Monday, May 2, 2016

Short Stories - Worth Your Time?

A recent conversation at a writing event (that I was not at, and only heard about secondhand) has had me thinking (and being defensive, let's be honest here). I don't know the exact question that was asked, but it was about whether a writer could get anywhere with short stories, basically.


The answer was along the lines of short stories not being something a writer could make a living on these days, and that an author can no longer break into novels by writing short stories. (My version is deeply simplified, I'm sure, and my response is not geared toward the person or persons who answered, but toward the inner dialogue happening in my brain.)

I disagree on at least half of that.

While it would be a lot of work to make a living off short stories, it could probably be done, but it's more likely you'd be supplementing another income with them than actually living off them. You can write more short stories in a year than you can novels, and advances on novels aren't exactly in the hundred-thousands (see below). If you can bust into pro markets, and especially if you write in multiple genres, there are a good number of magazines and anthologies out there. Publishing houses are putting out anthologies of short stories in order to draw attention to their novel publishing lines, for instance.

Are there as many magazines now as there were before, and are they paying as well as they used to? I have no idea. I wasn't writing "back then." Word on the street is that there aren't, and they aren't. But sites like Duotrope and Submission Grinder make it easier to track down open markets than it used to be, so hey, you're one up on the folks that had to hunt them down on paper. The interweebs help a lot, too. As does social media (which, of course, can be found on the interweebs). If you want a specific level of pay, you track down the publications offering that level of pay. That doesn't mean you'll get accepted, but neither does querying an agent about your novel...

As far as using short stories to get exposure, if that's why you want to write them, go for it. Personally, I enjoy writing them, but I do hope that being able to put publication credits in that depressing part of the query letter where you struggle to put something that makes you worthwhile as a writer will show future agents and editors that I'm someone who can write something others want to read (and pay for), that I've been in the game enough to know how to self-promote, that I'm professional, that I can write to a deadline, and that, gosh darn it, people like me.

^And hopefully they'll never read that dreadful run-on sentence.

Yes, I do want to make money writing. I want it to be my career. But I also want my stories to be read and appreciated (hopefully). I'd write either way, because my brain says so. I sure wouldn't work this hard at it, nor would I likely edit and submit it, if I didn't want to do something with them in terms of career.

In looking for examples of modern novel authors who started with short stories, I don't have to go far. Carrie Vaughn, currently living about an hour north of me, got her start in short stories. In fact, her character Kitty got her big start in a short story that later spurned the first novel in the Kitty Norville series. (*Disclaimer: I'm basing this off my memory of an interview I did with her for Pikes Peak Writers, so don't quote me.)

If she can do it, you can do it.

But to do it, you have to write enough stories to make it worthwhile. You aren't going to get a $5000 advance on a short story. Chances are, you won't get much more than that for a novel it took you a year to write and edit, either. That's why you always have ideas coming in, and you are always working toward that next story. Or you are if you want to make a career of writing, whether it's short stories or novels (or something in between).

The more short stories you have out there, the better your chances at income.

The more novels you have out there, the better your chances at income.

Funny how that works.

Neither option is going to be easy. Neither one is going to drop success in your lap without hard work. If you're avoiding short stories because you think you can't make money writing them, maybe take a look at them and see if you enjoy writing them on the side. If your measuring stick of success tells you short stories don't equal success, only novels do, then you're on your own. I'm not going to argue with you. That's a measurement you've created on your own.

If you have no interest in short stories, don't write them. Pretty simple.

Consider the fact that if you put out as many words on short stories as you do on novel writing, you would mill out quite a few short stories. The average length is about 5000 words, give or take a couple thousand (and often depending upon genre). If you write that in a week on a novel, you could write a short story a week. That's 52 short stories per year. 5000 words x 52 = 260,000. That's $13,000 per year at $.05/word (the lowest pro pay). Then you've got reprints and collections, bringing in additional income (at lower pay, if we're discussing reprints) on previous years' short stories. Breaking it down that way, you'd make more Year Two, and more Year Three. So on.

And, no, I'm not guaranteeing you'd sell all your stories, or that you'd sell them at pro rates. Yeesh, I'm just showing you some numbers on a for instance basis. Work with me here.

Of course, 260,000 is actually two to three novels, so we're not equaling one novel to 52 short stories, either. If you sell all 52 short stories or all 2.5 novels, you're going to make more on the novels.

