Short Stories: Are They "Worth It"?
The value of short stories
The other week, we talked about getting an agent off a short story. And I promised in that post to make one about the general “worth” of short stories as part of a writing career.
First, I’ll note that I’m speaking from the SFF genre, which has a robust short story market and a long history — much truer in prior decades than now — of authors getting a start in short story writing. Pay, however, tends to be extremely low, and hasn’t matched inflation over the last fifty years or so. I thus see both extremes of opinion from people in my field: some people say short story writing is never worth it never ever THE PAY IS WAY TOO LOW, and the other extreme says EVERYONE MUST LEARN ON SHORT STORIES EVERYONE ALWAYS.
In my opinion, neither extreme is true. Can you have a career without starting in shorts — indeed, without ever writing shorts? Absolutely! But are shorts really of rubbish career and monetary value? No! They actually can have quite a lot of benefits.
Here are some valuable things I’ve gotten from short story writing:
Promotion / name recognition. Authors do a lot of unpaid promotion — blog posts, interviews, appearances, etc, very little of which is compensated. I see short stories as a form of promotion I get paid for. Sure, the pay isn’t great, but it’s better than unpaid promotion — and personally, I can often write a short story significantly faster than I can a promotional blog post. My short stories tend to get more traction than my nonfiction promotion, too.
Networking with industry pros. Not only agents, but editors — when I was on submission, I found Big Five editors were already familiar with my name because they’d read short stories of mine. Getting into things like best-of anthologies has opened doors to invitation-only submissions processes, and more short story editors knowing my name leads to more solicitations. (I get fairly good traction on many of my shorts, but I’ve never, say, been nominated for a major award, so although these benefits aren’t guaranteed, you can get them without being in the tippy-top 1% of published short story writers.)
Building up IP for sub rights. The more published stories you have in your backlist, the more IP you have available. The obvious additional income will be reprints or collections, but the better one is possible film rights. This won’t help until you have a film agent shopping you or some other Hollywood connection — but it absolutely doesn’t hurt to start building that up so that once you are in a place to use that backlist, you can give an agent a variety of possibilities to shop. Not every short story will be suitable for adaptation and not every one of those will get optioned, which is why having a wider portfolio of shorts can be extremely beneficial: so you have a wider array available for that lightning to strike. The point is, once you’ve published a short, it’s something that can keep earning for you later on, on top of the initial payment.
Paying off in opportunities for better-paying writing. As I’ve gotten known for writing shorts — particularly my most common brand, which is near-future hard science fiction — I’ve been lucky enough to receive several invitations to anthologies that actually are well-paying for short stories, rather than the 8 cents per word that is considered pro-paying but unfortunately still isn’t a very good absolute rate. You never know how this might happen, either — I got one opportunity because the editor read an 800-word flash story of mine.
Artistic enjoyment / development. If you hate writing shorts, you don’t have to! But if you love writing shorts, there’s no reason not to, unless they take you enough time to make doing it detrimental to the rest of your writing career. There’s absolutely no reason not to do a thing that gives you joy or helps you develop skills, especially when you’re getting paid for it! We do lots of things for joy that we pay money for; why not do one that gives you money, even if it’s minor amounts? That said, in my opinion the balance comes with not forcing yourself to spend large amounts of time and writing energy on short stories that you would rather spend — or would be better served spending — on better-paying, more career-building long-form work.
That last point — about finding a balance — is one I think is important. I write shorts very fast, usually within a day. (Of course, I can’t do that every day! I only write a few shorts a year.) But if your process is that it takes you six months to write a short, that might mean it doesn’t end up “worth it” for you to do as many of them, whether that worth is monetary, career, artistic, or enjoyment. (Unless you’re getting Ted Chiang-levels of traction off them, but that’s rare.)
Now I’ve been lucky in my short story successes, but for any writer, all of this can build up over time, and short story writing can eventually open out and get more lucrative and beneficial. To give you an idea, overall now, I’ve made four figures or more on four different short stories, and nearly that much on a fifth. Three of these were in the initial payment — opportunities I got because of prior, not-as-well-paying shorts — and two more have been built up over the lifetime of the story, on reprints and sub rights. My lifetime earnings on 14 traditionally-published short stories and novelettes is now more than $20,000. Again, this isn’t typical — I’m pretty far on the “lucky” end — but it does show how short story writing can build up, even if it usually takes longer than this to get to a career point where you might start seeing decent financial return. Though note that this still isn’t a fabulous pay rate — this is a bit more than 70,000 words of fiction, so if you do the math on that, it’s a respectable rate but by no means luxurious.
But the artistic and career intangible benefits have also been worth it, and I wouldn’t be writing at all if I wanted the most stable and lucrative career possible! (Ha, ha.) So here’s my overall recommendation: Find the balance in spending time on shorts that feels good to you. Be aware that they’re almost certainly never going to be the most lucrative part of your career, nor do nearly the heavy career lifting of long-form work, but also don’t eschew them as worthless. Factor in the time you spend and the traction you tend to get with them, and consider the intangible benefits as well as the tangible ones.
And lastly, here’s a glass raised to shorts and short story writers, because I’ve read some incredible fiction at that length, and I love that it exists for us to read!