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Long read, short shrift
From e-singles to Twitterature, writing goes short, and what's sweet is readers are growing in numbers.
Back in the day of train commutes, books were conversation starters, with their size always commented upon. "So big, " observers said, sympathetically.
Commuters today are more likely to be plugged into their phones, scrolling content compressed for our lowered attention spans. The internet has created new demands on our time and a stream of alerts, updates and tweets leave us impatient with the long-winded. As information is pared down, it seemed unlikely books would be left behind, so it's no surprise that 'byte-size' and 'quick' are adjectives now associated with a once-leisurely activity.
Penguin India has introduced Esingles, digital downloads described as "byte-sized stories easily completed in the course of a daily commute or lunchhour". Ananth Padmanabhan, vice president, sales at Penguin India, says, "In India, considering the significant use of smart phones, we wanted to publish singles that readers could easily download and read on their phones. "
The publishing house intends to create a new reader base with this initiative, priced at Rs 25 (" less than a cup of coffee" ) and available online. There are 20 stories available now, excerpts from previously published works by bestselling authors like Sudha Murthy and Ravinder Singh, but the company intends to commission writing specifically for the digital catalogue in the future.
Selling novels per chapter is an international practice, and Padmanabhan says it won't take away from an author's creative endeavour. "If readers have progressed to reading in parts, we have to provide content like they want it, " he says, revealing sales have been encouraging.
Penguin author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni equates publishing in chapters to serialising excerpts for magazines. "This will open up the works of writers to new readers who might want to 'try before they buy', " she says in support of this format. Prajwal Parajuly, also a Penguin India author, adds, "The publishing world is changing so rapidly that what is considered sacrilegious today might just be tomorrow's reality. " Parajuly's 2012 debut The Gurkha's Daughter was a collection of short stories, a form he found less intimidating than the novel. He says people thought he was committing "publishing suicide" with his choice. "As the book climbed the bestseller charts, the same pundits declared the short story back with a bang, " he says, adding even readers of literary fiction need something short and quick.
Whether the short story has gained readers in this time-pressed era is up for debate. But author Indira Chandrasekhar, founder of Out of Print, an online literary journal for short stories, says submissions have become increasingly bold, perceptive and well-crafted. The challenges that come with word restrictions today are also being put to the test by Twitterature, where tweets are an exercise in literary creativity. Mumbai-based Kanika Parab, who tweets @kahanibythekilo, says, "The best part about this format is that it can be done whenever inspiration strikes. And it allows you to gauge audience responses immediately. " With cleverness like 'The plates were on edge. The drinks sweated and the spoon was about to get used. #firstdate', @kahanibythekilo has found 1, 626 followers. As for its literary credibility, she says, "Even Salman Rushdie did some Twitter stories. "
As short read formats develop, what's encouraging is that they are growing reader numbers. Sonal Gandhi Fernandes of Crossword Bookstores Ltd says eight years ago, Indian fiction sales were 17 per cent;with short reads (books appx 100 pages), the number is up 30 per cent today. "These books are easy to read and establish an instant connect with audiences, " she says.
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