For the first time that I know of, it's now possible to easily sell an electronic version of a short story online. Scribd.com, which had previously allowed users to post text to its site, has created an online store (in beta release) that allows authors to sell their work, set their own prices, and pocket 80%. That may not sound like a very big deal, but when you add social networking through the likes of Facebook and Twitter--not to mention Scribd's built-in community--this allows writers to bypass literary magazines and offer short works for sale directly to readers.
I could see this being a tempting possibility for established writers of short fiction. Say you've written a very topical story that it would be best to publish as soon as possible or one tied to a holiday or event. The only print outlet that could possibly publish it within a few weeks is The New Yorker. And everyone knows what a long shot selling a story there is, let alone getting it published when you'd like it to. Beyond that, you're likely to wait months if not years for your story to appear elsewhere, even if you place it immediately. So why not put the story out yourself? You could charge $1.25, and pocket $1 for every copy you sell. And you could time publication so that the immediacy of the story becomes a virtue rather than a drawback.
Of course, writers could also bypass book publishers and post an entire short story collection--the digital equivalent of self-publishing. But I think, unless you'd be doing it to also make each story available separately, you'd be giving up too much. In addition to prestige, publishers can offer print and digital distribution and the backing of their design, sales, and marketing teams (not to mention editing that could sharpen the writing). Getting something you published on Scribd reviewed would be nearly impossible. And most readers still prefer books to reading off a screen. More and more, however, are doing their reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, handhelds, and other devices.
The downside is that this kind of disintermediation does pose a threat to literary magazines, which are an essential part of the literary community. But they can make use of the direct-sale capability themselves by opening their own Scribd stores to sell individual stories, poems, and essays under their respected imprimaturs. To be sure, many short stories are already available on the Web for free on the sites of print and Web only literary magazines. But why not make work available for purchase, instead, and make some money for the publication and author? The Scribd store even opens up the possibility of establishing an online Web 'zine that delivers stories to readers without even having to set up a Web site.
The possibilities are vast. Here's one more: How about fund-raising for a charity or nonprofit by selling stories, poems, and essays on-line? Thanks to Scribd, the logistics have never been simpler.