Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction

“I can make as much per sale on a ten page short story as on a 120,000 word novel.” Indie Author
What—short stories? Aren’t they just for writing classes? Why would I waste time on stuff that doesn’t pay?

Because it does.

And this isn’t an April Fool joke.

A Kindle Single

 

Last week Amazon announced it has sold over two million “Singles” ebooks since the launch of their Singles program a little over a year ago. Yeah. 2 MILLION.

The short stories sell for between $. 99 and $1.99 and the authors keep a 70% royalty. Many of the top sellers are by name authors, like Lee Child, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult, but others are by unknowns, according to Kindle Singles editor David Blum. (The 70% royalty is only for official Kindle Singles. If you self-pub, anything sold under $2.99 gets a 35% royalty.) 

But this is where you should be doing a happy dance and shouting from the rooftops: THE SHORT STORY IS BACK! This is nothing but good news for authors no matter where you are in your career.

After three or four decades of evaporating markets, the short story has found a new home in the ebook.

OK, we’re not reliving the halcyon days of the mid-20th century when short fiction in weeklies like The Saturday Evening Post paid more than the average book advance does today. But short fiction fits the ADD-attention-span lifestyle of the E-age, and people are willing to pay for it. (Which is yet another reason NOT to give away your fiction on your blog.

I think it’s time for all fiction writers to start re-thinking the short form. Personally, I know I haven’t spent enough time on it. During the decade I spent writing and re-writing my “practice novel” I could have been building an inventory of short pieces that would be a gold mine now.

Unfortunately, most novice writers I know are still doing the same stuff I did. They’re putting all their energy into book-length fiction or memoir and not bothering with short pieces, except maybe for a flash fiction contest or special event.

In fact, I visited a critique group not long ago where one writer complimented another with the misguided advice that he shouldn’t “waste” his crisp little story—he should turn it into a novel.

In other words, she was telling the writer that instead of sending a 10,000 word short story to Amazon to sell for 99 cents, he should spend two years turning it into a 100,000 word novel, which he could sell on Amazon for…um, 99 cents. (OK, not all self-pubbed ebooks are priced that low, but even at $4.99, the bottom line news isn’t good for the author. Especially if he puts money into editing and design.)

Of course, back in the Jurassic days when I started writing, that critiquer’s advice would have been perfectly sound. In the 1990s, most magazines had stopped publishing fiction and short stories had all but disappeared from the publishing world. Mega bookstores were in their heyday: book-length fiction was happening.

So aspiring authors were told to keep our eyes on the big prize and put our energy into churning out novels in the popular genres like chick lit, cozy mysteries, and family sagas.

I’ve amassed quite a collection of half-finished books in those genres—all sadly out of fashion now. But if I had been writing short stories instead, I could be raking in the dough. (Not that any time spent writing is wasted. Everything we write improves our craft.)

But I didn’t feel drawn to writing short stories. I write genre fiction. Back then, short stories were expected to be literary. Yes, there were still some paying gigs for genre stories in super-competitive markets like Women’s World, Asimov’s and Ellery Queen.

But mostly we were urged to write enigmatic tales of suburban angst and send them off to collect rejection slips from literary journals with a circulation of 26 and names like Wine-Dark Snowflakes of the Soul, or The Southeastern Idaho Pocatello Community Colleges North Campus Literary Review. All with the hopes we’d finally be rewarded with publication and payment of one free copy.

But ebooks have changed all that. Not just because of Kindle Singles. Short story anthologies are springing up all over. They don’t all pay, but if you can get a story into an anthology with some well-known authors in your genre, you’ll be paid in publicity that would be hard to buy at any price.

I’ve been offered a number of opportunities to publish fiction in anthologies this year that have really paid off. The Saffina Desforges Coffee Collection reached #1 on the anthology bestseller list as soon as it was released last December, and the Indie Chicks Anthology (which sent its profits to charity) has been a steady seller for six months—and now that it’s free it’s topping a whole lot of lists. Plus I look forward to having a story in the rom-com Martini Madness anthology coming next winter with the fabulous ladies from WG2E .  

