Posted on October 29, 2013 in Archive

Read Petite attempts to revive the bite sized novel


Tim Waterstone, founder of the UK bookstore chain Waterstones, announced earlier this year that an e-single subscription service, Read Petite, would be launched by the end of the year. The site hopes to revive the old literary trend of short stories and serializations in the vein of 19th century writers like Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. It’s a neat idea, but I’m not sure it’s going to live up to it’s full potential.

Let me start with what I like about this idea. Like the music subscription service Spotify, users will pay a small monthly fee (Waterstone estimates no more than 12 Great British Pounds) to gain access to a library of short stories and serialised novels (for those who aren’t clued in, serialized novels are books published one chapter at a time). There’s no cap on what you can access once the subscription fee has been paid. Long form journalism is rumoured to be included as well, but the main focus is on the fiction. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, this will suit the beleaguered traveller or those who enjoy reading but don’t have the time for an 800-page novel.  Reading habits are changing, and Waterstone recognises that. This also suited Dickens’ time, when the publishing and printing industry was booming and distribution was high, and the demand for further instalments was determined purely by the audience’s appetite. The Pickwick Papers is a perfect example of this.

It might even be better than what was going on in the 19th century, though that’s through no fault of Dickens. Technology has obviously improved the old business model. From a business point of view, subscription fees and paywalls mean that readership and circulation can be precisely tracked, with none of this “give it to your friend for free” stuff. Physical circulation of a magazine was a more valuable tool in calculating readership numbers than how many copies were sold in 19th century Britain, as some copies were passed around dozens of times.

Read Petite definitely wants to be profitable (because why not, after all?), and maybe even collaborate with traditional publishers (which I’ll get to later). Co-founder Peter Cox recently stated “We are genuinely trying to expand the reading market, and bring publishers together under our aegis to do something new. Up until now short-form writing has not really been economic to produce, but we think we can unleash it.”

A larger selection of material is the benefit to Read Petite readers – according to Waterstone, “This is not slush pile publishing. There is an absolutely staggering treasure trove [of material] available.” Another incentive for readers to get in on Read Petite is the potential for previously unpublished works by established authors. Writers like Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and some of their little-known works have been rediscovered for the service. Fans of these guys are already looking forward to the Read Petite launch, no doubt.

Now here comes the bit where, let’s say, I think they could improve their potential service. Read Petite will only be working with publishers, who will submit work to be included in the site. Did you catch that? Writers need to have already been published to be considered for inclusion. How lame.

Seriously though, I think Read Petite is seriously missing out here. Including already published material is great – but what about the potential to include fresh faces and new works? Don’t just make Read Petite a boorish old ‘already published’ club – become a name maker!

Self-publishers are missing out here, too. Someone out there may have written the perfect short story from start to finish, and decided to self-publish – but they won’t ever be featured amongst the electronic pages of Read Petite because they eschewed traditional publishers. For such a 21st century concept, Read Petite’s selection criteria are quite stone age.

But like I mentioned before – think of the potential! Tim Waterstone and his collaborators could claim to run a publication that plucks obscure, un- or self-published writers and puts a spotlight on their work. Such a publication could reinvigorate the short story industry and get authors excited about writing for that genre.

The problem is, Read Petite seems to be content to allow selected traditional publishers to be the content curators, rather than decide on content for themselves. Surely it wouldn’t break the bank to hire a few editors to create and curate a ‘New and Upcoming Authors’ section of the site? It can’t be that hard to find self-published short stories these days, and I’m sure subscribers would appreciate the opportunity to read something by someone new.

Regardless of my above thoughts, I think Read Petite is a great platform to revive the short story and serialized novel from. If they do decide to try the self-published route though, they’d better get in quick before Amazon for Kindle singles crew corners the market entirely.