Writers on the Short Story Market in 2006

“I don’t know much about the short fiction market nowadays – is there still a market?” responded writer Christopher Dreher.

Christopher Dreher writes features and profiles on a variety of subjects, including several features in and around the literary and publishing world such as "Why Do Books Cost So Much?" and "Help! Mom! There are politics in my children's books!”.  His work has appeared throughout North America in such venues as the Globe and Mail, Salon.com, New York, San Francisco Chronicles, etc.

The writers interviewed in this article offer a variety of takes on the short’s condition but all agree that shorts have the potential to grab a bigger piece of the reading market if adapted differently. The question becomes: is it not better just the way it is? 

The short in 2006 has reached a small, self-sustaining niche market. At the bookstore level, the short fiction market is mainly reserved for well-established writers. The other short market comes from the literary journals and competitions where new and established writers can exercise their craft among a peer-based audience. Its history may be long and varied but today the short fiction market is mainly played by either the best or the least known writers.   

Raywat Deonandan’s short fiction has been awarded two Hart House Literary Prizes, recognition from the Permanent Trust national fiction contest and the Katha Indian-American fiction contest, and first place in the 1995 Canadian Author's Association National Student Literary Contest. His first book, an anthology of short stories about the Indo-Caribbean Diaspora, titled Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999), was internationally critically acclaimed and won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. 

Raywat Deonandan’s short fiction has been awarded two Hart House Literary Prizes, recognition from the Permanent Trust national fiction contest and the Katha Indian-American fiction contest, and first place in the 1995 Canadian Author's Association National Student Literary Contest. His first book, an anthology of short stories about the Indo-Caribbean Diaspora, titled Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999), was internationally critically acclaimed and won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. 

“Today, short stories enjoy reduced readership, as the flower of fiction remains the novel,” author and scientist Raywat Deonandan said. “Literary magazines are the primary vehicle for short fiction, and they are read by a niche market, in part made up of people somewhat connected to the publishing industry. Short fiction collections need to be elevated to the status of the novel. This must be done at the bookstore level, where marketing and PR of a collection must match that of the novel.”  

“Publishers both large and small have long been saying how "short stories don't sell,” said Dave McIntyre. “Publishing short stories will have to be a labour of love until some inexplicable change in public tastes sways readers back to the short story form. Or perhaps it is the short story or the novella that might finally prove to be the forms best suited to all those e-books that folks at Slashdot and Wired keep talking about?” 

“I recently heard that ten authors account for 60% of the fiction sold in bookstores,” Bruce Holland Rogers commented. “I don't know if that's accurate, but I do know that publishers and booksellers do find some comfort in reliable sales, in repeat sales. So everything but the front list IS a niche market. That's just how it is.”

The short’s history proves that its brevity is easy to travel by, thus easy to modify and adapt to its times. It has undergone several revivals over the centuries -- that is, if you’re willing to agree that ancient myths, old yarns by the campfire or dockside tavern still qualify under our definition of the short story.  We’re going back all the way to the like of the Greek myths, the Canterbury Tales, the 1001Nights, Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  

According to David Madden, B.S., M.A from the MSN Encarta website, the 19th century developed the short story into a more avant-garde form. “Unlike mainstream short fiction, innovative stories do not rely upon conventional character, conflicts, plots, or other standard elements. They are anti-story—typically lacking realism, plot, a focused subject, or a clear meaning—and they explore events through chaos, randomness, arbitrariness, and fragments.” 

“When the short story emerged as a genre in the 19th century, it was seen as something totally new and modern.”  

While modern shorts can adopt a more complex form, classical shorts can argue that a story worth re-telling over the centuries has a richness to rival any media genre. Whichever camp you favour, the handsomest short fiction renaissance, for the writer, was during the late 19th century and early 20th.

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “In the first half of the 20th century, the demand for quality short stories was so great that F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to short story writing to pay off his numerous debts.” 

“The demand hit its peak in the middle of the 20th century, when in 1952 Life magazine published Ernest Hemingway's long short story (or novella) "The Old Man and the Sea". The issue containing this story sold 5,300,000 copies in only two days.” 

