Short fiction isn't usually the first thought a writer has. Usually it's novel writing or long form fiction. But that doesn't mean short fiction has no value. Quite the opposite in fact. Today, Alliance of Independent Author members Matty Dalrymple and Mark Leslie Lefebvre discuss how to sell short fiction as an indie author.
Matty Dalrymple podcast, writes, speaks, and consults on the writing craft and the publishing voyage as The Indy Author. She is a contributor to Writer’s Digest magazine, and her article “No Gatekeepers: Indie Publishing Your Short Fiction” appeared in the January / February 2022 issue. That article and Matty’s presentation on the same topic at the Writer’s Digest Conference 2022 are downloadable here. You can find out more about Matty on The Indy Author website or her personal site.
Mark Leslie Lefebvre
Mark Leslie Lefebvre is the author (as Mark Leslie) of numerous horror short stories and curator / editor of horror anthologies. He writes, speaks, consults, and podcasts based on his more than a quarter-century of experience in writing, publishing, and bookselling. He established the Kobo Writing Life author program and is the Director of Business Development at Draft2Digital. You can find out more about him on his website, or podcast.
Matty and Mark are the co-authors of Taking the Short Tack: Creating Income and Connecting with Readers Using Short Fiction.
Why Short Fiction
There’s no single road to writing and publishing success, and even the same road will deliver a different experience for different authors. An author’s mileage with various strategies, logistics, and tactics will vary—that’s the only constant. Similarly, there’s no single format, platform, or type of publishing that guarantees consistent results. The trick is to experiment and see what best supports your writing goals and your author business. Experimenting with and trying to sell short fiction is just one avenue.
In fact, one option too many authors overlook is the creative and financial opportunities offered by short fiction. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes, “The one bright spot in traditional publishing, and this bright spot isn’t just bright, it’s luminescent… is short fiction.”
Evolving technology opens opportunities for the enterprising indie publisher as well. In an article titled “Good Fit for Today’s Screens: Short Stories,” The New York Times writes, “Story collections … are experiencing a resurgence, driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer not only new creative opportunities but exposure and revenue as well.”
We—Matty Dalrymple and Mark Leslie Lefebvre—are also bullish on the opportunities short fiction offers authors, and we’ve capitalized on them ourselves. Mark has published countless horror short stories via the traditional short fiction market and through his own imprint. Matty indie publishes her Ann Kinnear Suspense Shorts.
We wanted to help other authors explore what short fiction has to offer, which is why we collaborated on the book Taking the Short Tack. In it, we collected a host of ideas about how authors can use short fiction to create income and connect with readers. We based our advice on personal experience and on a study of the strategies other authors employ. We share some of those ideas here.
Serving a Reader Need
Short fiction is uniquely suited to our increasingly fast-paced lives and decreasingly available free time. Readers are looking for stories they can consume during their commute, while waiting to pick up the kids from soccer practice, over their lunch break—even over their coffee break. To apply the nautical metaphor that Matty uses for the writing craft and the publishing voyage, sometimes what readers want is the equivalent of a trip on the ocean liner—a full-length novel—but sometimes what they want is a jaunt in an elegant dory—a finely crafted short story.
An Underserved Market
Despite all these opportunities, the short fiction market is far less crowded than the novel market, at least in the independent publishing space. The writer who knows what’s possible with short fiction can meet an underserved need.
What is Short Fiction?
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America define short fiction as anything under 40,000 words—with subcategories of short story (up to 7,500 words), novelette (7,500-17,500 words), and novella (17,500-40,000 words). Others divide the categories even more granularly: flash fiction (less than 1,000 words) or micro fiction (less than 100 words). Ernest Hemingway is credited with one of the shortest, and certainly most poignant, pieces of short fiction ever penned: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The scope of what constitutes “short fiction” is extensive.
How Can Authors Use Short Fiction to Grow and Engage an Audience?
Yes, we want to sell short fiction, but that's not its only purpose. Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the International Storytelling Center, says, “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities argues that “stories create community.” You can use your works of short fiction to create your own community of readers.
For example, offer a piece of short fiction as an incentive for readers to sign up for your email newsletter. Matty offers her latest Ann Kinnear Suspense Short as a reader magnet (and once she has written a new short, she publishes the existing magnet as a standalone e-book and updates the magnet offering with the new story, providing a continuous stream of new material to her newsletter subscribers).
Short fiction can also serve as a reader funnel, giving readers a taste of your writing style, your characters, and the world they inhabit. If readers are intrigued, they are likely to continue on to any longer works you have on offer.
