Thursday, February 11, 2016

Is Selling Short Stories Worthwhile?

Karen Hurley writes in LOCUS about the abysmal payment rates for short stories:

The Sad Economics of Writing Short Fiction

In the Golden Age of the pulps, when dozens of genre fiction magazines existed, a skillful, prolific writer might have been able to make a living from short fiction. Nowadays, as Hurley's examples illustrate, short-story markets that pay an approximation of a living wage (however one quantifies that concept in terms of writing-hours) are hard to find. A well-paying anthology will offer a few hundred dollars up front, plus (maybe) a later trickle of royalties, if the contract provides for such. PLAYBOY, once a major venue for SF and fantasy, no longer accepts unsolicited submissions, except during special contests. Even when they did, I suspect their $3000-per-story payments went to established, high-profile authors. And even those authors wouldn't have sold to PLAYBOY more often than once in a while. OMNI paid comparable rates but went out of print years ago. has just closed to unsolicited submissions. The slick women's magazines such as COSMOPOLITAN, REDBOOK, and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING used to run fiction, even genre fiction (Ray Bradbury's classic "Homecoming" first appeared in MADEMOISELLE), but that era has passed.

If a market pays five cents per word, a 5000-word story would pay $250.00. An author would have to sell about fifteen of those every month to garner enough to survive at a basic level in most American cities. Even if that many available markets of that level or higher existed, a writer would have to be prolific enough to produce a story every two days for years on end and gifted enough to sell everything he or she wrote.

Hurley mentions the alternative of self-publishing. Via that route, a story can continue to generate income indefinitely—but probably nowhere near a living wage. The big earners in that field would be high-profile authors who are already making a living from other sources.

For most authors, then, short stories alone may produce a nice supplementary income but never enough to live on. So why write them? Some writers do it for the joy of the process. The short form comes naturally to them. It doesn't, for me; my natural lengths seem to be novella and short novel. Short fiction, however, offers a way to keep one's name before audiences and, one hopes, attract new readers for those novels. I write occasional short stories to submit to anthologies, if the anthology theme appeals to me—for practice and, if the story gets accepted, for the promotional benefits and the money (even if it usually isn't much). For instance, my husband and I have a collaborative tale, "A Walk in the Mountains," in the anthology REALMS OF DARKOVER, forthcoming in May.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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