New outlet for stories (but there’s a catch or two)

Since the digital/ebook revolution (you know the one that took Australian publishers two years to catch up with) I’ve thought about ways this could be made to work for we struggling writers. Also, being a long-distance commuter, I saw how much reading people did on the train. I’ve also been very frustrated at the few outlets for writers and their short fiction in Australia. Tens of thousands of students stream out of creative writing courses every year all competing to get their stories into the, maybe, ten literary journals that take two or three stories each.

With digital publishing it’s cheaper and easier to publish works plus the constraints of the ludicrously small word count for short fiction (usually 2,000 to 3,000 words) don’t apply – there longer possible word count means there is space for meatier, more complex stories. The problem of course is how to get these stories out to a readership, and how to get the readership to pay.

Shortfire Press did it one way in the UK (the press is run by an ex-mainstream publisher so she had contacts which is a big start). They set up a website and sold stories off the site in various e-publishing formats for 99p a pop. They got quite good media coverage of their venture plus some fairly well-known contributors, although they do take unsolicited submissions as well. They have been going for over a year and I would have expected them to have hundreds of stories to choose from on their site by now but if you have a look you’ll find they have thirty or forty, not a critical mass. Lately they have also sold some of their stories through Amazon for Kindle. But somehow to get the model to work you have to have readers subscribe to stories on a regular basis like they might subscribe to a newspaper.

This brings me to the new venture called Review of Australian Fiction. This is a digital-only publication that delivers two pieces of short fiction per issue for $2.99. The idea is to have one established writer (so far Christos Tsiolkas and Georgia Blain) and for these writes to nominate one emerging writer (Kalinda Ashton and P M Newton) for the second story. If you subscribe you will get two stories every two weeks. AFR has used the format so you don’t download the stuff to your device but have to log on to the web every time you want to read your purchase.

This is a good option for those with tablets or who are prepared to read fiction on their smart phones, or anyone who reads stories on their laptops (does anyone?). It will be interesting to see what the take up is for this, and while I commend the emerging writer thing and think it’s good to use established writers as the bait (OK, the cherry), it is a blow for other writers that inclusion is by invitation only. If you subscribe you will automatically get new stories every two weeks.

If the subscription model works, then I think that is the way to go but, personally, I don’t like the route. I have bought a couple of things through to read on my iPad but I’m always forgetting the log on when I’d think of reading something while I’m out. I’d much rather get the stories on my Kindle all in one place with my other reading matter.

Bordering on the abyss?

The big news in February was Borders and Angus & Robertson going into voluntary administration. The predictable cries that it was all due to online shopping and ebooks were heard. These bookshops now, more inevitably to follow, the argument went. It’s true book selling is down but so is most retailing. More level heads came in later to say that REDgroup (owned by Pacific Equity Partners) had a bad business model plus the modus operandi of equity companies is to use debt financing to buy up companies cheap, strip them down, then sell them off for a big profit. When outside factors impinged on the book business, this model floundered. Sad for the staff who will lose their jobs – bookshop staff, even in the chains, always seem intelligent, nice and obliging to me.

I’m not of the camp that says Borders was a flawed model in Australia (See Mark Rubbo from Readings article). The Borders I frequented – the one in Parramatta and the one in Pitt Street Mall – always had plenty of customers and a good range of books. Sure they brought in the 3 for 2 discounts but this was quickly copied by other outlets like Dymocks, and they are still trading.  I also notice today in the Sydney Morning Herald it says the administrators are looking for buyers for 103 Borders and Angus & Robertson stores. This obviously means they think the businesses are sound.

No shh about

Lohrey's short stories for $19 (pbook $33)

There has been some debate about the arrival of the Readings ebookstore platform (what’s with these internal full stops and capitalisations?). Basically I was just excited that someone was making new Australian titles available as ebooks and, as I have a Kindle and an iPad, it was fine for me – I could purchase a book and read it on my iPad.

Some of the criticism is that Bookish only works for back-lit devices, laptops, iPads, iPhones etc and you access the book you’ve bought through a web browser. It’s not designed for e-ink readers.

I must admit I have not as yet tried to read a full length novel on my iPad so I can’t attest to eyestrain etc. My hope is that there will be some kind of convergent device at some stage where you change between the two – backlit is great for colour graphics and short bursts of text (surely the future for cookbooks) while e-ink is, so far, the best for long texts.

