The Next Big Thing in E-Books
YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.
E-books are not the Next Big Thing. They spent several years as the Next Big Thing, but now that e-reading is possible on cellphones and tablets as well as computers and e-readers, they are officially a Very Big Thing and have been for awhile. What’s still just beginning to be explored, though, are the possibilities that e-publishing holds for enhancing the reading experience.
Some writers and publishers are exploring interactive creations, such as hidden clues and puzzles for readers to find on-line, game tie-ins, interactive maps and more; there’s even a term, “transmedia,” for this kind of experience which connects reading with other activities.
However, there’s another Next Big Thing spawned by e-reading — it’s less technologically intensive than transmedia, but still has the potential to change how we read.
Before e-publishing, if authors created works in their fictional worlds that weren’t novel-shaped, their options for sharing them with readers were limited. They could write short stories and try to publish them in anthologies, but there was always a risk that the anthology’s editor wouldn’t take the story, or that the author’s regular readers wouldn’t find it.
Highly successful authors might have a chance to publish a collection of their own stories or a limited edition printing of a novella. Most of the time, though, those sorts of side stories probably never saw the light of day. Certainly, books like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, which provide great insight into the author’s creations, were far more the exception than the rule until e-publishing made it possible to produce and share them without the expense of printing.
The trend toward publishing this kind of material directly in electronic format has been gradual; authors have been sharing excerpts from upcoming books on their blogs for about as long as authors blogging has been a trend. And some have stretched the possibilities of electronic publishing pretty far already — for example, Catherynne M. Valente, author of the lovely fantasy The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, first published the novel herself in installments on her blog, then offered it for download before it was conventionally published in print.
But it seems to have been within the last couple of years that publishers have gotten involved, working with established authors to give electronically published short stories lovely covers that fit with the rest of a series and making it easy to download them on the most popular e-reading platforms, Kindle and Nook. I first observed this trend in romance fiction for adults, and this year in particular it’s spreading to YA in a big way.
Young adult authors who’ve e-published short stories in the world of their established series this year include Veronica Roth, Taherah Mafi, Lauren Oliver, Sarah J. Maas, Rae Carson and many more. The content can range from short retellings of key scenes from the perspective of a character whose point of view we don’t get in the main series, as in Veronica Roth’s “Free Four: Tobias Tells the Divergent Story,” to longer tales such as Rae Carson’s “The Shadow Cats.” This novella is both a prequel to Carson’s epic fantasy The Girl of Fire and Thorns and an alternate point of view story focusing on main character Elodie’s older sister, the Crown Princess. In Dan Wells’s “Fragments,” a short story set in the dystopian universe of Partials, Wells expands his world-building by telling a story set two decades earlier with new characters in another part of the world — China rather than the Long Island setting of the first book.
Seeing these multiple perspectives and getting access to aspects of the world-building that might otherwise have remained in the author’s mind changes the reading experience. The feeling is a bit like immersing oneself in the sort of inventiveness and perspective shifting that’s often found in good fanfiction — except these inventions are created by the authors themselves.
Publishing these stories in e-format seems to be a win for authors, publishers, and readers. Authors get to share stories that might otherwise have sat in a drawer or on a hard drive somewhere and know that those stories are being read and discussed by their most devoted fans. Publishers get to keep the attention of readers between books in a series and rachet up the excitement and anticipation for a new title. Readers get more stories — and often at a price that’s very reasonable for teens. Most of these e-published short stories sell for $2.99 or less on the major bookstore websites — some are even free. For all of these reasons, e-publishing short stories and other “extra” material in popular series appears to be a Next Big Thing that will only get bigger.
Are there any disadvantages to this trend? Possibly. If publishing extra e-book-only material becomes standard, something all the big names in young adult fiction are doing, those readers who don’t read e-books, or who can’t because their computer/smartphone/e-reader access is limited or nonexistent, may start to feel that they are getting a lesser reading experience. Many libraries also seem unsure about whether to purchase these exclusively e-published short stories. In my own region, where there are several large city and country library systems, some have purchased them and some have not.
What do you think? If you’re a fan of these popular YA authors, do you gobble up e-published short stories or are you indifferent to them? If you’re a librarian, does your library system carry them in its e-book collection or not? What is the system’s rationale for the choice?
As someone who read The Silmarillion multiple times growing up, I tend to think in terms of “the more story, the better,” so despite the potential disadvantages, this is one Next Big Thing that I can get excited about.
— Erin Bush, currently reading Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas.