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A day short and a dollar late

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The short story, once the absolute heart of the sf writer’s career has long since dwindled off to become so irrelevant that many a successful author never writes one, and certainly many (me included) never sold one prior to selling a novel.

There is very little money in shorts these days, and the ‘great’ magazines of yesteryear are bare shadows of their former selves, selling less copies than many a noob on his first book. A lot of them exist either through inertia, or the generosity of charity.

There is a massive disconnect in the minds of many writers, particularly new ones, who STILL try and enter the field via the short story. The odds remain 10 times harder than that of selling a traditional novel, with, at least 10 times (if not far more) people attempting this route.

It does occasionally work, but it’s a very hard path, and not one that necessarily leads to success as a novelist. (Once upon a time it meant you were known by a far larger audience – 150 000 perhaps before your book hit the shelf. Now that could be 5000 to a few hundred).

Shorts – to the uninitiated noob, have the incredible charm of this one characteristic: They’re short.  You don’t have months or years of writing to get one done.  They’re not as complicated to write (at least that is perception), and the reward is faster…

The curious thing – if you talk to many a would-be shorts writer – is that very few of them READ shorts. That’s actually the overall problem: very few people read short fiction, let alone the people who think they’ll write it.  Short fiction and public taste have diverged. There are a lot of possible reason for this situation, ranging from changing work patterns to changes in buying demographic (used to be a mainstay, I believe, of men, with a large component in the engineering and military fields. Popular with blue-collar workers, particularly those who were middle or upper level artisan, who perhaps had ambitions or hopes of more from the future. Somewhere sf/fantasy diverged from them or they diverged from it, but it isn’t much read in those circles any more. Short fiction suited their lives and work, back then. My mother came to discover sf from pulps left behind by American servicemen working on the Naval gun emplacement she manned, back WW2.

I grew up on pulp short sf – magazines from the 40-60’s. And then didn’t see any for about 20 years, until I decided to try writing it in the early 90’s.  I bought a selection of the descendant of the magazines of my youth. It had changed, and I hadn’t. I found a lot of sf novels had the same problem, but it was at that time less extreme. I think it has been trying to catch up. Now, you may argue the audience has changed, but that’s an argument that only holds if the sales continue as robust per capita.

Anyway, whether the market had left the audience or the audience left the market is a matter of debate. Just it’s not really the ‘route’ to a publishing career it once was.

It’s a shame in my opinion, because shorts were a remarkable training ground – just as I feel poetry is – at the art of carrying a complex story, setting and character in a very restricted word-count.

It meant words actually HAD to count – which meant a novel by a skilled short-story writer was likely to be a lot more complex in those aspects for same length as the work of a novelist who didn’t have that background. There’s a down too, of course. Shorts masters tended to be (not inevitably) the writers of shorter novels, which some perceived as not worth as much, and of course some publishers pushed for fatter books (as I have explained the goat-gagger came not so much out of demand, as a way of justifying price increases. The reader got the impression they getting more and that the author was getting more, the paper cost more, and thus the price increase was appropriate and OK. Of course the paper was always a very minor part of the cost, the author had to write more for the same (small) percentage – which often as not added up to a pay-cut per word.

Still, the short story endures. Its value and uses have changed. It’s used as ‘status symbol’ among the virtue signalers in some circles, usually in publications which have limited readership, but that matter to them. They give each other awards, play politics and are to field what bits of grit are to the working cogs of sf – hopefully irrelevant. Compared to the stories of yesteryear, the two have very little in common, and often as not, very little story per se.

The second, common use is as a teaser or ‘gift’ for fans of well-known series and authors on mailing-lists, and to gin up sales of a future book, or as spin-offs from a popular book or series. This doesn’t make the kind of money that novels do, but can be worthwhile both as promo, and from the writing point of view.

You see, a good short story not only tells a story it, by virtue of its shortness has to carry a world – or a view into a world or a frame that the reader builds a world in, in very few words.

When it is done well the reader has a taste of whole new universe – one they may wish to stay in. There are some short stories that are complete in themselves, the reader gained great satisfaction, but it is now ‘closed’. THE COLD EQUATIONS or A BOY AND HIS DOG spring to my mind.  Others – James White’s COUNTERCHARM — got me to aggressively pursue his ‘Sector General’ books, because the story was good, but the conceptual setting and characters were something I really wanted more of.

