Can Storyville Bring Short Fiction to the Water Cooler?

Starting a conversation about short stories, one download at a time.
Gillian Reagan | February 1st, 2011

Screenshot of Storyville app for iPad and iPhone

Paul Vidich fell in love with short story writer Mavis Gallant’s work when he was getting his Master’s of Fine Arts at the Rutgers-Newark in New Jersey. In 2006, Vidich left his post as a senior executive at AOL and Time Warner, where he worked for 19 years, negotiating the first major label license agreement with Apple chief executive Steve Jobs for the iTunes Music Store. He left the corporate business development world to pursue a life in literature.

Gallant, a Canadian-born writer who lives in Paris, has had more than 100 stories published in the New Yorker, nearly as many times as John Updike — with most of them printed in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Vidich worries that many of her stories are captured in a “literary gated community,” behind an analog wall that most people would never have access to unless they collected a library of back issues of the magazine. He wants to introduce a new generation to the work of Gallant and other short story writers, by putting it where our hands and eyes always seem to be fixated: our mobile gadgets.

Vidich is the founder of Storyville, an application that he debuted last December with his former AOL-Time Warner colleagues Scott Levine and Atul Sood. iPhone and iPad users can sign up for a six-month subscription to Storyville, for $4.99. They will be delivered one story every week, and have access to an archive of work, searchable by author, date, or title –”a library you can carry with you,” Vidich said. In a year, Storyville subscribers will receive 48 stories, for less than 25 cents apiece. “Read on the bus, in an airport, waiting in line, in bed, or wherever you want to be inspired by great writing,” according to Storyville’s promotional text.

Vidich brokered relationships with publishing houses, more than 30 of them, from Random House to Graywolf Press, offering a flat fee for each story they would publish in the application. Each story has been plucked from printed collections that have already been through a rigorous editing process. “These stories are already the best of what’s out there,” Vidich said. The deal offers publishers a chance to promote new, or forgotten, story collections, while the Storyville team and its users get access to a range of writers, piece by piece.

According to Vidich, Storyville’s mission is simple: offer the “gift of discovery” and elevate the short story into the national conversation.

“If I were to go to Barnes and Noble or even Amazon and say, ‘Okay, point me toward the stuff that’s in the market now,’ I wouldn’t have access to that, because that’s not how the world is organized,” Vidich said. “When you share a short story with someone in a conversation, if the person you’re talking to hasn’t read it, the conversation stops.”

Many readers are only exposed to new short fiction if they are subscribers to literary journals, or the New Yorker, or, with any luck, they read about a collection and buy a book.

“The short story, a truly powerful, creative form, has touched our lives even if we don’t read them,” Vidich said. “Brokeback Mountain is a short story, for example.” But how do you change the fact that most people no longer read short stories — getting their entertainment from TV, movies, the Internet?

Vidich is interested in “periodicity” — how the very act of putting fiction in front of readers on a regular basis in a seamless flow might bring short story fiction beyond a niche, literary audience and into the pop culture conversation. “This kind of frequency of literary journals that come out once a year or every six months, you might forget about it,” he said. “If you can set an expectation in the behavior of the consumer, there might be a way to change that. Not every story is going to be read and liked. I don’t like every story in the New Yorker, but I read them.”

According to Vidich, give people an easy, convenient, cheap way to participate in new short fiction and, “you would have a lot more conversations.”

The gamble is whether restricting access to short stories on Apple’s iPhones and iPads might just create another “literary walled garden,” as Vidich calls it — comprised only of a small audience that can afford these expensive devices.

“We are in a mobile-access, web world and it’s only going to get more that way,” Vidich said. “To put fiction on this device that people are going to have with them all the time, as we get more subscribers, I think it’s going to provoke a series of conversations.”

Vidich will not disclose how many users Storyville has at the moment, but he is hoping that they will have 2,000 of them by the end of this year. The application has delivered stories from Charles Baxter, Ben Greenman, Kate Bernheimer, Shannan Rouss and more.

Vidich is currently toying with some cross-section marketing strategies to help promote the work. “We can bring greater visibility to the short story form by associating them with someone who is not a writer but may have been touched by a short story,” he said. “For example, the lead singer of the Pogues is a writer of lyrics and has likely been inspired by literature. He could say, here’s a story that we really touched me,’” Vidich said, referring to Shane McGowan, an Irish musician in a punk-folk band. “It does two things: lends some different type of creditability to that individual, expressing that this person is not just a singer, but a reader, and it opens up to people who are not the traditional audience,” he said. “That’s part of this larger cross-media conversation that you can have with this kind of technology.”

Works from Patrick Somerville, Belle Boggs, Anthony Doerr, Janice Shapiro and, one of Vidich’s favorites, Mavis Gallant, are on the way. “When you read something you love — you read it, you like it — you’re almost indebted to that person to share it with other people,” Vidich said. That’s exactly what he plans to do.