Writing short stories for a living: the bottom line

Interesting take on the financial pros and cons of writing over at financial website This is Money where Toby Walne asks, “Could you become the next big author?” Of course the article is pitched at people on a get-rich-quick programme with their writing and therefore not really at short story writers… All the same, it made me think.

A number of times now, I have agreed to have stories or articles published in anthologies for tiny fees, and I know other short story writers who have done the same. But I will have to review this and see if it is something that is working for me as a writer, apart from the instant buzz of seeing something “out there”. Because income from the bits and pieces I have already written and had published ought to be the way in which I buy time to write more. Do I need to quit writing short stories, or what? This is something I will be doing some serious thinking about in the next week or so, and if any other short story writers are reading this, I’d welcome your tips, suggestions or comments to help me think it through.

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20 thoughts on “Writing short stories for a living: the bottom line

  1. Only certain places, like The New Yorker, pay well for stories. It would be great to get paid well but it’s just not going to happen. So I say, get the work out there because there are other benefits to doing that: interest from agents and/or publishers. Having your name known on the scene. Being read.
    An agent pursued me on the back of a story in a lit mag (small, regional). I didn’t go with the agent but it shows it happens.
    I also got an invitation to read in Paris (and a fee/accommodation/travel expenses/food) because of a Paris-set story I had in a national lit mag (in Ireland).
    I was sent a present of a granite Sheela-na-Gig when a stonecarver liked a radio story of mine.
    So payment comes in all sorts of ways.
    Sometimes I give my stuff away for free (to charity anthologies, for example, or to web-based mags), other times I get a small fee. I know it is unlikey I will ever get big fees for short stories; not consistently anyway.
    I’m happy for my stuff to be out there, being read. And more people will get to read it on the net than in print mags.
    Some web-based mags, like Southword, pay.
    I like to have some on the net, some in print.

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    • Hello Nuala, thanks for this upbeat response, and your tips. I already had a story in Southword also, so who knows, maybe I should pester the New Yorker a bit more…. 😉 I once got a present of a picture from an artist in Cape Clear who had read my stuff online, and have been invited to various places to read my work, so I agree there are nice outcomes, if they do not increase your bank balance…. Lane

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  2. I love all the good things that happen because of stories.
    Comps can yield good revenue, of course, but the field is generally very wide so it’s a bit of a gamble.
    I got €3000 for a 2000 word story once in a comp win. The most I’ve ever gotten. I could do with one of them again!

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  3. Well done, 1.5 euro a word… That tops my best of €2000 for a story that was closer to 5,000 words long. The last prize I won I donated the cash as it was a Haiti story…

    What worries me, Nuala, is, if all the best stories are available to read free online then why would anyone pay to buy a book of short fiction – are writers undermining their own market? Or do you keep your longer work offline, and hope you can sell it?

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  4. Interesting question. I’m really glad I still get a buzz from seeing work online or in print. I’ll be sad if that ever goes, because the money sure as heck isn’t going to keep me in my old age.

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  5. My stories are rotating and I submit if I have something ‘free’ that conforms to the word count. I guess I keep my ‘best’ stories for places I would really like them to be placed, but generally, the stories go out as and when they are ready.
    Bernie – too true – I certainly won’t be living the high life off the back of my fiction 🙂

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  6. Bernie, don’t get me wrong, I DO get a buzz when I get a yes letter or email, just like the next writer… Last time as recently as last weekend. As long as those places deliver genuine exposure, all good, but if the main audience is other short story writers it can feel a bit like what [I IMAGINE] it must be like to be viewing your prize cucumber at the local gardening show…. — not something I have ever done 😉

    Nuala sorry if this is a dumb question – what do you mean when you say your stories are “rotating”? Do you mean that it is up for a while at one place and then goes somewhere else? sounds like a gardening term – crop rotation?

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  7. 😉 Ah, OK… Was thinking that would take a lot of emails and organisation.

    I must admit, I don’t track my stories and their various publishing outcomes in a spreadsheet yet, although maybe I should. Perhaps the main reason I don’t is Excel aversion. And just occasionally there’s a written contract that wont fit neatly in a spreadsheet. But maybe I will bung them all in a spreadsheet soon. It might cost me half a day of pain, but the reward will be at least half an hour’s post-spreadsheet illusion that everything is under control.

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  8. Short stories have a diminishing return for most writers. At first its a way of developing a bio, half a dozen stories published in reasonably respectable venues is a great achievement for a writer, and can open doors. But there is a line, where you either develop a full scale publication, most likely a novel, or you start to seem like old news. The exception are the writers who specialise in short fiion as an end in itself, Alice Munro or Kelly Link spring to mind. Like being a professional writer at any length, you have to limit your markets to those that pay properly, or are otherwise very prestigious.

