The Short Story Is Dead! Long Live The Short Story!

The short story as a form has been ‘dying’ for at least as long as the publishing industry has.  An article can’t mention it without saying it is “moribund” or in “rude health”.  People either devour them, or ignore them.  But what is it about the humble short that divides opinion so?

Short stories have had a huge impact on popular culture.  Some of the greatest writers, such as Edgar Allen Poe, practiced the form exclusively.  Others, including Anton Chekhov, Luis Borges, Stephen King, Franz Kafka, William Trevor and Kurt Vonnegut count their shorter pieces as some of their finest work.

Many famous movies have been adapted from short stories.  Memento, was originally a short story by the director’s brother Jonathan Nolan.  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 and I, Robot.

Quite an eclectic list.  And maybe that tells us something about the short story.  The form, loosely defined as anything below 10,000 words (but usually a lot less), allows writers to experiment, write outside their genres, try something new.  You can gamble, because if the story ends up not working, you have only wasted a few days rather than a few months.

So why all the naysayers?

One of the traditional paths to success for an aspiring novelist was to have a short story published in one of the top magazines (Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker) or one of the top literary journals (such as Glimmer Train or Tin House).  This publishing credit would be enough to attract the attention of a top agent, and the healthy pay-check would be more than enough to survive for a while you wrote more.

And while this still is a valid way to break into the industry, the readership for short fiction seems to have fallen away.  Some literary magazines complain that they have more writers submitting than people reading, and pay rates have fallen too.

Today, professional rates are considered $0.05 a word or higher (but not much higher).  For a 2,000 word short story, that’s $100.  Even if you were prolific enough to churn out a story a week, edit it, submit it to a professional market and get it published, you couldn’t possibly live off it.

Short story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels, and agents and publishers aren’t going to be interested in them unless you already have a name, or your stories have been published in the very top publications (and even then it’s a struggle).

This hasn’t stopped some people thinking there is a market out there for short stories that remains untapped.  The thinking is seductive: people have shorter attention spans these days, and people consume the written word in radically different ways.

With smartphones and tablets and netbooks, people are gravitating towards shorter pieces, and with all the distractions from other, flashier forms of entertainment (sports, television, internet), it can be a struggle to put aside an hour or two, find somewhere quiet, and read a book.

Others look at what happened to the music industry.  While album sales have plummeted, singles have rocketed.  And while the analogy between book/album and short story/single is a difficult one to make, maybe there is something in this.

A short story can be read in twenty minutes (or less).  It can be read on a phone without hurting your eyes, and it can be read while you’re waiting for the bus or on your lunch break.  And you don’t have to invest as much in the story, so there is less risk for the reader if they don’t like it.

And they are fun to write too. 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.

For me, short stories are a release. I don’t have to spend two hours in the black hole that is Wikipedia trying to calculate how long it takes to ride 20 miles on horseback (less than 2 hours at a canter, depending on terrain) or to find out what mode of transport New Orleans policemen used in 1891 (horse-drawn cars); I just write, and it’s liberating.

There are constraints to the form though.  You only have a limited amount of space, and even less time to hook the reader, but this can make for powerful work.  One of Hemingway’s most famous stories was only six words long. For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

Nothing more needs to be said.

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.

19 Replies to “The Short Story Is Dead! Long Live The Short Story!”

  1. ….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’.

  2. …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!


  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Pingback: For Love of the Short Story | Reader's Carnival BETA

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