Publishing Short Stories • Your Guide to Making Money

Short stories are fun to write, but can you make money from publishing them? The quick answer is: maybe. But it’s almost certainly harder than you think, and the path to success with short stories can be circuitous.

Let’s begin by looking at the enduring popularity of short stories, including how a surprising number of much-loved movies were adapted from shorter work. But we will also contrast that with how difficult it is to get them published… unless you decide to self-publish your stories.

Another needed dose of realism for authors of short stories: the opportunities brought by ebooks and self-publishing haven’t led to the short story renaissance many hoped – except in certain niches. Nevertheless, some intrepid writers are using shorter work in new and clever ways to get attention, grow their readership, and make some money too.

Here’s your guide to publishing short stories in 2022:

Famous Short Stories

In case the bluntness above has taken you aback, keep in mind that less experienced authors often have a very doe-eyed view of how lucrative the short story market might be – perhaps down to the outsized impact shorts have had on popular culture.

Some authors like Edgar Allen Poe practiced the form exclusively. Other famous names count their shorter pieces as some of their finest work, including Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Luis Borges, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, Lorrie Moore, Charles Bukowski, Alice Walker, William Trevor, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Movie adaptations

A surprising number of much-loved films were adapted from the shorter story: Memento, was originally a short by the director’s brother Jonathan Nolan, even if the movie came out before the literary version got published. 

Others include:

  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • The Body Snatcher
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Zorro
  • Stand By Me
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Total Recall
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • The Birds
  • The Fly
  • The Invisible Man
  • Minority Report
  • The Third Man
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • The Illusionist
  • It’s A Wonderful Life
  • I, Robot.

If we are allowing a broader view of what a short story is – and we’ll dig into that point presently – then we can also mention A Christmas CarolOf Mice and MenBilly BuddAnimal FarmA Clockwork OrangeThe Old Man and The Sea, and Heart of Darkness.

You might reasonably object – pointing out that some of these could be classified as novellas. Let’s get those measuring tapes out. How long is a piece of string?

Short stories, novellas & novelettes

There’s no strict definition of the length of a novel or short story – none that is universally agreed upon. However, a short story is most commonly defined as anything below 10,000 words. But some people say 7,500 words, others say 20,000.

For novels, the preferred length has been traditionally set by publishers and agents. Often in the region of 80,000 to 100,000 words – with big variations across genres and categories. Across time too, as fashions change. On top of all that, most novels are self-published these days, where anything goes.

The old rules around the economics of printing a physical book don’t hold much sway in a digital world; novels have been trending shorter since the rise of ebooks and self-publishing. Various writer organizations now peg the novel as starting at 40,000 words; sounds about right to me. But that does leave a big gap in the middle.

Many will consider anything between 10,000 and 40,000 words a novella. Some can slot in an even more arcane term (novelette) in between the short story and the novella. While others will call anything over 20,000 words a short novel, and anything below it a short story. A workmanlike solution, perhaps, but a neat one.

It doesn’t matter so much.

What do readers expect?

If we are focused on making money, we should be more concerned with what readers want. And what will sell – particularly as supermarkets keep stubbornly charging for food.

Worth noting at this point is that readers rarely use the term novella. Even fewer will have heard the term novelette, outside of literature students or those with authorial ambitions themselves.

Let’s cannonball into the swimming pool of gross generalizations; I suspect the general reader perception of such things would hew closely to our workmanlike framework above:

  • up to 20,000 words = short story;
  • 20,000-40,000 = short novel;
  • 40,000+ = novel.

Just keep in mind those aforementioned genre variances can be quite extreme. Epic fantasies can breeze past 150,000 words without breaking a sweat. Whereas erotica readers (or wannabe CEOs perusing business books) usually get to the meat faster.

As with everything in this writing life, you can do whatever the hell you like; you’re the captain of your authorship. But if you want to sell you need to consider reader expectations. (And if you want to sell something to a publisher, you must factor in their often Byzantine requirements.)

For our purposes, I’ll explain the best ways to use anything below 20,000 words. But I’ll give some pointers on the rest as well.

Short Story Markets

You pretty much have three options:

  • sell a short story collection to a publisher
  • sell a single short story to a magazine
  • self-publish short stories – either as singles or collections.

Well, you have three options in theory. The odds of the first are astronomical, the prospects of the second aren’t much richer. (Sorry, that’s the truth.) While the third option is certainly in your own clammy hands, it also comes with a plethora of new challenges.