I’m not advising anybody to ditch that magnum opus—most novel writers get frustrated when forced to write exclusively in the short form. But I’m saying it makes sense to put an equal amount of energy into shorter pieces.

Instead of putting every idea that illuminates your brain into your novel, give a few of them a spin in short stories first.

A few months ago on this blog, legendary mystery author Lawrence Block wrote about his success with self-publishing his inventory of short stories, and a few months before, Sci-Fi bestseller Jeff Carlson wrote about his success self-publishing a novella. It shot to number one in SciFi with no help from his agent or Big Six publisher.

But you don’t have to be accepted at Kindle Singles or have a famous name to benefit from publishing short-form ebooks. Consider the following things I heard this week:

1) A bestselling author decided to put some of her old stories on Amazon. As an experiment, she didn’t use her famous name. She told me she made about $500 on them last month. These were works she was told “had absolutely no commercial value.” But she put them out there, “in case someone was interested.” It seems they were—because “in spite of absolutely no promo…people are finding them and buying them.”

2) An indie writer wrote me with this advice: “unless you have a break-out success with a novel, [the short story] is probably more lucrative as a return on time invested. I can make as much per sale on a ten page short story as on a 120,000 word novel.” And I know many indies who use a short piece as a free download to introduce readers to their work.

3) My editor wrote that one of his authors recently self-published a short piece she wrote on a plane and “writing, formatting, cover, etc. took less than a day.” It got 6500 downloads in the first week. 

So the magic formula for writers right now might be “less is more.”

I do want to stress that the above writers are all successful, published novelists with hard-earned expertise in their craft.

So I’m NOT advocating that new writers self-publish your fledgling short fiction. A few self-pubbed singles by a brand new writer won’t get anybody’s attention. (And they may embarrass your future self.)

To succeed in publishing—whether self- or traditional, you really need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours.

But you can maximize your efforts by putting more of those hours writing short fiction. When it’s time to make your professional debut, you’re going to have some serious inventory.

If you’re still unconvinced, consider that short fiction is much easier to adapt for the screen than novels. The following films began as short stories: A View to a Kill; The Birds; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Brokeback Mountain; Children of the Corn; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dead; Don Juan DeMarco; Don’t Look Now; Double Indemnity. (And that’s just from the A-D list on Wikipedia.)

The best thing is that while you’re getting yourself established, you don’t have to keep those stories in a drawer. One of the great things about short fiction is that it’s re-usable. Most zines and journals only ask for first rights (And be very careful with the ones who want more.)

Gone are the days when those obscure college literary journals were the only game in town. New zines are springing up all the time, and there are contests everywhere online—some even have cash prizes. (I suggest subscribing to C. Hope Clark’s newsletter, Funds for Writers for vetted

info on contests.)

Contest wins and credits for a few stories published in some good online zines look very nice in a query letter or bio, too.

So forget the so-last-millennium advice to concentrate on novels. Polish those short pieces and prepare yourself for a 21st century audience.

If, like me, you can’t kick your book-writing habit, try writing a short piece about a secondary character in your WIP. It’s a great exercise for exploring your character’s backstory, and once your novel is published, it can benefit you in lots of ways:

 

  • It could make you a nice chunk of change as an e-single.

 

  • It might go into an anthology where it could get you new readers.

 

  • You can offer it as a free download for some inexpensive publicity.

 

  • Hollywood might come calling. (Hey, you never know…)

Even if you’re unpublished and have a long way to go before you publish your first novel, I suggest taking time to work on some stories and build your inventory. And I recommend you enter a few contests and submit to those zines. You might just win something.

Award-winning writer” has a nicer sound than “unpublished novelist,” doesn’t it?

