The Business Rusch: Short Stories
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
For the past several weeks, I’ve been talking about things to watch out for in traditional publishing from the writer’s point of view. The contracts and relationships in traditional publishing have changed dramatically, and many established authors, busy with their deadlines, haven’t noticed. I hope they read those blogs and realize what is going on before they sign their next contract.
One thing I haven’t discussed much in these blog posts is the one bright spot in traditional publishing, and this bright spot isn’t just bright, it’s luminescent. That startlingly bright spot is short fiction.
When I came into publishing in the 1980s, short stories were a difficult sell. The markets had condensed dramatically. The short story was the form for genre fiction for much of the 20th century. Heck, the short story was the form for fiction for much of the 20th century. Our best writers (according to critics and universities) wrote short stories. If you were Hemingway or Fitzgerald, your short stories appeared everywhere from Colliers to Scribner’s to an upstart magazine called The New Yorker. If you were Asimov or Williamson, your stories showed up in Astounding or Amazing Stories. If you were Hammett or Chandler, your stories appeared in The Black Mask or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
The number of short fiction markets grew and changed, but for about four decades, there were hundreds of such markets, depending of your genre or your ability to shift genres. L. Ron Hubbard—yes, the guy who founded Scientology—made a fortune writing everything from adventure fiction to science fiction to mystery fiction to romance fiction for the pulp magazines. He wasn’t alone.
Then, in the late 1950s, due to a distribution crisis that I’m not going to go into here, the short fiction magazine market collapsed. Oh, there were some survivors. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction survived, along with Astounding (which later changed its name to Analog). Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine made it, and so did its sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (helped through those tough times by a little TV show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents). The Saturday Evening Post continued, as did American Mercury and Colliers and The New Yorker, but the list of survivors is pretty short when you compare it with the number of magazines that existed only a few years before.
What writers faced was a complete collapse of their business structure. Think of it this way: a hundred magazines that appeared 12 times per year needed at least ten stories to fill the pages. So there were, at a minimum, 12,000 short story slots available to writers per year. Many writers wrote under pen names, and filled entire issues of a magazine by themselves.
Twenty years later, there were only a handful of magazines that actually paid in each genre. Mystery had come down to three. Science fiction varied between three and five. Romance didn’t have any, although a few women’s fiction magazines published a single story per month. Literary mainstream had no big fiction-only magazines, but several magazines published one short story per month.
Instead of 1200 short story slots per year, the number had declined to maybe a quarter of that when you combined all of the genres (and excluded the pay-with-copies literary journals). Short stories became something you did for the love of it rather than something you could do to make a living.
I love short stories. I’ve published hundreds of them. Often my stories appeared in invitation-only anthologies, as well as the magazines. By the late 1990s, when the short story markets were at their nadir, I could have carved out a crummy living at writing them—maybe $20,000 per year, if I was aggressive, and if I got one big story per year that paid $1,000 or more.
But I wasn’t willing to put out that much effort for such a small return. A single novel paid me $20,000, and I could write four per year. I would still find time for half a dozen short stories, so I managed to maintain my love affair.
By the beginning of this century, the remaining short story markets were dying. Their circulation was declining dramatically, partly because finding them was hard. Newsstands had disappeared in all but the largest cities. So new readers couldn’t stumble on a magazine they hadn’t seen before, read it, fall in love, and subscribe. The genre magazines tried to solve this at conventions—the mystery magazines had booths at the major mystery conventions; the sf magazines did the same at science fiction conventions and Comic-Con.
But that was no substitute for having the casual reader stumble on an issue and buy it in lieu of a short story anthology. Early in this decade, it really did look like the magazines were going to die.
There were some glimmers. Several magazines started up on the internet and they paid well. From Baen’s Universe to SciFi, these magazines had large sponsors (the publisher Baen Books and the SyFy Channel before it changed its name), and the online magazines were considered a way of attracting an audience to the website. A few smaller magazines without large affiliations, like Strange Horizons, started as well and grew a core audience.
But a lot of readers didn’t want to read on their computer screens. Those readers didn’t come to electronic magazines until the rise of the e-reader two years ago. The Dell Magazines—Asimov’s, Analog, Queen, and Hitchcock’s—joined the Kindle revolution early and their subscription rates grew at an astronomical rate. New electronic magazines appeared, everything from Lightspeed to Electric Literature—and in a wide variety of genres.