There’s no sugarcoating it, but don’t be dissuaded; there is a path ahead for the adventurous short story writer.

Short Story Publishers

Your dreams might include a short story collection published by a venerable New York House. The reality is that publishers only tend to acquire short story collections from the very most successful of their large stable of existing authors, and even then only in certain genres.

And even then, the publisher and agent would probably rather the author had written another novel instead – such is the respective commercial demand for short stories versus novels.

You don’t have to like it, but this is the harsh truth: an unknown author has virtually no chance of interesting an agent or publisher with a short story collection – especially if they don’t have a string of impressive magazine credits already.

Genre exceptions

The exception here is specialist publishers in certain genres. Tor regularly publishes novellas between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Romance also has several publishers like Harlequin looking for shorter books in certain categories.

Slim pickings abound. But there are other routes to readers, some of which might be a much more profitable use of your time.

Short Story Magazines

Once a mainstay of American life, demand for short story magazines has dwindled considerably since their heyday – as have the relative pay rates, which are essentially frozen since the 1950s.

Publishing a short story in a magazine is a wonderful experience nonetheless. Especially if you are popping your literary cherry, and particularly so if you actually get paid.

Pay is often nominal but getting a magazine credit can be a positive first step at the beginning of your writing career, and certainly was for this particular author.

Magazine examples

For authors of literary fiction, famous magazines like The New Yorker, Paris Review, and The Atlantic might be top of their list, just keep in mind that the bar there is incredibly high and established authors – even famous ones – get rejected all the time.

Respected literary magazines include Ploughshares, Zoetrope, The Antioch Review, and Threepenny Review. Check them out if you write that kind of story.

Writers of humor will already know about McSweeney’s, surely. It remains a popular choice for submitters of short pieces in various forms.

And then various genre magazines round out things, such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Quinn Mystery Magazine for all types of mystery, suspense, legal thrillers, and police procedurals. SF/F authors will want to check out the likes of Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Amazing Stories, and Lightspeed as well.

A handy resource

If you are seeking out more markets, or other genres, then Duotrope should be your first port-of-call. A handy resource for finding markets and tracking submissions.

I submitted to lots myself, back when I was querying agents and trying to get a traditional deal. Firing short stories at any magazine I could find in a desperate attempt to pad out my literary resume. I was rejected by most of them too… so there’s that.

But I did “sell” a short story to a small UK magazine. I use the scare quotes there because no money actually changed hands; instead, I received several comp copies of the magazine in question. A common enough form of “payment” for smaller magazines and newer authors.

However, I subsequently re-sold a version of that story later on, for actual money. It was then published in a hardback collection of the best stories of the year. A real, tangible milestone and something that gave me huge confidence. Especially the getting paid part.

Money for old rope

I self-published that story later on, along with a couple more. An early and valuable lesson in intellectual property rights (and in making money, multiple ways, from a single piece of work).

Feel free to explore the world of magazines if you wish. It can be a very positive experience, as I said. Submitting to magazines can be disheartening and time-consuming. To give yourself any chance, familiarize yourself with the requirements, which can be strict, and particularly with their taste. (Leading to a situation at some where the audience is mostly writers trying to get published.)

Some authors get stuck in a rut. Submitting to magazines forever, and not really progressing. Definitely be aware that there is a whole world of possibility in the world of ebooks and self-publishing which might be more fruitful for you; it certainly was for me.

Self-Publishing Short Stories

Because I am a passionate advocate for self-publishing, you might expect me to say that self-publishing short stories is nothing but sunshine and lollipops. But let me give it to you straight: it’s a tough way to make money. And there are certainly easier ways to make a literary buck, especially in the world of self-publishing. Let’s break it down.

As the publisher, you are responsible for everything. This doesn’t mean actually doing everything yourself – you will most likely be outsourcing specialized tasks like editing and cover design. But you will certainly be handling the marketing yourself, and this is the sticky point for short story writers.

Because there’s an inescapable truth: readers prefer novels. And not just any kind of novel, but a series too. The prospect of writing over 1000 pages when you have been struggling to write 10 might be overwhelming. Let’s park that for a moment and look at the self-publishing short story market in more detail.

Publishing short stories yourself is certainly one way to ensure your work reaches the marketplace of readers. Yes, you have many new things to learn if you want to do it right. But these are skills which will be incredibly useful to you over the course of a writing career.

Warning: publishing is the easy part

Newer writers tend to look at me funny when I say publishing is the easy part. However, out of the three-step challenge facing authors today – writing, publishing, and marketing – it is by far the most straightforward. And experienced self-publishers know exactly what I mean.

