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Short Stories for $3.99: the Atlantic/Kindle Deal is Not So New

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As of December 7, 2009, short stories by Christopher Buckley, Edna O'Brien (and by January Curtis Sittenfeld, and presumably many others) are available on Kindle, courtesy of a deal with the Atlantic Monthly. Links to the short stories will appear on the author's pages on Amazon.com, exhorting "Buy it now!"

The stories, selected by Atlantic staffers, will bear an Atlantic Monthly logo, the New York Times reports, and won't be available in the publication's print edition. That is, the magazine. They will only be available on your Kindle. Not your e-reader. The plan is that eventually the Atlantic's editors will offer two short stories per month.

The idea here is that everyone can make a little--or even a lot--more money this way. Say your short story is actually pretty long. But not long enough to be considered a novel or even a novella. No book contract or New Yorker placement for you. Now what? Or say you're the Atlantic and you stopped publishing any fiction at all, other than in your annual fiction issue, in 2005. Putting your fancy imprimatur on a piece of fiction written by a known quantity/brand (Buckley, O'Brien, Sitwell, or King, who started this whole thing) and then partnering with a powerhouse to sell it makes financial sense. Or is at least a risk worth taking.

And what's the downside, really, at least for the consumer I mean reader? In New York, at least, there isn't much you can get for less than four dollars, and now I'm thinking of how my doorman used to call Starbucks "four bucks--cause you can't get out of there for less no matter how damn hard you try." Through this iterative, associative process, I believe we have struck on the logic of the Amazon/Kindle pricing of short stories. If you will pay a certain amount for a mega-caloric concoction bearing little relation to actual coffee, the thinking probably goes, you will pay at least as much to have Edna O'Brien on demand.

There are plenty of unanswered questions, of course. Like the for-now prohibitive for many price of getting started with the whole business by plunking down the money for a Kindle or an e-reader in the first place. The participating writers themselves seem ambivalent and curious about the whole thing, with Christopher Buckley grumbling that naturally he'd rather his 15,000 word short story--too long to be published in a magazine, but not long enough for a book deal--be printed "on archival paper and bound in red morocco...gold embossed for a limited edition and signed by the author." O'Brien, who told the Times that she had never seen a Kindle, said she was game primarily because it would allow her to "acquaint myself with all that's modern out there" while Sittenfeld shrugged that while Kindle's rules would prevent her from reselling the work to another e-reader down the line, it wasn't any worse than selling it to a small academic journal with a limited readership, her other option.

The comparison to iTunes is inevitable--if we can download songs in the digital age, why not short stories?--but might miss the point. The Amazon/Kindle short story deal doesn't just hurtle us forward; it harkens back in time as well.

Before we start wringing out hands about the commodification of writing and the lowbrowing of the highbrow, we might consider that we've long loved our fiction serialized, short and sweet, relatively cheap, and hot off the presses. Charles Dickens didn't conceive of The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist as novels--like much popular fiction of the Victorian era, they were first published in periodicals, serialized over weeks and months. Eventually the works would be assembled into a three part set called triple deckers, and lent out, one third at a time, by lending libraries, which charged a modest fee.

It was a cunning strategy from many angles. By releasing them over time, publishers built a following of readers/fans who frequently literally clamored in the streets for the next installment: "I want my Wilkie Collins!" Meanwhile, proceeds from the first volumes paid for the printing of later ones. This is all separate from the "Penny Dreadfuls," cheap daily broadsides for the lower classes that titillated with their lurid tales of crimes and adventures real and fictionalized. Such are the "impure" origins of Victorian literary fiction, and today's.

Will we soon be able to get the latest short story of our favorite author, or installation of her next novel, on our phones for the modern day equivalent of a few shillings? Time will tell. Personally, I hope so. And now, as for those of us who blog, I have a modest proposal for Arianna and Kindle...

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