editions will make excellent marketing additions to the overall sales, and we can think anthology and story collection sales as long term publishing). The primary publishing format should be for ebook readers and smart phones. Like I said, short stories should be sold as singles with the goal of creating hits. Collections and anthologies should be left to the book world to market because they would hurt creating hit short stories.
The key to revitalizing the short story art form is creating hugely popular stories that will become the topic of conversation between people all over the nation. People share both the experience and love of movies, TV shows, books, song and video games. When was the last time you were in a conversation about a short story? When was the last time a group of people at your office discussed a short story they had all read? This happens all the time with movies and TV shows, and to a lesser extent books, songs and video games.
One of the major factors against marketing short stories is there are too many of them on the net for free. Free is incredibly bad for revitalizing the short story art form. Bad editors, no editors and no editing has created a glut of short stories on the Internet. No one likes to listen to amateur musicians or mediocre bands. Every time you play a song you want it to be a great song. When you go to the movies you expect to be blown away. When you read a book you want to find one that has deep emotional impact.
To revitalize the short story art form will require a seal of approval either attained by popularity or critics. Our imaginary iStories site cannot be a slush pile for the common reader to wade through. Nor should its editors have to select from a tremendous slush pile to find stories to promote on the site. Stories should be submitted by agents or professional editors that can be trusted. There needs to be some kind of farm team looking for talent to feed into the system. I would think existing print and online magazines could play the role as the iStories systems develops, but eventually I expect magazines to die off. Thus professional editors would become talent scouts and agents for stories.
A theoretical iStories site should also limit the number of new stories released each week, and find ways to publicize the best. New ways to promote stories should be invented. They need corporate backers like film studies or record companies but I doubt existing book publishers would take on this role. It might be left to magazines – so The New Yorker and Asimov’s Science Fiction would campaign to get their stories noticed, and bring attention back to their business.
We have to get away from depending on fiction magazine sales and magazine subscriptions because those marketing methods are no longer successful at making short stories popular. Buying a magazine is like buying an unknown album with the hope of finding a hit song, especially when you aren’t familiar with any of the artists. Buying a magazine subscription is like buying a bunch of unknown albums hoping to find several hit songs. 200 channels with nothing to read, huh? People want smash hits.
I doubt my ideas about revitalizing the short story art form will ever happen, but at least I’m making a point about creating a popular art form. Look at the short video and how YouTube is promoting them. Until there is a way to sell hit videos they will never become a major art form, but they could. Most people go to YouTube and similar sites and look at the most watched videos hoping to discover something really fun. Yesterday I discovered the Muppets version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” because almost six million people have watched it. That clue paid off because the video was excellent entertainment.
Back in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s short stories were popular enough that they were the topic of social discussions. If you watch the credits of old movies you’ll often see movies based on short stories. Newsstands were filled with hundreds of short story magazines. Short story reading was a popular evening pastime until radio slowed it down and television practically killed it off. In fact, television is what replaced the short story for people looking for after work diversion.
Short stories are not mini-novels. The best are jewels of intense fictional expression that are a unique art form. Sadly, they are a dying art form. Because of iPods, iPhones, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronic gadgets that people carry around, short stories have another chance to become popular again. Short stories can be read quietly anywhere on an iPhone, or even listened to in an audio edition. They must compete with songs, audio books, novels, movies, videos, computer games and television shows in this small venue, but there is room to compete well if short stories were marketed correctly.
And by correct marketing I mean as singles. Unless people are saying to their friends, “Have you read the new short story by so and so,” to their friends, short stories will be doomed to an ever shrinking fan base.
How to Start
If all the ebook sites, like Amazon’s Kindle home page, Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, and the general ebook fiction sites like Fictionwise.com, eBooks.com, eReader.com would create a section for short stories and a mechanism to track their sales, that would be a big start. It would help even more if they would offer spin-off sites that specialized in short stories.
Another angle of attack would be if online magazines maintained a hit list of their most popular stories ranked by web visitor hits. They might need to program mechanisms to keep authors or fans from constantly reloading the page to produce fake hits. And they need to track hits from all their backlog of stories and not just the current issue. It would be important to provide numbers so popularity could be gauged against stories at other online magazine sites. And like songs, and even movies, sometimes it takes weeks or months to have a breakout hit.
We’d also need critics that specialize in reviewing short stories, and ones that would be also willing to track many short story web sites and tally the numbers each week to give attention to the stories getting the most attention each week across the web.
If short story reading ever did catch on again, it would be fantastic if magazines like Entertainment Weekly devoted a section to them like the do movies, DVDs, books, music and television.
It would be a tremendous help if best of the year anthologists like those who compile the Best American Short Stories and the various yearly genre anthologies if they would maintain a blog about their ongoing efforts to select stories, even to the point of showing how they tally competing stories as they are discovering them. We need as much PR as possible on stories climbing the charts, so to speak.
Unfortunately, most fiction magazines are monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, and hit stories need to be tracked weekly, or even in real time. Web sites that change their content less than weekly get ignored and forgotten.
It would help greatly if a social bookmarking site like StumbleUpon created a short fiction section for tracking popular short fiction reading. On the other hand such sites help promote free reading, and that competes with our goal.
The biggest success for revitalizing short stories is if a company would create a web site like Audible.com, or an online store like iTunes just for the sale of short stories. They should sell both ebook editions and audio narrated editions of short stories. I’d suggest a standard price too, 99 cents for either ebook editions for reading with the eyes, or audio editions for reading with the ears. Short story are longer than songs, so some marketing folk might want to price them higher, but they are usually experienced only once, so they should be far cheaper than renting a movie.
Readers can help too. If you read a great story share it with your friends. Talk about it. Tell them where to buy it. I know this might be painful, but get in the habit of buying short stories, and avoid free stories. If you read and enjoy free stories at online magazines at least donate money, but it would be better if you supported a paid-subscription site. Flooding the market with free stories ruins the market and hurts the art form. Don’t promote free stories, it dilutes the market for selling stories. Don’t read stories that haven’t been accepted by an editorial process and edited unless you’re part of a writing workshop group or critiquing stories for a friend. Even fan fiction could be improved by these rules.
Authors like providing free copies of their short stories on the web to help promote their work in general. This might be good for their career but it has produced so many professionally written short stories for free on the net that short story fans no longer want to buy stories. Many fans now expect to find a copy of any short story they want for free and there are web sites to track free fiction to help them.
Free stories are bad for the short story art form in the long run and maybe an additional reason why print magazines subscriptions are declining even faster in recent years. Maybe free stories should only be those that are older than one year, or five years, and don’t compete with new sales.
If you love short stories and want to promote the art form then do whatever you can to help short story writers and publishers make money. I tend to doubt the short story market will be revived, but now is the time to try because of the switch to Internet publishing and ebook reading.
JWH – 11/28/9