Such stats are unheard of today. “The short story can help a writer to learn craft. It can get the writer's name out there. But in terms of making a career, short stories are a hard way to go,” said Bruce Holland Rogers. “You can publish a hundred stories, even win awards for some of them, and not have made a name for yourself like you would with one moderately successful novel.”  

“It sounds impressive to say that you're a novelist and back this claim with a publication record of novels,” he continued. “Saying that you're a poet or a short story writer seems a bit more like confessing your shortcomings. Short stories and poems aren't easy to write well, but most people don't think of them as difficult or all that respectable, and they sure don't make money the way that novels can.” 

Bruce Holland Rogers is a writer who specializes in the short story and makes most of his income from that form.  He has done this by having some 200 short stories in his portfolio and his own innovative marketing strategy. 

"When I started sending out my short-short stories by e-mail subscription, I queried a few literary magazines to see whether they would still consider my stories for publication if 150 readers had already seen the story in an e-mail. Some of those magazine editors wrote back to say, "One hundred and fifty readers? You have more subscribers for your e-mails than we have for our magazine!" Now I have over 700 readers, and the list of literary magazines with more subscribers gets shorter and shorter." 

Most literary journals exist on very little money and often are supported by a University or literary institution. One of the advantages to being a self-sustaining niche market is that it can be an art-form unaltered by the need for sales. The obvious disadvantage would be if great stories don’t reach the readership that they deserve. 

So who starts the dance on how the short is going to move? The publishers with the readers or the readers with the publishers? 

Dave McIntyre is a Toronto-based writer who has been writing fiction since 1999.  Mr. McIntyre's work has been seen in publications such as Front & Centre, The Fiddlehead, Pottersfield Portfolio and Maximum Rock'N'Roll.   His short story "Vigil" was chosen as the winner of the 2002 Random House Of Canada Student Award In Writing, presented by the University Of Toronto School Of Continuing Studies, and was published in 2003 in the chapbook Two Stories.

Dave McIntyre said, “Cutting short stories from general interest magazines has definitely hurt the medium. Thirty years ago every magazine from Chatelaine to Playboy had a 'fiction' section where they published at least one short story per issue. Now even magazines like Atlantic Monthly have stopped publishing fiction. This has been an economic decision on the part of publishers and the result is that only the established writers or writers with high-powered agents have a chance to have their work printed outside of story collections.”

“Little magazines are supposedly going through a renaissance,” Christopher Dreher agreed, “though I wasn’t very impressed by most of what I’ve sampled over the past few years.  As to how it’s marketed and presented, the corporate influence on the writing world hasn’t been too healthy. Likewise with fiction’s disappearance into, ah, higher education – though, both of those, are topics in themselves.”  

Raywat Deonandan added, from a reader’s perspective, “It (the short story) tends not to be a relaxing read, as conscious thought is sustained throughout. This is both a strength -- as it tends to appeal to a reader's intellect-- and a weakness, since it thus makes this form less attractive to a wide market.” 

Bruce Holland Rogers has a different opinion of the readability of shorts. “Short fiction is valuable because it's easy to share with new readers. I can't really entice someone to read a novel on the spot, when they've just met me. The short story partakes of so many modes, traditions, and techniques, and I love moving from one kind of story to another. If you write a novel, it may be a wonderfully-flavored novel, but it's one main flavor. It's rocky road ice cream, day after day as you write it.”

“Readers don't have to be trained to appreciate a story. We can read and enjoy stories because the short narrative is all around us. We're always telling stories,” he concluded.
For Raywat Deonandan, “The goal of the short story, from the writer's perspective, is to keep the author in the public eye, allow him to better hone his craft, and to explore new techniques and visions in an accepting (i.e., understanding) environment.” 

Writer Mark Ellis, whose story collection reached the semi-finals in the 2005 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction competition, said,  “I’ve heard fiction mentors say, ‘Write 100 short stories, then start your novel,’ and I think this is good advice.  It bears out the notion that short fiction is a pathway to narrative proficiency. I’ve written many short stories, and now, as I tackle my novel, I find that, although a novel is not just a long short story, all the struggles with setting, character, conflict, resolution etc. are helping guide me through the novel. It has also been said by some that short stories are harder to write than novels, because you have limited time and words to create your effect. I don’t find this to be true. This novel is the hardest work I’ve ever attempted.” 