See the whole interesting debate at Overland blog.

eshorts – yay

Shortfire Press in the UK has done what I’ve been advocating for some time and is making new short stories available as electronic downloads. The stories are chosen by the editor Clare Hey and published online only. You can buy each individual story for £0.99 in pdf, mobi or epub format. There are only three stories up there now (the site only went live last week) but more are to come. This is a great initiative – I just have to work out how to get the stories onto my iPad using Stanza. They are not available through iBooks (what is?) – you purchase the stories through the Shortfire website.

The death of the paperback is much exaggerated

Mark Twain's death was much exaggerated

Julian Morrow (the host of ABC Radio National Summer Breakfast) is a convert to e-reading so he’s had quite a few segments on ebooks. He appears to be frustrated, like the rest of us, at (1) the price of ebooks in Australia and (2) the lack of availability of the books you want. He also seems perplexed at the nostalgia for print books that is used, whether deliberately or not to, try to stymie the rise of ebooks. In a piece on the “death of the paperback” broadcast this morning he admits to not caring less about the smell, the touch, the look of a print book – he just wants to read something and he’s happy it’s on a screen. The podcast is available here. Also there is a previous segment – “books in a digital age” parts 1 & 2 (with Joel Becker from the Australian Booksellers Association ) available here and here.

Oz ebooks are out there but hard to find

In my ongoing quest to find ebooks I actually want to read, I was pleasantly surprised to find Fiona Capp’s book on Judith Wright My Blood’s Country was available in ebook format. Hooray Allen&Unwin but – oh, no – you have to go and find it on one of the 11 ebook seller sites they link off the A&U site. (How come A&U don’t know who’s selling their ebooks?) Anyway off I go tapping away. Surprisingly (or not so surprising she says cynically) those Oz sites you’d expect to stock (store?) an Australian title don’t have it ie Borders, Angus and Robertson, Dymocks and Kobo. Whitcoulls the NZ site didn’t have it either. When I did find the book, the prices were wildly varied (the pbook RRP is $27.99):

  • Waterstones (UK) £17
  • (US) $20
  • Books on Board (US) $15
  • Kindle (US) $12
  • Read Without Paper (Oz) AUD $25
  • W H Smith (UK) £13.

I suppose to wide variance in price reflects the AUD exchange rate, but the good news is that ebooks can be significantly cheaper than the pbook and available simultaneously with the pbook release (the release date for the Capp pbook was December 2010).

There is a website ( that will compare pbook prices for a given title across the range of online sellers. I would be great if this service was extended to ebooks

What I want for Christmas is a …

The New York Times is good at keeping an eye on the progress of ebooks. In the latest piece “Christmas Gifts May Help E-Books Take Root” they note that ebooks now make up 9 to 10% of the trade book market and publishers predict digital sales will be 50% higher in 2011 than 2010.

With ebook readers a Christmas present of choice, in the US they think “January could be the biggest month ever for e-book sales, as possibly hundreds of thousands of people are expected to download books on the e-readers they received as gifts”.

However publishers admit that they still haven’t worked out how to sell ebooks effectively to consumers. That times ten for Australia.

Apparently Life by Keith Richards and Cleopatra, a biography by Stacy Schiff are top ebook sellers in the US (but, oh, I like that Cleopatra cover – too bad about the B&W Kindle but if I buy it for my iPad I get the colour cover on my virtual bookshelf). The NY Times will publish an ebook bestseller list next year.

Full piece here.

On a dark and gloomy Late Night

On ABC RN’s Late Night Live (1 Dec) there was a rather subdued discussion with Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe and Mark Rubbo from Readings about the Australian book industry. They both sounded very pessimistic calling this last year one of the worst for the industry. While there was some attempt to finger the move to digital books with the drop in business, the real culprit, it appears, is the huge rise in the Australian dollar making it much, much cheaper to purchase print books online from overseas book sites (OK we’re talking Amazon).

Whereas, in the past, the postage paid on Amazon purchases somewhat evened out the price paid, now the differential is so great it is much more economic. A US or UK book is currently pretty much half the price or less of the same book published here. I can see this would depress Henry Rosenbloom as Scribe, like Text, are good at spotting quality overseas titles to publish here, and this must be an economic mainstay for them. Scribe, for example, publishes Norman Doidge’s very popular The Brain that Changes Itself. (Available as an epub, I notice, from the Dymocks website).

