The Principal Foundation, a philanthropic grantmaking organization with a focus on financial literacy, is collaborating with the Center for Fiction and French independent publisher Short Édition on a short story contest called Money Chronicles: A Story Initiative.

Finalists’ fiction and creative nonfiction will be distributed for free at participating bookstores and libraries via Short Édition’s Short Story Dispensers. The dispensers, which operate with the touch of a button, randomly select a short story and print it on a paper scroll that resembles an oversize receipt. This no-strings-attached format might entice readers to consider the almighty dollar through “the universal art form of storytelling,” said Principal Foundation director Jo Christine Miles.

Following the August 31 deadline, Short Édition, the Principal Foundation, and the Center for Fiction will vet the first 400 submissions and work with a jury of nine authors and literary specialists to determine up to 30 finalists by October 17. Finalists receive $250 each, and their stories will be available in Short Story Dispensers at the New York Public Library, the Charlotte Mecklenberg Library (Charlotte, N.C.), Elliott Bay Book Co. (Seattle), Prairie Lights Books and Café (Iowa City), and creative space Sip & Sonder (Inglewood, Calif.).

Money Talks

Principal Foundation’s Miles feels that narratives, rather than loan applications or credit card fine print, could stimulate conversations on often-taboo subjects like salaries and wealth. “We spend our endowment to support programs that help people pursue financial security” in the U.S. and internationally, Miles said. “But no matter what type of assistance, education, or pamphlets you provide, everybody has their internal money habits and money story,” even if they don’t talk openly about their financial decisions. (Principal Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit and charitable entity associated with Principal Financial Group Inc.)

Miles developed the Money Chronicles competition after seeing a social media post about the Center for Fiction’s Short Story Dispenser, installed in the literary nonprofit’s Brooklyn bookstore. At first she considered getting a dispenser for Principal’s campus in Des Moines, Iowa, “but then it dawned on me: this could be a wonderful way to get after that financial silence, that stigma around talking about money, at the core of our grantmaking.” For an example of just such a revelatory story, she cites Sidik Fofana’s “The Rent Manual,” in Stories from the Tenants Downstairs (Scribner, 2022), about a woman whose shopping habits undermine her ability to afford housing. Fofana is among the authors who will serve on the Money Chronicles jury.

Miles reached out to Short Édition and the Center for Fiction to organize a writing contest and find literary partners to host install the Short Story Dispensers. While stories are dispensed free to readers, host sites purchase the dispenser units and spools of paper, and pay to subscribe to the content.

As Short Édition cofounder and editor Sylvia Tempesta explained, “Our main business model is Short Story Dispenser sales—a capital expenditure for a library, university, airport, hospital, or other—and an annual subscription to unlimited content. All the works dispensed on the 500-plus units worldwide come from either contest winners or our quarterly review, Short Circuit.”

Tempesta calls the U.S. “our second-largest market” and estimates that 8 million stories, poems, and comics have been shared on the dispensers. (Film director Francis Ford Coppola was an early adopter of the dispensers, and Tempesta calls him “our first, and famous, export client.”)

“Short or flash fiction allows for all genres, all emotions, and has the advantage of being malleable,” Tempesta said. “It can be read on a smartphone [for readers accessing Short Édition online] or on our eco-friendly rolls of paper.” With the dispensers, “we combine the old love for precious paper with new technology.”

Dispensing Literature

At the Center for Fiction, which has been a client and partner of Short Edition for three years, the dispenser is funded by a grant and installed in a space that sees heavy foot traffic. “We've distributed 11,980 stories from our dispenser since we launched it in October 2021,” said senior manager of marketing and community engagement Celeste Kaufman. “We’re using it to distribute the winners of our writing contest for teenagers. We get tons of submissions for any one of our teen storytelling contests.”

Elliott Bay Book Co. and Prairie Lights already have installed their Short Story Dispensers, in preparation for the Money Chronicles finalists. “We went live at the beginning of August, and it’s in constant use,” said Janis Segress, general manager at Elliott Bay. “We go through one [paper spool] in less than a week. They gave us 24 rolls to start, and I’ve already asked them to put me on for triple that delivery.” Segress believes use of the dispenser “will increase, the way our sales do, going into the holidays.” (The Seattle Public Library also has owned two dispensers for the past three years, located at the Capitol Hill and Southwest branches.)

At Prairie Lights, co-owner Jan Weissmiller says the Short Story Dispenser—with its global reach—amplifies Iowa City’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature and appeals to students at the University of Iowa and its graduate program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “It took about 15 minutes to set it up [near the café], and everybody loves it,” Weissmiller said, noting that visitors can stop by on their way to store events: “Our space upstairs can seat 150 for readings, and while they’re waiting, they can get a story.”

Segress appreciates the interactive experiences fostered by the Short Story Dispensers. For authors, it’s a way to put work into readers’ hands, because “not everybody can get a script or short across an editor’s desk.” For bookstore visitors, it’s “like going to a carnival or like getting a fortune you’re not expecting—it’s just fun,” she said. “I see them walking around the store, reading their stories.”

Miles, of the Principal Foundation, awaits the results of Money Chronicles’ debut. “We can tweak the prompt each year,” she said, and the dispensers can stay in place if the host locations are willing. “We’d like this to be an annual program.”