E-Publishing and the Short Story Writer

I have written elsewhere about e-publishing of novels and the proper pricing of e-books, and I don’t really wish to rehash those arguments here.  But there is another aspect of e-publishing that is discussed far less, but that strikes me as equally important to the future of fantasy and science fiction:  e-publication of short fiction.

Let me start by saying that I love writing short stories.  I’m still trying to master the form, and I know that I still have a lot to learn.  I have tremendous admiration for successful short story writers.  I am pretty good at telling a story in 100,000 words.  When I started out, I was pretty good at telling stories in 200,000, but the market forced me to shorten my books, and I believe that my writing has improved because of it.  I write leaner and more efficiently now than I ever have.  But I still find telling a complete story in 7,500 words a great challenge, one that forces me out of my novel-length comfort zone and makes me think differently about narrative structure and character arc.  For me, that’s part of the fun of writing short stories, and I believe the better I get at the short form, the better my novels will be.  I think it also bears mentioning that some of the best work being done in our genre today is being done in shorter forms — short stories, novellas, novelettes.

Unfortunately, the short fiction market has not fared well in recent years.  A good number of magazines and journals have folded.  The biggest names remain:  the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Analog.  And there are several newer online ‘zines that offer decent compensation to short story writers and an excellent reading experience to subscribers, including Tor.com and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  But the fact is that short story specialists have fewer options for submission than they used to.

That’s where e-publishing comes in.  Just as the digitizing of the music industry has made it possible for recording artists to market their music one song at a time, so the digitizing of the publishing industry enables writers to sell short work directly to readers.  Novel writers don’t necessarily do as well marketing their books through self-publishing (again, see this post) as they would publishing their work through a traditional press (Yes, I know that there are exceptions to this; again I’m not looking to have that discussion/argument).  On the other hand, it is actually rather easy for a short story writer to make as much money going the digital self-publishing route as s/he would selling short pieces the traditional way.

Let’s look at some numbers:  A standard short story is about 6,000 words long.  (According to SFWA’s Nebula categories, a short story is anything up to 7,499 words.  At 7,500, we step into novella territory.)  A decent payment rate for a short story is about $.05 per word.  Some markets pay more; some pay less.  Using those numbers, a 6,000 word short would pay a writer $300.00, which is actually about what most writers can expect from each short story sale.

Now, with e-published novels, if I sell a book for $1.99, and get a 30% royalty, I am getting $.60 per book.  I would need to sell 10,000 copies to get $6,000.  That’s a lot of sales for not a whole lot of money compared with what I make from my traditional publisher.  But if I sell a short story for $.49 — not an unreasonable price for a short — and I get that same 30% royalty rate, I am earning about $.15 per sale.  With just 2000 sales, I have matched what I could have expected from a traditional short story sale.  Those odds I can live with.

Some of the giants of our genre’s early years relied on short story sales for their livelihoods.  That’s no longer possible, even in the age of e-publishing.  Short fiction simply does not sell well enough.  But I don’t think there is any question that the growth of e-books and the proliferation of e-reading devices could easily create a new, vibrant market for short fiction writers.  This is not to say that aspiring authors should bypass more competitive professional markets for their short stories.  Far from it.  First of all, anyone looking for membership in SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) needs professional sales (one novel or two short pieces) to qualify.  Second, there is something to be said for having one’s story vetted by an acquisitions editor.  There is an imprimatur of quality that comes with having one’s story accepted by a magazine or journal; short fiction sales often make it easier for aspiring writers to find agents and/or publishers for their novel-length work.  Fairly or unfairly, self-published stories do not carry the same weight with agents and editors.  And finally, the satisfaction that comes with a short story sale (or a novel sale, for that matter) cannot be replicated by self-publishing one’s work.

But self-publishing short fiction can be a great alternative for established writers, and it does offer aspiring writers a way to get their work out into the market without having to self-publish a novel that represents far more work and time, and that might fetch far larger payments in the traditional publishing world.  In an age when we desperately need new markets for the great short fiction currently being produced in our field, it is exciting to think that the trend toward e-publishing may open up new avenues for writers.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.DBJackson-author.com

 

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  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    That will work if the major platforms let you price the story at $0.49. Right now KDP won’t let you price a work at less than $0.99. I suppose if you have a following already and can afford to set up your own store, you could sell e-short stories on your own site.

