Friday, 1 July 2011

“Short stories do not sell...” – Katherine Roberts

This is one of those gems of publishing wisdom that rarely gets tested. Short story collections are believed not to sell, so they don't get published, which means they cannot sell (since readers obviously can't buy something that does not exist in book form). A self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words. But with a new way of bringing short stories to readers as e-books, maybe it's time to think again?

In theory, readers will enjoy any story that obeys this simple rule discovered in our local library:

Despite the popular concept of an "overnight success", authors seldom emerge on the publishing scene with a best-selling novel. It takes time to write something other people might want to read. It takes even more time to write a book a million others might want to read. In fact, it takes a surprising amount of time to write a novel nobody wants to read. That is why many writers cut their teeth on short fiction. Not that it’s easier to write a short story than a novel… far from it. You still need "a good beginning and a good end and a good bit in the middle", yet you've got less words to play with, so it can actually be harder to write. But it probably won’t take a year out of your life if you feel like trying. Many of these early short pieces will be learning experiences, but some will be publishable, and provided they obey the rule above those stories will sell.

A confession: when I started writing for publication, short stories were the ONLY thing I could sell. I was sending my early novels to publishers and agents at the same time, but managed to place around 50 short stories before I sold my first novel. Granted some of those short story “sales” were only free copies of the magazine in which they appeared. Others were token payments of around £10 or so. A few were competition winners (I think my biggest win netted me £500 – that story was published in a paperback anthology called Raconteur alongside stories by James Herriot and William Boyd... my early claim to fame!) I also sold a few non-genre stories to women’s magazines for three figure sums. Not too bad, really, considering the advance for my first novel was in the (very) low four figures. As far as I was concerned in those days, short stories did sell.

So “sales” from an author’s point of view is clearly something different from a publisher’s “sales”, which seems to mean number of copies sold regardless of how much actual profit is made from each book. But your publisher’s sales are the important figures once you sign a publishing contract, since these define your income in the long run (assuming you have a royalty agreement and are not working for a flat fee). So we should probably define "sell" in the above statement as “copies sold”, rather than a cash sum from the sale of first serial rights to a magazine, or prize money in a competition.

Of course, what publishers really mean by the above statement is “short stories do not sell as well as a novel by the same author.” I’ve read collections of short fiction by writers such as David Almond and Ursula Le Guin, so obviously they must sell in some sort of numbers. But a short story and a novel are not the same animal. A best-selling novelist is rarely an award-winning short story writer, and vice versa, so I can believe the figures for short stories and novels might differ. Since short story collections by authors with smaller novel sales are not usually published at all, might our saying really mean: “A collection of short stories by a best-selling novelist does not sell as many copies as a new novel by the same author?” Very likely true!

From an author's viewpoint, I would naturally prefer to publish a book that has a chance of selling more copies than the last one, not one saddled from the start with such a doom-laden prophecy as “short stories do not sell”. That’s why my own collection of short fiction has sat dormant in my files for several years. I briefly considered a print-on-demand edition for my fans, but shelved that idea because the price of each book would have been too high for all but the most dedicated collectors of my work. But with e-books I now have an affordable way of bringing my short fiction collection to readers. This also gives us a perfect opportunity to test this perceived gem of publishing wisdom. I have already published one of my novels as an e-book. If I now publish my short story collection and make it available at the same price on the same virtual shelf with the same amount of (tiny) publicity, I should be able to conduct an interesting experiment. Here it is...

I'll monitor the e-sales of my novel and the e-sales of my short story collection over the next few months and supply you with some figures. Yes, I realize this will just be me, a sample of one, not even "8 out of 10 authors". I might be the writer who breaks all the rules and proves to be the exception (one way or another). But other writers on this blog also have short story collections published alongside their novels, so maybe they will be able to supply some relative figures, too? I suspect publishers are absolutely correct, and my short story sales will turn out to be smaller than my novel sales. How much smaller, though? Time will tell.

Short story collection: Death Singer and other fantasy tales
Novel: Spellfall


Debbie said...

