Confessions of Another Common Reader

Vintage Books Open Day I – A Short Story

Vintage Books jacket images

Showcasing cover design trends - hand lettering

I first fell in love with Vintage Books back when they coyly hid behind a mysterious initial – that subtle upticked V on the spine. Alongside all the weird ancient Penguins in my school bookshop that no one else wanted which I picked up weekly for 80p (because that was the price on the jacket – that’s how long they’d been sitting on the shelf), I regularly treated myself to a William Faulkner, a Kurt Vonnegut or an Ian McEwan, amongst many, many others. I love the authors they publish, I love their jacket designs (though I never collected as many of the fetching old cream-and-green-spined Classics as @meandmybigmouth), and I can’t not mention their Twitter account – social media done properly, interactive, informative, friendly and varied, refreshingly free of wearying overpromotion.

So when Alison mentioned it on Twitter, I jumped at the chance to part with 30 of your best English pounds and what would normally have been a day off to spend time hearing people across the business talking about their work at the inaugural Vintage Books Open Day. Yes, I am that much of a book nerd. See above about those weird Penguins. Over the course of the day, we heard from editors, writers, designers, marketers, salespeople and booksellers (well – one bookseller), giving us a fascinating picture of the life of a book from commissioning through to sale. I’ll spare you blow-by-blow coverage – others have already blogged about this – but I wanted over my next couple of posts to pick up on a couple of themes that cropped up that have been ringing through the industry recently.

Same Old, Same Old

Or in the case of my first, not so recently – because we’ve been hearing that ‘people don’t buy short stories’ for what seems like aeons. Commissioning editor Dan Franklin kicked things off with a rumination on the multi-book deal, whereby a collection of short stories – “horror upon horror, you can’t sell them etc etc” – becomes “a sprat to catch the mackerel” of the novel that is bought alongside it. In the panel discussion that followed, senior editor Alex Bowler echoed his sentiments, stating plainly that as editors at Jonathan Cape, if they buy short stories they are almost honour-bound to assure their colleagues, “The novel’s coming in a year”. Agent Lucy Luck added, “I would never call them stories on the cover – I’d say ‘interconnected’ or something.”

The same panel, however, showed that the short story can be crucial both in discovering exciting new voices and in the writer’s progress to selling a book. Lucy originally found author Kevin Barry via his story ‘See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown’, which in 2004 was shortlisted for Davy Byrnes’ lucrative Irish short story competition for the Bloomsday centenary. Barry himself noted that Cape’s apparent enthusiasm for short stories was a big factor in his decision to sell his book to them; his first story in the New Yorker (about the fifth he’d submitted) was a huge boost to his confidence; and his first collection There Are Little Kingdoms, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007 sold 7,000 copies in Ireland – the best kind of proof that there can be an appetite for the short story.

Digital – Friend or Foe?

The question was posed: will the Kindle kill off the short-story collection? Lucy felt we’d lose something if it did – that there’s still something special about a collection that has been designed as such, where the stories build up into a cumulative whole. She posited a ‘build your own’ concept, picking from a selection of stories to make up a custom collection, while Kevin Barry drew an analogy with the music business, pointing out that “iTunes has made downloads a huge business, but it hasn’t killed the album.” Generally, the panel preferred to promote the idea of digital as an opportunity for the renaissance for the short story – Kevin Barry thinks it’s “not as much the technology as the attention span…readers are prepared to give a book about the same length of time as an art-house film”, something he believes will lead to the resurgence of the novella.

Yet I still haven’t heard anyone explain how this enthusiasm for the potential of digital can be reconciled with what has, for the longest time, been believed to be a fundamental lack of interest from the reading public in the short-story form. Alex felt the short-story collection would not die “as long as there was also a publishing ‘event’” involved – but all too often, the only ‘event’ for a short-story collection is the bare fact of its publication date. Collections are apologetically sneaked out under the radar, quietly released as ‘another book from an established author’ with as little fanfare as possible. Given the sway we know that the marketing of books holds over what we notice and buy, how much has this influenced the supposed lack of appetite for short stories?

Efforts to sell short stories via digital are arising – Clare Hey’s Shortfire Press already has an impressive roster of both debut and established authors, and scifi publishers Orbit and Angry Robot have both capitalised on a strong fanbase to launch short fiction stores, selling stories from their own authors. Even Amazon has made an attempt, with its Kindle Singles (though at time of writing, there are still only a handful of titles available – at least to UK readers). But there’s a sense in which online marketing, although it feels exciting and buzzy, is preaching to the converted. ‘Hardcore’ readers, science fiction fans and the publishing crowd hang out on Twitter, but the mass-market don’t. Those hailing digital as the short story’s saviour seem to be expecting it to happen by some sort of ‘build it and they will come’ alchemy – we create the concept, and magically, the reading public suddenly love short stories. If “people read stories but you can’t get anyone to buy a collection,” as one speaker put it, how is this going to change online, where the prevailing ethos is still one in which people expect content to be free?

Publishers fear short story collections and the reading public won’t buy them – but they’re a key part of writerly development and discovery, and digital could help them take off again. Which bit of this do you think is going to win out? And, please – how?

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