These magazines pay well. And, even better than that, they buy exclusive rights to a story for a limited period of time.
What does that mean, exactly? While traditional book publishers are trying to tie up an author’s creation for the entire term of the copyright (the author’s life plus 70 years), the magazines only want exclusive rights—meaning the story can’t appear anywhere else—for six months to two years. After that, the magazine asks that it can keep the story in that particular issue, but it doesn’t care if the writer self-publishes the story or sells it to another magazine or puts it in a collection.
Magazines are periodicals. The definition of a periodical is a magazine or journal published at a regular interval be that interval a week, a month or every quarter. That interval thing is important, because magazine publishers look on their work as ephemeral. They’re closer to a newspaper or an evening newscast. They know that what they produce might be forgotten a year from now. They’ve already moved onto the next new thing as well. But they also know that people will want back issues, and they want to keep that issue available.
The attitude of a periodical fits beautifully in today’s marketplace. Readers get a download or a paper copy of their favorite magazine, read it and move onto the next. Readers like that about magazines. It helps the reader discover new authors while getting a little enjoyment out of their day.
Right now, new professional magazines are appearing almost daily. By professional, I mean magazines that pay their authors—and not in copies, but in actual dollars. Twenty years ago, a science fiction short story had to sell to one of five markets or get retired. Now, a science fiction short story has a dozen markets or more. There are so many markets in my main short story genre that I’m not even familiar with all of them. And that doesn’t count markets in mystery, romance, horror, and mainstream.
Because I can barely keep up with my commitments to the short story magazines that have published me for years, I haven’t needed to learn some of these new markets. If you know of some, post them below—but make sure these markets pay their writers money. I won’t post links to pay-in-copies magazines or royalty-only magazines. I only will put down the links to magazines that pay the writer before the story is published.
(There is a copyright reason for that. If the writer’s story gets published and the writer never gets paid, those first serial rights are exercised and can never be returned. The writer will have lost value in the property as well as getting screwed by not being paid. If you don’t understand what this means, then get thee to the Copyright Handbook.)
This multitude of markets benefits both the indie writer and the traditional writer.
First, let’s start with the traditional markets. As book markets get more and more commercial, unwilling to take anything that even ventures a half step outside a genre, a writer can expand her skills and broaden her literary output in the short form. Want to cross genres? The mystery markets sometimes take mystery stories with a touch of the supernatural or a hint of a fantastic world. The sf markets buy mysteries set in sf worlds all the time.
Even the mainstream magazines from The New Yorker to Glimmer Train take cross genre work. Glimmer Train has published stories I consider straight mystery fiction, while in the past two years, The New Yorker has published everything from ghost stories to science fiction stories. Not hardcore genre stories, but stories with genre elements.
The other thing a short story sale does for a traditional writer is broaden her audience. With chain bookstores diminishing their stock, and independent bookstores closing, it gets harder and harder to discover a new writer. Reading a short story by a writer who is new to you the reader doesn’t take much of a commitment, particularly if that writer’s work is in a magazine with other writers whose work you like.
It’s like being paid to advertise. The traditional author will find a whole new audience, and if she does her job, that audience will venture over to one of her books. If the reader likes that book, he’ll move on to other books. It’s a great way to expand your readership. Instead of paying $500 to buy an ad in a magazine that people might or might not pay attention to, the writer is getting paid $500 to publish a story in that magazine. The reader will look at the story longer even if the reader doesn’t read the story than if the writer had an ad in that magazine.
Will a traditional writer always sell the stories she writes? Heck, no. Magazine editors edit for style and taste and for the constraints of the magazine itself. Just because a bestselling author sends a story to a magazine doesn’t mean the magazine will buy that story. The magazine’s editors have other considerations, not the least of which are the expectations of the magazine’s readership. If a bestselling romance writer sends a story to a science fiction magazine, then that story had better be sf in more than just name only. The sf has to be integral to the story for the magazine to consider buying that story even if the author’s name will sell more copies of the magazine. The last thing an editor wants is to anger her readership. She doesn’t want the readers to think she bought a story simply because the author was famous.
