Don’t waste your time writing short stories!

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As much as I see the authors waiting to get that agent or NY Publisher to pick them up, getting rejected over and over, even though their work is as good or superior to a lot of what Big Publishing puts out, I see authors trying to work the short story circuit in an attempt to “build up enough cred” that they’ll get noticed by one of these publishers.

It doesn’t work.

Now before I get a ton of comments saying “what about this person or this person” yes, there are exceptions to every rule. This is aimed at the vast majority of writers. I’m also not telling people to never write short stories. This is more targeted if your goal is 1. Exposure/Fame 2. Making money as an author from a newer writer perspective.  Obviously if you have stories to tell in short form, you have stories to tell in short form. As I write this, I am intentionally working on a short story which is already shaping up to be the best short I’ve ever written. I can’t wait to share it with you. But that said:

Submitting To Short Story Markets Is Even Harder Than Novels

It’s pretty easy to submit novels to a small press. Their overheads are not that high, to break even on a book isn’t all that hard. But short story markets are very small. There’s only a few “pro” paying presses, and they’re flooded with submissions. I’ve done a lot of slush reading for non-pro/token payments, and even those are overwhelmed. Your odds of getting a story published without being a friend of the editor, or someone with an established name is about 1/300. If you’re spending a couple weeks on a short story, taking that time even in non-pro markets, you’re going to get $50 for your work and very rarely at that. It’s not going to move the needle financially for you. Even if you manage to get in the Asimov/Analog queue, you’re still talking $250-300 and they’re only gonna publish a couple stories of yours per year, if that. Even long time folk who have gotten into that magazine get rejected more than not, and keep in mind they have a leg up on you because the editor has dealt with them before.

Then you go to the anthology market. Authors are invited for the most part to these. And usually they have 2-3 open “slots” for submissions. Pro-tip here: publishers use this as a marketing tactic to drum up interest for the anthology. Most writers are readers too, and it gets them exposure. You’re again a 1/300 shot at getting a slot there, and half the time those slots get filled by friends of the editor. If you’re not invited to begin with, you’re not in.

Frankly, for the investment and time, it’s not worth doing from that perspective. If your goal is to make money, the short story market is a disaster.

Your Story In An Anthology or Magazine Won’t Help You Build An Audience

Readers are fickle. There’s a reason why anthologies and mags get big names to headline them. There’s the hopes that BIG NAME will have their following buy the book, as there are completist collectors. That results in the vast majority of anthology/magazine sales. They do have some regular readers, but a lot less than you think. Here’s the main kicker though: just because you’re in a book with BIG NAME doesn’t mean people are going to read your story. Most the folk buying for that person are going to skip over other stories and just read the author they like. It’s a sad reality, but true. It’s very low help from a marketing perspective. You’d be better off trying to get people to find you through other means.

Publishers Are Looking For Novels.  For Practice—Write Novels.

The end goal if you’re not self-publishing and building an audience that way (which I recommend), is to have a publisher believe in you. If you have a few short stories out, so does everyone else. Publishers will want to see that you have completed long-form work that’s good, because that’s what sells. Short story collections don’t sell nearly as well, even big authors like Brandon Sanderson have their short story collections not do as well as their novels. For whatever reason, the novel is the preferred form of entertainment in reading and publishers know that. You may as well work on perfecting your craft in a way that’s going to be the most benefit financially to you and publishers in the future, by writing full length works.

As Sarah Hoyt said last week and I echoed, waiting to get that real contract is only going to slow your advancement down. If you spend all your time on short stories, it’s going to do the same. The market is what it is for now, and it’s possible it’ll eventually change. But get your full length works out there and keep writing them as fast as you can.



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13 thoughts on “Don’t waste your time writing short stories!

  1. Them’s fighting words! Well, okay, not really… but it DOES depend on your goals.

    There’s no question that novels are where the money is. In that respect, sure, short stories are a distraction. But there are a lot of reasons to work on short stories that are not a “waste of time.”

    For me, short stories were a great feedback loop while I have refined my chops. I feel I was able to improve my skills more quickly this way, and get more value out of my “practice” going through this refiner’s fire. While some of the skills needed for long-form vs. short form are different, many are the same. Better yet, learning to cut to the chase, trim the fat, and focus on the “good stuff” in a 5000-word short story is something that a lot of novelists ought to learn…

    Beyond learning to tell a better story, it can teach you how to work with editors, professionalism, and help you develop a thicker skin. Rejections don’t mean nearly as much when you are trying to remember what the story that was just rejected was about. 🙂

    And with short stories, you can earn while you learn! Not a lot, but hey, it helps pay for writing conferences and new books.

    Outside of the value as a training tool, there are some other small advantages to writing short stories. Exposure…? Meh, sometimes. It depends. If you are talking about building an audience, not so much. If you are talking about improving your own network, however, it can be a big deal. You will get to know people this way, and they’ll get to know you.

    There are some minor perks. There are a lot of awards available to short fiction writers (not the least of which in SF/F is Writers of the Future) which doesn’t directly translate to building a bigger audience for your novels, but it potentially builds your rep in an inside crowd… the people with the bigger audiences of their own who might recommend you, or who put you on panels at conferences where you get your little bit of incremental exposure.

    A short story in your novel’s universe can be used for marketing.

    And yeah, like you said… sometimes there are just stories you want to tell that aren’t that big. A short story can be a nice break after finishing your latest novel.

    So yeah – there are a lot of ways in which a short story is more than a waste of time. But then you knew you’d get arguments, didn’t you? 🙂 It’s just not the way to make a living as a writer these days. As you say, it really depends on your goals. But I do believe they can help build or augment a novelist career.

