The Case for Fiction That's Free

In the world of digital publishing, there's a question as old as Internet time: If you give away content for free, are you devaluing an entire industry? Of at least one example, writers and editors say, firmly, no. 

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In the world of digital publishing, there's a question as old as Internet time: If you give away content for free, are you devaluing an entire industry? Many have said over and over again that this is so. Jonathan Tasini, who wrote more than 200 unpaid columns for The Huffington Post and then launched a class-action suit after the site's sale to AOL went through, wrote in The Guardian in April that "the consequences for creativity and democracy" of writers working without pay "are dire." But of at least one new example, writers, editors, and a major publishing house say this is not the case. Free is not always bad. Free might be, actually, good.

In 2009, Cal Morgan, an editor at Harper Perennial, came up with an idea. It was a blog called 52 Stories, on which a new, free story from a different author would be published each week. He called it "our little experiment in social engineering through the regular administration of short fiction." The site's tagline: "What would you pay for the perfect short story? To read it? To write it? Don’t post your answer. Instead write the story."

After two years of running the site, reading and selecting submissions on Sundays in his free time, Morgan became publisher of a different imprint and found he no longer had time to keep up with the pace of the weekly story grind. Still, he didn't want to give it up, nor the community of readers and writers who submitted regularly. "It was one of the most exciting things, engaging with the young writer community. I didn't want to walk away from that," he told The Atlantic Wire.

At the end of 2011, Morgan says, he had a stack of some 400 submissions. He spent a couple of weeks in December reading them, and selected 40 stories—what he still owed readers to make it to the year's 52—to publish and "close out that year, creating something that was bigger than the sum of its parts." The collection that ensued, Forty Stories, is now available for free download online as a PDF, and will be made free as an e-book July 17. Contributors include published writers like the New Yorker's Ben Greenman, novelist Elizabeth Crane, and Best American Short Stories 2012-featured Roxane Gay, as well as first-time authors like David Backer, who told us it's been a dream of his to be published. "This is probably the most exciting thing that's happened viz. the dream," he said.

As we enter a madcap new age of publishing in which many of the regular rules and chronologies no longer apply (take a look at the hyper successful Fifty Shades trilogy, which started as fan fiction and was self-published before ever going into print with a major publishing house), some things remain the same. Writers and and those in the publishing world still care deeply about what they're creating. People still want to read good stories. But the mechanisms by which we get material to readers from writers has changed drastically due to the Internet's scope and the power of social media. In a previous time, Forty Stories would likely have found its form of existence as a zine or maybe a literary magazine. Either way, it would have been bound by print. Print means costs, and also, usually, means at least some semblance, if a small one (particularly in the case of short fiction), of a payment to the writer. Such a publication would probably rely on subscriptions or purchases, and maybe ads, to cover publishing costs. But in the case of Forty Stories, no one makes any money—not the writers, not Morgan, who's doing the work in his spare time (his lovely foreword to the e-book is below, at left), and not even HarperCollins. In fact, the project comes at a cost to the publisher, though it's a cost Morgan calls "nominal." The reward is the creativity and the writing itself, and any exposure the Internet brings to the parties involved.

About a quarter of the authors in Forty Stories are already published by Harper Perennial, another quarter, Morgan says, are authors who've not published anywhere yet—the writers who submit tend to be long-time fans of the site and want to see their own work there too. The material is diverse, ranging from "very traditional, serious, thorough extended pieces of fiction to impressionistic avante-garde stuff to things in between, dark and light comic pieces," he says. It's also global: "There's a writer from Nigeria included in the collection who, simply because he sent me an email, is now is having his terrific short story read by young writers in Brooklyn, or by people downloading it in Kansas."

Despite the typical gut reaction of a journalist to the words "free content," each writer I spoke to was overwhelmingly positive about the project, and Morgan told me, "I haven't heard a single gripe! I feel that a lot of the goodwill and affection generated through 52 Stories was because we were bringing fiction, as chosen by HarperPerennial, to the public and not asking anyone to pay." Another benefit to this model is that he doesn't have to make a fiscal evaluation of the work before he publishes it—his decisions can be based purely on the writing, and not on how it might do in the market. "Everybody here sees [the website] an extension of an effort that we were already making to maintain our relationship with the writing community," he says. In these Internet times of writing based on page views and bottom lines, this is something of a breath of fresh air. Greenman adds, "I don't think of 52 Stories chiefly for what it doesn't have (money); rather, I think of it for what it does have—a sympathetic curator who keeps his eye on the ball even when he gets too busy, a community of like-minded readers, an open mind with regard to new methods of distribution, etc." Morgan is also Greenman's fiction editor at Harper, and Greenman says his commitment to this "other model" was part of the reason they ended up working together.

With the PDF and e-book, there was a formal copy editing process and the book was set into type, with a cover designed by Harper Perennial art director Robin Bilardello, but, Morgan says, "nobody at Harper Collins would say the amount of effort isn't worth the goodwill and opportunity that both sides get." At the end of the day, this is all about the writing, and contrary to the doomsday predictions you sometimes hear about the Internet killing good writing or creativity, Morgan says, "There is more exciting writing going on now with the newest generation of young, emerging writers today because of the Internet and free availability and access. In the past you had to print and distribute, which costs money. Now you can make this available for free, and the writers want to have their material out there and considered," he says.

Jamie Quatro, another Forty Stories writer, explains that it's well worth it to get to work with Morgan, whom she describes as "one of the smartest editors in the industry--that rare alloy of literary knowledge, editorial acumen, and personal generosity" and be published alongside writers like "Blake Butler, Ben Greenman, Kyle Minor, Elizabeth Crane, and Jess Walter, to name a few." She adds, "That said, it is very, very nice to be paid, even if it's minimal, or the payment comes in the form of contributor copies and a year's subscription. But the Forty Stories project is unique--it's more like a short story symposium. It's great exposure--one more way for potential readers to find my work." Greenman told The Atlantic Wire that he thinks the model works "for the same reason musicians donate songs to tribute albums or actors work for scale on projects that interest them. I'm writing stories, and I like for them to find homes, sometimes for profit, sometimes not--art isn't money, at its root, and when the two line up felicitously, fine, but if they diverge, that's fine, too." And, he says, "It's also a great place for stories that don't fit comfortably in traditional locations, like this one."

At least in this case, there's no desire to put what's successful digitally into print. While Morgan is considering what's next—possibly a free PDF/e-book collection every year—for the franchise, he says, "If you created it as a print book, it would be something people would have to pay for, and I couldn't do that without paying the writers. I think there's something great about it only being online." The writers agree. Quatro, who has a debut story collection coming out next year, adds, "I can send the link to friends, say 'Read this!,' and feel absolutely no compunction about asking them to spend money."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.