Is the golden age of novels and short stories about to return?

An unbound chapter from Bleak House's original print run (credit: Evan Leatherwood)

According to this piece from Fast Company, short pieces of writing, like recipes and single articles, are now being sold on Amazon and at the Apple store for prices ranging from ¢99 to a few dollars, for download to the Kindle, iPad, etc.  The article asks: what sort of writers will benefit from this new form of publishing?

First off, this is not really a new form of publishing, but a really old one.  Before the mass reading public had a taste for bound books, they bought printed works in single sheets, or in unbound sheaves of paper, priced to move and made for single-serving consumption, not unlike downloading single episodes of your favorite TV show to your iPhone to watch on the subway.

This is how the essays of Samuel Johnson were first published, and how millions first consumed the novels of Charles Dickens, chapter by chapter.  At first, only serious media nerds took the time and money to take the separate bundles they had been buying at the newsstand, bind them together, and put them on their shelves at home.  Eventually, there was a market for special edition boxed sets of works by popular authors, which were released in bound sets called “novels.” Samuel Johnson, who died in 1784, never made much money from the sales of his works, but by the time Charles Dickens got famous in the 1830s, there was a fortune to be made.  Short fiction and journalism boomed, and became a way for new writers to break into print and stay afloat.  Certain kinds of stories, like ghost stories and detective stories, evolved as a perfect fit for the new short form market, and gave people like Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton their start.

Have we come full circle (credit: Corey Nascenzi)

Then TV, radio, and rising postage costs conspired to mortally wound the mass market for short form printed works in the middle of the last century.  The frontier that Samuel Johnson pioneered started to close, and it has been closing ever since.

But now there is a glimmer of hope that that market, and the riotous creativity in once unleashed, is on its way back.  In addition to the rise of Kindle singles and their kind, some self-published ebook authors are making enough to quit their day jobs.  More power to them.

So the latest move by Apple, if successful, may not herald anything new at all, but a return to the good old days.

by ELeatherwood