I went and did some quick research, and came up with several other people who had already done lots of research, so I didn't have to (instead of citing all the information I read through, here's the search term I used so you can do the same: average novel advance). The mean and average advances for genre fiction are between $5000 and $6000. So in that one year of writing a novel, the average advance folks are getting is less than $10,000 unless they're getting some solid royalties on top of their advances. Some get $1000. Some get $10,000. Chances are, first timers are on the lower end of that spectrum, while folks who have a few novels out or show higher previous sales are at the higher end.

It should also be noted that mainstream advances tend to be higher, while nonfiction advances are the highest, on average. And I'm betting if we broke that down further, we'd see that certain genres got bigger advances. For instance, based on sales, romance and mystery might get a bigger advance than science fiction and horror. Do the research and let me know (I'm not your research monkey!)

What do these numbers tell me?

If your goal is to be able to quit the day job on your first novel, chances are slim.

If your goal is to be able to quit the day job writing short stories, your chances are slim.

Both of these take time and hard work. They take dedication. You have to reach a certain level. So if you aren't in this for the love, you may have a nasty path ahead of you. Being an author is not a get rich quick scheme.

Unless you're the exception. There's always an exception.

Realistically, do I feel I'm going to become a rich and famous author courtesy of writing short stories? No. But nobody gets to tell me or you or anyone else that it's impossible. Nobody gets to tell me what I can or cannot accomplish. And I'm not going to tell you whether you can or cannot accomplish it, either.

I also write novels, so I'm not going to be a good guinea pig for this. I'm writing short stories because I enjoy them, to hone my craft, because I have ideas that fit the length, to build up my writing resume, to pay for writing related activities, and about five billion other reasons.

I'm not here to convince you to write short stories. I find them worthwhile in many ways, but that doesn't mean you will. Some people prefer short stories, some novels, and some love both. What I AM here to tell you is to write what you enjoy, and to not let anyone convince you out of what you're writing, or to discourage you. If your sole goal or sole measure of success is to make a crap-ton of money, I urge you to sit down and do some research and financial planning, no matter what you're writing. I also urge you to attend some writer's conferences, so you can hear the realities behind author finances, sales, and advances.

And I sure hope you enjoy what you're writing at least a little. Or we won't enjoy reading it.

What are your thoughts on short stories? Do you think they're a lost art? Do you think they're worth your time? Can you make a living on short stories? Can you make a living off your first novel? Your second? What do you measure your writing success by? If you have experience with both, what is your opinion? Do you write in multiple genres? Do you find some genres sell better or for more?

May you find your Muse.

Meeting by OCAL, clker.com
Typewriter by OCAL, clker.com
Target by OCAL, clker.com

34 comments:

  1. I think there are tons of benefits to writing short stories, but getting rich and famous from them, no. (But as you said, there are exceptions.) They should be worth every writer's time because they help so much on improving the craft and gaining exposure. I have several novellas and short stories out there, and there's no way I could make a living off it. I do write in multiple genres, and yes, some do sell better than others. Paranormal romance sells the best for me.

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    1. I agree. They're not for getting rich and famous (though novels don't magically do that, either), but they're worthwhile. And thank you for the feedback on paranormal romance selling best for you.

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  2. I think if money is the main factor in choosing to write one thing over another, it won't be as fulfilling. Write what you enjoy. Hope someone will pay you for it.
    My dream is to publish novels, not short stories, but there are stories that don't lend themselves to 50k+ words and sometimes I need a break from the novel or I'll tear my hair out. That's when I write short stories and submit them to things. (and I'm waiting to receive the contract for my first sale!)

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    1. Congratulations on your first short story sale! I agree that you can't decide what you're writing based on how much you think you can make off it. Enjoy what you're writing and write what you enjoy.

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  3. I write "short" because I enjoy it. I put my flash fiction collections together because I wanted to put a lot of stories in one place, I wanted to try my hand at self publishing, etc. I didn't do it to get rich. :)

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    1. I doubt any of us actually do it to get rich, at least not once we're far enough in to realize that's unrealistic. Writing is too much a labor of love to do it just for money if you don't enjoy it.

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  4. I love reading them, but do they make a career? Not sure. The idea is to perfect your skill. I did try a 300-word short story years ago and did two. They were a real challenge!

