Does Publishing Short Stories Matter?
The economics of short fiction, how commercialism is changing what writers write, & a bit of advice from Shirley Jackson
I have a friend who is currently exhausting himself in order to write a novel. Let’s call said friend Axel. (Axel would hate that I named him Axel.) Anywho, Axel spends months devoting all of his writing time to The Novel. He writes a draft. He rewrites it. He hates the draft, he decides to give up. He comes back to the novel after a month and revises it again. This brutal cycle has been going on for a long time.
I love Axel, but I can’t help but wonder if something is off here. I asked him why he was so intensely focused on The Novel, when he seemed unhappy even talking about the thing. Here’s what he said:
I feel like if I don’t write a novel, I’ll never be a successful writer.
Oh, Axel. This is a thing that I hear a lot from writers, even successful ones. You see, Axel has a prolific career in SFF short fiction. His short stories and flash fiction are cutting, perfect examples of the genre. He has published in several, maybe dozens of pro markets. Repeatedly. Axel is a bad-ass short story writer, so why doesn’t he see short stories as the precursor to a successful career in novels?
The Economics of Writing SFF Short Stories
I’ve heard editors say that “back in the day” you could make a living writing short stories. It was a thin living, but it was possible. Let’s unpack that idea a bit.
The golden age of science fiction was not so golden, it seems. Isaac Asimov is quoted as saying that in the early industry payment was “not on publication but (the saying went) on lawsuit”. With a little digging and I found several different rates for SFF magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. It seems that the average rate was around .01/word (This is the rate that Astounding paid.) Going by the average of 5,000 words for a short story, this would mean that the average rate for a short story was around $50. In fact, Isaac Asimov’s first short story at Astounding made $64 at .01/word for 6,400 words. In today’s dollars, this would be a rate of $1,139. This rate would increase slightly as the years went on, Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine paid .02 -.03 / word in the 1950s. The professional rate of .03/word seems to have remained a standard up until 2004 when it was increased to .05/word by SFWA. On September 1, 2019, the SFWA recognized rate will increase to .08/word.
By today’s so-called “pro” rates, a short story of 6,400 words would amount to $512, a far cry from the inflation-adjusted rate of $1,139 Asimov made back in the golden age. By some accounts, this amount is more than the average household income at the time. We’re looking at a vast swath of economic differences across these decades, but it is probably safe to say that yes, you could have made a living selling short stories back in the day. I’m no economist, but I can pretty much say that there is no short story venue that pays what an average person’s salary is today.
But what about books? Robert A. Heinlein was paid $3,000 in 1961 for his book Stranger in a Strange Land and subsequently made $475,863.46 by 1991 in royalties. The advance of $3,000 is a whopping $24,081 in today’s dollars, with of course some wiggle room. It’s obvious that even in 1961, publishing a book would work out to more of an economic incentive than short stories. By 2010, the average book advance with a top publisher is somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000. So while not every author is going to make near the adjusted rate Heinlein made, the number is quite closer to the mark. (I’m not going to get into the state of eBooks, Amazon’s influence, and the indie publishing market.)
Let’s argue that you could sell enough stories today to make up the cost of a book advance. You’d have to sell roughly 10 pro stories to make $5,000. However, this doesn’t include the royalty payments, which is a number that is difficult to estimate. Arguably, you could make a career writing short stories if your stories then became popular enough to make a collection out of them. This means you’d be paid the $5,000 of the 10 pro stories, plus an advance for your book collecting those stories. However, in order for a publisher to want to pick up a collection, your stories need to be popular enough to warrant it.
So by all accounts, Axel may be right. Publishing short stories in today’s market doesn’t seem like a viable economic choice. The market hasn’t kept up with inflation, and publishers are frequently closing their doors due to the struggle to keep up with the economics of publishing magazines.
You could make a similar argument for novels, though. Just because many novel advances are in the range that you could afford to live off of them, doesn’t mean every writer does. Recent surveys of authors have shown that many successful writers are living below minimum wage. The economics of writing show that it is not a profitable venture.
But is economics why we set out to write?
The Non-Monetary Value of Short Stories
Let’s back up and put money aside for a moment. I don’t know of a single author who decided to get into writing for the money. Most of us are aware of the realities of publishing. You put a lot of effort and energy into a thing that may or may not get published, may or may not sell well.
So why do we write?
I have a belief that every writer eventually finds their voice as a writer. We start out in this beautiful moment where everything is possible. As newbies, we’re in it for the stories — not for the complexities of the market. Every good story starts with a spark of inspiration, an idea. What matters to the new writer is not who is going to read that thing, but instead crafting that idea into something people will want to read.
