Opinion: How e-books are cutting a long story short. . .

The paperback is dead, long live the eBook? It appears the changes in the way we read have reached a tipping point. Last month, Amazon released figures that revealed sales of eBooks had finally overtaken sales of traditional books.

For every 100 hardback/paperback books Amazon sold in April, it shifted 105 eBooks. eBooks are only ahead by a nose but the sales represent a tenfold increase in numbers since they were first introduced to the market.

While the immediate concern of authors and publishers might turn to copyright (remember what illegal downloading did to the music industry), there are other unlikely changes taking place as a direct result of the proliferation of eReader-type devices.

One such side-effect is an increase in demand for short fiction and short stories. Because many readers use their eBooks or smartphones on their daily commute, they want fiction that takes about 30 or 40 minutes to read.

When you have the option of updating your Facebook status, catching up on email before you get to the office or enjoying an old-school game of Tetris, it’s hard to imagine books competing and so publishing companies have started to offer downloads of short stories by their most popular authors.

Random House made popular crime author Karin Slaughter’s story The Unremarkable Heart available for download in May for 49p and it has been on the iTunes top 10 ever since.

This renaissance of the genre is having an impact on the form itself and how writers write.

Shortfirepress.com is a digital-only publisher of short stories. They come with a 99p price tag, while the profits are shared between author and publisher. The Atlantic magazine offers Fiction For Kindle, a series of short stories exclusively available to Kindle users.

This could be a turbulent time for writers trying to make their living in the digital age, just as the music industry struggled to adapt to the challenges of the internet.

As record sales plummeted, songwriters had to come up with new ways to earn a living from music.

While the most successful acts still make money from music sales, others earn their living by touring relentlessly or selling band merchandise.

Others are still trying to figure out innovative ways to get their fans to pay for their music. This month Irish musician Nina Hynes asked every Facebook friend to ‘pre-purchase’ her next album for €10. The cash raised would go towards the cost of recording said album.

As with songwriters, will authors now have to face a shifting industry and develop innovative ways to fund their writing? It’s not likely to affect big hitters like Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, who last week took a step into the digital world with her new website, Pottermore. The site offers thousands of words of extra content on the wizard as a way of giving something back to her fans (not to mention drumming up some extra publicity for the release of the final Potter film).

It might, however, have a stifling effect on creativity. If someone can download a single short story by a writer, chances are they will make a snap judgement on that author and take the story as representative of his or her work.

Knowing they might be judged in this way, authors may be less willing to take literary risks and might even be inspired to change how they write and try to second-guess this new kind of reader in order to make themselves more saleable. So how will this affect the future of fiction: is it destined to be whittled down to a 140-character tweet, because none of us have the capacity to concentrate on larger volumes of information?

When pressed about the evolution of the industry on the BBC’s Open Book last week, Irish author Kevin Barry said rates of pay had not really improved for the writer in the last 50 years.

Having recently published a short story in the New Yorker, Barry was amused to discover, upon reading a story by fellow Irish writer Frank O’Connor, that the fee was the same in the mid-20th century as it is today.

The difference is that 50 years ago, a few thousand dollars went much further, with the result that O’Connor could make a living as a writer by publishing just two or three short stories a year.

Of course, the upside to all this is that the short story, long held as the inferior relative of the novel, is increasing in popularity. It is encouraging that as readers become ever busier there still seems to be time and a desire to read short stories.

Or maybe it is just that now there is only time for short stories. The novel should be very afraid.

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