State of the Art: Selling One Story at a Time on the iPhone

Sarah Glazer explores the new iPhone app for short stories and sees a new audience for undiscovered writers.

Want to read a story by Hilary Mantel for $2.99? Want to sell your own story the same way songs are sold on the iPhone? Now there’s a way to do both with a new app on the iPhone that sells short stories and essays one at a time.

It’s hard to believe but until recently there hasn’t been a way to buy a short story on your iPhone—at least separate from a published story collection. Now there is. A small company named Ether Books launched the new app at the London Book Fair last month and its small booth was soon swamped with TV and radio reporters interviewing Booker-prize novelist Hilary Mantel, who has provided several stories for the new app. Mantel said she hoped to find a “second life” for those ephemeral pieces, such as one previously published in the Guardian newspaper, that are read once and thrown out with the daily trash.

The approximately 200 stories the company is providing include not just previously published stories but new short fiction, some from prominent authors like Hanif Kureishi and Alexander McCall Smith. The small company bypassed publishers and approached authors directly. At the company’s request, Paul McCartney wrote an essay on vegetarianism, based on a speech he’d given to the European Parliament. Individual poems from the likes of TS Eliot prize winner Philip Gross are also on offer.

But in addition to famous authors, the new app could become a first-time platform for unknown writers to tap instantly into a big audience—some 85 million iPhone and iPod touch users—completely by-passing publishers, agents and paper. Vanessa LaFaye, a Tampa, Florida native who lives in Britain will be publishing her first fiction, 12 short stories running less than 3,000 words each, on the Ether Books app. She intended them to be the perfect size, she told me, for digesting with your lunch or your daily commute. (Editorial director Sophia Bartleet invited Lafaye to submit her stories after being impressed with the quality of her fiction at a writer’s workshop Bartleet led.)

Although LaFaye has published journalistic feature stories with British newspapers and has drafted two novels, she’s never succeeded in getting her fiction published before. Her literary agent had advised her to focus on novels, because short stories don’t sell—or at least that’s the conventional publishing wisdom. Why is that?

“Short stories don’t have a spine so they don’t fit in a bookstore’s shelf-- with a spine out to advertise their title” and consequently publishers don’t like them, explains Sophia Bartleet, a novelist in her own right. Even short stories by well-known authors are “undersold” she says, compared to novels. Bartleet came up with the idea for the app when she was commuting to visit her sick mother and wished she had something short to read. Short stories may not fit on a shelf, but “they can fit in a phone, and people love short stories in magazines,” she points out.

The attraction for LaFaye as an unpublished fiction writer will sound familiar: “It’s harder than it’s ever been for new authors to get published.”

One reason this app might work is it’s cheap: Stories sell from 99 cents to $2.99 depending on the length. Within days after the launch, people were already downloading Ether’s stories, perhaps because iPhone/iPod users are already used to buying songs one at a time for a small amount.

Another major advantage for writers: the author gets a royalty each time the book is read. While that amounts to just pennies per reader, multiply that by the millions of iPhone users in 70 countries who have instant access or the 1 billion mobile phone users worldwide, and the coming iPad market).

Eventually, that could amount to a chunk of change, worldwide fame or even getting noticed by a traditional publisher.

What’s the reading experience like? I purchased Mantel’s 4,000-word, “A Different Life Begins,” for $2.99 and was immediately immersed in her poignant account of seeing her stepfather for the first time, told from her perspective as a 4-year-old child. If you’ve only seen the telephone-book-sized novel Wolf Hall, this is proof Mantel can write short and still weave her unique spell of dreamlike unconscious with disturbingly real life.

I’d love to know I can dip into my purse during a boring lecture or train ride and find a story as good as this one every time. Ether is already talking to authors about writing cliff-hanger novels in short bites. So this technology could also bring back the serialized novel made wildly popular by Dickens in the 19th Century. I’m envisioning commuter trains suddenly gone silent as readers pull out their iPhones to read the latest installment.

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Tags: #marketing, #publishing, e-publishing

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Comment by Mylene Dressler on June 18, 2010 at 11:42am
Thanks for this great info, and introducing me to Ether Books.
Comment by Sophia Bartleet on May 25, 2010 at 9:18am
Thanks for all the comments. The response to Ether Books has been absolutely fantastic and we've been swamped with submissions so for the moment we're not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I'll let you all know when we're open to new writers again as I am particularly proud of our new authors' category. In the meantime please download the app (it's free and it comes with 6 free stories ready loaded in your collection) and let us know what you think. Ether Books is a work in progress and we really need your feedback and your ideas. Sophia Bartleet, Editorial Director, Ether Books
Comment by Judith van Praag on May 24, 2010 at 1:43pm
Excellent post, great info, wonderful future possibilities for material that otherwise may live a short life, or gets buried in drawers or black hole of CPU.
Btw SW member Rose Deniz started selling her essays on iTunes a few weeks ago.
I'm sharing your post on FaceBook.
Comment by Jenny McPhee on May 23, 2010 at 4:22am
Great blog Sarah. Just tweeted it and so should you!
Comment by Lydia Ondrusek on May 22, 2010 at 7:50pm
Caroline, if they don't accept submissions, you might want to look into www.sniplits.com, which is due to open to submissions again in a few days. They purchase and produce short stories as DRM-free mp3s, using stories from the famous and not-yet-famous. I loved the job they did with my pieces, they even put up "fan club pages" for their authors.
Comment by D. Jolly on May 22, 2010 at 10:43am
This is great news for short story writers--and readers. SIgn me up!
Comment by Caroline Bock on May 22, 2010 at 5:50am
Hi there! Fascinating. But the key question is do they accept submission? And if so, how does one submit? Their web site is light on details ... thank you for any information! Caroline

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