    On the other hand, I think the ebook format offers a real boost for novella length fiction, 25,00 to 45,000 words. That’s really where the lower production cost makes a huge difference.

  2. 2. JS Bangs

    I agree with your main point, but I have to say that I find a few of your assertions to be odd. From my perspective, the short fiction market has been booming for the last few years largely due to the online fiction markets coming into their own. Alongside OSCIGMS and Tor.com, which you mentioned, there’s Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a host of smaller but well-respected online zines. As a person who’s published short stories but not (yet) a novel, the last few years have given me more options and more lucrative options than I’d ever had, even without considering self-publishing.

    Additionally, I don’t think that 6,000 words is “typical” for a short story. 6K words is very much on the long side. Most short stories I read fall between 2K-5K, with the sweet spot being around 4K.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Carmen, thanks for the comment. I can see the platforms getting more lenient with pricing, maybe starting first at .69 or .79, but eventually coming down as they see that there is a market for short fiction. But I certainly agree that for those writing novella length work, the new technologies will be a boon.

    JS, I was referring to zines that meet SFWA guidelines for qualifying stories. And, yes, the places you mention are on the list, which you can find here: http://www.sfwa.org/join-us/sfwa-membership-requirements/#shortfiction

    The thing is, while the list of existing markets seems long, it includes a bunch of venues that have been around for a while. And just below that list is the list of now-defunct qualifying venues. The number that went belly up in the last 30 years is disturbing. Yes, there are new venues, and I hope and believe we’ll get more. I wonder though how many of the newer ones will last (Realms of Fantasy vanished, came back and now has stopped accepting submissions again). Anyway, I still believe that the short fiction market has fewer qualifying options than when I started writing 15 years ago.

    As for the story length, forgive me. I tend to write slightly longer stories, and so used as my “typical” story what is typical for me. You’re right. Many other writers publish shorter stories. But that only makes my point about earning back market-typical payment that much more convincing. It’s even easier than I assumed. Thanks for commenting.

  4. 4. Alan Baxter

    “Using those numbers, a 6,000 word short would pay a writer $300.00, which is actually about what most writers can expect from each short story sale.”

    Most writers!? From each sale!? If only that were true! There is a boom in markets for short fiction, but there is also an even greater boom in competition, as anyone can send an email now with a story attached. We used to have to post our stories out on single-sided A4. *gasp*

    However, the markets paying 5c/word or more are incredibly hard to crack. I’ve had close to 40 short stories published and I’ve still yet to score 5c/word once, let alone “from each short story sale”. And a lot of well-paying markets do have a word cap of 4,000 or 5,000 words. Selling a story longer than that is very hard. Most of the pro zines receive submissions in the order of several hundred a week. Getting noticed and published that way is very hard.

    As for the e-short story, carmen mentioned one problem – that being the minimum price is usually 0.99c. Of course, we can group stuff – 3 stories for 0.99c isn’t a bad deal for anyone. But without the clout of the publisher behind us, it’s hard to convince people to buy those stories. Especially convincing 2,000 people to buy them.

    With an established name we can probably sell more stories, be they self-published or to a magazine, but getting any kind of return out of short fiction is very hard indeed for most of us “jobbing” writers. I’d like to think that my name and reputation will grow, not to mention my skill, and I’ll start getting into those magazines and getting paid those kind of rates. In the meantime, cracking the 3c/word barrier seems pretty tough right now. I know many, many writers, some far more experienced and better at their craft than me, in the same boat.

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Again, forgive me. I was using the SFWA approved markets standard again, and for those markets, .05/word is about right. I should have had said “most established professional writers.” But yes, this is a hard business to crack, and for short fiction writers especially it is competitive, low-paying, and at times deeply frustrating. Thanks for the comment, Alan.

  6. 6. Alan Baxter

    Interestingly, Clive Barker tweeted this today: “Writers seldom write for money. It’s a hard, slow, ego-destroying job. The intensity is born out of the writer, not from money.”

    :)

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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