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  9. Well said, Damien. Maybe my problem was not having a get-rich-quick programme, or maybe it was liking the short story too much. I did write a book, though, partly for those exact reasons you state. A proper book, I thought. Some well painted doors with shiny brass handles opened, and the moneyest people I’d met poked their heads round, and I’m not sure what went wrong then, maybe I just didn’t look like someone they wanted to come out and play with… maybe what I wrote still looked like short stories… or maybe I need to knock on some more doors.

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  10. Firstly, like most writers I’d probably write if I was the last human on Earth and nobody would ever read it. Recently I compared it to being a woodpecker- the tree/world is there, it has to be pecked. It would be nice, though, if writers were deemed to have the same or greater monetary value than all the ancillary occupations like agents, editors, critics, academics and whatnot, most of whom would down tools in an instant if somebody asked them to work for nowt, purely for the love of literature.
    As Damien very cogently pointed out, I think there comes a point where having yet another unpaid publication of a story does a writer little or no good. I’ve got so many things on my CV I have to leave most of them off now so I don’t have to send people a 2 meter scroll, and probably nobody cares about or has heard of half the things that ARE on there.
    There’s also the major major major issue that there are so many publishers and scare quotes “publishers” who basically take the piss and get a lot of pro content for nothing, or virtually nothing- these are the people who usually say “it’s good exposure” or whatever, knowing full well that it isn’t, they’re just milking people. It may be good exposure for THEM, because they’ve got loads of great content for free. Everyone’s exposed everywhere nowadays, the signal to noise ratio just keeps going up and up, but I actually don’t think the good opportunities and worthwhile places to be published that actually mean something for a writer’s career have increased at all. If anything they’ve decreased.
    BTW, the original “Could you be the next big author?” article is pretty much stating the obvious, albeit in a circumlocutory way… He could have just followed up that title with the word NO in large capital letters and left it there.

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  11. Hey Alistair. Love this, and your answer to the next big Q question made me laugh — but perhaps Toby W is laughing too, as he answered the question in an invoiceable article-sized length…

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  12. Oh gosh, it’s so bloody depressing isn’t it. Of course my first publication was with Pulp Net which led me to expect my words would be rewarded financially 😉

    It sucks, and I circle around these thoughts often:
    Why would I send my words somewhere to be published for free and only be read by other writers who wish to be published there too. What is the point of that? Does it devalue my words? Does it matter if, as Alistair so brilliantly said, I would be writing my words with or without payment/reader, just to keep me sane. Do I crave the audience? The acceptance? The feeling of being part of something?

    Who will buy my words? Will I write them anyway?

    When do we know we’re “good enough” to demand payment when there are a gazillion others hoping for the kudos (real or imagined) of being published in*Internet/print ‘zine scene monthly*?

    Even when a book is published I can see that book sit on a bookshop shelf and never sell because it does not magically change things and make people want to read you.

    It’s sad/hard/depressing. But – it is what it is, and I do sell short story collections and I do hope that one day one of them will be mine/yours/his/hers. You’ll not get rich from this but I think you may well be right to say, hang on, this *is* work, it’s not free. Not sure how many buyers there are though.

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  13. Oh Lane, I have been following your blog for a while and also have read your Ether short story, but only when you posted this question to the forum did I realise you are one and the same person! Feel a little silly now.

    As for short story payments, the majority of the time I am too grateful for being accepted for publication to think about money until after the fact, but I am slowly starting to worry about the sustainability of working like this. One day, I’d love to at least be able to consider taking the day job part time for a while, but if there’s not money at all for me in writing, it’s pretty hard to justify. Luckily, there are still a few publications who pay – and, more importantly, still people willing to pay for their entertainment!

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  14. Thanks Sara, Jamie and Lynsey May, I think this was a really useful thing to do. I have collated some of the points that other short story writers might find useful – along with some questions you guys have raised. I will try to post this tonight or tomorrow.

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  15. Hi Lane,

    While I agree with most of the posters above – short story writing isn’t going to pay your rent – there are good examples of short story collections getting the big prize: the Pulitzer. Most recently Olive Kittredge took the win, and prior to that Jhumpa Lahiri won for Interpreter of Maladies. And if we go way back James Michner won for his stories about the south pacific that eventually turned into a Broadway play and a movie called, obviously enough, South Pacific.

    I don’t rely on any income I’d make on my short stories (which is good because in all cases my stories were published without recompense) but my real goal is to continue to get my work out there, improve my writing and expand my readership. I find those things more satisfying than money because even if I got $100 (US) for a story, that’s really nothing compared to 100 readers…at least for me.

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    • Carol — How very curious you should mention South Pacific today. Just last night I was discussing James Michener with Maggie Gee’s husband, writer Nicholas Rankin, and he was telling me about South Pacific and that I absolutely have to go and see it sometime. Your comment came in about five hours later! I was only aware of Michener’s blockbusters, not that he had started out in short stories…
      Thanks for your comment, and good luck with your own writing! It sounds as if you have a very positive attitude in seeking readers rather than dollars and I’m sure this will stand you in good stead. Lane

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