But that same editor will give the bestseller a bit of extra time, knowing that if the story works, that author’s name can sell more copies of the magazine and bring new readers into the magazine. Just as publishing a story in that magazine brings a new audience to the writer, publishing a new story by a bestselling author will bring some of that author’s readers to the magazine, readers the magazine never had before and hopes to keep.
It’s a win-win situation.
The other win for the author? Magazines, as I mentioned above, don’t have draconian contract terms. Within nine months to two years, the author can resell that story or e-pub it herself and continue to earn money on that story for years.
And if the traditionally published author writes a story that somehow doesn’t fit into any of the myriad magazine fiction markets that now exist, that writing time is no longer wasted. The traditionally published author can e-pub the story, charge for it, and eventually earn more than enough to make up for her time.
The e-pub/indie publishing market has opened other opportunities for the traditionally published author. Let’s say she has a series of books, and wants to explore a side character. She can do that in the short form, and then publish that for her fans. Romance writers have started to do that. They’ll write codas to their romance novels, or short stories set in the same world.
Last year, Tess Garritsen wrote a Rizzoli & Isles short story to put on TNT’s website for free to celebrate the start of the TV show based on her novels. The idea was to have content on the TNT website to draw people to the site, but also it was an easy way for people who liked the show to start reading the books—without committing to the purchase of an entire novel.
Then, a few months ago, that same short story showed up for free as a downloadable e-book on Kindle. (I don’t know if the same offer appeared on other e-readers.) Again, that one short story became a free introduction to Garritsen’s work.
A good short story can be a gateway drug for the reader, getting them into a writer’s work without a lot of commitment.
And if the writer is under time constraints—say she wants the story to appear in conjunction with her latest novel—she can either try to sell it to a magazine market or e-publish it herself, to advance interest in the novel.
Or she can do both.
The traditionally published writer can use the short story markets in a myriad of ways.
So can the indie writer.
I know a lot of indie writers pride themselves on staying out of the traditional publishing markets, but those writers might want to reconsider when it comes to short stories. The reasons to do so are pretty much the same as they are for traditionally published writers. The indie writer will gain new readers with each traditionally published short story. The indie writer loses nothing in trying traditional markets first on certain stories. Sure, it might take extra time to have the story published, but the advertising value alone will make up for that.
And since most traditional short story markets buy only the rights they plan to use, instead of the ones they believe they can grab, the indie writer will be able to publish the story herself in a year or so after the first appearance.
One side note on short story contracts: a lot of the established magazines have a contract for authors selling to them for the first time that does try to take everything. You can easily negotiate that contract to the contract that more established writers get. You just have to be willing to ask.
Once you get the established-writer-contract, most places will continue to give you that contract for each story you sell to them.
Finally, let’s look at unpublished writers and the traditional short story markets. A lot of writers remain unpublished in today’s marketplace because those writers are uncertain as to whether they’re ready for prime time. Is their writing good enough? Will they embarrass themselves?
These writers don’t trust the marketplace, and don’t really believe that the readers, after sampling, will pass over a truly bad story. These writers believe that the readers will hate them forever when, in truth, the readers probably can’t remember the name of the author whose story they liked the week before.
Anyway, some writers want a gatekeeper, someone who will validate their work, someone who will tell them that they are ready for prime time.
Rather than beat their heads against the wall that is traditional book publishing, these writers would be better off on all levels writing short stories. Short story editors respond quicker. Short story editors are always looking for new writers and buy from new writers every single month. And short story markets have good contracts, so there’s no need for an agent/IP lawyer.
(And, honestly, even if you signed a bad contract on a short story, you’re only down one short story. You lose a week of your writing time, a tiny portion of your output, instead of years. Chances are you will probably only lose (over the lifetime of the story) a few thousand dollars instead of tens of thousands in earning potential.)
The rapid growth of the short story markets means that the editors are in the market for good material. Short stories are more than a vanity project for writers these days. I believe a good, fast short story writer who works in multiple genres could probably make a mid-five figure income these days or more.
But…while everything else is in flux from agents to traditional book publishers to the growth of the e-book marketplace, the traditional short story market has become the brightest spot in the publishing firmament.
And I, for one, think that’s spectacular.
Honestly, these blogs probably cost me one short story per month. I’d like to make up for that loss to my income through donations. So, if you find these posts useful, encourage me to continue by clicking the button below.
“The Business Rusch: Short Stories” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.