Now what got me to think about this today, and how it relates to us as writers derives from this. Dave Pascoe’s wife commented on a piece of a short he showed some of us, that every short he tried to write turned into a novel.

I resemble that remark. So did Sir Terry Pratchett (although any other resemblances probably go no further ‘have beard’. The whole Diskworld series started as a short story).  You see it’s not only readers who get a window into a whole new fascinating world – that goes to a whole new level IF the author is doing a good job of it. If you’re doing a rubbish job and the world is poorly imagined and constructed, with characters as puppet-props… even if it had no story either, but is line to win one of the circle-jerk prizes, I can see that would not be a story seed… but for the rest of us: how can it not be?

I have written a couple of short stories that I felt, fascinating or not, they were complete in themselves. But most of the time… well my mind is skipping and leaping through this new world or new branch I have just started exploring. TOM came out of one. I have plans to write novels on CRAWLSPACE, LUCKY NUMBER 7 (the picture is a link) and a good few others, to say nothing of finishing up the BOLG stories, combining them into a Novel

It’s a great reason to write shorts. Perhaps a short can produce a dollar later.

And the tide changes with reader tastes – or perhaps how we appeal to them. You couldn’t sell Novellas once. Now as e-books, they sell well.

39 Comments
  1. Draven #

    my guess is people didnt want to pay book prices for a what looks like a small book… (regarding novellas)

    maybe?

    February 25, 2019
  2. I believe that short fiction is coming back, and coming back very strong. There is still some public perception that the short story is practice–something that writers do when they start out and give up once they get good enough to write “real books”.

    But I think a lot of that is a hangover from the days when traditional publishers had a monopoly. The idea that genre fiction must consist entirely of massive novels in series that span dozens of books has led to a market that is oversaturated with the kind of stuff that you can read a hundred thousand words into without ever being quite sure if you’ve read this one before or not.

    Which is also, in my opinion, one reason why so many readers deserted genre fiction–and sometimes reading entirely. There is a market for Volume XII of The Chronicles Of Throbbingham or The Googly-eyed Monster War, but when that’s all that is available you limit your audience to readers who want multi-volume epics.

    Furthermore, when you’re targeting an audience who wants The Same Old Thing Part 23, you kill innovation in the field. Publishers stick to what they think will sell, and that means just like what sold last year.

    But there is a market for innovation, and I am seeing small indie presses going into the short story market in a big way. Publishers like Cirsova, Storyhack, Broadswords & Blasters, Switchblade, and Pulp Modern are specializing in short fiction magazines and anthologies (a distinction that is becoming increasingly hard to define under the influence of ebooks and POD). Other publishers routinely publish story collections in addition to novels.

    For authors it is true that indie short fiction markets don’t pay well, if you are comparing rates against the advance of a trad published novel. However, when you sell a short story you are selling First Publication Rights (sometimes with an exclusivity period in addition). This means that the story is still yours to publish again.

    I have just published a collection of short stories with another author (each of us have five stories in the book) and three of my five stories were previously published. Right now I am sitting on about a dozen previously published stories for which the rights have reverted to me and I am considering my next collection.

    I’ve set myself a goal of writing a short story a week in 2019, and at the moment I am ahead of my goal. Granted, it is still early in the year, but I think it’s doable. I have nine stories out on submissions right now, and another half-dozen that are ready to go once I find the right market.

    I did publish four novels in a series, and I’m very happy with them. But if I am honest, it was writing those books that gave me the skill to write good short fiction, not the other way around.

    February 25, 2019
    • Orvan Taurus #

      Aye! There have been time I didn’t feel like committing to a trilogy (that actually was such) let alone a series. Short story collections make great samplers and time-fillers when not much can productive can be done, but a quick read is reasonable. And if it’s… not so good? Well, it’ll be over soon.

      The idea that short is easy amuses. Short, for anyone who pays attention, is a tough thing to get right.

      February 25, 2019
  3. Jess #

    I’ve always loved short stories, and relished compilations. Maybe it’s because I have a short attention span, or typically only have time to read for enjoyment after I go to bed. Whatever the reason, the good stories allow many thoughts, and give closure in a short amount of time.

    February 25, 2019
    • There are a couple of writers I swore off after reading their short stories. A few I like their short stories but not their long fiction, in part because they cover different material. For sampling new-to-me writers, and when I just don’t have the time or brain-power left for a novel, short works are great.

