The win of pulp (for e-books)

In an excellent post trying to provide a model for the current e-book market in historical terms, Bruce McFarling suggests that e-books have currently re-invented the dime novel: a publishing unit of a single story, typically of the length that we in the sf world would call a novella (17,500 to 40,000 words). He goes on to suggest that what we need is to reinvent the successor to the dime novel: the pulps.

Tobias Buckell takes issue with this, but I think he’s missed the point. The key feature of the pulps (and McFarling does say this, although he mixes in other issues as well) is not that pulps ran serials. What pulps had was an editor, who provided additional content that fit in well with the anchor story.

The anchor story of a pulp magazine was typically a novella length work very similar to what might have appeared in a dime novel. It was usually by a big-name writer—someone whose name on the cover would drive newsstand sales. And if that’s all it had, it would basically just be a dime novel. But an issue of a pulp had more.

Along with the anchor story, the editor would run three to six short stories, some of which would be by writers who were not big names. They would be the sort of stories that, in today’s e-book market, would sell in single-digit quantities, unless someone with some stature recommended them—which is what the pulp editor was doing by putting them in a magazine with an anchor story. The editor was telling his readers, “Hey—if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably some of these sorts of things too.”

This was a huge change and a big win for everybody. It meant that new writers had a much better shot at reaching new readers. It also meant that readers had a chance to find new writers whose work they would like. And it did those things at very low cost. The reader paid nothing extra (an issue of a pulp also cost a dime), they got their anchor story, and they got a few extra short stories essentially for free. The extra content was also pretty cheap for the magazine, as the editor didn’t have to pay nearly as much for the short stories by the new writers as he did for the novella by the big-name writer, and each extra name on the cover had some chance of attracting some additional newsstand sales, as those writers made their way from being new to being big names in their own right.

This won’t be easy. One problem is that e-books don’t make as good a format to provide this extra content. It’s very different from a magazine where you can quickly turn to and then read the anchor story you bought it for—and then have the issue as a physical object setting around for a while, giving you any number of chances to pick it up and give some of those other stories  a try.

Maybe if the anchor story is right up front, where the buyer doesn’t have to skip over anything to get to it, then extra stories right after it have a shot at getting read. (Doing it the other way around seems like a terrible idea—does anybody skip over stuff in an e-book and then go back later and read it?)

Of course Toby is right that we don’t need something to be “like” historical forms—they already exist. The e-book is its own thing and people will find their uses for it. But I hope that McFarling’s larger point is well taken by all the smart people working on writing, editing, designing, publishing, and selling e-books. A way to create for e-books something like the value-add that pulps created when they published a longer work by a big-name author together with a few shorter works by new writers that readers would probably like would be a huge win for everybody: readers find new writers that they like (cheap or even for free), writers find new readers—and they (and editors) get paid.

By the way, I discovered along the way to writing this that Stanford has an extensive collection of dime novels available as pdfs.