Ebook readers offer short story writers new opportunities to sell their works, one by one, rather than in collections. Photo: CFP
Short story authors used to need a collection of stories before securing a book deal. Writer Zhang Wei and book critic Yan Jingming both expressed publicly through a literature forum last year that short story writers struggle with a limited readership and a small slice of the publishing pie. Short story anthologies rarely make bestseller lists.
But the ebook era could change all of that.
Selling piece by piece
Among writers, there's a certain consensus that fitting a full story arc into a short story can at times be even more difficult than writing longer novels, and that the time spent crafting them is never short at all. The fact that stories have to come by the dozen only lengthens the time it takes a story to go from pen to reader.
There is a change in the air, though. Since short story master Alice Munro's win in this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, industry insiders have been discussing the future of the short story nonstop since October, according to the writer Su Tong, as quoted on sina.com.
One hot topic of conversation: ebook stores are now selling short stories piecemeal.
"The short story is very likely to become a new favorite in the ebook field," said Wang Xi, deputy director of dangdang.com, a Chinese online retailer similar to Amazon that has established its own ebook platform (e.dangdang.com), in an interview with the Yangtze Evening Post.
Recently, short story and novella writer Jiang Yitan has established a cooperation with e.dangdang.com to promote its new single-story retail model.
Industry insiders such as Xia Lie, director of the creative industry research department at Hangzhou Normal University, are hopeful about these updated retail strategies.
In an interview with the Beijing Youth Daily, Xia said that if the new retail model works well, it may lead to a series of changes and the possibility of the survival of short stories.
The change began emerging early this year when the e-Read platform of Jingdong Mall, another online retailer, signed with several famous writers including Tianxia Bachang, author of The Adventures of the Three Tomb Raiders series; Na Duo, known for Immortal (2006) and Enigma (2005); and Cai Jun, famous for Apartment in the Barren Village (2005) and The 19th Layer of Hell (2005).
The word count of each book is limited to 20,000 to 30,000 words. The sales numbers for the ebooks have matched expectations, with each selling more than 30,000 copies so far, according to Jingdong Mall's spokesman.
Dirt cheap prices
While many see the current way of selling short stories a la carte as a win for short story authors, others have their doubts about how effective these retail platforms are.
The first doubt stems from the price. Ebooks in China are generally cheap. For instance, Liu Xinci's Three Body Trilogy sells for 25 yuan ($4.1) for a physical book, while on ebook platforms, the price drops to 4 yuan, less than a quarter of the book's price.
In comparison, short stories fare better. Jiang Yitan's Hepburn Ah Hepburn is set at a price of 5 yuan on e.dangdang.com, while a collection of Jiang's short stories including the same story is priced at just 6.5 yuan.
The spokesman for Jingdong Mall told the Global Times that the price is a result of a consultation between the platform and the content provider. The general rule for most ebooks is that they are priced at a third of their paper book prices.
From the response of markets, unlike the traditional market that sells a large number of encouraging self-help books, the most popular ebooks are original works of fiction.
On the Jingdong Mall e-Read platform, which has about 100 million registered users, 80 percent of the purchased content is fiction.
"The big trend is visible but the transformation in the industry has an impact on both short and long stories. Many people have this misunderstanding that e-Read is about short reading. That is in fact not the case," the spokesman for Jingdong Mall told the Global Times, adding that a large number of the popular ebooks are long novels, containing millions or tens of millions of words.
Thus, whether the changing ways of consuming literature will end up raising the prominence of short story writing in the long term is still unknown. All the ebook stores are taking action and changing strategies very slowly as they gauge the market's reaction.
"We don't have other signed writers since the March project," said Jingdong Mall's spokesman. "We are picky about writers and works and writers also have their own plans. We just need patience."