Self-publishing in 2022 might seem more complex then when I started but the tools today are far superior. Plus the wild frontier of self-publishing is well mapped out now.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any pitfalls for neophytes though, so tread carefully.

You can grab my free guide to self-publishing if you want to explore this path in more detail. Just make sure you don’t waste lots of money by using one of those terrible self-publishing companies who generate so many complaints.

I even have a companion video course walking you through book marketing basics. And that’s also free so definitely check it out.

But let’s be clear about something: the real challenge with short stories isn’t publishing them, it’s selling them. Especially in a world overflowing with novels.

Selling Short Stories You Publish

When I was first weighing up whether to self-publishing – way back in 2011 – I decided to test the waters by publishing some short stories. It seemed like a low-risk way to learn the publishing ropes, and so it proved. At least as far as the publishing part went.

Learning all that stuff was so energizing. While one story was with the editor I wrote another from scratch – in a completely different genre, And then I repeated the trick right after.

It was quite the fillip after getting so many rejections from magazines (and from agents regarding my first novel). Indeed, within eighteen months I was a full-time author, living off the sales of my self-published books.

However, the sales from my short stories weren’t contributing a lot to that total. Like most other self-publishers, I soon discovered it was much easier to make money with longer work.

That doesn’t mean I stopped writing shorter pieces though. While shorts aren’t usually money-makers themselves in a direct sense, they really can help you in less obvious ways.

Sometimes short stories can lead you to unexpected places too, as George Berger found out when he queried Amazon’s Kindle Singles program.

the story of how george berger and his goat themed Kiindle Single - Midnight's Tale - came to be

Other Uses For Shorter Work

The inventive world of self-publishing has come up with a number of handy uses for shorter work. Let’s go through them in turn:


I’m sure you are familiar with anthologies. To properly distinguish them from box sets, anthologies are collections of short stories by different authors, usually around a chosen theme.

Authors either get invited to participate by the editor organizing the anthology (often a fellow author). Or they might respond to a call for submissions and get chosen – just like with a magazine. They can even act as the editor themselves and invite submissions.

Anthologies aren’t usually big money-making operations or chances to hit bestseller lists – although that can happen with strong promotion. Usually the aim is giving curious readers a taste of your writing, and leading them across to the rest of your catalog.

Box sets

The difference with anthologies is that box sets are usually collections of novels (or sometimes novellas) by either a group of authors, or just one throughout.

In the case of the latter, you might wonder why an author might make a box set of her work. In particular, why she might sell it so cheaply. Well, the quick version is that pushing older books in this manner can be a powerful and aggressive marketing tactic. Especially with books whose sales have diminished.

Short stories come into the mix through providing bonus content – which can entice readers who already own some or all of the novels in the box set.

Reader magnets

The most powerful tool any author has is their mailing list, And the very best way to boost sign-ups is by dangling a free story as a bonus for joining – often called a reader magnet.

Having an exclusive, free short story or novella as a sign-up bonus can act as a very powerful incentive for readers to join your newsletter, and it’s a particularly popular technique among savvy self-publishers seeking to grow their mailing list.

Short stories or novellas are handy as reader magnets because they can be written much more quickly than novels. However, using shorter pieces also opens up the possibility of writing custom reader magnets – such as a short story featuring a popular secondary character. When you have something which readers are crying out for, and they can only get it by signing up to your mailing list, sign-ups can go through the roof.

This tactic has been the biggest driver of mailing list growth for me – no question. And most other authors with a big mailing list will probably agree with that too.

Making Money As A Writer

If you are focused more on making a living as a writer, there is one inescapable fact: in almost every genre, it’s much easier to sell full-length books, and far easier again if those books happen to be part of a series.

Many writers start off writing short stories, but “graduate” to longer work and then either leave short story writing behind, or just engage in it for personal satisfaction – or perhaps for one of the advanced marketing uses mentioned above.

So if you are plotting out a writing career for yourself, short stories can be useful stepping stones in craft and career terms. But you should also have one eye out for a novel-shaped idea – even better if it is one with series potential. For more on that, particularly as it pertains the world of self-publishing, check out my post on publishing your own books.

Honing your craft

It’s not all about making money though. Short stories can be a fun way to sketch out a new character or a space to test out a high concept, or a new genre for you as a writer. And sometimes the constraints of the form can lead to some powerful work.

