Digital Fiction 4.0: The bottom line

As a writing career began to coalesce around me, I learned that striving to expand the horizons of digital publishing proved far less successful than simply submitting stories for ordinary analogue publication. If I took on lesson from the experience of writing Hemmingway 0.5, it was to stick to paying markets. Unromantic? Sure, but necessary. Readers are not clamouring for cranky virtual writers to engage in realistic text-based banter with. Readers are looking for good stories well told. And what is a writer’s job if not to produce good stories well told? I placed Hemmingway in permanent stasis and focused on the craft. With some success in publishing short stories though came a new problem: finding an audience or, more accurately, enabling an audience to find me. A common conversation at the time ran something like this:

‘I’ve had a new story published in Blah Magazine.’

‘Really? Where can I get it?’

‘Um…I think I saw it at the local independent bookshop, but my story is in the January edition and they’ve already come out with April, so I don’t know if you can still get it. You could have a look at their web site maybe.’

It does take the shine off one’s achievement.

Literary journals have small circulations and even smaller distribution networks and, increasingly, I found people interested in reading my stories were unable to. Not even my Mum had copies.

If ever there was an opportunity for digital publishing to step in, this was it.

In setting up an online shop for short story downloads, I took inspiration from two sources.

The iTunes Music Store had, by now, proved the viability of online music sales and, by extension, the viability of sales for any digital download content. If consumers were prepared to pay to download three-minute pop songs, then why not 3,000 word stories as well?

The second inspiration was a rejection slip, or, rather, a rejection email. The rejection itself was not unusual, they are a writer’s lot in life, but the logic behind the rejection.

Thank you for this enquiry, and I must say, you appear to be the most published of short story writers who ask if I am interested to publish their work. But no, sorry. I do not publish short stories.

It’s policy. I felt like I had been rejected by a bouncer because the colour of my jeans. Publishers, big and small, have very good reasons working within their chosen forms and genres and I do not begrudge this particular publisher for turning down my work. Rather, this rejection confirmed a suspicion I had harboured for some time. The publication of short story collections, once a right of passage for new writers into the literary world, was now the preserve of established authors and themed anthologies. Short stories published in a few literary journals would not translate to a book-length work, even with small independents (with one recent and notable exception).

If I were to reach an audience, I would have to find another way.

With Hemmingway duly elbowed to one side, my web site made way for a new experiment in digital publishing. The purpose of the download store is to create a space where short stories can reside in perpetuity, available for readers to purchase at a small price. As John Birmingham says: ‘Writing for love is nice, but getting paid is even sweeter.'

As well as previously published works, I also wrote stories specifically for publication on the site. Each story is laid out in columns with breakout boxes, mimicking the layout of magazines and literary journals. I then convert the files into portable document format (PDF), a file type that offers several advantages for both author and readers: the format is almost universally accessible on any computer or handheld device, the finished file maintains a consistent look regardless of the viewing software, and the text cannot be edited or overwritten. These are important considerations for the author to emphasise to readers that the purchased downloads are finished works of publishable standard.

The files contain no DRM, allowing readers the widest possible choice of ways to engage with the text. Many readers choose to print the files, rather than read on screen, a major advantage of the short story form in digital publishing. Not may readers would be dedicated enough to print a 300-page of novel onto A4 paper to read for leisure, regardless of how well the text is laid out.

Like any good e-commerce web site, the system essentially runs itself. Readers who make a purchase gain instant access to their chosen downloads via an automatically generated email link. The system requires no input from me unless a problem arises.

In 2006 simongroth.com opened its electronic shopfront and continues today to tick over sales. It hasn't set the publishing world on fire, nor has it fired salvos at publishers, threatening their very existence. It’s not that kind of site.

The purpose of the site is to complement traditional publishing, not replace it. The most likely place readers will discover my writing is still in book form. For that reason, I continue to follow competitions, journals, agents, and publishers. The market for short fiction delivered digitally is not mature, but for those who engage with my stories and wish to seek out more—and are willing to take the digital plunge—the digital store is always here, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

There's even more to come with Digital Fiction 5.0: A warehouse of unsold books. That's the last of the series though.

Get the overview.