 

 

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30 comments

Joe Hefferon says: June 05, 2012 at 12:20 am

Interesting. What’s the word length, typically, of this short fiction. You mentioned 10,000 words. Is that about average?

A. Yamina Collins says: June 05, 2012 at 1:04 am

Anne, the moment I read this piece on your site, I thought it was so spot on. I was especially tickled since my new book – a collection of short stories – is due out this month.

I love hearing that short stories are alive and well. That’s my hope and belief, too.

Thanks so much!
Yamina

Laura Pauling says: June 05, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I love the idea of the short story. Many ideas are better suited for that or help till the ground for a future novel. It’s nice to spend less time on a project while moving forward in your career at the same time!

    yammsy says: June 05, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    I agree with you there, Laura.

    I know with my book of shorts that’s coming out, the idea of completing the stories has helped make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I really am a writer. If I had only the novel to concentrate on, I think I would become discouraged.

    It’s such a great way to practice our craft, too…until our Great American Novel is finished.

    Ha!

Anne R. Allen says: June 05, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Thanks so much for spreading the word about short stories and reprinting my post, Yamina. And congrats on our book launch!

Every creative writer should be spending time on short fiction. It hones your skills and eventually can make you some money. But when I talk to new writers, it seems 90% of them are writing novels or memoirs. Until you can write a good short story, chances are you won’t t write readable book length narrative either, and you’ll be wasting a lot of time on practice books instead of practice stories.

Joe–A short story can be anything from six words (there’s a famous Hemingway flash fic of 6 words) to 20,000, which is when you get into novella length.

    yammsy says: June 05, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Again, Anne,

    I love your post and your feedback. This was just the short of encouraging piece I was looking for. I am hoping there’ll be a revolution in short story fiction over the course of the next year or two.

    Ha ha.
    Best,

Lizzie Gates says: June 06, 2012 at 8:22 am

Finding this post reinforces my belief in the power of serendipity. Only this morning, I was thinking about e-publishing and short fiction. Thank you for so much generous advice.

    yammsy says: June 06, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Well, perhaps now is the time to follow that thought, Lizzie…best.

    Yamina

Fred Holtz says: June 06, 2012 at 12:12 pm

The short story has its place too. (Like many classical composers who were more comfortable in short forms, i.e. Chopin, Grieg, etc.) and personally I prefer Herman Melville’s short stories to “Moby Dick”!

    yammsy says: June 06, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I honestly hope and believe that the short story form is about to make a comeback. Thanks for commenting.

    Yamina

Jay says: June 07, 2012 at 4:33 am

There are so many writers who will be encouraged by this information. I don’t see it as something that you are ‘moving forward’ with in your career, it’s just that’s how the market plays it.

In terms of writing short stories or novels, you should be able to have either or both.

Good to hear that readers aren’t being put off by the proposed concept that a short story is somehow ‘unworthy’ in itself as a piece of writing.

Darla Bartos says: June 07, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Thank you Anne for giving us good information to consider.
Darla Bartos

[…] and am working on several of my books at once, but I had an epiphany after reading a blog from Anne R. Allen about how the short story is an option that seems to be back in demand now that ebooks are gaining […]

    yammsy says: June 08, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Thanks to bwellmanblog. for linking back to this article. Anne did a great job with the piece.

Jack Durish says: June 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I once read that Jack London stashed his rejected novels in a trunk saying that a publisher could have had them cheap today, but will pay a fortune for them tomorrow when he became famous. Turns out he was prescient.

Irene Tritel says: June 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I have writer’s guild awards for four of my short stories, but don’t know what to do with them. They range 2,500 to 5,000 words. Thanks for your encouraging article.

    yammsy says: June 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hi, Irene,

    That’s great. Have you thought of putting them together as a sort of collection?

    I love that Anne has that one story up and running on Amazon. Why not give it a try yourself?

