Push a Button – Get a Story

By Jennifer Ring
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A New Short Story Machine
at Palm Harbor Library
Delivers Short Stories To Go

. . .
Palm Harbor Public Library
2330 Nebraska Ave.
Details here

. . .
What do Harvard Medical School and the Palm Harbor Library have in common?

A short story dispenser made in France.

French publishing house Short Édition developed the dispensers in 2013 to promote literature, support emerging storytellers, and fill the empty spaces in our day. The time we spend in cafes waiting for coffee, on public transport waiting to get to our destination, at the hospital waiting to see our doctor – these are great times to read a short story.

It started with eight prototypes scattered throughout Grenoble, France — at City Hall, the tourism office, libraries and other social centers — in October 2015. Pauline Bock documented their launch for The New Yorker, which published her piece, “How a City in France Got The World’s First Short-Story Vending Machines,” in January 2016.

The article caught the attention of Film Director Francis Ford Coppola, who brought the first Short Édition to America, setting it up in his San Francisco café, Café Zoetrope.

“I loved the idea of a vending machine, a dispensing machine that doesn’t dispense potato chips or beer or coffee for money but gives you art,” Coppola is quoted in Open Culture. “I especially liked the fact that you didn’t put money in.”

From Grenoble and San Francisco, the machines made their way around the world, entertaining commuters in San Francisco, amplifying the voices of Black authors in the UK, and encouraging kids to read in public libraries throughout the U.S.

Short Édition came to Florida via West Palm Beach’s Subculture Coffee in 2017. Then, in December 2022, thanks to Palm Harbor Library Director Gene Coppola (no relation to Francis Ford Coppola) and a private donor, Pinellas County got its first Short Édition. I took a trip to the Palm Harbor library to check it out.

A team effort – librarian Samma Fagan with the Short Edition she suggested to PHL Director Gene Coppola after seeing the short story dispensers on TV. Assistant Librarian AJ Swann customized the dispenser’s surface so it appears to be coated in vintage Florida postcards – photo by Jennifer Ring

Gene Coppola found out about the machines through his teen librarian, Samma Fagan. Fagan came to Coppola after hearing about Short Édition in a Good Morning America segment. Coppola loved the idea – right up until he found out how much the dispensers cost.

“But my teen librarian, Samma, as innovative as they are, cobbled one together,” Coppola told Creative Pinellas. “They got an old gumball machine, made little short stories, and put them in capsules, so if you wanted a short story, you just turned the knob and got it out.”

Although he couldn’t justify spending taxpayer money on a short story dispenser, Coppola held the idea in his mind. Later, when a private donor asked how she could help the library, he mentioned the machine.

“When she agreed to support the library in this way, it just knocked me out of my chair,” Coppola told Creative Pinellas. “Whatever we can do to promote reading that’s fun and different, I’m all for it, especially if it’s not on the taxpayers’ dime. So this is a great way to use private dollars to promote reading. It fits in with the library well, it’s fun, and maybe we can collaborate with our writing clubs and the literacy council.”

PHL’s Short Édition looks like a Florida-themed rocket but acts like a vending machine. The dispenser has three buttons on top. Usually, the buttons are for 1, 3, and 5-minute stories, but the reader gets to choose their categories, and they can change them at any time.

PHL chose to begin with Children, General Audience and Español story categories. You push the button and a story comes out of the machine like a grocery store receipt coming out of a cash register. I pushed the “General Audience” button and the dispenser printed a comic by French Illustrator Vladimir Thoret. In it, a man tows his son to school on a motorcycle as his son eats breakfast at the kitchen table. I pushed the button a second time and received a poem, “Sharing a Sink with John B. Keane in a Pub Toilet,” by Irish writer Steve Denehan.

You can see a video showing PHL’s
Short Édition in action here

. . .
PHL’s dispenser is currently stocked with stories curated by Short Édition, but that could soon change. PHL set up a portal on their website, at palm-harbor.short-edition.com, where local writers can submit their short stories to be included in Palm Harbor Library’s Short Édition.

The page displays a bright red “Submit” button at the top. Clicking the button leads you to page that prompts you to create or log into your Short Édition account. I entered my name and email, created a password, and clicked “create an account.” Short Édition sent me a validation email. I clicked on the link, clicked continue, and clicked the submit button once again. The entire process took less than five minutes.

The submission page is surprisingly simple. There’s a blank box at the top of the page for a title. This is followed by a much larger box below for the story’s body, which is limited to 8000 characters per Short Édition guidelines. That comes to about 1231-1600 words, per charactercounter.com.

Below, there’s a third box for the literary genre which gets printed at the top of the story before the title. Short Édition accepts work in five categories — creative nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, comics and children’s.

Librarian Samma Fagan reads the story that just popped out of the machine at the Palm Harbor Public Library – photo by Jennifer Ring

Once submitted, stories appear in PHL’s admin portal, where Fagan can see them. From there, they’ll either add it to PHL’s short story bank or respond to the writer with suggestions for how they might improve the story.

“I’ll ask others to help if we get too many,” says Fagan.

Getting your story to travel the world beyond PHL is less learning experience and more competitive sport. In the past, writers would submit their story to Short Circuit, Short Edition’s online quarterly review for consideration. If a writer’s story was accepted, they’d sign a contract with Short Édition that entitled them to royalty payments. Short Édition made 11 issues of Short Circuit before they received more submissions than their small 15-20 member team could handle, which is why their submission link currently leads to nowhere.

PHL’s Short Édition is a great fit for the Tampa Bay area with its plethora of writers, writing groups and literary organizations. But neither I nor Coppola can say for sure how Palm Harbor residents will end up using the machine.

At a bare minimum, PHL’s Short Édition provides a moment’s entertainment. But with the participation of local writers, it could become the voice of Tampa Bay. Only time will tell.
. . .

10 Short Stories and Poems by Florida Authors
you can read for free at short-edition.com

I asked Short Edition’s US representative, Melissa Falcou, if any Florida writers had made it through their selection process, and she sent me a list – Tammy Euliano, Jesse Bradley, Ehud Sela, Dennis Edelen, Sunny Lancaster and A.M. Dodds-Wade. The list includes an Orlando cartoonist, a University of Florida professor and a veterinarian/poet. Here are their stories.
. . .

“In the Name of Love… or Hate” by Dr. Tammy Euliano –

“The Sword Swallower Cuts Their Tongue While Saying Goodbye”
by Jesse Bradley –

“Number 59” by Dr. Ehud Sela –

“Burning Man, a fable” by Dennis Edelen –

“Prince Mortimore: Who He Was and What Happened to Him”
by Dennis Edelen –

“Night Hike” by Sunny Lancaster –

“America the Green” by Sunny Lancaster –

“Just a Fish” by A.M. Dodds-Wade –

“Sleepless in Any City” by Janine Zeitland –
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