It’s quite possibly an apocryphal story, but Hemingway is said to have won a bet among his fellow authors to write a complete story in just six words:

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

What about you? Do you like to write short stories? Have you had success placing them with magazines or with self-publishing? Are you interested in more advanced uses like box sets or reader magnets? Let us know in the comments.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

45 Replies to “Publishing Short Stories • Your Guide to Making Money”

  1. I came upon this site while searching for information about self-publishing and have found your resources quite helpful—so thank you!

    I am at a kind of crossroads and am not yet certain which way to go, but self-publishing seems an option, so I will review more of the information you offer here over the next few weeks.

    I actually have been making money as a writer my entire professional life, but not for the type of writing I ultimately want to do. I am a retired senior vice president in corporate communications and former journalist (along with freelance writer) so I have earned a good living from my writing skills—and continue to do contract writing for organizations. I also teach college part-time.

    At the same time, it’s now a sink-or¬-swim moment, simply because I’m retirement age, so I am certainly not at the beginning of my career.

    I do have an upper-middle-grade novel completed, though it is in need need of another edit, a bunch of creative nonfiction pieces (flash and otherwise) and a slew of short stories. A former high school teacher of mine reached out to me out of the blue and in the ensuing discussion, he suggested I contact a local book publisher who, in fact, produces titles of all types, so perhaps that was fortuitous timing.

    I am in the midst of publication submissions and have found that most of what I write is upmarket, literary in style but not quite “literary” in the way it treats its subject (it actually tells a story, which a lot of literary fiction does not necessarily do). I am trying to see if I can get my toe in the door with the flash creative nonfiction.

    And it’s not that I have not had a few promising incidents along the way. The first short story I submitted was to a literary magazine and it—not surprisingly—was rejected, but I received a personal note (not the typical boilerplate response) from the editor indicating that she really liked the story and thought it was publishable in some other type of venue (a not-strictly-literary magazine perhaps). Through a family member, I was able to have a former editor with a big-name publishing house read the first chapter of my UMG novel and he liked it.

    I also wrote two spec scripts back in the 1990s for a television series that accepted submissions from non-agented writers. Both scripts were recommended to the executive producers by the reading staffs and while neither was purchased, I was invited to pitch additional ideas with REAL HOLLYWOOD WRITERS (oh, to have lived in L.A. at the time or had the money to fly there). Didn’t sell anything, but it was a very interesting, motivating experience.

    So I remain hopeful.

    Thank you again for all of these resources.

  2. Hi,
    I know you wrote this article ages ago but I clicked on the link from your how to self publish a book article. I have just started on the self-publishing journey, with, like you, a short story anthology—to learn the ropes too. I have also finished the first draft of my novel and planning a romance series. I love short stories. I can see myself publishing one anthology every 3 – 4 years. I’m also happy to invest in the publishing of a short story. I love Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher novels. When I discovered they wrote short stories I brought all their anthologies. Maybe this might happen to me?? Then my short stories will be already to go 🙂

  3. I agree most readers don’t know what a novella is, so I tend to call them short novels. Or even, for reasons I’ll explain below, novels.

    35,000 to 40,000 words is the sweet spot for me. I’ve published two short novels/novellas, and I have noticed a couple of reviews saying they wished the book had been a little longer, but nonetheless singing its praises. Which is all that really matters.

    I don’t think story length counts nearly so much as the impression it makes on the reader. If you leave them feeling like they’ve read something amazing, that’s what people are going to remember — not how long it took to read.

    There’s an old showbiz saying that you should leave your audience always wanting more. A well-written novella can do that

    While I was thinking about these things a while back, I checked the length of some Hugo award-winning novels of the past and found not a small number weren’t much longer than the novellas I’d published in the last couple of years. The Big Time by Fritz Lieber and Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny are good examples — both barely scrape over 40,000 words. It’s easy to find out either by checking the page count on a paperback edition or, as I did in some cases, using an add-on for Calibre that gives you a word count for an e-book. A significant number of literary novels aren’t much longer, if at all.

    I’ve also had a pretty positive experience publishing short stories on Amazon. A few years back I put together a collection of short stories and novelettes (here defined as stories up to 12,000 words), some published in UK magazines like Interzone and Shoreline of Infinity, and some previously unpublished.

    I didn’t really expect to sell that many copies. Instead, it sold considerably more copies and made me considerably more money than I could ever have expected or imagined. Not a fortune by any stretch, but enough, I found, to make it very much worth my time to go deeper into self-publishing.

