Since the nebulous birth of the internet, online literary journals have been bridge-dwelling trolls of cyberspace. Like the journals you hold in your hand (or don't, if you are most people), their digital counterparts are assemblages of short stories, poems, interviews, criticism, essays, and various writerly things. Initially, these journals were considered to be literati bottom-feeders, leftovers that didn't meet the standards of MFA students who edit print journals; but in their extremely short existence, the online community has created a significant burp in literary history.
While the inner circle of print journals is full with academically funded enterprises (e.g., the Bellingham Review, published through WWU, or the Seattle Review, published through UW), the online lit journal community is dominated by an almost antiacademic attitude. Instead of publishing the so-called "traditional workshop short story," the online community generates an endless string of bizarre, experimental writing that characterizes blog-style journalism. For no price at all, you could easily spend the rest of your life swimming through the vast sea of online journals. (And if you do, start off with these: 5_Trope, Pindeldyboz, Lamination Colony, and Failbetter.)
The most recent development in online literature is the e-book, a vague term that refers to any book published online. Within the last year or so, e-books have started popping up on these online journals, because, other than a few extra kilobytes, there's no real difference between publishing an e-book or an e-story.
Take elimae. Since 1996, it's been one of the princes of online lit journals, publishing fingernail-size short stories (aka flash fiction or short shorts) and poetry of consistently high quality. Recently, it added e-books to its table of contents. It has already published two books by the insanely prolific Norman Lock, including Grim Tales, which is one of the more ambitious renovations of the fairy-tale form since Robert Coover's Pricksongs & Descants. Also on the site is editor Cooper Renner's translation of Lovers Hate, a book written, in part, by a deeply important (but underappreciated) writer in Argentine literary history, Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914–1999).
Bear Parade has published a long list of poetry and short stories by writers such as Matthew Rohrer and Noah Cicero, and refers to its contents in a sort of communist-anarchist-hippie way, as "free for everyone." Kelly Link, with her cultlike following, is indulging a similar philosophy, putting her already-printed books online. And appropriately, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book has found its way into free, downloadable form.
Seattle writer Matthew Simmons just published an extremely creative first book, Creation Stories (subtitled "short prose things"), through his own publisher, Happy Cobra Books. He's printed a handful of classy- looking chapbooks, but like any respectable writer, he'd rather put his time into writing than schmoozing and cold-calling publishers.
For all those soothsayers who looked to the music industry and portended the literary apocalypse, it was never "the end of literature as we know it" but "the end of literature, period." While the latter is horseshit, the former has a little truth to it. The term "publish" will take a new meaning. Gene Morgan, the editor of Bear Parade, presents a sober argument for e-books: "The same impulses that drive people to download MP3s and torrent movies will push literature forward. People want to consume art as relentlessly and cheaply as possible."
Some of these sites encourage creative reading through clicks and scrolls, hinting at what was happening in the 1980s with hypertext, when metafiction writers started using computers to organize their stories into little choose-your-own-adventure mazes (e.g., click on the right button to talk with the old man, click on the left button to spit on the old man).
Then there's something that Simmons refers to as "the move toward compression." The editors of these publications aren't ignorant; they've heard the "I can't read on the computer " complaint a thousand times, and most of the stories—and now, books—cater to a preference for digital brevity. Grim Tales, for instance, comes to 14,000 words, which is measly compared to the standard book length of around 70,000 words, but is an asset on the computer. It's a change that challenges the archetype of the long-winded, brick-size romantic masterpiece, and reasserts the possibilities of the terse novella.
So let's welcome the e-book. But at the same time, let's recelebrate another brilliant technology: the actual book. You can touch it, smell it, and experience many days worth of cheap, battery-free entertainment. The words on the pages will never mysteriously disappear. You can borrow them from the government. You can drop it, kick it, spill beer on it, ignore it for most of your life, and one day it can still change the way you think about absolutely everything.