Books, Reviews

Anytime, anywhere? Reviewing Penguin and A&U digital shorts

by Stephanie Van Schilt , June 6, 20126 Comments

With the ubiquity of smartphones and e-readers, and the wealth of content available to us – from podcasts to video on demand – it was inevitable that publishers would publish (and require) more from writers. To appease the busy, mobile and insatiable e-masses, following on from similar and successful international initiatives, a bout of digital shorts have been released locally.

Competing with free short content available on personal blogs or dedicated websites, local publishers have released affordable packages of e-shorts. Portable non-fiction or fiction stories, by writers known and unknown, are available for an array of digital devices. They are pitched as original, locally produced snack-priced treats for the on-the-go mind, for an audience who want more and less to squeeze into any available corner of life.

Here at Killings, we decided to nibble on a couple of the digital shorts campaigns during our busy day-to-day lives.

Penguin Shorts

The Penguin Shorts mission statement reads like the wordy title of Nam Le’s contribution: these shorts are ‘quality’ and ‘original’ and ‘affordable’ and ‘exciting’. When I read three of the texts – released in April this year – on my iPhone, these adjectives eventually rang true. The files contained thirty-ish pages of well-written stories from well-known local names, chosen for their literary associations and established, niche audiences.

However, I say eventually for a reason. After downloading the required free app –  txtr ebooks – the e-book files wouldn’t upload, my account password was declined and the app crashed at least twice. Perhaps if I had purchased the e-books through one of the vendor options (Amazon.comApple iBookstoreGoogle Play and Kobo), it would have been easier.

Procedural gripes aside, the visual presentation on my small glowing screen was pleasant: stark, neat and easily read while I was at the gym, waiting for coffee and, of course, on public transport.

James Bradley’s reimagining of Rapunzel in Beauty’s Sister offered what I have longed for from other recent pop culture forays into fairytale extension. Utilising fable tropes such as sibling rivalry, childhood misadventure and sorcery, Beauty’s Sister took me into its world, allowing me to forget that I was stand-spooning a stranger on the 96 tram.

In Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire’s Women of Letters collation, personal snippets from the likes of Helen Garner and Deborah Conway, momentarily took me away from the mundane. The competently curated letters are filled with humour and heart, with tinges of melancholy or longing. As the prose delicately unfolds, each voice is clear, making the letters easy to devour while waiting for a morning caffeine hit.

Likewise, Nam Le’s short – Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice – was a tight and densely emotional journey that sucked me in and contained as much power as the lengthy title.

These stories are sold as distractions for the easily distracted, yet this is a double-edged sword. Reading these gloriously intricate tales on my iPhone was convenient, yet the primary function of my device served as a distraction in itself. Midway through a poignant scene in Le’s story, I was interrupted by a text message. And the message’s presence vibrated in my brain until I closed the e-book to read it.

Also, despite the claim that these texts are ‘only available in digital format’, Le’s short has, for example, in fact been published in hard copy before, but is an exclusive as an individual story in this particular form.

In all, I enjoyed reading the first three digital shorts from this initial series of seven, and will gladly devour the others, wherever I am, when I have a moment to spare.

A&U Shorts

In the introduction to its debut A&U Shorts series, Allen & Unwin claims that digital technologies offer ‘new opportunities for short form writing’. It’s interesting to note, however, that the five stories available are not themselves new. Rather, they were handpicked from the Australia Council’s annual series, Ten Stories You Must Read This Year (2009–11), released though its ‘Get Reading!’ campaign.

According to the Council’s website, Get Reading! is aimed at ‘inspiring more Australians to discover or rediscover the pleasure of reading’. In this light, Allen & Unwin’s initiative might be targeted at those who don’t ordinarily read short fiction. As A&U reminds its readers, ‘some of Australia’s best-loved novelists also write great short stories’. Indeed, Tom Keneally, Alex Miller, Peter Temple, Christos Tsiolkas and Charlotte Wood, write superb short stories worth much more than the $1.99 price tag (‘less than the price of a cup of coffee’).

The authors’ reputations will no doubt play a huge role in which e-books users select. When selecting which of the titles to read, not having read any short fiction by these authors, I was swayed by the names of novelists I’d previously enjoyed. Tsiolkas’s ‘Sticks, Stones’ revisits the darker side of suburbia and parental responsibility, themes he brilliantly illuminated in The Slap,  while Wood’s ‘Nanoparticles’ cleverly articulates a mind in crisis, much like her recent novel Animal People did. The biggest surprise was ‘Ithaca in my Mind’, in which Temple uses his trademark grit to bludgeon the ever-fickle publishing industry.

The stories are available through, (update: also available through Kindle, Kobo and a number of other retailers) a user-friendly reading platform that offers free registration. Allen & Unwin instructs readers to ‘try one over lunch, or on your way home!’ Due to my own technological restrictions, I read these stories on my MacBook while hunched over my desk. Hardly a pleasurable experience, but this will not be the case for every reader.

In the future, I’d love to see Allen & Unwin offer readers some genuinely ‘new’ reading opportunities and expand its Shorts series to include lesser known writers, who arguably have more to gain from this digital platform than the current distinguished list do.

Stephanie Van Schilt (Penguin review) and Emily Laidlaw (A&U review) are the KYD Online Interns.

  • Benjamin Solah

    I think the Penguin ones are much more on the money, offering a variety of user-friendly formats and not restricting readers to the Book.ish format.

    A&U shorts do look appealing with some great names, but despite all of that, the fact you have to hunch over a MacBook or burn your eyes out on a tablet makes them inaccessible. I see Kindles and eInk eReaders all the time now on my tram on my way to work. None of these people can read the A&U shorts so are more likely to go for the Penguin ones.

  • malcolm neil

    I see a storm of short form econtent happening, but to me these are all feel slightly repurposed and not yet part of a full play at this type of publishing.

    In A + U defense though the titles are available on Kobo and, I assume, other retailers as well

  • Sophie Benjamin

    Making content solely available through book.ish or some other publisher-created app is a deal breaker for me.

  • malcolm neil

    I’m not sure if you are responding to me Benjamin, but that is exactly what Allen and Unwin are doing. Kobo and other retailers have these books, not just

  • Stephanie Van Schilt

    For those wondering, the Penguin Digital Shorts series range in price from $2.99 – $3.99.


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »


Jane Howard

In praise of watching theatre online

I love watching theatre on my computer. It takes away all of the pressure. Who really cares if the theatre is only okay, if the only effort involved is loading a link? When you can watch it in bed, without any of the effort of wearing pants? When, if you’re busy, you can watch it in small chunks? When, if you’re bored, you can stop watching all together? Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »