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 also contrast that with how difficult it is to get them published… unless you decide to do it yourself.
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 2021:
- Famous Short Stories
- Short Stories, Novellas & Novelettes
- Short Story Markets: publishers, magazines, and self-publishing
- Selling Short Stories – the marketing problem
- Other Uses For Shorter Work: anthologies, box sets, and reader magnets
- Making Money As A Writer
Famous Short Stories
In case some of 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.
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, and 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 Carol, Of Mice and Men, Billy Budd, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, The Old Man and The Sea, and Heart of Darkness.
Now, 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 and 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, although 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 – which is a workmanlike solution but a neat one.
It doesn’t matter so much.
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, and 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 will need to factor in their often Byzantine requirements as well.)
For our purposes here, 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.) And while the third option is certainly in your own clammy hands, and could open a whole new world for you, it also comes with a plethora of new challenges.
There’s no sugarcoating it here but don’t get dissuaded either; 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.
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.
Getting a short story published in a magazine can be 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.
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 like Ploughshares, Zoetrope, The Antioch Review, Threepenny Review, and Glimmer Train should also be on your list to check out if you write that kind of story.
Writers of humor will already know about McSweeney’s, surely, and 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.
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 many of the above, back when I was querying agents and trying to get a traditional deal for my novel, 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 for authors at the very beginning of their journey.
However, I subsequently re-sold a version of that story later on, for actual money, and it also went on to be published in a hardback collection of the best stories of the year, which was a real, tangible milestone and something that gave me huge confidence. Especially the getting paid part.
I further went on to self-publish that story along with a couple of others, which was an early and valuable lesson in intellectual property rights and how you can make money in 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 you will need to familiarize yourself with their requirements, which can be strict, and particularly with their taste. (Leading to a situation at some magazines where most of the audience seems to be writers trying to get published.)
Some authors get stuck in a rut here, 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 such a passionate advocate of the self-publishing path, 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.
When you are your own publisher, that means you have to take care of 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, but let’s just 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.
Newer writers tend to look at me funny when I say publishing is the easy part, but 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 2021 might seem more complex then when I started ten years ago but the tool today are far superior. Plus the wild frontier of self-publishing is pretty well mapped out today.
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 that generate huge numbers of complaints every year.
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 word 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.
In fact, learning all that stuff was so energizing that while one story was with the editor I wrote another from scratch – in a completely different genre – and then 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 authors living off the sales of my self-publishing 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. Because while shorts aren’t usually money-makers themselves in a direct sense, they really can help you make money in less obvious ways.
Sometimes short stories can lead you to unexpected places to, as George Berger found out when he queried Amazon’s Kindle Singles program.
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, but in case not, and 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 (which is often a fellow author), or they might respond to a call for submissions and get chosen – just like with a magazine – or they could 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 – but are more normally conducted with the aim of giving curious readers a taste of your writing, and leading them across to the rest of your catalog.
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 on their own.
In the case of the latter, you might wonder why an author might make a box set of her work and, in particular, why she might sell it so cheaply. Well, the short version is that boxing up and discounting older books in this manner can be a powerful and aggressive marketing tactic, especially with books whose sales have diminished considerably.
Where short stories come into the mix is in providing bonus content – which can entice readers who already own some or all of the novels in the box set.
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 – which can be used as reader magnets as well, if you wish. 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 like that 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.
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 almost certainly an apocryphal story itself, 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.