A smidgin of light in the gloomy atmosphere of the LNL discussion came when they let slip that Scribe and Readings were going to work on developing a site to sell ebooks. It wasn’t made clear what form this would take but they did mention value-adding on a portal the way an independent bookstore assists and directs its customers. I also like the idea (not talked about on LNL) of in-store downloads – where you could go in and browse around the print books, choose what you want and then have the genuine choice to buy an e-edition or a p-edition, and, in that scenario the bookshop would get a cut as the download hub. LNL podcast here.

More mangling with Meanjin

The Meanjin debate goes on at A Pair of Ragged Claws here including a link to a quite funny “Arrows in your backside” piece at Crikey (which, in turn, links to other articles).

I was going to add in addendum to my piece below that Overland does put its articles, short stories and poetry up on the web, so it has an online and a print presence. Jim Davidson, in a comment to Stephen Romei’s post, says that Overland is “the literary magazine with the best track record of marshalling its supporters, sees its on-line readership as a virtual community. It is fifty times larger than that reached by its print edition.”

I also note that the Sydney Morning Herald now offers a free iPad version with a print subscription and The Monthly offers a free ebook version, with either a print or online subscription. In keeping with the good old Australian pricing policy the SMH iPad version is $18 a month or $205 for the year (including “weekend” delivery of print papers). International folk can get the electronic only for $52!

Kid reads Meanjin on iPhone

There has been some controversy of late about the fate of the literary magazine, Meanjin. The fear is, that with the leaving of the editor, Sophie Cunningham, the publishers (MUP) will have the excuse to get rid of the print version and put the magazine online. There was much hue and cry about this, most notably by Peter Craven writing in The Age. He says Meanjin will “shrivel in the online desert” and “disappear into the evanescence of the internet”. The print version is necessary, he says, so “a kid might pick [it] up in a library or a punter might see [it] in a book shop”.

I, too, have a fondness for print. I was disappointed to hear the The Sleeper’s Almanac will only be available digitally from next year. But is this nostalgia? Certainly, for a writer, to be published means first and foremost to be published in print.  But can we, and should we, be trying to turn back the tide? If Meanjin, and other serious literary magazines, are supposed to be cutting-edge shouldn’t they acknowledge new forms of reading?

Let’s look at Australia’s literary magazines. There are perhaps ten or twelve well-known and well-established ones: Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Overland, Island, Heat, Griffith Review, Quadrant, Voiceworks, Wet Ink, Going Down Swinging and probably as many small, not so well known ones: Cut Water from Sydney, Harvest and Kill Your Darlings from Melbourne, for example.

Let’s now look at Peter Craven’s punter. At $20 to $25 a pop, your average punter might subscribe-to/buy regularly one of these magazines. It’s beyond the punter’s budget to support all of them.  Okay, our punter can go to his/her local library, but if it’s like my local library, they will only hold one of the above. This means, really, that most punters won’t read much of the new writing available in Australia. And that’s the tiny, tiny minority of people who EVER buy a literary magazine. Look in your local newsagent, are they there? Rarely. Look in your local bookshop. Do they stock them? Again, rarely.

So now we get back to the digital possibilities. I have an iPad. I would either buy an online literary magazine as an  app or iBook (at say half the print price) or I would also love to be able to purchase an essay I was interested in, or a short story, for a token amount, say $2 a go. These pieces are just the length to read on the train, or over coffee and toast in the morning. But, of course, such availability is not here yet in Australia (we are way behind the US).

I currently subscribe to Kill Your Darlings email feed from their blog and regularly get something interesting to read on email – just the right thing for my iPad. They must think such pieces whet the recipient’s appetite to buy the print version but I’m reading these articles online and would be happy to pay a certain amount to do so in a properly formated way with graphics etc. There are also online only magazines currently out there: Perilous Adventures, Cordite, Mascara, Jacket, Stylus. These are all currently free and that’s the problem, or the opportunity.

The way we read, and the way we value what we read, is changing. Those of us with ebook readers know that when we’ve purchased that copy of a new novel we want to read, the novel is just as weighty, important, absorbing, valuable (or not) as any print book we own. I will admit that I miss beautiful colour covers but with the iPad, you get a virtual wooden bookcase where the colour covers of your books reside, the way you have cover flow on your iPod.

Paper will give way to digital, eventually. Those publishers/journals that move over now, in the beginning, will be the venerable online journals of the future that have staked out their readership. Hand held devices like the Kindle and the iPad will be continually adapted to make them extremely usable for the “punters”. BTW Peter Craven, your kid stumbling across a Meanjin in a library. Yes, he/she will stumble across it, but it will be online. Libraries will still be the free gateway, but they’ll be the gateway to what’s online, just as they will increasingly make ebooks available for loan.