iStories: The Short Story Hit List 100 Weekly

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

Revealing Your Personality With Science Fiction

Rusty Keele over at BestScienceFictionStories.com has invited blogging friends over to write about their favorite SF short story, and I’m one of the contributors.  My post is queued up for tomorrow.  I picked “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany from 1967.  Be sure and stop by and read all the posts this week.  Jason Sanford discusses his love of Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” from 1950 and John DeNardo picks “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin from 1954, after sneaking in a plea for “Diamond Dogs” by Alastair Reynolds from 2003.

It’s revealing to see what other fans like in the way of short stories, especially when you only get to pick one.  If had mentioned two, I might have included “The Menace From Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein from 1957.

To help refresh your memory of great short stories, look at these lists:

Are you a long time fan of science fiction?  If you study these lists, even in a casual way, they will bring back a flood of memories.  There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of great science fiction stories.  Our pitiful little minds just can’t hold them all our bio-RAM.  I wouldn’t have picked a different story if I had read these lists before I wrote my essay for Rusty, but reading them now makes me realize how hard it would be to pick story #2.

It’s too bad reprint rights are so expensive because it would be huge fun to create my own personal anthology of favorites and publish it at Lulu.com.  Imagine a fad of publishing personal anthologies of short stories, where you wrote forwards and afterwards for each story. Wouldn’t that make a unique way to communicate with new friends?  In the old days you’d introduce yourself to people and leave your calling card.  Imaging leaving your anthology.

Could you define your inner core personality with 12 short stories?  I think “The Star Pit” comes close to revealing a lot of my personal programming.  Picking the next 11 stories would be difficult, but I think I’ll start going through the above lists and make a try of it.  Certainly, it will make a nice blog entry.

Jim

Best Science Fiction Short Stories 2007

It’s that time of year again, when all the annual best of anthologies start showing up.  This year I’ve come across four so far, one of which I’m reading (Hartwell & Cramer), two of which are winging their way from Amazon (Dozois & Strahan), and a fourth is waiting to be shipped (Horton).  There are probably more of these out there, so let me know.  Here are the titles I know about so far:

What’s truly strange is how little overlap there is, with only 12 stories out of 87 getting in more than one book.  This made me feel good about wanting to buy all four volumes, but on the other hand, I wished there were more obvious stand-out stories.  We know that the Ted Chiang and Karen Joy Fowler stories won Nebula awards this year, and  these stories are nominated for the 2008 Hugo Awards:

  • “Memorare” by Gene Wolfe (novella) (HC)
  • “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham (novelette) (JS)
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang (novelette) (GD, JS) (Nebula winner)
  • “Dark Integers” by Greg Egan (novelette) (RH)
  • “Glory” by Greg Egan (novelette) (GD, JS)
  • “Finisterra” by David Moles (novelette) (GD)
  • “Lost Contact” by Stephen Baxter (short story) (GD, JS)
  • “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear (short story) (GD)
  • Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359″ by Ken MacLeod (short story) (HC)

Greg Egan and Nancy Kress got in all four best-of-books with multiple stories, and 12 other writers got into more than one volume with one or more stories.

Abraham, Daniel The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics JS
Asher, Neal Alien Archeology GD
Baker, Kage Plotters and Shooters HC
Baker, Kage Hellfire in Twilight GD
Ballantyne, Tony Aristotle OS HC
Ballantyne, Tony Third Person HC
Barnes, John An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away GD, RH
Baxter, Stephen Last Contact GD, JS
Baxter, Stephen No More Stories HC
Beagle, Peter S. The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French JS
Bear, Elizabeth Orm the Beautiful JS
Bear, Elizabeth Tideline GD
Benford, Gregory Reasons Not to Publish HC
Benford, Gregory Dark Heaven GD
Bisson, Terry Pirates of the Somali Coast HC
Black, Holly The Coat of Stars JS
Brooke, Keith The Accord GD
Cadigan, Pat Nothing Personal GD
Chiang, Ted The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate GD, JS
Daniel, Tony The Valley of the Garden JS
Di Filippo, Paul Wikiworld RH
Egan, Greg Glory GD, JS
Egan, Greg Induction HC
Egan, Greg Dark Integers RH
Egan, Greg Steve Fever GD
Finlay, Charles Coleman An Eye for an Eye RH
Ford, Jeffrey The Dreaming Wind JS
Fowler, Karen Joy Always HC, RH
Gaiman, Neil The Witch’s Headstone JS
Goonan, Kathleen Ann The Bridge HC
Goss, Theodore Singing of Mount Abora JS
Gregory, Daryl Dead Horse Point JS
Hand, Elizabeth Winter’s Wife JS
Hemry, John As You Know, Bob HC
Hitchcock, Robin They Came From the Future HC
Holm, Palle Juul A Blue and Cloudless Sky HC
Irvine, Alex Wizard’s Six JS
Jablokov, Alexander Brain Raid RH
Jones, Gwyneth The Tomb Wife HC
Jones, Gwyneth Saving Tiamaat GD
Kessel, John The Last American HC
Kosmatka, Ted The Prophet of Flores GD, JS
Kowal, Mary Robinette For Solo Cello RH
Kress, Nancy By Fools Like Me JS
Kress, Nancy End Game HC
Kress, Nancy Art of War RH
Kress, Nancy Laws of Survival GD
Laidlaw, Marc An Evening’s Honest Peril HC
Landis, Geoffrey Vectoring RH
Link, Kelly The Constable of Albal JS
MacLeod, Ken Jesus Christ, Reanimator JS, RH
MacLeod, Ken Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? HC
MacLeod, Ken Lighting Out GD
McCormack, Una Sea Change GD
McDonald, Ian Sanjeev and Robotwallah GD, HC
McDonald, Ian Verthandi’s Ring GD
McIntosh, Will Perfect Violet RH
Moles, David Finisterra GD
Palwick, Susan Sorrel’s Heart JS
Phillips, Holly Three Days of Rain RH
Pratt, Tim Artifice and Intelligence HC, RH
Purdom, Tom The Mists of Time GD
Reed, Robert Night Calls RH
Reed, Robert Roxie GD
Reynolds, Alastair The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter GD
Rickert, M. Holiday JS
Roberson, Chris The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small GD, JS
Rosenbaum, Benjamin & Ackert David Stray GD
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn Craters GD
Sedia, Ekaterina Virus Changes Skin RH
Shunn, William Objective Impermeability in a Closed System HC
Silverberg, Robert Against the Current GD
Singh, Vandana Of Love and Other Monsters GD
Sinisalo, Johanna Baby Doll HC
Skillingstead, Jack Everyone Bleeds Through RH
Stableford, Brian The Immortals of Atlantis GD
Stanchfield, Justin Beyond the Wall GD
Sterling, Bruce Kiosk GD, JS
Sterling, Bruce The Lustration HC
Sterling, Bruce A Plain Tale From Our Hills RH
Stross, Charles Trunk and Disorderly JS
Swanwick, Michael Urdumheim JS
Swanwick, Michael The Skysailor’s Tale GD, RH
Van Pelt, James How Music Begins HC
Van Pelt, James Of Late I Dreamt of Venus GD
Watts, Peter Repeating the Past HC
Wolfe, Gene Memorare HC