Short fiction and micro payments

The music industry was changed forever when mp3 files came to be the default unit of music media. Before the single soundtrack became the fundamental unit in the music market, that position belonged to the record. That is why the sellers were called “record companies” and not “song companies”. Music lovers bought a CD of 10 songs and ended up truly enjoying only one or two of them. They couldn’t choose to buy individual soundtracks unless they illegally ripped songs off a purchased CD. In an ideal world, a record company would have noticed the demand for such a market model and embraced the mp3 format, but it didn’t happen that way.

The companies fought legal battles against teenage downloaders and spent money on advertising campaigns that made downloading music seem like a mortal sin. In due course of time though, the single song did find its way into the record companies’ good books. They slapped DRM tags on it and went about their way in the usual fashion.

The good thing that came out of all this was that no longer could a bad song ride into people’s music libraries simply by being in the same CD as a good song. Good songs get downloaded, bad songs get ignored. That is what the new single-unit model made sure of.

Oddly enough, the flexibility of the web hasn’t done much to the market that deals in words — book selling. This is especially odd because the web is fundamentally a text-based environment. The web is different because it is based on a whole lot of words (text, code, source etc.)

The default unit in the book market remains the paper book and the nature of our favourite genres hasn’t undergone much of a change either. Novels are still long and chapters are still the building blocks that go into their making. This is not surprising since, even in the music market, it was the distribution mechanism that changed and not the form of music.

But that is not entirely true, is it?

The record can be split up into songs and the songs can have their own independent existence. The novel loses everything if the chapters become independent. This is why it is unrealistic to expect the web to change the book market. The form factor does come into play when we consider web compatibility. Forget book-length narratives, people won’t even sit through a 5000-word article.

What the web can do is become a field for short fiction. The single short story can become the equivalent of the single soundtrack. In the minds of those who read fiction, the short story is still part of a collective — an anthology, a collection, or a series. While the idea of a short story collection may not be something evil, this collective does not have to be a tangible construct. It can simply be an identifier — a label — a title or description to help contain a mass of short narratives.

What that means is that the short story does not have to be part of a physical book. It can exist on its own as a work of fiction. If it needs context, then that can come from a label. Each Byomkesh Bakshi detective story is an independent work, but it gets context from the title and the shared character set. A reader, if/when he finds a Byomkesh story, does not need a physical construct (like a book) to be able to place it in the right folder in his mind. In the music market, such contextualising happens by way of recognising artist names. In the book market, it can happen through author names and franchise names.

Think about an online marketplace where you go and find short stories listed. Some are independent of franchise context, some belong to a particular series (Byomkesh Bakshi?) and all stories are brand new. You read excerpts and click on the buy button next to the stories you find interesting. You pay… what? about 10 rupees for a story and it is added to your library.

The problem is, we don’t have suitable micro-payment systems in place to make such a marketplace possible. In addition, I have a feeling that such a market will work more for short fiction that falls under some manner of concept umbrella. For example, people will be more likely to buy stories featuring their favourite characters or stories by their favourite authors than go for something standalone (both in idea and author terms). Think about it — Would you rather buy from or A story’s presence is felt not just in the words it uses, but also in the anchors it places in the backs of our minds.

It is possible to free fiction for the web, but it will take some serious thinking and a rather adventurous spirit among publishers. Heck, if the micro-payment thing wasn’t in my way, I would have done this myself by now.

This essay was first published on Medium in February of 2013. Last year, I started Kalp Fiction, an experiment in this kind of digital publishing.

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