      Alas, I seem to be running the bad-luck end of the draw recently, because the anthologies I’ve nibbled have been less-than-stellar. The library seems to be leaning toward the “literary-grim-dark” end of the spectrum at the moment.

      February 25, 2019
      • I will usually buy an anthology for two reasons:

        1) Authors whose works I already know and enjoy are in it
        2) to get exposed to new authors I don’t know.

        and if the latter are underwhelming, at least I have a few authors whose works I enjoy.

        February 26, 2019
  4. Allen Hunter #

    I am at least 100 times more likely to buy short work if I like the author’s novels than vice versa, I’ve got to agree Dave!

    February 25, 2019
    • Of course, historically the inverse was true.

      February 25, 2019
  5. US magazines in general (not just SF/F) have declined hugely in the past few decades. That has really hurt the markets for short SF/F, because they depended heavily on magazines. Even original anthology sales have suffered a lot. On the flip side, lots of people are reading stories for free online now, which probably hurts the magazines a good bit.

    In the 1950s, you could make a living selling short stories. I estimate that they were paying the equivalent of 50¢ per word. Today, the top magazines only pay 10¢. Even if you sold 20 short stories a year, averaging 5,000 words/story you’d only make $10,000/year.

    The big exception is novellas, which are 17,500 words to 50,000 words. (Technically the cutoff is 40,000 words, but I’ve seen works up to 50,000 words marketed as novellas, and I doubt anyone could sell a novel for under 50,000 words.) Companies like Tor are treating novellas like novels now, but selling them for about half to 2/5 the price. That means authors get advances and royalties for them–not just a one-time per-word payment. We’re living in a golden age of novellas, so anyone interested in writing short fiction for money should definitely think about novellas.

    There is still a lot of short fiction produced, and there are around a hundred or so sites that publish it. Of the eleven that I track (and including important anthologies and all the Tor novellas), there are about 700-800 original stories published per year. People who want to read short fiction have no shortage of works to choose from.

    I wrote an article on Rocket Stack Rank recently on finding an SF/F magazine. I’ve been asked not to post links here, but if you google “find a good science fiction magazine,” that article is the #1 result.

    February 25, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      Interesting article! Your take on F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog is close to what I would have said of those magazines in the 60’s and 70’s. Sadly, by the time I revisited them in the 90’s, they had become all but unreadable. I was particularly disappointed in F&SF, where the stories seemed relentlessly dismal and pointless and generally designed to make you want to go off to a nice dark basement and hang yourself. Have they recovered from that phase and from the concomitant political correctness?

      February 25, 2019
      • If you look at the article, for each magazine I’ve identified a “% dark.” All the magazines include a certain number of stories set in dystopias (where the heroes may solve their own problems but they still live in an awful place) and a certain amount of actual horror. This accounts for about 1/3 of F&SF, which isn’t a lot. Contrast Interzone and Apex which are both about 2/3 dark.

        As far as PC goes, a lot depends on what you can suspend disbelief for. Any story where the message drowns the tale gets 2-stars at most from me (even if I agree with the message), but those aren’t all that common–especially not in F&SF. They do exist, and I agree they’re annoying, but they’re nowhere near as frequent as people imagine them to be.

        If you’re talking about climate change, though, then, yeah, you’re out of luck. There are lots of stories about futures that are coping with flooded cities. But on the other side, even Analog has declared that it won’t run any stories where climate change turned out to be a hoax. (Actually, I’ve seen exactly one such story in the past 5 years, and it was in F&SF.)

        As for protagonists, yes, there are lots of non-white protagonists, but they’re far from dominant. Not only are white protagonists still the majority, black protagonists are less frequent than non-human ones. Women outnumber men, but only slightly. As for sexual orientation, in 75% of the stories, as far as we can tell, the protagonists don’t even know what sex is. The rest are mostly straight. And trans/non-binary people appear in about 2.5% of all stories. It’s probably a bit more diverse than the general population, but not by all that much.

        More important, although diverse protagonists do appear in lots of stories, only rarely is their identity part of the story. Instead, it’s almost always an incidental detail, like their hair and eye color. I keep wanting to see the black hero who saves the party because of his greater tolerance of UV radiation or the gay one who’s immune to the succubus. But it never happens.

