Why Don’t Short Stories Sell?
I was bouncing around the ‘net the other day and stumbled across a submissions call from a publisher. Curious, I clicked the link. Scrolling through the post, I saw they described their need for novels as “low,” yet their need for short stories and novellas as “high.”
My first thoughts? “Oh honey, no.”
A Well-Known Publishing Fact
This company was relatively new to the scene, so I’ll forgive them their folly. Perhaps they know what they’re talking about!
Around the publishing industry, however, it’s a fairly well-known fact that short stories (novellas included) simply do not sell. I had this fact pounded into my head by publishing professionals from all the major companies – Harlequin, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Wiley, assorted others.
Breaking onto the Scene
It’s a bit of an oddity, since most writers (most “serious” writers, at the very least) are encouraged to write short stories as a sort of proving grounds for writing longer fiction.
If you pay attention, however, you’ll notice a trend. Most writers who publish short stories tend to publish them in literary magazines and journals. Once they’ve gained some traction and credibility by publishing in these venues, publishers might consider adding a short story to an anthology. In some cases, they may even consider an anthology of short stories by a lone author, particularly if the author has several previously published stories that are popular.
Trial by Length
The idea is new authors cut their teeth on shorter fiction before tackling longer, more complex works. (We’ll leave aside that short stories are truly their own sort of art form, and a novelist can be shit at writing short. Similarly, a great short story writer may not be a good novelist.)
It also gives an author a chance to begin building buzz for their works before they sign a publishing deal. The publisher can also keep an eye on the up-and-coming author’s following, as well as sample their work. Publication of short stories in literary magazines and journals allows the writer to build a resume.
In short, it’s a way for writers to convince publishers to take a gamble on them.
The catch here is most publishers don’t do much in the way of short story anthologies. The conventional wisdom is they simply do not sell. A publisher will put out an anthology when they can get established writers–“big names” with a lot of fan draw–to headline. It’s the same tactic as including a foreword by an important name in the field or publishing a book by a celebrity. It’s insurance against the book’s failure.
Within these anthologies, publishers might take a gamble on a few lesser- and unknowns, since they can sandwich their work in with the heavy hitters and increase the volume of the book.
However, few publishers sign single authors to write short story anthologies, even if the writer’s known as a great short story writer. A notable exception to the rule is Canadian writer Alice Munro. Munro writes nothing but short stories. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Publishers don’t publish short stories because they don’t sell. Publishers make bad decisions all the time, but they actively shy away from projects they think are doomed to fail. Categorically, short stories and books of poetry are commercial failures in nine out of ten cases.
The problem with short stories happens to be a problem of pricing. Readers are notoriously fickle about how they spend their money. Even free books on Amazon Kindle don’t necessarily get readers to flock. Ask the reader to pay $0.99, $1.99, $2.99–you might as well be asking them for their heart and soul in some cases. Readers buy what sounds interesting to them, or by authors they know and enjoy or those recommended to them by others. The cost is a relative concern, but usually when the purchase is perceived as a gamble–such as trying out a new author.
You’d think purchasing a short story–which is short, so therefore less expensive–would be the solution. You spend a couple of bucks and read a novella instead of a novel to find out if you really like this writer.
In practice, it doesn’t pan out that way. Readers would rather pay $14.99 for a full-length novel than $9.99 for a novella. Simple as that.
You can also see this in someone’s decision to purchase a literary magazine or journal. In a lot of cases, these publications cost around $5, and you get a sampling of a number of different genres and writers, along with, sometimes, book reviews and articles. These publications are being squeezed hard by the rise of blogs and other publishing avenues, but you can still see where readers might see them as a better “deal” than spending the equivalent on a single anthology of shorts or a novella.
Perceptions also play a large role in influencing the reader’s purchase decision. A novel seems like a better investment, because it’s longer. You’re getting more words, more pages–more book, more story! A novella, for many readers, feels like a bit of a rip-off.
The age of digital publishing has only made this perception worse as novellas and novels might retail in the Amazon store at the exact same price. Which one is the reader going to pick? Of course they choose the novel. It’s more bang for their buck! Even if you give your novella away for free, you’re still competing with free novels and this same perception that the reader is getting a “better deal” by picking the novel.
There’s also the issue of prestige. There’s something prestigious about reading a novel, versus reading a short story. The novel is considered an elevated art form. Readers naturally assign it more weight.
The More Things Change …
… the more they stay the same. So it is in publishing. I was in school almost a decade ago when they told me short stories don’t sell. Even though publishing has undergone radical changes (and was undergoing them at the time), the situation with short stories hasn’t changed all that much.
The situation was the same in the 1990s and 1980s. The 1960s and 1970s, revolutionary and experimental as they were, didn’t change much. The 1950s saw the birth of pulp fiction, when books became incredibly affordable, and cheap paperbacks were suddenly everywhere.
Prior to the 1950s, books were fairly expensive, which meant the average person couldn’t really afford them. They were meant for the affluent. If you were going to drop money on something, you needed it to show how well-off you were. The rich purchased lots and lots of books–most of them novels.
The poor, by contrast, purchased library cards and serials–newspapers, journals, magazines. Most serials carried short stories and novels, serialized in chapter installments. However, since books were the domain of the rich and those who aspired to look that way–and most books were novels–the novel acquired more prestige as the “worthy” literary form.
So when a reader made a decision about what to purchase, there were plenty of cultural implications. Were you buying a book? Were you reading novels, real literature, not the trash in the papers?
Short stories have never really recovered, and their place has been serials pretty much ever since. We can still hear the same echoes when readers make decisions about what to purchase and what not to purchase.
What about Freebies?
What if you just give short stories away? You can send them out in a newsletter, or hit your email list with a free, exclusive short story! You can post them to your website for all and sundry to see. A free download is also an option.
In many ways, this seems to be the only legitimate use of short stories these days–as a promotional tool. Authors use them to entice their mailing list or get reluctant readers to test out the waters before committing to a bigger purchase. Publishers, again, issue anthologies, often around a “theme” (e.g., Christmas tales) in order to get readers to purchase. They’ll also dangle big name authors in hopes of seducing the reader into a purchase.
Unless there’s an active call for a themed anthology, however, most publishers don’t want to license short stories. It simply costs too much, and even if the costs were nothing, you can’t do much more than simply give the story away–often pushing it onto people through something like a mailing list or offering it as “bonus” material.
Knowing all of this, I looked at this publisher’s call for submissions and decided I’d probably stay away. No publisher should list a need for short stories and novellas as “high” while listing their need for novels as “low.”
I know many publishers receive too many proposals and query letters, far too many unsolicited manuscripts, even after they close submissions. Yet even publishers with “closed” submissions often find they have gaps in their publication calendars.
Case in point: I worked for an academic publisher for years. They’d been around for quite some time and had an extensive backlist. They usually didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (on rare occasion they did). Instead, they’d often reach out to authors they singled out as being able to “fill” a perceived “gap” in the list. (That’s another issue entirely, of course.)
My point in this is a publisher can be in operation for years, have an overwhelming slush pile, actively close submissions, and still have “needs” to fill holes in their editorial calendar! A new publisher just starting out probably still needs novels, even if they are about a dime a dozen.
So this call for submissions simply doesn’t not add up or make sense. This publisher was new, yet is already full up on novels? They believe they need novellas and short stories over novel submissions?
Probably not the best plan I’ve ever heard of–and not just because short stories don’t sell.