Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is a Book?

Last night on Marketplace I heard a short piece by Jennifer 8. Lee on the future of the book. (The middle initial is not a typo. I am reminded of the Peanuts cartoon when a boy named Five came to visit.) Lee’s was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s gotten me thinking about the format of publishing, and how different it is today than it was in the early modern period, and how it could be in the future. As she notes in her commentary:

we are seeing an new explosion of companies that are publishing shorter-form things that are designed for lower prices... the change does have something to cheer about: We can alter the way we tell stories. There are new ways to follow our imaginary characters. In the same way television is different than movies, these new short stories could be different from traditional novels. It could be the return of the novella.

This observation put me in mind of the wild world of early modern publishing, which featured everything from thousand-page religious works, to Shakespeare’s folio, to cheap pamphlets detailing monstrous births, horrible murders, or some other remarkable happening. While there still exists a great deal of diversity in the literary marketplace, we short stories as stand-alone pieces have gone out of fashion. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t great short stories being written, but they exist either in collections or on the pages of a much longer magazine or literary journal.

The cause of this (to my mind, and I could be wrong) is two-fold: rising literacy rates and changes in the print industry. While figuring out the readership of cheap pamphlets is tricky at best, the consensus is that they found a very broad audience. More to the point, the working poor with only basic literacy would only have read short pamphlets. They were affordable and simple enough to be understood by all comers. In short, until the “rise of the novel” in the eighteenth century anything that can be called “popular literature” was, in all likelihood, short and inexpensive. Now that the vast majority of the book-buying public has the time and literacy necessary to make their way through 4000 pages of Harry Potter, the short story is no longer in demand the way it was in the early modern period. The changes in the industry (over the last four hundred years!) are a bit too much to go into here, but I think it is safe to say that a publishing house that tried to print, market, and sell individual short stories would not last long.

The question this raises, is how the E-book has changed this. Granted at this point I am a novelist and had long assumed I would remain a novelist. (Why? The same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks.) But then I noticed the short story (novella?) “Trechary” by Andrea Cremer, which is only available as an E-book. This made me think more about options besides the novel. Once I’ve established my series (Ojala!), why not dedicate a few weeks and a few pages to some of the supporting characters? There are a few whom I like quite a lot, and I would welcome the opportunity to get to know them better. And since my novels are in the first person, the short story would give readers the chance to see the world through another character’s eyes. What’s not to like?

Granted, I’m new to publishing, and the E-book really could be the end of everything for everyone. But for now, it seems like an intriguing opportunity for novelists to break away from long-form writing, and experiment with characters and plotting in ways that have been off-limits (or at least difficult to access) for quite some time.

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