  2. And it’s a shame that the short story market has dried up because that’s where writers are allowed to innovate and experiment. The other side of sticking to novels is sticking to what is tried and true and familiar to readers. All of the big revolutions in speculative fiction–Pulp, New Wave, Cyberpunk–were driven by short stories first.

    I think the death of good short story markets is a big part of why SF/F has been so stagnant for the past few decades.

    • I hadn’t thought of that, but you are right.

      It does make me wonder “why?” Do people just not want to invest themselves in a story they know will be over in a couple of hours? (That doesn’t seem to be a problem with movies…) Was this part of the reason why so many short stories had recurring characters?

      • I don’t think it’s readers who have abandoned shorts, but publishers. I know that I read shorts, and I have picked up a number of multi-author, indie published anthologies. Since I usually read them on Kindle there is usually a link to the author’s other work just after the story and more than once I have picked up novels on the basis of a well-written short piece.

  3. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you on this, Jon. Having just given a presentation on reasons to write short stories, I’ve given this some thought as to why one might write short stories while anywhere from complete noob to mega-author.

    Over the past three years, my submission success rate for shorts has ranged from 10% to 23% as a new author. I don’t see that happening for someone submitting novels cold as a beginner, and I’ve learned a lot of things to get me to where I now have a novel due out through a smaller press this summer. (Yes, I’m sort of a noob to writing still, but making progress.) Networking has been huge.

    As a career, yeah. Writing shorts for money is probably a bad move for all but a statistically insignificant number of writers. Aside from that, I’ll share some reasons why writing short stories is worth consideration.

    Noob: Do it for fun. No agent needed. Build up some references. Learn the genres. Kill the idea of “I can’t.” Practice finishing something small to build confidence in finishing something big. Practice story craft. Learn to follow instructions on submission guidelines. Learn publishers to avoid. Earn enough to go to dinner occasionally.

    Newly published: Bump up the skills. Fill out that million words of garbage with a wider ranging portfolio. Network with authors, editors, publishers, and readers. Small measure of name recognition. Use as refs to find an agent. Get into bookstores by identifying short publishers already there. Learn an economy of words, to build impact quickly. Fast turnaround on experimental stuff.

    Experienced author: Promotional giveaways. Fill gaps between novel releases (more important if traditionally published). Support your fanbase. Promote other authors in anthologies. Play in worlds created by other authors (including mega-authors).

    Mega-author: Pay it forward by anchoring anthologies. Publicity and reputation with your name on more things. Invite others to write using your intellectual property. Do something with that collection of shorts nobody bought when you were a small fish.

    So in summary, there are still plenty of reasons to write shorts. Some don’t want to for various reasons and will skip straight to novels. No problem. There are also skills you won’t learn from shorts when you make the transition to novels. Practicing writing novels is great practice for producing good novels, but that’s a high bar to hit for some beginners. Everyone follows their own path through the maze. But to discourage short form categorically – while admitting you don’t follow your own advice – may not be the best approach.

    My guess is that there’s a great middle ground where shorts play a part in a career centered on novels. The part played by shorts will vary as a career progresses.

    Anyone interested in my slide set for the “Why Write Short Fiction” presentation, you can find it at my blog under the Presentations tab. (Linked through my name up above, most likely.)

  4. I just published a short story with a digital anthology magazine to gain more exposure. So far, I haven’t seen any advantages from that, which supports your point. I think especially in the sci-fantasy genre, readers want to fully immerse themselves into the new world and spend time being there. A short story will NEVER provide that kind of depth.

  5. While I disagree with your headline you are right with the content of the post.

    I write shorts for specific reasons:
    1. There’s a contest I want to enter (not doing this any more).
    2. To help out a friend or someone I want to network with.
    3. Inspiration hit me and when I stop writing I discover it’s a short.

    Mostly category 3.

    I don’t mind the Muse dropping shorts on me. It’s a lot easier to get the idea for one out of my system so I can go back to working on the current novel. They do provide chances to practice writing skills that might not fit into the current big project.

    Once I have the shorts written I give them a scrub and send them out. No sense letting them lie around when pressing the “submit” button on some website is so easy. The Grinder has a long list of markets. The money won’t be a factor in quitting my day job but it can be a decent return on the time spent on the story.

  6. I’m 100% (by choice) indie, so short stories just don’t fit my business model. I’ve got some novelettes which I use as reader-magnets to entice people to sign up for my newsletter or as an affordable ‘fish hook’ to test out a potential translation market. The time it takes to submit a short to the short fiction market just isn’t worth my time. When inspiration hits, I just jot it down and toss it into my plot bunny folder.

    That doesn’t mean short stories aren’t worth writing. They’re a good way to try out a new voice or perfect a skill. It just means, from a business perspective, the current market doesn’t value them.

  7. I started writing them to see if I could. Not really my cup of tea. Short for me is 16K words. I’m with Karl on this one though. Sometimes I need to get some distance from longer works, or write a side story, or get an inspiration for what will no doubt turn into a longer piece of work. I would’ve never considered writing UF if it hadn’t been for a contest and a snarky remark in a writer’s thread about UF tropes like having a katana laying about for no reason and acquiring a man-harem. But I just had to write it.

  8. There are “markets” for the short-story form. You just don’t get paid…

    Fan fiction fora are avidly read, and commented upon (mostly by women), and the medium does impose some constraints; so you can air out your early versions there. It is well known how many young-adult books, especially, started out as fanfic.

    Also if you’re doing love scenes (or just straight-up bonking), LitErotica allows SF and fantasy; so those parts of your future novel can be beta-tested there. The pervs will skip to the good stuff but again, there will be readers who go through the whole of it.

  9. Pingback: Why Write Short Stories?

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