Thursday, 30 August 2012

Dime Novels, Short Stories, and Ebooks

Dime novels (penny dreadful, in the UK) were essentially the introduction to literature for the masses in the Western World, between the XIX and the XX century. Apart from the quality issues – whatever this means – they ensured an affordable access to printed stories written by professionals to almost everybody, for decades. And as such, for the first time in the history of mankind, they constituted a strong and almost immediate link between writers (even though sometimes concealed behind noms de plume, or others way to hide actual authors) and their readers: stories were printed, spread, and read almost immediately after being written. Short stories were in practice a widespread format: either as standalone pieces, or in the form of chapters of novels.

Industry changed the publishing landscape during the XX century: writer, publishers, readers, printed materials. Serialisation became less common, and almost disappeared; novels became predominant with respect to short stories; the publishing process got much more articulated; and huge, elaborated (in any sense), printed volumes containing (often long) novels became the predominant medium in the intercourse between readers and writers. Even serialisation has changed: nowadays, a series is typically a sequence of long novels, whose lifespan is more like years, or even decades, rather than weeks or months.

But the XXI century brought some news: electronic publishing in ebook format, distribution through the network, and personal fruition via mobile devices have the potential to change that landscape again. Now authors can write something and made it available to their readers for immediate fruition. Also, the new habit of micro-payments, introduced by digital music stores like the iTunes Store, makes it actually possible to buy “small-size literature” again: spending less than a euro (or, dollar) for, say, the latest chapter, or short story, from a favourite author of mine, is now (again) feasible, even easy.

We are seeing it already: some new authors put their first works as short novels on the ebook stores. The first ones are for free, and if you like them you can buy the rest of the story. Size is shrinking: short novels are more or less chapters of old-time dime novels (in term of size), even though self-contained in some sense, so they can be read independently of each other.

The road seem already paved in that direction: if the Art of Short Stories is not forgotten (and, at least in some fields such as SciFi, it is definitely not), writers may try again that form of literature – currently more or less confined to few literary magazines, and to contests for wannabe-writers. In the last decades, too many good-but-small ideas have been wasted diluting them in long novels when they should have been perfect for a short story. Now we are back again: if you are a long-distance runner, go an write a novel that people will pay ten bucks for; if are a sprinter, go and write short story that your readers will likely pay a few dimes for, get on their personal devices, and enjoy, all just in minutes.

Maybe it will take a generation of readers, writers, and publishers to get there: but, thanks to the ebook environment, “dime novels” and short stories are on their way back, for us reader to have (even more) fun.

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