Kindling the short story is about curation, not technology

On Friday the New York Times published a nice story about The Atlantic magazine publishing short stories to the Kindle. Citing Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti, the story says this is “the first deal with a magazine publisher to select short stories for sale.” The Atlantic stopped publishing monthly fiction in 2005, and now publishes print fiction only once a year – the Kindle stories will come out at about two a month. The deal is exclusive: these stories will (for now) only be available on the Kindle.

On the face of it, this is a story about the Kindle, how Edna O’Brien is acquainting herself “with all that’s modern out there”, and how the device may breathe new life into the short-story market, which has never been a lucrative one generally, by initiating the “iTunes-ization of short fiction”.

Note, though, that it’s not the Kindle per se that would create the demand for the short stories. The Kindle is just a customer-friendly way to distribute digitally, and there will soon be many other equally customer-friendly ways to do this. (Apart from the ereaders on the market already, see the preview for Time Inc’s magazines of the near future, or the latest deals Plastic Logic is making with magazines for its imminent QUE reader).

We can be sure that there are thousands of short stories already for sale on the Kindle, thanks to the ease with which anyone with a US address can publish to the Kindle. In fact, Grandinetti’s claim is soundbite smoke and mirrors when you consider that there are already at least six magazines available on the Kindle publishing short stories. (Asimov’s Science Fiction, One Story, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Narrative.)

So this deal is important not because it puts short stories on the Kindle. It’s important because The Atlantic is publishing short stories again. The Kindle’s technology just enabled that by eliminating The Atlantic‘s former print, layout and delivery costs.

The most important point in the Times story is this: “The stories have been selected and edited by the staff at The Atlantic, the venerable magazine that once published short fiction in its print pages monthly.” This is not just a story about ereaders or Amazon, this is about curation. The folk at The Atlantic have long known (evidenced by their excellent and popular website, which dropped its paywall in 2008 and is actively looking to grow in other ways) that the magazine’s value lies not in their technical ability to distribute, but in their ability to find great content – to curate – and in doing so to gather trusting followers, many of them paying customers. Good publishers know this about themselves, and focus on it.

Amazon also knows that partnerships with great curators like The Atlantic are integral to the future of its otherwise lifeless distribution technology, beset like most of the Internet with so much unmediated rubbish.

Many publishers look to technology to grow or rescue their revenue streams. In doing so, they can get stuck spending time on technical issues and distribution strategies, engaged in complex learning curves and DAM platform development. And, in turn, they risk forgetting that they’re already good at something incredibly valuable: the ability to curate. Till recently, the ability to curate could be neatly conflated with the ability to distribute, thanks to the physical nature of print media. The Internet has made the distinction between curation and distribution sharp and often painful.

So, publishers who are primarily curators should leave technical distribution issues to the businesses that specialise in that. Curation as an industry is in its earliest days, and good publishers already have a stake claimed there, by virtue of their history. As content overload becomes an ever-greater burden, consumers are going to choose more and more carefully who prepares and guides them to trusted content. The curation industry will meet that need, and one way or another consumers will pay for it. In the case of a short story vetted by The Atlantic, $3.99.

2 thoughts on “Kindling the short story is about curation, not technology

  1. The Atlantic has made several impressive moves over the past two years in tackling the digital transition, and this is one of my favorites. I’ve said often that eReaders are as likely to expand the market for content that’s not viable in print as they are to cannibalize the existing markets, and this is a perfect example of that.

  2. So if I’m a fan of Edna O’Brien, Curtis Sittenfeld or Chris Buckley I’m shut out. Spending $250 for a Kindle on which to read a $3.99 short story? No thanks. This is a smart business move for The Antlantic, yes, but if this exclusivity precedent sticks (various authors available only on proprietary devices like Kindle or Nook), it’s bad for literature. To me, this is no different than, say, AC/DC or Bruce Springsteen making albums available exclusively at Walmart. Only worse, because Walmart doesn’t force you to buy a $250 stereo system on which to listen to the content. As an industry observer, I say kudos to The Atlantic. Well played. As a lover of literature, though, I’m deeply conflicted, and disappointed with the authors who so casually sold their souls to Jeff Bezos.

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