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.


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