    I’ve also found short stories really quite useful for using as reader magnets in order to build up my mailing list. Using Story Origins App, in combination with reader magnets, i’ve been able to quadruple my mailing list in the last year or so.

    I think it’s worth adding one other benefit to writing novellas — it takes a lot less time to write them purely on the basis of length, if you’re the kind of writer (which I am) who takes a year on average to write a full-length and publishable novel. That way I could keep producing material that was shorter but at a more rapid clip than I might have been able to in my traditional publishing days.

  4. Hi David,

    I have been writing short stories for a few years now. Self published a short novel in 2012; a few anthologies, one magazine article (free, didn’t get paid) and working on my second, longer book.
    Want to get into the short story business, I actually would like to make some money.


    1. Well, you have plenty of options – just keep in mind some of the cautions above and set expectations appropriately. I think it’s much easier to make money with novels, especially a series in a commercial genre, but writing short stories and publishing them whichever way can be very fulfilling in other ways. And there is the opportunity there to make at least some money with them – and maybe more than that, depending on the genre.

  5. I’ve been scouring posts about the death of the short story. Given there is an interest in actually reading good quality short stories there is defiantly ways to change the old publishing model in the writers favor. It would be awesome if anyone reading this could answer 5 questions that would take you less than 5 minutes. The link is here:

    Thanks to anyone awesome that answers the call.

    1. A friend sent me this article after I went on a bit of a rant about the difficulties of short story publishing. I’ve encountered all of the issues you describe.

      I’ve pitched to journals, magazines and agents. I’ve had many lovely responses, a few along the lines of “this is great, come back when you’ve written a novel.”

      I love short stories and I always hunt out collections in bookshops and libraries, so it was a bit of a rude shock to discover they’re not popular.

      An issue not mentioned here is the rise in reading fees when submitting to magazines and journals (to be clear: I’m not talking about competitions here). Fees are often US$10 – $30 and don’t include feedback. To get a (sometimes typo-ridden) generic rejection when you’ve paid to submit to a magazine is so disheartening. It’s becoming difficult to find mags and journals that don’t charge a reading fee (word on the street is that Submittable is partly to blame). There’s also a few rouges out there demanding all the rights too. Paying to ask someone to read your work, to possibly, maybe get published for nothing and lose rights to boot… well, it’s a dismal deal.

      I think it’s time for me to try self-publishing. I already write for a living, so it’s not about the money, it’s about getting eyeballs on the creative short stories I’ve poured a bit too much soul into. Here goes!

      Thanks for the wonderfully honest article.

  6. ebooks and the Kindle has given me a chance to publish a collection of short tales based in Edinburgh that otherwise would probably have remained in a dusty corner of my hard drive. They’ve been selling slowly, but consistently, and I’m now working on the next set.

    And don’t forget to add ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes to the list of great short stories. This became ‘Charly’ at the pictures.

  7. I write under a few different pen names and my experience has been that while some readers love novellas, a lot more readers in the general public just “don’t understand them”. They think they are getting a “rushed and underdeveloped novel” or are in some other way being short-changed. This is especially true when you add in the “bargain shopping reader” who buys an ebook novella at a bargain price and thinks they’re just getting a bargain but then feel doubly cheated in the end.

    It also doesn’t seem to help to be very specific in descriptions… listing the word count, how many pages that translates to, and even how long reading time will be, tends to only reduce the drama you have to deal with, not eliminate it.

    It seems the shortest novella you can get away with without dealing with fallout and bad reviews from people who can’t read descriptions is about 35,000 words. Even then you’ll have complaints that your work is “too short”. (Interestingly all the complaints about underdeveloped and “too short” stories, completely disappear when you combine several novellas in a collection, which leads me to believe readers don’t know what they are reacting to and are reacting to the amount of time it takes them to read something, not how good it is, or how developed it is.

    Unfortunately, due to all the years of publishers insisting on very narrow word count ranges, the general public has no real understanding or concept of things like the novella. I do think they are more receptive to shorter novels in ebook form like 50k to 70k short, and that 35k novellas don’t produce “too” many problems. But generally speaking, anything under 35k that you intend to sell on Kindle, no matter your price point, writers should be prepared to meet some resistance and deal with a few obnoxious consumers who think they are purposefully cheating them.

  8. Kindle is definitely leading resurgence in the art of short story writing. I released my own collection of 12 not so short mystery thriller stories at an average of 5,000 per story in one collection. There are definitely fans of short story writing out there quite prepared to pay 99c or 70p for a short story, or a collection. All that I would ask is that author’s clearly mark them as such to avoid the wrath of those that think they are buying a full story to avoid a 1 star review from disgruntled reader.

