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.