I noticed last week, when I tried and failed to access the site, that Shortbread Stories seems finally to have died. This follows a long and dreary decline.
After several years spent pining for the fjords it has finally become the Norwegian Blue of writing sites. It is definitely an ex-writing site.
Or whatever.Shortbread was an online writing website set up in 2008 specifically to publish short stories that would otherwise never have seen the light of day - which with hindsight I now think would possibly have been just as well, in many cases. By chance I began writing around 2008 and I was one of the first to offer my work.
It wasn't very good.
Much of the work published by Shortbread wasn't very good. That was part of its original charm. It was accessible and definitely not frightening. There was encouragement and support and it gave you a chance to learn through your mistakes. The self-publishing craze via Amazon, Smashwords and so forth hadn't quite taken hold and as the site grew people with no apparent insight into their lack of ability flocked to put their work on Shortbread - from all over the world. Because they could. On top of this ocean of increasingly unregulated words a series of contributors became obsessed with the site - again, because they could, and because people often do, on the internet. Tensions rose.
From what I observed as a regular contributor (and this piece is based solely on my observations - I was not an 'insider') the first editor, Fiona (excellent, by the way, with the friendly online tone and kind editorial touch that the site initially required), became overwhelmed by the volume of submissions and she together with the other people running the site found it impossible to edit the content for quality or indeed in the end do any form of gate-keeping. There were debates about how much editing should be done, if any, and in the end it was easier just to give up attempting to stem the tide and to publish anything. Of course, this just wasn't sustainable and the site began to deteriorate. The quality of most of the work was even worse than it had been at the start and the site malfunctioned regularly due to the tsunami of submissions. Fiona left and the founder, Robin Pilcher, quit, leaving the site, mainly, I think, in the hands of trustees from the English department of Dundee University, who turned out to be, from my observation, too involved with their own lives and literary careers to spend the necessary time and energy relating to the contributors, never mind reviving things and slapping the thing back into life. There was a horrible sense, that hadn't been there at the start, that those running things saw themselves as being on a superior level to those contributing. Their occasional editorial posts seemed inappropriate, cursory and jarring and there was an overall feeling of neglect and lack of genuine interest. The site, now run as a charity, was supposed to be 'educational', but that was really pushing it. It was a debacle.
I say that knowing that I'm speaking from a place of partial knowledge and that therefore perhaps I'm being too harsh. I do know for sure that the site meant a lot to many people - they got involved in good faith. They trusted it with their writing, good or bad, and it let them down. 'You should have saved it to disc' isn't quite good enough. Thousands of stories have vanished into the - well, where do lost stories go?
What might they have done better? I think the social aspect of the site - being allowed to comment on stories and message other contributors - was an early mistake. It cheapened its appeal, putting off 'good' writers who patronised it as a 'social networking' site rather than a 'writing' site and allowing a few members to dominate. Possibly if the site were to be set up today, with all the knowledge we now have of how such things can be abused, Twitter, 'trolling', Facebook and so forth, the founders would not have gone down that route. And the later idea of making the site a charity with an educational focus and encouraging stuck contributors to 'move on' was a non-starter without the required funding and enthusiastic staffing input. It was simply too late. The site had gone way beyond that.
In 2010 Shortbread published an anthology via Discovery Press (the publishing wing of Dundee University's Literary Dundee) - a small paperback called Short Breaks. When Googling Shortbread Stories today in a vain attempt to find it I found several used copies for sale on Amazon, starting price £1.67.
A reminder of the beginnings of an admirable endeavour.