    I just thank the day I bought a set of readers digest hardback books from a jumble sale that sparked my interest in short stories.

    1. I am surprised (pleasantly) at the demand out there for short stories.

      And you’re right, it should always be clear what the reader is paying for.

      Even though I make it clear (2 short stories, total 4000 words/16 pages for 99c), I still got one review complaining about the length. It will happen.

      Now you have me thinking what got me into short stories, and I can’t for the life of me remember – there goes the day.

  9. Interesting points, David. A few thoughts occur to me:-

    I take it the French law prevents discounting BY more than 5% of list price rather than BELOW 5% of list price?

    I don’t agree that price-cutting is the solution to theft. The only price thieves will pay is zero.

    I too was surprised publishers charged more for e-books than for mass market and even trade paperbacks. But it seems to be working. Most bestselling e-books are quite expensive, and their prices are going up, if anything. Many, if not most, readers seem as ‘conservative’ in their choice of e-books as in their choice of paper books. Not what I expected! Then again, I didn’t expect the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I don’t hold myself out as a prophet.

    1. Hi John, thanks for following me over from Nathan’s place. You are correct in your assumption re. the French law (did I say the second one? must correct).

      I wrote a longer piece on piracy a few days ago. But in short, I believe (and there is evidence for this), there are two kinds of pirates. The first kind are the techies who crack the stuff in the first place, often as a badge of honour, share it around, and fill their hard-drives full of the stuff, and probably rarely look at it. I don’t think this group represent lost sales in any significant numbers. But there is a second kind. They are the people who don’t really want to pirate, but have found a way to justify it to themselves. Either the book they want is unavailable as an e-book (Harry Potter, and much backlist stuff), or its priced too high, and they feel justified in taking it. This second group (which I believe is smaller in terms of actual pirated copies), is where the publisher/writer is losing sales. The first you can do nothing about. The second, you can combat with low prices and convenience. I could lay out the whole argument for the latter point, but take a look at the piracy post (it’s called Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle of Rum), and see what you think.

  10. The Vonnegut and the Bradbury might have found a home as literary fiction, which seems more open to shorter novels.

    Charles Yu’s How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe was about that length. Last year’s Pulitzer prize winner, The Tinkers, was as well. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey was also quite short. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son still sells fairly well.

    I agree that “short novel” sounds more marketable than “novella.” I also think people will come to expect exact length listings.

    1. Amazon could easily require that information, either in the form of word count listing (which most people don’t understand anyway), or category (Short story, novelette, novella, short novel, novel–which most people don’t understand anyway.) But then authors might be back to padding for length to achieve a higher price with a higher word count or the more desirable “novel” label.

      1. True, though padding will always be a vice when it comes to writing :).

        Readers will speak their minds if they feel the product was sub-par. With e-books, the reviews are always right there (which wasn’t true when buying off a store rack).

        In the long-term, (relatively) honest descriptions will probably be the best policy, especially for writers with many books for sale. Cheat a reader once, and they won’t return.

      2. Exactly, and this is what is so attractive (to me) about the “readers as gatekeepers” model. I don’t really care that much how much extra crap is published, I care more that readers get to decide what is good and what is bad, not Time magazine, not The New York Times, not agents, not editors, but readers.

        Although ask me again after my first one-star review…

      3. They could and they should.

        It could be easily solved. Nearly all readers will have read physical books, and there is a standard size (more or less), so why can’t they give a rough guide at least?

        Or they could say X pages on the standard Kindle at standard font sizes, or whatever. But something.

      4. I agree that readers are the ultimate gatekeepers, but relying solely on individual word of mouth to spread your book’s popularity is problematic. When buying wine, I don’t do research ahead of time, but I know the genre of wine I like, and I always look for a rating card beneath it. If Robert Parker says it’s over a 90, I’ll believe him, and if the price is right, I’ll buy it. Same thing for beer. A four pack of ale may be a whopping 12 bucks, but if it’s rated a 100 by someone I’ve heard of, I’ll likely try it. Maybe we need a Book Spectator. Or we need nothing of the sort and I should stop avoiding my writing and get back to work.

    2. It’s interesting that out of the four examples you gave two were small, independent presses (Harding & Mason), and two were large publishers. And out of the two from large publishers, one (Yu) was by a specific imprint with lots of editorial independence, and the other (Johnson) was from 1993.

