Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Publication takes a lot of hard work. For short story authors it can be the work of a lifetime to write and collect enough top-quality short stories to fill a collection, but the work can’t stop there if they want to achieve publication.
In fact, short fiction may be the most difficult form to find publication for but, armed with the right information and a lot of dedication, it is possible.
In this article, I’ll be exploring the different routes short story authors can take to publication, and the things dedicated authors can do to increase their chances.
First, however, there’s an ugly truth to expose…
The facts about short fiction
Any short fiction author looking to publish a collection will have encountered articles touting a burgeoning upswing in the short fiction market. Sadly these accounts, while often based on good sense and seemingly airtight logic, aren’t an accurate reflection of the market.
‘Short fiction boom’ articles often tie in a supposed increased interest in short fiction with advances in technology. In fact it’s difficult to see how the rise of the electronic reader wouldn’t make short fiction more popular; it’s a convenient way to enjoy reading during busy modern life. Convenience equals more short bursts, and what suits short bursts more than short fiction?
The rub is that every technological advance since before the printing press has been a convenient way to enjoy reading during busy modern life. The e-reader can seem like the definitive game changer because it’s the most prominent in (most of) our lifetimes, but no society has ever considered itself less put-upon than the one before. The e-reader has certainly had an impact on how we read, but that impact has been varied and unpredictable.
That’s not to say there’s no market for short fiction, or even that e-readers haven’t improved the market a little, but many writers approach publication with the belief that they’ve stumbled across a golden age of short fiction and things are going to be easy. Unfortunately that isn’t the case, and belief in this fallacy often makes authors less aware of options that are more likely to lead to success.
To self-publish or not
Publishers, who see trends represented in dollar amounts, know that the market for short fiction isn’t about to explode, and so the vast majority of short story collections they produce are ‘sure things’. These most often feature accomplished authors with some prospective talent along for the ride to increase their exposure, or constitute pre-existing work from an author the publisher wishes to maintain a relationship with. Where lesser known authors are collected it’s often with a focus on a specific subject which the publisher knows there is an existing audience for (you’ll find the most successful collections shelved under ‘erotica’).
Because of this it’s almost impossible to achieve publication with a publishing house if you’re not already an acclaimed short story writer. To those hoping to go this route the most important advice is to enter as many competitions as possible. Not only will a few wins get you taken seriously, but many publishers do search through short fiction competitions for contributors (especially when they already have a big name to help sell the book).
If your heart is set on this type of publication it’s also highly advisable to get a literary agent. You’ll still have to win some competitions, but an agent will help make sure those wins catch the right people’s attention.
Short fiction is difficult to do well but easy to do badly, so there’s quite a crowd you need to stand out from. If you want to be noticed by a third party then you need an impressive biography.
It will take a long time to get an entire short fiction collection published this way. Competitions will lead to contributions, which may lead to someone trusting you enough for a full collection. It’s satisfying, rewarding, and possible, as long as you stay dedicated and keep working towards your goal. It may be, however, that you will find self-publication suits you better.
Self-publishing a short story collection
Much of the same advice applies to self-publishers as to those wishing to find a third party publisher. Acclaim will be necessary to help you stand out from the crowd, and all the dedication you might have put into finding a publisher should now be focused on reading all you can on the self-publishing process. There are also companies that can help you on your journey, by providing advice, editing, marketing and other important publishing services (we’re one of them.)
General advice on creating a collection
There’s one sure-fire way to improve the market for your collection and make it more viable to publishers, and that’s a theme. Many readers are wary of short fiction because it can turn at a moment’s notice – one story might be great, but that doesn’t mean the one after will be. To combat this you can establish a theme for your collection.
This could be something as simple as ‘romance’ and still be effective. The idea is to give readers the comfort of buying a whole rather than a collection of parts, and following a theme has the added advantage of allowing you to target a particular existing market. There are people who set out to read short stories, but your form already engages with them. Better still is to engage with readers who want war stories, westerns, romance stories, sci-fi stories, or thrillers. The selling point becomes ‘it’s a whole collection of stories on something you like’, and their interest in the wider subject combats any trepidation as to content.
Of course the subjects of your stories will vary, but if you can find one unifying theme, no matter how obscure, you’ll see interest rise. Roald Dahl’s short stories are varied and fascinating, but the many volumes in which they’re collected unite them as short fiction with ‘a twist in the tale’. It’s all about suggesting consistency, and giving readers the peace of mind to give you a try.
Whichever path you choose towards publication there will be obstacles in your path, but with enough determination and the right guidance you’ll be able to make it past them. No matter how hard it may seem, remember that bookshops have short fiction sections full of successful authors, and just as there’s no magical boom coming along in the market there’s also not going to be any sudden lack of interest in well-written, audience-targeted short story collections.
If you decide to pursue self-publication the you’ll need to know about Clever book pricing tactics that drive sales, or for more on the benefits of competitions try Should you enter a writing competition?
Are you a published short fiction author, or an aspiring writer who wants to know more? Either way get in touch in the comments and share you experiences.