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Publishers take shortcut to get profits back online
Storycuts e-edition of Nick Earls' Merlo Girls. Picture: Supplied.

Early last year _The West Australian _reported on an initiative by publishers HarperCollins to sell short stories online, hoping to take advantage of the explosion of e-reading devices quickly taking over the world.

Now the iPad and Kindle have not only taken over publishing, they're so entrenched it seems that ebook technology has been around forever. From Amanda Hocking, who became a multimillionaire selling her self-published ebooks online, to E.L. James, whose fan fiction 50 Shades trilogy hit 10 million in sales this week, what we're buying is changing fast.

Publisher Random House has now joined HarperCollins in releasing a dedicated short story collection specifically for digital devices, called Storycuts.

As a Random House bugle puts it: "You know the scenario. You're at the doctor's waiting room or on a crowded train that has suddenly stopped. Not knowing how long you'll be there, you probably don't want to get stuck into your novel as you might have to leave it at a critical point."

"They still get bought, they still get read, they may not be in the top 10 bestsellers but that doesn't mean they're not popular," says Brett Osmond, Random House Australia's marketing and publicity director.

He's talking about the market for short stories, traditionally not the stomping ground of smashes such as The Da Vinci Code or Twilight, but still solid. "Just because a short story isn't in the top 10 doesn't stop it being a good idea or something readers - sometimes thousands of them - are interested in."

It's not just what Mr Osmond calls "bite-sized pieces" of literature. The appeal is also part of the "long tail".

That's the phenomenon where new technology can deliver media to more people - in this case, digital readers and books. Without having to wait until they can justify spending money on a print run for a book comparatively few people are interested in, publishers such as Random House can sell a book over the web for little capital, meaning even low sales are direct profit.

The lengths of the stories in the collection are indeed just the right length for a doctor's visit or train ride but aside from entertaining, Mr Osmond is looking at them as a sales tool as well.

"For some it's a way to sample an author you've never read before at an entry level and if you really enjoyed that story from Judy Nunn or Nick Earls, you go on to buy a full-length novel."

It's not strictly a comment on how time-poor we are today. Mr Osmond talks about the prevailing myth during the 60s and 70s that technology was going to free us from work (in a time where we worked much less than we do now) and he believes that people have always been busy. All that's changed is many writers have changed the way they deliver stories to stay in line with readers' lifestyles, whether it's a long or short story on a screen or on paper.

"Writers have been responding to the changing culture and how people spend their recreational time reading," Mr Osmond adds. "Authors like James Patterson cottoned on quite quickly that a lot of people like short pieces of information. So his chapters are no longer than a few pages, which I think is a deliberate response to how people consume information."

Of course, the digital format means you can deliver much more than just words on (virtual) paper to readers and Random House, along with every other publisher with dwindling lists and profits, is watching changes from embedded video to the book trailer happening across the industry.

"Our imagination has sometimes been ahead of what's possible," Mr Osmond says. "But some of these brilliant ideas can be realised now in a way they couldn't before because they weren't commercially viable or technically possible . . . it's really exciting."

As always, the question is: will the readers agree?