I saw a tweet from @DigitalDan about their new idea Storycuts. I followed the link and browsed the list. Random House is a fine publisher with a wonderful stable of authors so I was soon tempted and drooling with anticipation. But as I went to download a story by Alice Munro I realized it was going to cost me £1.24 to do so.
I didn't download but replied to Dan's tweet suggesting that they should give them away for free. His response was that he wouldn't give the stories away "because I believe in the value of writers' work."
Blimey. Well it just so happens that I write short stories myself and give them away for free. I do value my work, but at present I see people reading my stories as way more important than people buying them. The idea I might make money from writing is a distant dream but I still found the suggestion that I didn't value Alice Munro's work a little hard to take. I have been a bookseller for many years and have huge respect for the authors on whom my professional life has been founded.
It made me think though. If you were in a bookshop and picked up a collection by Alice Munro it would cost nothing for you to read a story to see if you liked her work. If you did you would then go to the till and purchase the entire collection. Imagine how you would react if the bookshop owner leapt over the counter and yelled at you to buy the book or get lost. What about libraries and lending books in general? Are all of those to be seen by publishers as lost sales?
The irony is later that day I went online to Amazon and saw they were offering a free sample of Too Much Happiness for download. I was soon reading a story called Dimensions. For Amazon the logic is clear. It is the same as that which governs the bricks and mortar bookshop. Let people read a bit of a book and it makes it more likely that they will make a purchase. Google think the same. So what is the problem for publishers?
I really think Random House are missing a trick. They have a fantastic resource with their list of authors. They are already letting Amazon and Google give some of their content away for free. Do they really need to charge for single short stories or should they give them away in anticipation of a payoff later when the entire collection is purchased?
I would like top make clear that I think Random House are a great publisher. But I just feel they have got this call wrong. It's just a little thing but I'm interested to see if it's only stingy people like me who are put off downloading stories by being asked to pay for them.
What do you think? Would 99p or £1.24 put you off? If you can download the entire collection of eight stories for £4.66 then isn't £1.24 for one a bit steep? It seems as though 99p is just the price because that's what tracks cost on I-Tunes. But individual tracks get listened to again and again. Most short stories will be read just once. Would you be more likely to check out an unknown author if it cost you nothing?
For the record Storycuts is not the first time anyone has had this idea. Ether Books, Found Press Quarterly and Shortfire Press are all at it too. Whether paid for or not it seems short stories may fit the emerging scene of digital publishing rather well.
Follow Matthew Crockatt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bookselector