short fiction

Short Stories in a Novel World: Why Short Fiction Is Still Prevalent

The great American novel. The trilogy, the saga. The six-figure book deal. Novels have been highly romanticized in North American culture, leaving short stories the reputation of the awkward little cousin of publishing—you write them in your MFA because you have to and hope they will lead to a novel one way or another (Chad Harbach 2014). In my research on the state of the short story in North American culture, I’ve found that authors want to write novels and people want to read novels—at least, that is what I’m being lead to believe with the surprising lack of industry discussion on short stories and anthologies. However, as Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, says, “if you think short stories are dead, you aren’t paying close enough attention” (Publishers Weekly).

In the boom of the 1920s and the rise of modern literature, authors—and novelists—such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and others routinely wrote and sold short stories to periodicals and literary magazines (Fowler 2013; The Saturday Evening Post; The Smart Set). Avid readers went to these periodicals to get the latest from their favourite authors while waiting for their next novels, and authors were paid well for their shorts (Fowler 2013); short stories were a popular art form then, yet still “the short story as a genre remains largely neglected in the greater part of book-length studies on literary modernism,” and we don’t see nearly as much discussion—scholarly or professionally—about the short story as we do the novel or other book-length work (Duyck 2015). Yet, short fiction is a useful tool for everybody involved in the fiction publishing industry: writers, agents, publishers, and readers.

In terms of marketing, writing and publishing short stories can be an effective tool for novelists to reach a new audience of readers and publishing professionals. Avid readers enjoy finding their new favourite authors by reading short stories, and will often seek out authors’ other works after reading a short story they liked (Morgan Cowie 2006). While selling books at a reader and writer convention in August, 2017 and a science fiction and fantasy convention in October, 2017, I had the chance to speak directly to customers about their reading habits and track sales data. Approximately half the books sold during both of these conventions were anthologies; customers told me they were buying the anthologies because they recognized the name of the editor or authors in the book, most of which they had discovered previously by reading other anthologies.

Similar to readers finding their new favourite authors from short stories, publishing professionals can find their new bestselling clients through reading short stories. Stein states that, before working with short stories for The Paris Review, he read shorts professionally because “they’re a good place to spot talent” (Publishers Weekly). Similarly, John Pearce, agent for Westwood Creative Agency, said in his talk to the Editorial Theory Master of Publishing class that agents frequently look to literary magazines to find new potential clients, and this can lead to book deals for those authors later on—“a writer’s early short stories … lead to a novel” (Chad Harbach). Specifically looking at the speculative fiction genre industry in Canada, agents and publishers could look to the Year’s Best anthologies from Undertow Publications, Pulp Literature magazine, Rhonda Parrish’s three anthology series, and ID Press’ yearly anthologies to find new and up-and-coming talented authors to reach out to for their client list or to acquire a book.

In every creative field, active brainstorming and free writing are commonly the most effective ways to finding the idea or creative process that ultimately leads to a final product—whether that be writing, illustration, or graphic design (Peter Elbow). For writers, brainstorming this way can bring up a lot of new ideas they may want to explore, and some of these ideas will be better suited for a short work than an entire book. Instead of throwing away these ideas and any brainstorming that didn’t result in a book, writers can work with the idea in the form of a short story, which has many benefits to the writer. In an interview with Rob Boffard for Scribbles, Quibbles, and Scrawlings book review blog, the novelist states that he enjoys writing short stories as a “pallet cleanser between novels,” essentially to give his brain a break from one novel’s world and prepare him for writing a different novel in a new world. Boffard also says that he uses short stories as an exercise in story crafting because they’re “crazy difficult to get right” compared to novels. With short stories, the author only has about 1,500 words to hook a reader before they’ll give up and move on to the next story, so authors often find writing short stories to be an in-depth writing exercise for story, plot, and character—with fewer words to work with, it’s difficult to craft a well-developed plot and a well-rounded character arc (Rob Boffard). If an author can master these skills in a short story, they will be even stronger when writing a novel-length work—one of the many reasons why writing short stories is a requirement of MFA programs (Chad Harbach).

Writing short fiction is exponentially useful to authors in various ways, but it is also beneficial to the presses that are publishing the collections of short fiction, specifically in terms of sales and marketing—particularly with the specific anthology they’re publishing, but also in the long run with their entire list. The first, most immediate, benefit to the publisher is to do with their cash flow. With novels, advances and royalty payments have to be taken into account when deciding whether or not to publish a specific book. However, with anthologies, the standard method of payment to authors is a small flat fee—usually ranging from $20–150 (ID Press; EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy)—and all royalties from sales remain with the publisher. This model means full payment to the authors is up front, but the amount is significantly less than a standard advance—this model also improves cash flow issues for publishers later, because as soon as the book has earned that sum for each contributor, all profits remain with the publisher.

The second, more consumer facing, benefit to the publisher relates to marketing the book in question. With multi-contributor books, the publisher is able to take advantage of the existing audiences and followers of each contributor, as opposed to a single author book. Each author in an anthology—usually ranging from 10–30 contributors per book (Rhonda Parrish; EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy)—will want the book to do well, and will advertise to their audiences when the book is available. This drastically increases the reach of marketing efforts for the publisher, and, therefore, increases the opportunity for sales. This method is most effective when the anthology includes at least one contributor that is well known or previously a bestselling author. The effect of having one well known author in the book increases the value of marketing efforts on all fronts, and makes the book more valuable to the other contributors and the publisher as it is more likely to be picked up by readers, as well as agents and publishers looking for the next bestselling author.

While short stories may not be making authors “the big bucks,” writing and publishing short stories can lead them to a successful author career, both in terms of gaining readership and fans, and getting noticed by agents and larger publishers. Even authors that have already traditionally published novels write and publish short stories to benefit their careers—in interviews with authors Rob Boffard, Tyner Gillies, Pat Flewwelling, and Sherry Peters, I learned that although they prefer writing novels, they often write and submit short stories to try a new genre, get to know their characters better, increase their audience reach, and practice writing in an effective and concise manner. We know that “more small magazines devoted to short literary fiction exist today than ever before” and “short story collections, even by relative unknowns, are … viable economically, and publishers have moved briskly to accommodate trend,” (David Foster Wallace) and that publishing short fiction is beneficial to the writer, agent, publisher, and reader—so why aren’t we talking about it?