While reading the latest “Best American Short Stories” collection, I discovered the existence of a program called The Atlantic Fiction for Kindle, essentially a set of short stories, curated by The Atlantic Magazine but not actually published therein, available for purchase in the Kindle Store for $3.99 per story. This is not to be confused with the Kindle Singles program, a set of short works (fiction, non-fiction, and other) curated by Amazon itself, with prices ranging from $0.99 to $1.99 per story.
My first thought about The Atlantic Fiction for Kindle is that it’s overpriced. Is this a fair thought? I can buy an entire digital edition of The New Yorker for about the same price as one of these short stories, and that New Yorker will include at least one high-falutin’ rigorously-curated short story, as well as a bunch of other stuff (essays, interviews, musings, cartoons, you know the drill).
Short stories aren’t commodities. I know. And the prices we’re talking about are hardly worth quibbling over — anything in the average-ATM-fee range is almost meaningless as money. Kindle Singles’ prices fall just under that imaginary barrier. The price of an individual specimen of Atlantic Fiction for Kindle product falls just over it, but not by much. And the reality is that there have been times when I’ve bought a New Yorker specifically and solely to read the short story. Those were rare times. I bought one to read that story by Raymond Carver about the death of Anton Chekhov, for example, way back in the 80s, which nobody knew at the time would be the last thing Carver published in his lifetime. So, yeah, good purchase. There have been a few other times. But I still balk at the idea of paying that much for a short story all by its naked lonesome.
I used to be unhappy that people didn’t seem to want to read “long-form” fiction in web browsers (short stories, when compared to the kind of super-short textual content most people want to read in web browsers, count as “long-form”). Now I think it’s kind of a good thing, because people do seem to be happier reading fiction on eReaders, where actual payment for actual content, for various reasons, is the norm. And that’s good for writers (cash on the barrel-head) and good for fiction generally. I can’t imagine anything worse for fiction than an all-free-all-the-time, lowest-common-denominator, advertising-supported model, which is what the commercial side of the web has evolved into. So yeah, yay.
But just because people are willing to pay to read stuff on an eReader, and just because it seems to be working out better than the previous models may have worked out (short stories have not been a viable economic platform for writers since the middle of the last century, let’s not forget), doesn’t mean that everybody has figured out all the kinks in the system. Pricing seems to be the biggest kink.
My current thinking is that the Kindle Singles pricing seems just about right, and that The Atlantic is charging too much..
But here’s a true confession: I think I’d be more likely to pay for a short non-fiction article on a topic of interest than a fiction short, even though I myself am a fiction writer and I read more fiction than most people. And I might be willing to pay slightly more for it, even, than the prices we’re talking about for fiction. If that’s true of me, a fiction writer, how much more true is it of the general public?
Maybe that’s just because I (like most fiction readers) prefer novels over short stories. When I do read short stories, I want a book’s worth of them, to make up for the fact that they’re not novels. Or maybe I, like almost every other American, am deluded enough to believe that non-fictional “facts” have more value than fictional ones. If that’s the case, I make myself very sad.
What do you think?