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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Short Story Dilemma

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar...

A few years ago you decided to give writing a try. Everyone told you that you should write and edit a novel, and in the meantime you should write and publish short stories. Those little 5,000 word nuggets of fiction were your stepping stones to big time publication.

So, you wrote them.

Maybe you hate short stories. Maybe you never read 'zines of any kind. Maybe that didn't matter because these were publishing credits. You earned enough to buy dinner at McDonald's, or a really cheap haircut.

Punch forward a few years and you find yourself with a back list of unwanted short stories, and a failing 'zine marketplace.

Over the past six months every single rejection letter I've picked up has read something like this:

Dear Author,
Thank you so much for submitting your story to XYZ. Due to a failing economy and a drop in subscriptions we only have a limited number of slots available, and I'm afraid we can no longer buy stories this year. This does not reflect on your writing in any way.

The Poor Editor
P.S. Please buy our latest edition and keep us from going bankrupt for one more month!

The first time I saw this, I was amused. Mea Culpa. I'd somehow targeted a failing e-zine and that was just bad research on my part. The second time I deleted the email thinking it was deja vu. When the others started rolling in, I started paying attention.

Let's do some quick math.

Token payments (by far the most common for sci-fi short stories) pay less than a penny a word. Pro payments are five cents and above, but still not much. You get paid once, usually no more than $50 (on the very high end). Your story gets published for one month. You get no royalties off of sales of back issues.

Writing, editing, submitting... and you're lucky to put $10 in your pocket.

Scoot on over to Amazon for a moment. Check out their 99-cent books. Most of those are short stories. Just like the one you sold for $10. Royalties over at Amazon pay 35% for the $0.99 price range. To earn $10 you have to sell roughly 30 copies of the story.

And then you can keep selling it. FOREVER. There is no one-issue-run. No back list earning someone else money. Who cares if you only earn $10 a month, or less? Your e-book stays up there. It's for sale when you write your next short story, and publish a novella, and when your much-fussed-over novel hits the virtual shelf.

Of course there are some hidden costs.

1- Editing. If you've already published the story this should be handled. Still, some of us are never truly done. You can always go back and primp a short story, give it a little extra shine. If you want you can hire a professional editor from there, but if this story has already been published, you probably don't need this.

2- Rights. Most e-zine/magazine rights revert after the first year, but check to be sure. Of course, if all you have right now is a pile of rejection letters explaining that the editor loves your work, but can't afford to pay you, then rights are not an issue.

3- Cover art. Unless you happen to be an artist this is usually the major stumbling block. Covers sell books. You can piece something together on photoshop with stock photos, or you can hire an artist. Plan on spending some cash to get a good cover. Or, grab a camera and take photos yourself.

4- Formatting, ect. This is more of a research and play with it area. There are a lot of blogs, websites, and books telling you how to do just this.

Even with the hidden costs factored in, there's something to be said for getting your short stories back out there. Especially if you are currently sitting on the rights and that short story isn't earning you anything.

For me, I keep looking at the PUBLISHED page on my blog and wondering why I don't have a link to SEVENTY. You can buy the old edition of MBRANE for $2, but that does nothing for me. Color my greedy, but why not double dip?

Self-publishing isn't easy. Not by a long shot. But neither is finding a magazine that's still paying authors for short stories.

The further we push into the digital realm, the less I see the relevance of publishing a story with a built-in limit on the audience.

Self-publishing still isn't right for ever person, every book, or every situation. You need to do what's best for your story, and your bottom line. Right now I'm rereading SEVENTY with an eye to expanding the story. There were things I cut out to make word count. Once I've expanded and edited, I'll explore options.

There's always the possibility of selling SEVENTY the novella to an e-house, but I'm not sure what their policy is on reprints of any kind. Even if the piece is rewritten and expanded some of the houses might not touch this. Which leaves me with a good story that I love, and the wide world of Nooks and Kindles.

Where are you on all this? Are you still trying to sell short stories? Do you think 'zines still have some staying power? What are you doing with your short story back list?

Volcano image copyright to and courtesy of Andree Wallin. Found HERE. Used under Fair Use.


  1. Hey, don't blame yourself for a lack of research on a failing magazine. The magazine I interned for gave no outward signs, even to its paid staff, that it wasn't doing so well. We all poured our heart and soul and hours upon hours of time working on the issues that were forthcoming. I went in on my day off to wrap two articles so the issue could ship to the printer the next day. That day it was supposed to ship? The magazine folded instead.

    No amount of research can tell you if a magazine is failing or going to close at any point. Don't blame yourself.

    I write short stories just for kicks and giggles, but never once have tried to get them published.

  2. That makes me feel better. I only send out a few stories a year, usually just for-fun flash fiction. But the number of Economy Rejections has become ridiculous. I'd rather get a form rejection saying this simply doesn't suit.

  3. I think self-publishing short stories is a great option. That's what I did when I decided to test the waters of SP'ing. I created a collection of shorts and released them together. Learned a lot on the way too. From formatting for different eReaders, to what it's like to make a book trailer and got my feet wet with promotion (although I should do more of that).

    All in all, it's been a lot of fun and I made enough money to buy a cheese-burger ;)

  4. Interesting idea, Liana. After I got my rights back on my first couple published shorts I put them up as free reads. I planned on doing the same for the others, but never thought about selling them for .99. Hmmm...something else to think about. - AR Norris

  5. I got one of those emails.

    And yeah, in the current market self-publishing seems to make more and more sense, especially when small publishers can take an age to get your work out.

    Fortunately, I don't have a short story backlist. But my decisions on work does depend hugely on how the market is progressing.