Are you listening comfortably?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Can an iTunes-style makeover bring the short story to new audiences? Ian Burrell meets the authors and innovators who are selling small tales

The short story, the vehicle that revolutionised magazines at the start of the 20th century, could emerge as the format that radicalises the way that the written word is consumed in the increasingly digital environment we live in 100 years later. In doing so, it could help to save publishing.

A series of new British online initiatives is hoping to do for authors what Steve Jobs and iTunes did for the music industry and establish a culture of making micro-payments for small pieces of content: the short story becomes the single-track download, with prices starting at 99p. The newspaper and magazine industries, as they wrestle with the challenge of monetising their content, should be following this closely.

So many great authors – Charles Dickens, W Somerset Maugham, Edgar Allan Poe, F Scott Fitzgerald – made fortunes from the short story. Eighty years ago, Fitzgerald could command fees of the equivalent of $50,000 today for a magazine piece. Poe, who loved to read his 108-line classic The Raven in New York pubs with the lights turned out, embraced the very modern notion of mastering the art of writing pieces that could be consumed in a single sitting.

The suggestion that literature can change the "everything for free" culture of the download generation might prompt snorts of derision, but, believe me, the short story is in fashion. Events such as Literary Death Match – which is something akin to a hip-hop battle for scribes and takes place under a pizzeria in east London – the Shoreditch House Literary Salon and the Book Club Boutique are making short-form fiction funky.

Clare Hey, a former HarperCollins editor, hopes to capitalise on this energy this month by launching a service which some will see as an iTunes for the written word. The Shortlist Press site will offer downloads of compositions of between 2,500 words and 15,000 words, all retailing for the same price of 99p. "Everyone nowadays is short of money and short of time," she says. "You can read short stories one by one, when you have a moment."

The culture of e-books is at a critical point in Britain and Christmas sales of the new Amazon Kindle are widely expected to be a tipping point. Sales of the iPad and other tablet formats also make the digital consumption of fiction a more attractive pastime. Although most British newspapers continue to provide their journalism for free, and out-of-copyright fiction can be accessed online without charge, the culture of piracy that has beset the music business is not entrenched in literature. Now is the time to set down some rules that work for everyone, says Hey, 31. "I'm keen to offer stories that people can buy affordably, but at the same time send out the message that these stories have a value."

She will launch Shortlist Press with offerings from three authors. Nadifa Mohamed, the author of Black Mamba Boy, has been shortlisted for a string of literary prizes. Laura Dockrill recently published the short-story collection Echoes for HarperCollins. Elizabeth Jenner is a newcomer, spotted by Hey at Literary Death Match.

According to Dockrill, 24, who also mentors schoolchildren in developing writing skills for the charity First Story, there is an appetite among young people for reading literature if it can be consumed on digital devices they are comfortable being seen with. "The reason why iPods have been successful is that you don't have to carry around 12 CDs. Similarly you can have a whole bank of short stories by different authors," she says. Dockrill, who has provided Shortlist Press with a love story called Topple, said the 99p download charge was "about the price of a Kit Kat Chunky".

Hey says she will offer her products through Amazon and hopes to maintain the same 99p price, even though her margins will be reduced. "You have to be in the place where the most people are, and even a minimal amount from an extra sale is better than nothing," she says, pragmatically.

Another young entrepreneur, Ed Caldecott, 25, is promoting digital sales of short stories in audio form. He came up with the idea for Spoken Ink after writing a collection of short stories while studying at Bristol University and then trying to get it published. He was advised that there was no viable market for short-story collections, particularly those by unknown authors.

"It got me thinking about short stories and why no one buys them any more," he says. "Collections are not a great way to sell short stories; that's not how they're written and that's not really how they are meant to be consumed."

Caldecott studied the history of the genre and its success, until half a century ago, within magazines. "In 1950, John Updike said he could support his family on the publication of six short stories a year; obviously you couldn't do that now," he says. "I suddenly thought that the MP3 player, the iPod, the mobile phone, is the new magazine – it's what everyone does when they are on the train – and I thought that would be the new format and a way of resurrecting the short story."

Like Hey, Caldecott believes there is a "renaissance" in short-story writing. He cites the excitement around the BBC National Short Story Award, which is being announced tonight, and the Sunday Times Short Story Award, which is worth £30,000. All five of the shortlisted BBC National Short Story titles will be available as downloads from iTunes or www.audiogo.co.uk from Monday 6 December.

In another initiative, Nick Hornby has founded the Ministry of Stories, which provides a workshop and space for young writers at the back of a shop in Hoxton, east London. The project, which also has the backing of Roddy Doyle and Zadie Smith, was inspired by a San Francisco scheme set up by American writer Dave Eggers.

Caldecott says the interest in short stories is also being driven by the popularity of creative-writing courses. On Spoken Ink he offers 400 pieces of audio, some fiction and some non-fiction. Authors receive royalties but the lack of rights payments and fat advances means prices are competitive, starting at 99p and going up to £6.60. Established authors include Roald Dahl and Michèle Roberts. Stories are sometimes voiced by famous actors, such as Timothy West and Prunella Scales.

The site encourages users to send short stories or poems as gifts. "You can buy a poem for 50p or a story for two quid and send it to a friend," Caldecott says. "We do non-fiction as well, from hobbies to history to sport." War poetry sold well on Remembrance Sunday and he expects strong demand for love poems next St Valentine's Day.

Spoken Ink, which Caldecott runs with business partner Constantine Gregory, also sells material from the BBC's audio book catalogue, breaking down lengthy works into short downloads. "Some people have the perception that audio books are for the elderly and the blind but actually, they are really fun and it's an intensely rich experience," says Caldecott, who admits he once saw the format as not being for him.

Taking short stories out of the package of a collection and offering them as downloads is a great opportunity for authors to make money. "I think people are more prepared to pay for it and I don't think piracy is so much of a problem. It's making audio books cool, that's the challenge," he says.

The advent of cutting-edge literary nights and the development of devices, including the latest Kindle, will help with that process. The only section of the publishing world not to have recognised the opportunity may be within the industry itself. "Sometimes, you talk to agents and publishers and they haven't come round to it," Caldecott says. "But the digitisation of literature is good for us and for publishing. I almost think it is inevitable now."

www.shortlistpress.com

www.spokenink.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'