      I think it’s harder today with a large house to get something published at that length that is not YA. And for a new writer? It doesn’t matter how good it is, the agents won’t even look at the manuscript. It’s not impossible, but pretty close.

      Small, independent presses however, will often try something a little different, and it was great to see them garnering so many nominations in the awards this year.

      But your general point about literary fiction holds – shorter works are acceptable, just as in Epic Fantasy longer works are permitted.

  11. hahaha. A few months ago that probably would have been my exact thought process. Only at that length I would’ve thought Middle Grade. Maybe throw in a wizard or two to make it fly.

    1. I think the key though, as always, is a good, professional editor, whom you respect, and with whom you develop a good working relationship, where you listen to what they say. We can all point to experienced writers who seem to have gotten a little flabbier in their prose as their star power grew and they felt more comfortable overruling their editor. I’m not saying you should slavishly incorporate each editorial suggestion, but they should be given a lot of weight, and never simply dismissed out of hand because you think differently.

  12. There’s anecdotal evidence that novellas aren’t selling nearly as well as novels, but I think this is mostly a marketing problem. The term novella is so variable, it doesn’t tell us much about the product. Writer A calls his short work of 10,000 words a novella, whereas Writer B calls it a long short story. Another writer might call 35,000-40,000 words a short novel (which is certainly better for marketing; has a lovely ring to it.) Most readers just don’t know how to conceptualize a novella. It’s been too long removed from the public consciousness, so there needs to be a new push to reintroduce it.

    1. I think you are spot on, David. When I was researching this post, I was surprised at some of the titles that were actually novellas. I guess when you buy the paperback, they are usually padded out with introductions, notes, biography and the rest, so the reader wouldn’t shirk at the length, and instead think they are getting value for the price.

      Perhaps if some e-publisher was to publish a load of novellas, they could easily raise consciousness of the form by referring to these classics. Then again, with the rise of self-publishing, I think people are becoming more fluid of their conception of novel-length, and accepting, as you said “short novels” of 35,000 words as acceptable.

      1. I think it’s important for people to know how novel lengths have grown over the years, and partly because of publishers’ desires, not because authors became more longwinded. Look at science fiction. This is a notoriously weighty genre, with books that often come in at 120,000 or more words. However, many of the seminal science fiction works were far under this count. I don’t remember the exact word count, but Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was around 60,000 words, or 221 pages in hardback. It probably wouldn’t have been accepted by publishers today. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about 46,000 words long.

        Writers have been forced to build their stories up to an arbitrary word or page count instead of making the story as long (or as short) as it needs to be.

        There is a danger in this new old movement. If writers pad their short stories (or simply not edit them as severely as they might’ve done before) just so they can slap the title Novella on them, either out of laziness or to charge a higher price, it could undercut the whole thing.

      2. Yes, and many new writers are particularly bad at cutting their story where it needs to be cut, and first novels (unpublished ones), often run far too long. When they realise that this won’t fly, they cut, and often end up with a better story.

        Without the gatekeeper in self-publishing, I wonder how many people will go through that necessary process.

      3. Another one I was surprised by was Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut’s debut, only 45,000 words. No new author would get away with that today, and good luck converting THAT into a YA novel!

  13. I’ve had this same thought myself, and it’s encouraging to see that someone else has. I write short stories, but probably my biggest challenge has been pushing myself to stay under the word limit prescribed by most short story markets (and a lot of the time it’s closer to 5-6,ooo at the most). Some stories really need to go past that limit but don’t have enough material for a full-length novel.

    I have seen some people complaining that self-published novellas in ebook form are cheating buyers who think they’re getting a longer book, but I don’t think that’s a problem as long as authors are very clear about length in their product description. So far as I know, Amazon doesn’t have separate categories for short and long ebooks yet, do they?

    1. Amazon have a category for Short Stories. However, with the way they list books, and the way that tagging works, your short story will appear in multiple places (e.g. Short Story & Science Fiction). Some authors aren’t clear in their descriptions about the length of their work, and they often don’t list word or page counts, which is unfair on the reader, and comes back to bite the writer in reviews. Amazon don’t force you to do either, of course, but that may change.

      A good strategy is always to be upfront with the reader, especially with the proliferation of $0.99 novels. You must post the word count clearly so that the reader knows what they are getting. Amazon could do a better job here in highlighting this, you do have to look for it if the author doesn’t place it in the actual text description, so it’s a good idea to do it there too.

