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A Short Story in the Palm of Your Hand

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

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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."

You make it sound like a newspaper, I say.

"Well, exactly," Sinker replies.

When I try to discuss the future of media with people who get all their news online and seem to have no concept of the pleasure to be had sitting in a kitchen or cafe sipping coffee and slowly turning pages, we're talking past each other. But Sinker seems to understand this pleasure, and because in his view the experience of sitting at a computer screen falls so far short of it, he says CellStories will not be accessible by either desktop or laptop computer. You might call what he's offering a service, but he'd rather you think of it as an indulgence.

Sinker got the idea for CellStories during a recent fellowship at Stanford and has since developed it while teaching journalism at Columbia College (and stirring up interest with lots of twittering about a "secret project"). "The cost is just a lot of time," he says. "The learning curve has been really, really steep, because the level of sophistication is much higher than anything I've done online before." But he thinks he can run CellStories for only about $35 a month. "It has the potential to reach many, many, many people, and the cost to get it to all those many, many people is the cost to get it to one person. A big difference from print.

"The idea of going back into print is insane, totally insane, because it's a sucker's game," he goes on, "The finding of the material is the easy part. The making of the thing and the getting that thing anywhere from my living room is as close to impossible now as it's ever been. Distribution is killing everyone. Suddenly [in print] you have no way to compete. You have no way to compete with something instantaneous when you're talking about communicating information."

But he hasn't been talking about communicating information. He's been talking about giving the public a satisfying reading experience. That's a different playing field, and print can compete on it. I remind him of something I was told recently by Jon Baskin, a young founder of the new Hyde Park-based cultural journal The Point. When I asked Baskin why he and his partners hadn't created a Web site instead, he began, "We all share the sense that it's unsatisfying to read really long articles online, and not just long but really complex articles."

Sinker would second that.

But Baskin went on, "I feel a print publication has the potential to excite people in a way a Web site doesn't. You create something people can hold and put on a shelf, and also something people want to write for. Whatever you say about the death of print, people want to write for a print publication." What's more, "If we'd created a Web site, we couldn't have had a launch party."

Sinker gets that. Launching a magazine is akin to launching an ocean liner, bands playing and flags flying as the newly christened behemoth slides into the sea. "You don't break a bottle of champagne on an airplane," he says. "There is something wonderful about print. There's something wonderful about holding a thing. And that's what I love about mobile devices. You're holding a thing again and you think of it differently . . .

"I will never forget the magic that would happen every month with Punk Planet when you get that pallet of fresh magazines and you cut it open and you get that blast of fresh ink smell. But I'll never forget the huge pile of magazines when we shut down, and the number of trips we had to make to recycling places to get rid of them, and the sense of waste.

"Nostalgia for print is wonderful, but the reality of how destructive the process is certainly speeds me to the realization that something less wasteful is also a good idea."

In other words, CellStories, in its creator's rose-tinted view, embodies not only what's fast, efficient, and ecological in new media but much of what was sensual in the old. If a divide separates Sinker and me, at least we can speak to each other across it.

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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