    Best,

    Yamina

Marlin Williams says: June 13, 2012 at 9:07 am

I’m glad to hear this. I’ve always been a big fan of short stories and that’s what I love to write. Great article and I thank you for sharing this.

Jade says: June 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm

This is a great write up loaded with great ideas. Thanks alot, am taking the advise.

N.K. Wagner says: June 21, 2012 at 7:21 am

I’m one of those paying e-zine editors. Page & Spine: fiction showcase introduces emerging authors and their work. Operating under the theory that as one begins, so will one continue, we pay for the privilege.

Short works accomodate readers who spend time in waiting rooms, commuting, refreshing their minds during a short meal break, or who need a satifying bedtime story to unwind at the end of a long day.

The benefit to the writer is the development of carefully considered, precise writing – an advantage when finally tackling that novel.

    yammsy says: June 22, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Thanks for sharing, N.K.

    Yamina

LKWatts says: June 22, 2012 at 7:16 am

Hi Anne,

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to type this blog post. Until now I haven’t given short stories a single thought but now I’ve read this I definitely think differently. Thanks again!

Devin Berglund says: June 23, 2012 at 2:05 am

I just came across your blog on linkedin someplace and wow… I really enjoyed this post!!! :) You have inspired me… as I have been working on a few short stories while writing my novel. And to tell you the truth it’s a really nice feeling to actually finish short projects while working on your longer one. It makes you feel like you are actually finishing things. :) Thanks for the great post and keep writing great stuff! :)

Dean Kutzler says: July 09, 2012 at 7:38 am

THANK YOU, Anne, for such an awesome and inspiring article! I—like a billion others, have started a novel and am 40,000 in. It’s long lonely work; I’m a slave to my passion like many others. But writing the same thing, for so long (3 years +) can be very daunting to say the least. I started writing short stories because it is invaluable practice. I’ve since posted them on my website:

http://deankutzler.com/Deans_Writing_Life/Dean_Kutzler.html

Please feel free to read, comment and rate. Most of the shorts are 500-700 words long. A few longer pieces 1000-2000 are in their own category.

Do you think the short ones are long enough to publish in an anthology?

Steven E. Belanger says: July 19, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I love writing short stories–I’ve had a couple of short stories published (one in a magazine, another in an anthology) this year–and I love reading them, too. I like writing them when I’m writing one of my novels because it gives me a mental break from the long road of a novel. When I finish one, and especially when I sell one, it’s also a faster gratification than the long process of writing, editing and finishing a novel, getting an agent, getting it sold, etc. Reading short stories while reading a novel does the same, for the same reason. Also, reading short stories acquaints you with great writers like Alice Munro, who just don’t write novels.

    A. Yamina Collins says: July 19, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Well said, Steven.

    I think Anne’s post had a lot to do with that faster gratification you spoke of. I love what you wrote about short stories giving you a mental break from writing the long novel.

    I think reading and writing short is just great practice all around – it’s great practice in writing, and great practice in learning what makes a story click or not.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Yamina

The Long & Short Of It « The Soliloquy Suites says: July 27, 2012 at 7:07 pm

[…] Here’s a link to an extremely helpful blog entry about writing short fiction. There you’ll also finds some ways to make some money from your short stories. Now, I’ve got your attention! […]

Chris says: August 09, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Excellent advice. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my short stories published (and sometimes even gotten paid for it), but I’ve also gone down the novel road to no avail. Any advice on how to (or where) to submit short stories to be published via the e-story route? I’ve got plenty of stories and I love the idea of being able to get them out there to more people via this avenue.

    A. Yamina Collins says: August 09, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Well, Chris,

    I’m no expert, but I am now selling my e-book short story collection on my blog, via ejunkie, on Amazon, Smashwords and even Scribd.

    Why not give those venues a shot?

    Yamina

Joe Hefferon says: August 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Amen on the 10,000 hours. It’s the single reason most people do not succeed in their lofty endeavors – they find out just how much work is involved. Thanks Anne