Margaret Atwood, Judy Rebick, and the iTunesification of literature

March 7, 2012 by · 4 Comments 

Are we witnessing the iTunesification of literature?

Over the past two days, news broke that two heavyweights on the CanLit scene are releasing new work online, in the increasingly popular “single” format, as spearheaded by companies such as Amazon and Byliner.

Yesterday, Penguin Canada announced that activist and author Judy Rebick has launched a new e-book entitled Occupy This!, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots uprising the author finds as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s. The 74-page book is available through online retailers such as Kobo, or direct through the Penguin Canada website.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most Internet savvy canonical author, has released a new short story, entitled “I’m Starved for You,” via the San Francisco–based digital publisher Byliner.

The Rebick title is selling for $3.99, and the Atwood is priced at $2.99.

At the beginning of the year, Quill & Quire published an article about the rise of “singles” online publishing, which numerous commentators have suggested could be the salvation of long-form journalism. In the Quill article, Jason McBride writes:

What has become known as the “singles” model – advertising-free, tablet- and smartphone-friendly, book/magazine hybrids designed to be read in one sitting – could be the silver bullet that writers and print media, long beset by declining ad revenue in print and a fickle, penny-pinching market online, have been waiting for. “It’s really a frontier,” says Mark Bryant, the former editor of Outside magazine and one of Byliner’s co-founders.

Bryant likens his company to Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries fiction imprint, and, indeed, the distinctive branding of Byliner Originals, which sport digital “covers” featuring a signature bright yellow and consistent typefaces, appears to be the product of a traditional publisher. Byliner has now published more than a dozen titles by writers such as William T. Vollmann and Ann Patchett, and plans to eventually offer a new Byliner Original, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99 (U.S.), almost every week.

Writing in The New York Times, Dwight Gardner calls Amazon’s version of the idea – Kindle Singles – “probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place.” The long-form journalism contained in the singles format, Garner says, hits “the sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”

Moreover, Garner points out, there are significant incentives for authors to publish in this format:

For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.

So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.

As an avowed advocate of short fiction, it would be foolish of me to criticize any vehicle that allows for more stories to get disseminated to more readers. And the singles idea is not new: it’s merely a digital version of the kind of long-form journalism once found in general-interest magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. And while the two former publications still regularly feature short fiction, other magazines have been scaling back on their fiction in the last decade, so this new venue seems to be a good way to fill that void.

And yet, I remain conscious of the experience of the music industry in the wake of Apple’s iTunes. All of a sudden, $0.99 singles were in, and full-length albums were, if not out, at least exponentially less popular. The rise of Kindle Singles, Byliner, and a similar initiative launched by The National Post at the end of last year offer bite-sized works of fiction and non-fiction that can, in most cases, be consumed in one sitting. With luck, these newly popular formats will constitute one part of the literary ecosystem, without cannibalizing longer works, such as full-length novels or works of non-fiction.


4 Responses to “Margaret Atwood, Judy Rebick, and the iTunesification of literature”
  1. Panic says:

    Not quite analogous. The singles would be like chapters of a book. You don’t read one chapter and then another of another book then another, for hours, then go home and maybe read a full book. Also, one of the issues with the current state of the music industry, and this is pre-iTunes, is the unrelenting focus on singles, making an album four singles and filler. So, I think it’s really an augment to literacy in general.

  2. August says:

    I think the comparison of novels and other book-lenght forms to albums doesn’t quite line up. A common pre-iTunes buying tactic for music was to buy a full album even if you only wanted two or three songs out of twelve or fifteen, because buying two or or three singles (if you could even find them, if like me you lived outside of a major city, where single were very rarely sold at all) wound up being more costly than buying the whole thing. I think a lot of what iTunes did was make it possible for people to buy music in a way that they already wanted to, but couldn’t, because a) it didn’t make sense on physical media, and b) the labels had changed considerably after the rise of the album in the ’60s, and didn’t want to do it again. Before digital music became popular, I had an absolutely massive collection of albums, but if I’d been able to buy just the songs I wanted via something like iTunes back then, you could probably cut that collection in half. Unless it’s a concept album or something, the songs aren’t designed to fit together like chapters in a book anyway; they are at best only tenuously related.

    The same goes for magazines; there are very few magazines that I read cover to cover, even those that I subscribe to. I’m just not going to care about everything, and it’s a pain to spend eight bucks or whatever on the newsstand to get the one six page story I want to read and whole bunch of glossy ads and profiles and whatnot that I don’t give a damn about. I despise Amazon, and I think “Singles” is a stupid name, but they’ve got a good model for getting people to pay for long-form journalism, I think, because it taps into a way they’ve always wanted to consume it, but haven’t been able to.

    Short fiction, I don’t know. I think in that sense it’s more interesting as a kind of sampler. Buying a magazine for one article, or an album for one or two songs has been common practice for just about everyone I know for as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say they bought a story collection for only one or two particular pieces. So I think with fiction the relationship between the single-story distribution model and the collection will probably play out differently than it did with albums or will with long-form journalism. Just don’t ask me to say how.

  3. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Panic: I take your point. One of the arguments I’ve heard made in favour of e-book singles is that many full-length books contain too much filler. Which is often true.

  4. Panic says:

    Sure, and that’s why I can’t read Tolkien!

    I suppose more what I meant is that songs are independent of each other in a way chapters of novels aren’t.

    If we talk short story collections, though, you’re totally right, and the comparison works.