Fighting Self-Rejection and Imposter Syndrome
Even Neil Gaiman feels like an imposter sometimes
There are a lot of ways to go about getting that idea into the world. Choosing to put the idea into short story format is a somewhat alchemical process. I believe that as creators, we often can’t chose what format our ideas start out as. For example, think about how many books are made into movies a year. What if those ideas had started out as scripts? (For one, they probably wouldn’t have been made into films, because Hollywood is so frequently moving away from original scripts.) Authors often cannot predict the popularity of their work or where it might end up, what form it might eventually take on. There is a reason that short stories end up on the page as short stories.
Let’s look at an example. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is one of the most famous short stories in existence. It was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. It subsequently received the most hatemail the magazine had ever received for a story. Jackson said of the response:
“One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote.
It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.
Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” ( Come Along with Me; Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures, 1968.)
Jackson’s work has seen a resurgence in popularity lately, but it’s clear that even in 1948, her short story struck a chord. I think this story would not work as a novel. It is my belief that short stories have the power to make a devastating impact on the reader because of their format. A novel is about characters, plot, twists & turns, and less often ideas. While there are books that stay with us, it’s just not possible to create in novel-length the kind of thought experiment that a short story can. It would be too exhausting for the reader. Form matters.
If you look at short stories that have impacted the world, this fact is reiterated time and time again. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. Short stories can stay with a reader.
There have been countless short stories adapted to longer works, but very few novels shortened to short stories. I think the reason is that writers see something is popular and that the world of the story has potential. And I think this is valuable. I believe that short stories have the power to do that, to be a seed for a longer work. Is Mrs. Dalloway any less compelling because it began as a short story? I think it adds a fascinating layer to the writer’s process.
Sometimes the literary writing community is weirdly disparaging about short stories. Many believe they are rife with common stereotypes and are just MFA drama-fodder. A truly good short story, like “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer, is worth celebrating with awards. Maybe there’s a difference here in genre, I don’t know.
It is certainly accepted that writing short stories can lead to a more successful career later on — but the inherent failure in logic here is that this is all they are worth. I believe that writers take this and run with it — to sometimes lackluster results. They write a few short stories because they think that’s What They Are Supposed to Do, the short stories do okay but not great, then they try to write a novel and fail, or sell a novel that doesn’t sell well. This kind of cycle results from not knowing what you want to write, or not allowing yourself to explore your creativity. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve enjoyed someone’s short stories, only to read their book and realize that what I loved about their work wasn’t suited to book-length projects. I’ve also experienced (and I’m sure you have too) the feeling of picking up a much-hyped debut novel only to realize that it’s not as great as the jacket blurbs insist.
The trouble here is not writers picking the wrong genre. I’m not railing against one form or another. What troubles me is that the community of SFF and writing places so much emphasis on success. And success is defined by commercialism. Writers are told “short stories are a stepping stone” but not “you should write short stories because they are a powerful art form.” We’re pushing sales as a factor of success for a writer, when the reality is that many of the “greats” of the literary canon weren’t successful in their time.
I return again and again to Ursula K. Le Guin’s powerful speech at the National Book Awards in 2014, as a response to Amazon’s growing popularity:
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. — Ursula K. Le Guin
Why do writers like my friend, who is a talented short storyist, feel the need to change what they’re doing? When I listened to my friend talk about his struggles in writing a novel and how he just wanted to write short stories, I asked him how many stories he’d published so far. It was a small number, say six or seven. And yet he was ready to give up. I am frequently disheartened to learn that writers who have had a small amount of success in short fiction often feel like they should give up and move on to longer works. By putting aside a genre before we’re done with it, we’re doing a major disservice to our voice as writers.
Just think if Shirley Jackson had given up writing short stories after the backlash for “The Lottery,” convinced that she needed to just write novels.
As with so many quandaries in writing, while I believe that the writing community is making it harder for writers to craft unique, compelling, and well-chosen stories, I also think that in the end, writers have to make a choice. Exploring new forms is a valuable way to grow as a writer. But if you’re a short storyist who is thinking of giving up the ghost, I’d like to say that I hope you keep writing short stories. The beauty of writing is that you don’t have to make anyone but yourself happy. The best works of writing are ones that were written because the writer saw a hole in the world and decided to fill it — from their heart. But also, the short form is something worth mastering.
Or, as Shirley put it, indulge yourself endlessly with oddness:
“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were.” — Shirley Jackson (“Memory and Delusion,” Published in Let Me Tell You.)
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.