Short fiction can provide great fodder for author readings, another way of enticing potential fans to your work. Many readings are excerpts from a novel-length work, but using a short story for your reading means you can provide the audience with a story in its entirety. And you don’t need to troll for invitations to readings organized by others; you can host your own reading by sharing your short fiction in a virtual venue such as a Facebook or YouTube Live event. Make a recording of the reading available to ensure maximum exposure.
Your short fiction can serve as outreach not only to readers, but to those who can help you reach those readers, such as libraries and bookstores. Consider using a piece of short fiction to introduce them to your work. A work of flash fiction might be short enough to print on a postcard advertising yourself and your work. A piece of micro fiction might serve as the header for an email.
Creating inexpensive print chapbooks of your short fiction enables you to share that content in forums such as conferences (and can also be a money-making opportunity if you charge for those books). If the conference sponsors a contest, having chapbooks to give to the judges is an engaging way to ensure they can read your work.
You can build goodwill, and hence reader connections, by including a piece of short fiction as bonus material in conjunction with a longer work. For example, the audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere includes the short(er) story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which follows up on one of the sub-plots of the novel. It’s fun for the reader or listener to get to the end of Neverwhere and find that they have a little more of Neil Gaiman and the Marquis to enjoy.
Are you thinking of dipping your toe into a new fictional world, set of characters, or genre? Use short fiction as a means of market testing this new direction, for both your readers and yourself. Does the new direction hold your attention? Will your current readers be willing to follow you in this new direction? You’ll appreciate learning this by investing a few thousand words in a short story rather than after having completed a full-length novel.
How Can Authors Make Money with Short Fiction?
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) defines pro rates for short fiction as $0.08 (US) per word, and many standalone shorts sell for $0.99, so it is true that no matter how prolific you are, and no matter how many pieces of short fiction you publish, it’s difficult to get rich on short fiction alone. However, it can be a meaningful income stream to supplement earnings from other work.
You could sell your story to the traditional publishing market, and this is probably the most well-established way of creating income from your short fiction. The approach has several advantages:
- It can provide up-front income: someone is paying you for the privilege of publishing your work.
- You will be working with an editor who can not only help you polish your piece of short fiction but also enable further connections within this world.
- Once you’ve found a home for your short fiction work, and after you have made the requested edits, your work is done; the outlet that publishes your work will handle any design elements and the production and distribution of the work.
- Having your work published via a traditional publishing market, especially a prestigious one, carries a cachet you don’t always get with independently published works.
Placement in anthologies—groupings of works from different authors—are one of the most powerful tools that a short fiction author has to pursue both income and reader connection goals. In the traditional publishing world, anthologies are often curated and edited by a recognized name. They can feature original works, include a mixture of new and reprint stories, or be themed reprint anthologies such as a Year’s Best Mystery Stories collection. Those with an indie mindset might consider curating their own anthology. The fact that the anthology includes many authors means it can sell to the fan bases of all those authors, improving its potential for income generation. The fact that all those readers will be exposed not only to the work of their favorite author but also to the work of the other authors in the anthology means that the opportunity for connecting with new readers is high.
Another indie option is to publish short fiction as standalone e-book. Matty publishes her Ann Kinnear Suspense Shorts this way, charging $0.99 for each story. To make this a viable money-making option, it’s important to hold costs down. Matty taps into a pool of beta readers to provide editorial input. For the covers, she uses a design template that matches the design of the covers of her novels, paired with a stock image. The benefit of the indie approach is control:
- You avoid the frustrations of navigating the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing market, hoping to win one of the limited number of slots in their publications.
- You can plan for the timing of the release of your story, opening marketing opportunities that are more difficult to coordinate if you’re at the mercy of a traditional market’s publication schedule.
- The short time between completion of a piece of short fiction and being able to make it available to your readers enables you to accommodate time-boxed opportunities related to holidays, anniversaries of historical events, even current news events, enabling you to take advantage of the constantly changing market opportunities.
Serials and Collections
Consider too, other mediums to sell short fiction. Serial stories have become increasingly popular as evidenced by the podcast Serial and its many imitators, as well as by the launch of Kindle Vella. You could post installments of a longer work on your website, accompanied by a donation option such as Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee to enable supporters to reward your work with a small payment. Or you could release installments of a longer work on the online retail platforms as installments, each for $0.99. Publishing installments of a book as a serial can be a way not only to earn money from your short fiction but also to create excitement as the serial builds, especially if you already have a devoted following to whom you can promote the serial.