        February 25, 2019
        • mrsizer #

          the gay one who’s immune to the succubus

          Hmmmm…

          February 25, 2019
          • Michael Todd (the “Protected by the Damned” and “War of the Damned” series) has a homosexual male character who’s possessed by a succubus. They’re a fast and fun read (and on KU).

            February 25, 2019
        • Greg, I wouldn’t trust your stats as far as I can throw Godzilla (we do know your history of co-operation with the log-rollers) but here is a challenge for you. IF there is a no PC bias, the proportion of VILLAINS should coarsely speaking reflect the demographics of skin color, political group, religious group, sexual orientation etc. Perhaps even the demographics in the prison system or at least court record (because some groups just don’t commit much crime. Quaker mass-murderers would logically be far rarer than Quakers in the population) but just keep it direct demographics. Prove this is the case, with raw data we can actually analyze and check, and that will prove your assertion.

          For the record, I have a gay villain (a hench-villain anyway) able to steal the life-savings off an elderly sex-goddess, because he is immune to her charms. That was why the arch-villain used him for the job. So: while I have had gay heroes – and one where their orientation is a story driver, I’ve at least treated them like normal parts of society, both good and bad, merely human.

          February 25, 2019
          • I have a time travel story in which a man comes back from the future to prevent the Watts riots of 1965 from sparking off a nuclear war, and the time traveller picked out my hero, who is homosexual, to help on the mission specifically because my character is not going to have any descendents, and consequently if he’s killed on the mission it will not greatly disrupt the future.

            February 25, 2019
          • @Dave

            We discussed identifying villains, but the problem is that a) it’s a lot of work and b) it wouldn’t help our target audience, who aren’t going to find that useful for picking stories. I’ll try to pay attention to it, though.

            Since the vast majority of characters in stories are either white or unspecified, it would take quite a lot of data to have a sample of villains with enough statistical power to confidently say that white people were over-represented.

            As far as confirming the results, that would require someone on your side to actually read the stories. Hundreds of them (although I suppose you could spot check and then decide you trusted me after all). If I thought that would really happen, it would be worth the work! I’d love to see people reading and talking about the actual stories rather than what they think the stories are about.

            As for the stats I’ve got, they’re just the result of making notes while I read, putting the results into a database, and then doing a query. These are not off-the-top-of-my-head estimates, which, I agree, are are terribly unreliable. So, for example, over the past two years, across all sources of stories, I’ve recorded identity data on 1407 protagonists so far. To simplify the chart, I eliminated 58 (4.0%) who were trans, non-binary, or not human at all.

            Their gender and orientation of the rest breaks down as follows:

            Female Unknown 443 35.47%
            Male Straight 225 18.01%
            Male Unknown 211 16.89%
            Female Straight 158 12.65%
            Female Gay 92 7.37%
            Unknown Unknown 42 3.36%
            Male Gay 41 3.28%
            Male Bisexual 18 1.44%
            Female Bisexual 11 0.88%
            Female Asexual 3 0.24%
            Unknown Asexual 2 0.16%
            Male Asexual 2 0.16%
            Unknown Bisexual 1 0.08%

            What part of these stats do you not believe?

            If I limit the chart to just the three big print magazines (Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF) it’s like this:

            Female Unknown 144 30.13%
            Male Straight 106 22.18%
            Male Unknown 102 21.34%
            Female Straight 57 11.92%
            Female Gay 27 5.65%
            Unknown Unknown 16 3.35%
            Male Gay 11 2.30%
            Male Bisexual 8 1.67%
            Female Bisexual 4 0.84%
            Unknown Bisexual 1 0.21%
            Male Asexual 1 0.21%
            Unknown Asexual 1 0.21%

            Which magazines do you read?

            February 26, 2019
      • Margaret, I’ve seen no evidence of any improvement. And the villains are predictable to a ridiculous degree.

        February 25, 2019
    • snelson134 #

      ” I’ve been asked not to post links here,”

      Why? Are they afraid of Puppy cooties?

      February 26, 2019
      • MGC has asked me not to post links here. Rocket Stack Rank is my site, so when I post links it looks like I’m self-promoting, even though there’s no money involved.

        February 26, 2019
  6. Reziac #

    While back I did some back-of-the-envelope based on a random selection of paying short story markets, and positing a middling-fast writer who sells every word they write and has no other costs (eg. editing). Worked out to a wage of about two bucks per hour.

