April 12, 2013

Tim Waterstone to launch Read Petite

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A new reading experience with no books in sight.

Tim Waterstone, founder of the eponymous UK bookshop chain Waterstones, is launching Read Petite, a digital book service that will publish both new and old short fiction and non-fiction and eventually long-form journalism. The enterprise has been crowned the Spotify for books” because readers will be able to subscribe to the service for between £5 and £12 a month and have unlimited access to a library of ebooks all shorter than 9,000 words.  Of course, a real “books Spotify” would allow users to read works of any length but such an idea is too logistically messy at present to even begin considering.

Read Petite (named after Jackie Wilson’s 1957 song “Reet Petite”) will work with publishers to put out shorter works from, Waterstone was keen to stress, writers whose work has previously appeared in traditional print: “The individual short story, or whatever it is, may not have been published, but the author will be an established, published writer.” It isn’t surprising that a man who made his name and fortune through physical books is still relying on traditional publishing for validation in his new venture. His argument is that, “The whole point is to avoid a slush pile of material. What we’ll guarantee is quality writing.”

Still, Read Petite might be just what shorter fiction needs in order to support its reported renaissance, and as a way for publishers to avoid the Amazon Kindle Singles programme. Waterstone cited the growth of ereaders and tablets as one of the incentives behind the new company, suggesting that the service would be perfect for commuters: “It worked for Dickens and it worked for us. If you are going to read on a laptop, or a smartphone or a tablet, [a short story] is about as much as you want.”

A return to serialisation would certainly be welcome if it could provoke the same excitement and compulsive reading as Dickens’s novel instalments did in the 19th century. Could we see repeats of the scenes which reportedly met English passengers as they reached the New York harbour, when crowds of American readers gathered, desperate for an answer to their cries of, “Is Little Nell Dead?!”, except somehow translated into the digital cries of “Have you downloaded yet?!”

Speaking about the launch of the service, which is co-founded by the former editor of The Bookseller, Neill Denny, literary agent at Redhammer Peter Cox, and founder of Batch, Martyn Daniels, Waterstone also commented on his old chain, stating with optimism that the shops were returning to form, “[The shop] should be a theatre. It should be a lovely place to be on a Sunday afternoon. The physical browsing process is enormously pleasant. It’s an important part of our national culture, those bookshops.”

But as Waterstones now sell Kindles in their stores, and its founder is about to begin investing in ebooks, it remains to be seen who will support that significant part of our national culture.

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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