I have a collection of short stories on kindle too. Can't say it's sold in vast quantities, but I don't promote it much to be fair. Makes for about 2% of my overall sales. I love your short stories, Katherine - still remember one you wrote way back about the eyes in the pool. (That was yours, wasn't it? Or am I mixing you up with someone else?).

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

I think Debbie has a good point about the relative amount of promotion - I sold 2013 Kindle books on Amazon UK in June, of which 7 were for my collection of shorts (still more than the 5 of what I consider my "best" novel).

Do check out the marvellous "in defence of short stories" series on James Everington's blog - James is one of the finest short story writers out there.

And that leads to my main point, which is this - short stories and novels are very very different beasts (though not as different from each other as both are from the novella). I think there is an assumption that any novelist could write a short story but that a short story writer may or may not be able to pull off a novel (but should certainly try) and it's in that context the "short stpries don't sell" thing bothers me. If someone excels at the short form and loves writing it, why should they feel pressure to "graduate" to novels? Conversely, there are truly awful short stories published in The New Yorker and Granta all the time - just because they're by famous novelists.

We don't expect poets to write other forms, so I'm not sure why we should expect short story writers to. I think what we really need is a breakthrough short story writer - or a resurrection of Carver or his ilk - to show what can be done.

I also think the proliferation of literary ezines trailing in the wake of 3:am has rehabilitated the short story (interestingly some of the most famous and brilliant graduates of that wave of short efiction, such as Tao Lin and Ben Myers have gone on to write novels that in some cases truly suck, whilst others such as Andrew Gallix have remained resolutely focused on the short form), and that the rise in non-poetry-based literary shows has also played a large part. Kindle seems promising but I'm not sure it is - an ereader is essentially a substitute book, and whilst it is a great proving ground for the existence of untapped markets (and can help dispel those self-fulfilling myths) I don't think the platform itself is particularly short story friendly - I think the place the next generation of cult or even breakthrough short story writers will emerge is on the phone.

Anonymous said...

A good short story is as hard to write as a good novel. In some ways I think it's harder - you not only need that good idea, beginning, middle and end, but you have to write more tightly.
And short stories are perfect for those times when you can't afford to sit up all night reading that unput-downable novel ...
Short stories have also introduced me to many writers I might otherwise have missed and not read: they gave me my first taste of Ray Bradbury, Asimov, Michael Moorcock, Saki, Fritz Leiber, Oscar Wilde ... too many to mention so I'll stop right there before the list gets too long.
So long live the short story collection. There'll always be room for them on my shelves -or on my Kindle!

Karen :-) (This comment box still hates me!)

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes, Debbie, the eyes-in-the-pool story was me! And you'll find it in my Death Singer collection("Under the Eyemoon").

A lot of my short stories really wanted to be novels, but I think they are an excellent form for trying out ideas... which might be why they work so well for science fiction? Karen mentions Ray Bradbury, Asimov, etc, and I have a lovely collection on my shelf called "The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women", every story a masterpiece.

And I'm mightily impressed by those June sales, Dan!

Debbie said...

Ray Bradbury - The Fog Horn. One of the best short stories I've ever read.

Becky said...

I am fascinated by this. It is a real insight into the industry. I look forward to seeing how the sales compare.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm using short stories a lot at the moment with my RLF-funded reading aloud group. I'm also about to launch a Kindle-publishing company that will deal ONLY in short stories. It will be interesting to compare your novel and short story sales, Katherine.

Katherine Roberts said...

Becky, we hope to bring you many more such insights in future, though we are feeling our way as much as anyone at the moment. To me, this e-world is exciting because it is so immediate. After working with the traditional paper publishing model (9 months before you see your sales figures/royalties, books taking up to a year to be published), it's quite enlightening!

Good luck with that publishing company, Stroppy Author! (Are you interested in joining us as a regular blogger? You'd be very welcome.)

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Katherine - that's very kind. I'll email you!

Doug Brunell said...

I've got two short stories up on the Kindle (both are horror), and am putting up a novel one publisher called "too depressing." The short story sales have not been gangbusters, but I can't complain too much. I think once the novel is up it may spur on some new short story sales.

Tahlia Newland said...

Good article. I'm presently wondering whether to publish my short stories on ebook or not, so it's good to hear what others are finding.