    February 25, 2019
    • Yes, even my contracted to anthology work paid poorly. Not that badly, but still far less than the per word rate for novels

      February 25, 2019
  7. This is very timely Dave, thank you! Friends encouraged me to write some shorts. Not to earn money, but it gets my name out to a broader audience if I send them to markets and sell them wider than my Indie fanbase. The problem being that my first effort, which alpha readers enjoyed, probably won’t sell to ‘traditional’ markets as it’s a father defending his family against a female villain. With guns. So that one I may hold onto until I find a press who wants something like MHI fans like.

    And in the meantime, I’m working on another. They make a good palate cleanser after finishing a novel before diving into the next one.

    February 25, 2019
  8. Christopher M. Chupik #

    There is one good thing about shorts: they provide some small writing-related income while one is working on a novel.

    February 25, 2019
  9. I’ve done some short stories – not too many, but some; they’re rather like a brief scenic stroll, compared to the marathon that is a novel.
    IMHO, one of my best recent was a brief tale in the Luna City characterverse: “Radio Silence” (It’s in a chapter in the seventh Luna City book, but complete here.)
    http://lunacitytexas.com/index.php/2017/12/20/a-luna-city-short-story-radio-silence/

    February 25, 2019
  10. mrsizer #

    I like the “deleted scenes” stories, short or novella. I believe Pam does this frequently. At least a couple of the novellas felt like “this got edited out, but it’s too good to stay on the floor”. Cookoff, for example. They in no way stand alone, but they’re fun glimpses into characters’ lives.

    On the exact opposite front, Super Lamb Banana is amazing and stands by itself.

    I think the phone-reading crowd might be helping bring shorts back.

    February 25, 2019
  11. shorts were a remarkable training ground – just as I feel poetry is – at the art of carrying a complex story, setting and character in a very restricted word-count

    That’s the main reason I keep struggling at writing a decent short. David Weber, much as I enjoy him, is right at the edge of “too much” – and I am still way past it.

    The old masters of the short story, when they moved on to novels, had learned to make every page valuable.

    February 25, 2019
  12. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    Short stories have always been a challenge for me since they tend to be plot driven at the expense of character development. Still, I think it’s a skill worth developing if only to force myself to work tighter.

    February 25, 2019
  13. Mary #

    My metier is short stories, though I’ve worked up to novels.

    I observe that they sell better as collections than as singletons, though single works do sell some.

    February 25, 2019
  14. I wrote my short stories separately, either for a particular contest or because an idea wouldn’t leave me alone. After trying many different contests, magazines, etc., I got back one rejection less than 24 hours after I had to fill out a form that was more about me than my story. That was the final straw. I published all the ones I thought decent enough in Valor– which also served as a way to learn how Kindle publishing works.

    I’m not great, I know, and rejection letters are a way of life, but that experience left a mark. I’m done with trying to work through these avenues. It felt like throwing darts blindfolded with the sinking suspicion that the people scoring the contest cared more about your skin color than your skill.

    February 25, 2019
    • Mary #

      Never got a form like that, but I do remember the time when I must have landed in the slush pile with perfect timing.

      5-minute rejections.

      February 25, 2019
    • It’s simple enough to just not submit to markets that stress the diversity of their contributors. Most indies don’t care, and many of them insist on anonymizing submissions so that the readers don’t know anything about the author, even a name.

      February 26, 2019
      • It was likely just an issue of my story not fitting more often than not, not an issue of “diversity”. I stumbled on a lot that did not take an anonymous approach, though, but then again, most of my leads came from a con.

        February 26, 2019
  15. b3b, because I’m a day late and a dollar short to c4c.

    I read mostly at short lengths these days, mainly due to time constraints. But I grew up reading the Del Rey Best of series and DAW’s Asimov Presents the Great SF and some Robert Silverberg anthologies in the junior high library. I love short fiction. Most of what I write is at shorter lengths, mainly novelette and novella. I guess that puts me out of step with the mainstream, but I’m used to that.

    February 26, 2019
  16. Luke #

    A few years back, I thought short stories were going to come roaring back.
    The reason?
    I was spending a good bit of time sitting in waiting rooms, with a smartphone and a kindle app.

    Then smartphone games took off, and data became cheaper so that surfing the net wasn’t cost-prohibitive.

    I’m still sitting in waiting rooms a lot, but it’s been quite a while since I read a story during the wait.

    February 26, 2019

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