From a reader’s perspective, Carolyn Son, added, "Personally, I prefer novels, but that's only because most short stories aren't written very well.  To me, short stories are like poems. Because of their length, it's easier to write a bad poem than it is a bad novel. So, there a lot of bad short stories out there. Good short stories, though, are as great as any novel.” Carolyn Son is the editor for This Business of Dance and Music. 

"While many will balk at this response," Raywat Deonandan said, "I believe the short form is, on its face, easier than the long form. It is thus the best and most common first step into the world of fiction writing. In addition, the short form allows a writer to explore a single theme or voice to the exclusion of all else, whereas the long form necessitates multiple themes, voices and even plots. This can be more intellectually satisfying for some writers."  

Bruce Holland Rogers, who specializes in shorts because he loves the form, responded. "Writers who want to write novels may discover that if they write short stories first, they still have much to learn about novels even with many good stories behind them. I think that novelists should start with novels and leave short stories to those who particularly love short stories."

When asked if he thought it wrong to treat short fiction as an exercise of literary devices or a means to the novel, Christopher Dreher responded, "Yes.  Do people really do / say / believe that?  Such sentiments should be punishable by a gruesome, slow, lingering death." 

"There are readers who prefer short stories, or would learn to prefer them if they could find more collections that excited them," Bruce Holland Rogers believes. "I would love to see shelves in bookstores devoted to story collections, so that the story collections would stand out instead of being hard to find among the far more numerous novels in the Fiction or Literature sections of bookstores." 

Christopher Dreher reflected, “A number of stories, at different points in my life, have stood out. Joyce’s “The Dead” my freshman year in college, despite the all-thumbs professor who tried so hard to ruin it.  Certain stories that I’ve read at different times in my life have had significantly different reactions. When I first read Salinger I though his stories were great, though now I’d rather eat a handful of nails than take in anything about the Glass family.  Likewise Stephen King’s “Night Shift,” which in my early teens seemed quite slick and entertaining. I bought a dog-eared copy at a yard sale a few years ago and somehow the magic was gone:  I remember reading something about a character wandering around a sewer and coming across increasingly dangerous signs. Instead of feeling suspense, my reaction was, “Just turn around, run, get the fuck out of there...” Apparently, my older and grouchier disbelief would not be suspended.”

“Other different reactions were not entirely negative – I discovered Poe when I was eleven after pulling his stories down from a shelf in my grandparents’ house one bored afternoon and they scared me so much I slept in the cellar for the remainder of the visit, where there were no floorboards and no possibility for pounding hearts. When I reread Poe as an adult I didn’t key in on the scary aspects but I was blown away by the brilliant psychological acuity and elegant structure.”  

“Good examples of fully developed short stories include "War" by Luigi Pirandello or "Jody Rolled The Bones" by Richard Yates,” Dave McIntyre offered. 

Dave McIntyre said, “Reading can be seen as another form of entertainment, like movies or television, but I honestly believe that unlike other media, the act of reading makes the reader a better person. It engages parts of the brain that passive absorption of images and sounds never reach. People have too many distractions to filter out: cell phones, talk radio, internet sites, cable television channels numbering in the hundreds. Reading requires time and privacy and readers have to actively seek out the opportunities to take in a book wherever possible. And writers and publishers, in turn, have to provide compelling stories. There ain't one without the other.” 

Although, we are always telling stories, as Bruce mentioned, the art of the short has settled into a niche market where the priorities are on the writer and the form, not sales. In many ways this is exactly what any art form craves, however, in its current state it will continue to distance itself or be distanced from the general reading public. And what happens when our finest writers stay within their niche? What happens to our book market when the same titles get recycled for the umpteenth time? In its current state, the short will mostly likely never have the avid following that it had in the early 20th century. And no matter how prestigious or niche, what art wouldn’t blush at that reception?

© lyw