Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mix Books? Mixed Feelings

About a week ago, Ron Hogan posted in GalleyCat about a column by Leon Neyfakh in the New York Observer, which took publishers to task for not offering digital distribution of individual stories in a collection. The headline of Neyfakh's story was: In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn't Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?

Short answer: It should and it will. I'm convinced that at some point readers with digital devices will be able to buy individual stories in a collection the way you can now buy a song from iTunes. And when that does happen, I think stories, essays, and poems could gain a larger audience.

But we're not there yet. This is an idea that has been kicking around for a while. When I worked at BusinessWeek a couple of years ago, I suggested similar possibilities to a reporter who was working on a story about digital books. Unfortunately, the idea of shorter literary forms gaining in prevalence in the digital age didn't quite rise to the surface of that particular article. I did, however, put the reporter in touch with short story writer George Saunders, who is quoted in the article.

Getting back to the iTunes analogy, I was recently thinking it would be great if you could make your own anthology of your favorite stories, poems, essays, etc., and give it to friends in the form of a bound volume, the way you make a mix tape or mix CD. Call it a mix book (a term already taken). I didn't know that, again as Ron noted in GalleyCat in January, the possibility already exists. But a wider availability of stories is necessary for it to really work. I think digital distribution of short stories will truly happen when someone in a position to make it happen (e.g. Amazon, Apple, Google) embraces the idea or when an audience is so clearly clamoring to buy individual sections of books that providing this service becomes a no brainer.

Still, digital distribution of stories does have potential pitfalls. I agree to some extent with Paris Review editor Matt Weiland who's quoted in the Observer as saying that a good collection is greater than the sum of its parts. As the editor of ten anthologies, I have to say: "True dat." And piracy is one possibility authors would be wise to fear. Look what's happened with music. In the end, the deconstruction of the book, like the deconstruction of the record album, might be just another form of the creative destruction that has resulted from nearly every advance in this digital age. So, while short stories may benefit from digital distribution, short story collections may be in the crosshairs.