In the traditional publishing world, collections (groupings of the same author’s works) are usually reserved for well-known authors, but indie authors can publish collections of their own work, as Matty plans to do with her Ann Kinnear shorts. Mark has published a full-length collection of his short fiction in One Hand Screaming and has created numerous themed mini story collections in e-book, print, and digital, leveraging reprints of stories he’d already sold and made money from. These chapbooks not only enhance his author SEO in online catalogs, but they are lower cost entry points into Mark’s writing. In addition, the cost of printing a 60-page story collection is just a few dollars, so he can offer them periodically as giveaways. These “bite-sized” collections give readers a taste, and if they like what they read, they come back for more.
Audio and Foreign Languages
There are other ways to sell short fiction. For example, don’t overlook the opportunities offered by audio. You might record these on your own, and even if you pay to have someone else perform the short work, the cost can be low since narrators generally charge per finished hour. If you pay the narrator outright for their work, you can mix and match the stories into new and unique audio collections. Consider selling these on your direct sales platform to maximize your revenue.
Foreign language markets offer another money-making opportunity. For example, Asia is a flourishing short fiction market. And any money you earn from foreign markets will be found money on top of already-earned money from English-language outlets. In Douglas Smith’s online article “Selling to Foreign Language Markets,” he cautions to submit a story to foreign language markets only after you have sold it to an English-language market. Many of the top English genre fiction markets have foreign language editions or will ask for an option on foreign language rights. Selling a story to a non-English market first could jeopardize a more prestigious and lucrative English first-rights sale.
And finally, don’t forget that the short of short fiction means you can fit the writing of these works more easily into your writing schedule and routine. They might act as a warm-up in preparation for a longer piece, a palate cleanser between projects, or even a treat you offer yourself on completing an arduous task. And when that short work is complete, you’ll have yet another arrow in your writerly quiver.
We’ve shared just a few ideas you can explore to use short fiction to connect with readers, earn additional income, and expand your author reach. Perhaps these ideas will trigger some of your own—if they do, please let us know!
ALLi Member Experiences: How to Sell Short Fiction
We asked the ALLi member what their experiences were with trying to sell short fiction.
“I love short stories as they can be used in multiple ways for multiple streams of income. I was originally commissioned to write 3 short stories based on Dante's Inferno for the launch of Dan Brown's Inferno in 2013. They paid me for the stories and published them exclusively on Kobo, and then when the rights reverted 6 months later, I republished the collection wide as A Thousand Fiendish Angelsin ebook and print. I narrated the stories and sold the audiobook edition wide, and I have also used the stories to create a new AI-narrated edition (with a male voice). Plus, I have minted an NFT special edition alongside AI-generated art from a text prompt based on the story.I have other short stories which have been re-printed in anthologies and featured in diverse magazines, like The Dark Queen, which was featured in an underwater archaeology magazine.”
“I write short fiction – short stories, novelettes and a novella – as palate cleansers between writing novels in my two series. These short pieces are then published as standalones, some of them in cute mini format paperbacks (6″ x 4”) that make great competition prizes or gifts to special fans. The shorter stories are useful as anthology entries eg one was included in L J Ross's hugely successful “Everyday Kindness” anthology last year. All great for raising visibility as well as personally satisfying, as smaller canvases are finished faster.”
“I write short fiction for a couple of reasons. One is as part of my work with scientists and technologists to use in public debate about the ethical issues of their research/developments. Secondly, as a way of getting a steady stream of published work in anthologies and magazines, that I then collect together every now and again and turn into a single author collection.”
I use short stories for two purposes.
- Multi-author anthologies
- Reader magnets
It’s possible they can do both at the same time (though possible exclusivity is a concern with an anthology). Another way to use shorts: audio reader magnets. It’s cheap to get a ~5000-word story turned into audio. If your short story is related to an existing book series, use the same narrator. You can even use BookFunnel to get signups for your audio magnet like you would an ebook.
“I've been doing 10K novelettes on my website. Readers can only get them from me, or on Smashwords (I have a few who won't buy direct). But the Smashwords novelette is priced higher. I have a major disaster theme in one of my trilogies. The novelettes follow side characters, during the day of that disaster. I've published 2 so far.I'm using the novelette series to grow my direct sales, and I've noticed that my direct sales overall have grown significantly since the novelettes released. I am making money daily with the two novelettes–they really are seeming like a gateway to direct sales. It might only be a dollar or two from the novelette each day, but…(I actually don't do much with my newsletter/reader lists, I'm horrible at it and haven't sent a newsletter out since Feb…)I also have freebies available direct on my site. I started with those–through bookfunnel–to get readers used to downloading direct. To market, I put small blurbs in the back of the related full length novels, and a note that they can buy other content set in the same world at my website. I put links up on my website and on my semi-monthly blog (where I'll put release news, deleted scenes, etc.). And I'll post a graphic on FB occasionally. While my total revenue from the direct site is still around 1.5% of my total, and I only started direct sales in June, I'm more than pleased with it.