The short story market – what next?

Posted: December 4, 2014 in reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,
One of my collections of short stories

One of my collections of short stories

I’m not the sort of person to defy change just because I like the familiar. The world moves on, and in the book market that means some huge shifts in the past decade and probably the coming one. But it’s worth remembering that these changes don’t always follow the pattern we expect, as shown by the short story market.

When I started seriously writing, and reading about how to get published, it was still said that the best place to start a career in science fiction and fantasy was with short stories. Even by that point this was clearly not true – the magazines that published short fiction were facing huge declines in readership, in print form at least, something Warren Ellis demonstrated every so often by looking at their sales. Having accepted the wisdom I was given, it looked like I’d been sold a crock – short stories were on the way out, in favour of cheap paperbacks and other forms of entertainment. That decline looked set to continue until there was almost no short story market at all.

But the past few years have shown that’s not true. I doubt the sales figures for the print magazines are any better than they were, but high profile markets like Interzone are clinging on, and new magazines are even being launched. Websites have created a new model for the speculative short story magazine, cutting costs by not being printed and posted out, getting income from advertising, subscriptions and donations. Electronic distribution also makes it easier for them to expand their readership through the instant connection of links on social media. Podcasting has let them reach people who don’t have much time to read, but who enjoy listening to a story on their way to work.

Short stories have also become a marketing tool. Indie authors regularly give them away for free. Neil Gaiman has done the same. Even I’m posting a flash story every Friday, as a way to hook readers on my fiction – yes, that’s right, I’m not entertaining you just out of the goodness of my heart, it’s also for the dark motive of getting you to buy more of my books and so help me make a living off this.

It’s also worth noting that anthologies keep on coming out. Star editor John Joseph Adams has created a series of interesting collections that bring stories together to explore a single theme, in a way magazines and websites seldom do. And that old publishing classic, the ‘years best whatever’ anthology, keeps appearing on the bookshelves.

The short story marketing looked like it was dying, but instead it’s diversified and prospered, creating something more intricate, fascinating and far reaching than ever before. I still think new authors are better off writing novels, but the potential is there. It leaves me wondering, what other forms of storytelling will go the same way. And how will books diversify as time moves on?

  1. Andrew, I think serials might be making a comeback too, real ones, with an over arching story line, yet with each segment full bodied, with beginning middle and end. Oh yeah, with cliff hanger or mini-resolution enhanced, vs good chapter endings in general.

    I haven’t written a true serial yet, but am formulating / outlining a few ideas.

  2. Just out of curiosity, how well are those flash fictions doing to bring in buyers of the novels?

    • If they’re making a difference I haven’t seen it yet, but then my sales are so low that everything’s negligible. I’m planning an getting my marketing into gear properly in the new year, and these stories are one of the pieces that I’m glad to have in place in advance – we’ll see how it goes then.

  3. Michelle Mueller says:

    I really like Daily Science Fiction’s model. Flash fiction stories via e-mail subscription is a smart move, in my opinion. As I recall, you had a story published there, yourself. I still remember it. The one about coffee with emotions. 🙂

    I don’t know if, from a marketing standpoint, short stories truly help writers just starting their careers or not, but I assume any publishing credential to one’s name is an asset. I’m thinking in terms of traditional publishing though. Admittedly, I’ve been wondering about the short story market myself, so timely post.

    • I like Daily Science Fiction too – I think there model’s an excellent use of the available technology. And getting a story in there is still one of my proudest achievements, so I’m glad you remember it.

      Jared Cooper pointed out another advantage of short story publication to me a while back, beyond marketing, and that’s the networking. They are a way to make connections with editors and other authors, to get your name known within the writing community if not far beyond it. It’s an interesting point, and one worth considering if you’re looking at trying short stories.

  4. Sue Archer says:

    Great post, Andrew. I look forward to more serialized fiction and more creativity around the telling and sharing of stories. I also look forward to reading more of yours soon (dark motive notwithstanding) now that my course is almost done. (It’s been worthwhile but time consuming – I miss hanging out here!) 🙂

    • Has the course gone well? And was it writing related – I vaguely remember you starting something, but can’t remember what.

      • Sue Archer says:

        I’ve been working through a Substantive and Stylistic Editing course. There’s been a lot of great content, but I was a bit annoyed when we got to a section on genre fiction because there was little helpful detail on specific considerations for sci-fi/fantasy – but lots on others like romance or thrillers. You’d think we don’t have a respectable genre. 😉

        • Because of course in the era of George R R Martin and the late Iain M Banks, science fiction and fantasy aren’t worth treating seriously. And no-one buys those ridiculous Harry Potter books. And…. argh, nerd rage!

        • That aside, do you think that the course has helped with your writing?

          • Sue Archer says:

            Yes, I would say so. It’s focused on things like restructuring a large work and then performing stylistic editing to smooth out the flow. So when I finally get around to writing my own novel (cough) I will have more skills in my arsenal. In the meantime, I’m enjoying helping other people with their writing. 🙂

            • That’s great to hear.

            • Managed to hit ‘post comment’ a bit early there. I also meant to say, I’m currently experiencing working with editors on a novel length work for the first time and it’s a really enlightening experience. So many things I didn’t even realise I was over-doing or doing wrong or could improve.

  5. If you want to send anything my way I’d be happy to read and promote Steampunk stuff on my blog 🙂 I’m taking a few weeks off to finish Steam Tour research and writing, but come January I will be back to posting 3 times per week so I always need more material.

    • Cool! Thank you, I’ll take you up on that soon, especially as my next planned publication is serialised steampunk adventures. I just need to get into gear on the editing.

      • Andrew, will the various serial episodes be in one book together, or are you publishing each separately to start? Thanks!

        • What I’m planning is a series of novella length adventures, around thirty thousand words each. Not sure whether I’ll collect them together at all later – will see whether anyone read them first!

          30k’s a bit of an awkward length to publish at, but people seem more up for variety these days, and of my works in progress it’s the one I can get out as a series of books quickest, playing to the strengths of the ebook market.

          Plus I love writing the characters.

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