23 September 2014 - 5:06 pm

Rise of Short Stories?

Squirrels, distracting people since... what was I saying? (Picture by pepion11)

Squirrels, distracting people since…
what was I saying?
(Picture (including grammatical error) by pepion11)

I recently read an interesting article about how the shortening of our attention spans was causing the rise of short stories. The internet’s easily-consumable morsels mean that our attention spans are shortening, and therefore short stories are becoming a lot more popular.

It sounds so very logical, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple.

Now, I can completely believe that the internet and the vast array of content that is begging for digital consumption is changing the way we approach and digest information. Items online, whether text, image, or video, have a very short window with which to grab our attention, but I don’t think this is ADHD-related, and I don’t think that we get bored and wander off, unable to maintain focus for more than- SQUIRREL.

Online, people are becoming increasingly savvy in making quick judgements about whether or not a piece of content is worth their time. It’s not possible to absorb the whole internet and it’s actually pretty hard to find the good stuff. If you’re looking for something new, you have to dip your toe in and try the water, before you find what you want to dive into.

In that way, online content is its own advert, and the same kind of snap-judgement methodology applies: grab them quick or lose them forever.

So how does this all apply to fiction?

It means that the opening to your story is crucial. If you don’t have a kick-ass hook in the first paragraph – preferably the first sentence – then readers are less likely to read your story.

Is this new? No, this is advice that I have been hearing my whole life, and wasn’t new when it was first given to me (I am, sadly, old enough for this to have been before the internet became a Thing). It’s good advice whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, and whether you’re going to sell/distribute on paper or electronically. The old-fashioned version of clicking away is putting the book back on the shelf, or flipping the page to a different short story.

What about the rising popularity of short fiction online? Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘people prefer bite-sized fiction’. That might be a factor, but the truth is, short fiction has always been popular. Anthologies have always existed, and magazines and newspapers have hosted short stories for centuries. They are a mainstay because people like and read them.

However, it has never been lucrative nor easy to publish short stories. An author couldn’t publish individual short stories, because they were too small to form a viable print run (usually due to cost but sometimes also on physical or practical level). They were forced to combine stories into anthologies to make it worth putting them through the printing press, or submitting to newspapers and magazines. (There’s nothing wrong with any of this!)

With the rise of the ebook, however, things changed. ‘Book’ length was no longer an issue, because ebooks don’t go through printing presses. The reliance on ‘preferred novel length’ for a published book fell away and authors can freely publish ebooks containing individual short stories. Add to that the ease of being able to post a short story on a website, and you have two very fundamental changes to the way that short stories have been made available to readers.

Similarly, novellas are now much easier to make available to readers, for the same reasons. Printing a novella was always tricky (unless you’re writing for Mills and Boon), but digital copies are much easier and less restricted.

Side note: let’s also not attribute any of this to Kindle Singles as the article linked above does; it may have helped, but it was only jumping on the bandwagon that was already in motion and picking up speed. Ebooks have been flexible in their length since their inception and Amazon haven’t pioneered any of this (my short prequel ebook, approximately 7,000 words, was out before Kindle Singles was announced).

Long story short (ha ha), it’s much easier for authors to provide and for readers to find short stories online than it was when they were on paper. Is it a surprise that readers are consuming more short fiction now than they were pre-internet? Not really.

What about a rising preference for short stories? I haven’t seen any evidence that this is happening. Yes, readers may be consuming more short stories than in the past, but not to the detriment of longer fiction. In fact, the sales statistics suggest the opposite is true: ebook consumers prefer longer books, according to the statistics that Smashwords analyses annually. This has been the case for the past few years.

So what does this all mean? TL;DR version:

  • Fiction is now more accessible in all of its forms, including short(er than novels)*.
  • Readers love bite-sized stuff
  • Readers prefer long (100,000+ words) fiction overall
  • There is a healthy, rich market for short stories and novellas, and authors should go out and make the most of it!

* And poetry, flash fiction, epics, serials, etc.

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  1. sciencefracture says:

    I am the person who wrote Rise of Short Fiction.

    Your statistic on ebooks – that’s big. Readers preferring longer reads shakes the entire debate up.

    But again, there are no stats on how many shorter pieces we read online. I am confident that we read more stories online, over several short pages, than full books over the same period.

    Again, only time will tell. Thank you for making a post on my article!

    September 23rd, 2014 at 10:28 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Thanks for commenting, sciencefracture! 🙂 Your post inspired me to write this.

    It is difficult to say what the consumption of short stories is, outside of ebooks. I think part of what I was saying was that I don’t think it’s a shift away from longer works; the statistics include free ebooks, and also prove that readers prefer to spend money on longer works.

    As someone involved in web serial writing and the community, I find it interesting to look at the patterns that emerge. Serial consumption is also thriving thanks to digital delivery, in many different forms, and when the question of post length comes up (as it often does), the answer is always ‘people will read as much as you give them’. Regular installments are popular.

    I also know readers who prefer to wait until collections come out, or who will wait several weeks before coming back to catch up on a serial, because they prefer to read longer stretches. Same content, consumed differently.

    It’s fascinating to see how the world of reading shifts and changes. Like you say, time will tell!

    September 24th, 2014 at 6:57 am

  3. Francisco says:

    I can’t comment about the general case but I tend to consume webcomics and the written serials online. Both formats are stories that have long story arcs (i.e. an archive trawl can take longer than reading a full lenght novel) but each episode/edition is short.

    Both formats allow the reader to spend a long time catching up when they have time and the only spend a short time to stay up with the latest. It gives the lie to the idea that it’s attention span that’s the reason but, in my case at least, it’s more a comment about how busy life is.

    September 25th, 2014 at 3:19 pm

  4. Mel says:

    Thanks for commenting, Francisco. I find the way that fiction is consumed to be an interesting subject, and everything I come across suggested wide variation in habits. Even longer works might be consumed one chapter at a time, or in a single, long-haul sitting. I guess it depends on personal preferences and what our lives will allow.

    September 28th, 2014 at 3:45 pm

  5. Lee S. Hawke says:

    Love reading and writing short stories, and there’s definitely been an emergence of flash fiction as a saleable thing, as you’ve pointed out. Gives me some hope.

    October 14th, 2014 at 8:05 am

  6. Mel says:

    That’s great, Lee. Good luck! Hope you get your work out there to people soon. 🙂

    October 20th, 2014 at 12:45 pm