A Short Story In The Palm of Your Hand

This article, from Michael Miner, originally appeared on the Chicago Reader site on 7/9/09.

Punk Planet’s Dan Sinker believes you really do want to read on your phone.

I don’t know that print is dying, but if it is I want it properly mourned. So I’m partial to the sentiments of Dan Sinker, a print person moving on but paying his respects to the medium he leaves behind. Sinker goes so far as to concede print virtues he hopes his new paperless publishing experiment will replicate.

Sinker, a former layout artist at the Reader, created the celebrated zine Punk Planet and ran it for 13 years. It went under two years ago not because Sinker’s imagination had run off to chase the next thing but because of a cash-flow crisis triggered by its distributor. But now Sinker is off to the next thing. He calls it CellStories.

The idea is easily understood by you and me; the technology behind it may not be, but that’s Sinker’s problem and he thinks he’s just about worked it out. He promises that in a month or so, when CellStories is up and running, a fresh story will await us every workday at cellstories.net, accessible only by our iPhones, iPods, and other mobile devices. At the moment he’s working on banking enough pieces to be confident that when he gets going he can keep that promise. As he starts up, his primary sources for stories are Brooklyn’s Akashic Books, which has a Punk Planet imprint, and Chicago’s 2nd Story reading series. And he’s counting on what he calls “13 years of good will with writers” he published at Punk Planet to keep ’em coming. “Eventually,” he says, “there will be an open call for submissions, probably on a quarterly basis. But I expect that the longer-term partnerships and relationships will be the source of the brunt of the material.”

Submissions can be sent to stories@cellstories.net. Contributing authors will be compensated by being showcased: with CellStories as with so much paperless publishing, the paper prohibition extends to money.

The stories Sinker plans to post, mostly fiction, will run about 2,000 words, give or take. The service will be free—but if the idea flies and he expands it so that readers can download and save stories they like and root through archives for old ones, he’ll charge a small subscription fee, something like 99 cents a month.

“I love short stories,” says Sinker. “I love magazine-length articles. That stuff doesn’t have a home right now. Talk to any publisher and ask how his short-story collections sell and they sell poorly. Magazines have less and less place for long narrative pieces. They like lists.”

If Sinker’s idea sounds to you like some sort of very limited take on the Kindle—you supply the screen, he supplies the literature—you’re misreading his intent. “The book is still a wonderful thing,” he continues, and by book he means that old-fashioned thing with binding and pages that bend at the corners. “I still definitely believe in books.” The Kindle, though, he considers a passing fancy. “It’s the laser disc of the late 2000s,” he says. “It’s an interim device. It’s too expensive for anyone to buy who isn’t a technology lover or hasn’t a lot of money burning in their pockets. It’s the answer to a problem I don’t think very many people have. And it’s so temporary—the day and age of a one-function device. ‘This is my thing to read. This is my thing to make phone calls. This is my thing to play games on.’ We’re well past that point and good riddance to it. It was never a time that was going to last because everything is converging.”

Just as the word processor became a personal computer with a million uses, so the cell phone is becoming a mobile device, or as Sinker likes to call it, “a sophisticated communication device that can get you on the Internet, can get you to your friends, can get you to where you are on the map, can get you all kinds of things.” When it comes to dreaming up new uses, Japan, South Korea, and western Europe are years ahead of us, he says. In Japan and Korea, he points out, the mobile device has started to replace the credit card.

But Sinker thinks people like their mobile devices for reasons that aren’t limited to the neat things they do. There’s the simple physical congeniality of one. “It’s tactile in a way a laptop isn’t,” he says. “A laptop is something you’re sitting away from. A mobile phone you cradle. There’s something wonderful about that.”

And because it is so congenial, he believes the public will enjoy reading stories on it—“things that might take 15 minutes or 20 minutes. Your eyes aren’t going to burn out. You’re not going to get uncomfortable. You can sit there with a beer in one hand, or a cup of coffee in one hand, and read this thing.”

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader.

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