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    1. The shorter, the more challenging, it seems. I keep meaning to do some one-sentence stories to try them out. I've written a couple, but haven't been enthused by them. Two sentences can pack a punch. One sentence is harder.

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  5. I know a writer who has had his short stories published in various magazines. Now, I don't know how much he's making. That'd be rude of me to ask, but I know he's been paid. Opportunities are out there and I can see the benefit of submitting short stories. It's like building a resume and saying "Look, I have experience and people are willing to give me money for that."

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    1. Yes, they can definitely help with experience. I write them because I enjoy it, but I certainly also hope it will look good in a query letter when that time comes.

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  6. I like reading short stories, but I can't write them very well. The stories basically turn into novels before I can stop them. I think short stories are good for getting your name out there and for having something to write on queries, as you said. I think if that's what someone likes to write, they should go for it. You never know where it will lead.

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    1. I don't think everyone can write them, just as not everyone can write novels. It's a different sort of story, a different arc. I'm struggling to try my hand at writing short fiction in different genres than I'm accustomed to. Certain genres, for me, lend themselves to short vs. long, and vice versa. Strange how it's happened.

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  7. I think you're right on target with what you've said. I write novels and with so many digital first publishers, most new writers aren't getting any advance at all. I didn't make any 'real' money with my small publisher until my 8th novel so we're talking years of tiny paychecks. I think the short story market will always be there and few people are getting rich writing in the novel industry or with short stories.

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    1. Writing certainly isn't a method to get rich quick, no matter what length you write!

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  8. We both love short stories and continue to write them even if we know those aren't going to be bringing home a ton of money. The money doesn't really matter. Most authors can't afford to just be writers, even ones that sell a ton of books. I mean, think about it, even if you sell 20,000 books a year, making around $1 per book via royalties, and subtracting taxes, you might make around $15,000. A year. That's a very successful sales volume, and yet I don't know anyone who can survive on $15k a year.

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    1. It's definitely not a livable wage. We can dream, of course, and hopefully we'll reach that point where we have enough out there to live on, but in the meantime, enjoy the writing!

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  9. I think you write the story you have and that it's the length it needs to be to tell the story you want to tell. Getting boxed into a word count is a mistake.

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    1. I completely agree. Different stories lend themselves to different lengths. I just write. It ends up where it needs to end up.

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  10. I love the short story if it's well-written. For me they're had to do, but I like the challenge.

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    1. A challenge is always good. I try to switch things up and challenge myself with new genres, new styles of writing, hard ideas, etc. Otherwise, it would get dull! (I have a short attention span.)

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  11. If anyone is in this to get rich, good luck. That said, I'm reading a book of Alice story I have read thus far has had me riveted to the page. I tend to think those who write because they can't not write, because of the love and the joy and the determination to write the best piece they can are the ones who will find success, whether or not it is attached to a dollar sign.

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    1. It would make sense. In any field, if you love what you do, I think it shows. It makes for a better end product. I hope so, anyway.

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  12. Sorry. Little editing problem there. Alice Munro's short stories. Each story I have read...

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  13. I really love writing short stories. They make writing tight and precise, with carefully chosen words. At my "Susan Kane, Writer" site, each short story will eventually form into a coalesced form.

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    1. Are you going to put together a book of them?

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  14. Good post. I hadn't written a short story since high school until a couple of years ago for The Roses of Prose blog. Now I do one every December there. I need to consider this. Thanks.

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  15. Hi Shannon - I think short stories would definitely be a way forward and an intro into the publishing world ... series can come out of shorts ...

    So I say get writing and get them published and go from there ... good post for us to get our thinking teeth into ... cheers Hilary

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  16. Great post, Shannon. I write short stories because I like writing them. The ideas I have fit the short format. As for getting rich - no. Short stories are not making me or anyone rich. They just satisfy some need inside a writer... and maybe inside the readers too. At least I hope so.

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    1. I hope so, too. If there weren't readers, there wouldn't be publications for it. I love reading the short form!

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  17. Many readers hate collections of short stories because just when they get to liking a set of characters, the story is over ... and they have to hope they like the next set of players as much.

    Short stories, as you say, help you hone your craft, to distill a plot to its basics.

    One thought is to use characters from a book you've written in a short story. If readers like your story enough, they may look up your novel or series of novels.

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    1. I've written short stories based on characters from novels now in order to work through plot issues, so it's time to consider getting those out into the world.

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