      With regard to short story markets, a story is more marketable if it is between 2,000 and 4,000 words. Editors have reasons for this – it’s what their readers want to read, plus keeping the upper limits helps to keep down costs (they usually pay by the word). But there are plenty of markets where they take longer stories, is a great search engine for short story markets. And if you can always try posting in forums such as Absolute Write which have both short story and various genre subsections where you can get quick answers to questions like this. The people there really know all the (U.S.) markets.

  14. I share your optimism, Dave. The production flexibility is exciting.

    One additional point: There are so many non-fiction books that are padded with repetition, unnecessary anecdotes, weaker chapters, etc., in an effort to fill 300+ pages. Novella/pamphlet-length non-fiction could also be great for readers.

    1. Exactly – and it has been in the past, when self-publishing was much more common pre-1950, people could make money out of pamphlets.

      Poets, of course, have been self-publishing work, of all sorts of length, for years. It’s just that chapbooks are moving online.

      I have a 100,000 word novel that I am considering self-publishing. I had a thought the other day about whether I should offer it as one, large novel, or two shorter ones (there is an easy place to split it in the middle which would only require a little editing). Maybe I should do both, price appropriately, and let the reader decide. After all, it will only increase visibility on Amazon and elsewhere.

  15. I agree. Many of the guys who have been doing well out of self-publishing have been doing it with shorter novels. And it could be a factor in the YA boom in the US (with more and more adults buying YA books for themselves).

  16. Hi Dave,

    With so much information hitting us on a daily basis and the generally shorter attention spans of people; I think both novellas and short stories (written in the economical style of an Elmore Leonard) are going to make a big comeback in the e-book format.


    1. People have been saying shorter is going to make a comeback since I got started self publishing, in 2011. I haven’t seen any sign of it yet, outside of writers who want it to be so.

      And I’m sorry, because I love doing shorter works, rather than struggling to change my writing style to work for novels, but that’s just how it is.

  17. Ok, I feel so weird because I could have written this part of your post:

    My first novel was historical fiction, and the one I am working on at the moment is too (as are the next two planned after that), but my short stories are hard to classify in terms of genre. I suppose they are mainstream, but there is something off about them, something not quite right, that you can’t put your finger on. And the story I am editing right now, is my first science fiction piece, but again, not quite.

    From me: I’ve written a historical novel, Belvoir. I’m working on another one called State Fair. In the meantime, I’ve been writing weird short stories, one I plan to release soon. I’m calling them episodes, and there is something definitely off about them. I only hope people don’t hate me.


    1. I love weird short stories. The weirder the better. Who doesn’t like a little slice of weird now and then? I used to love The Twilight Zone when I was a kid, and I think with each short story I write, I’m just trying to write another episode of that show.

  18. …Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery might have been the first adult short story I ever read. It blew me away!
    If you head over to Smashwrods (the self-publishing site) many of the Top 100 Most Downloaded are less than 10k words, which I would define as a short story.
    I realise that most of them are free downloads, so the author isn’t getting anthing from it except a warm fuzzy feeling, but to me this illustrates that people still want to read short stories (even if, ahem, they don’t want to fork out money for them).

    1. I haven’t read ‘The Lottery’, I’ll check it out, thanks for the tip. I didn’t realise that short stories were cracking the top 100 in Smashwords, that’s very interesting (and if you don’t mind, I’ll use that in a follow-up post in a few days about short story markets). And don’t forget, the author isn’t just getting a fuzzy feeling, they are building an audience. Some writers are giving their content away for free before charging for, say, a novel. This is a valid model, but not one that I am going to pursue, at least in the beginning. My stories will be professionally edited and have professional covers, and I hope people will think the quality of the stories is high too. I might consider some free promotional strategies, but I haven’t figure all that out yet.

      I think some people won’t pay for short stories, I have read enough different forums to know that. But, I think there is a large section of their market that will (and does on a regular basis). They are the people I am targeting. And I am hoping that with low prices, word of mouth, good reviews, and the ability to sample large portions, some of the others will change their mind too.

      I could be wrong about all of this of course, but there is only one way to find out!


  19. ….and The Shawshank Redemption, regarded by many as one of the finest films ever made, is adapted almost word for work from Stephen Kings ‘Rita Hayword and The Shawshank Redemption’. Plus it came from one of Stephan Kings greatest books, Different Seasons, which is a collection of 4 short stories including ‘The Body’ (which became ‘Stand by Me’) and ‘Apt Pupil’.

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