Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

Selling Short Fiction — Is it Easy?

Is it more difficult to sell a book of short fiction?

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted August 7, 2008 | Updated July 27, 2019

Q: I would like to start out writing short stories. Is it more difficult to sell a book of short fiction?

A: Until very recently, I would have said yes. My opinion was revised when I attended the Agents and Editors Conference in Austin last month.

I was there to promote my coaching business and pitch my novel, Watershed. My agent of choice was Kimberly Cameron at Reece-Halsey. Ms. Cameron likes horror. Several other agents at the conference recommended I pitch the book as everything from "mainstream fiction with supernatural elements" to "dark fantasy." While my novel has an uncharacteristically upbeat ending, it's a horror novel.

After I pitched the book to Ms. Cameron, we discussed my published short fiction. I mentioned the two stories that had appeared in an anthology with Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Ramsey Campbell and a slew of others.

"Have you considered publishing an anthology?" Ms. Cameron asked.

I had not. I'd assumed that you needed a couple of bestselling novels under your belt before you could do that. I had also read that agents don't represent short fiction.

Ms. Cameron smiled. "I do," she said.

I stand corrected. But I also stand firm on my original belief that if you are pitching an anthology of previously unpublished short fiction, you've got a tough sell on your hands.

Don't get me wrong: short stories are a good thing. You're going to find a lot of people who will tell you otherwise. They'll tell you the fiction magazines are all but gone, anthology sales numbers are down, and really, with the world scheduled to end in 2012 anyway, why make plans?

Here's the thing: writing isn't a business of odds and statistics. It's not science. Even the sales aspect isn't really mathematically based, although it pretends to ride on numbers, graphs and statistics.

Writing is an intuitive practice as much as a craft. Who can tell what's going to happen with a piece of writing? When I began selling stories in the early 90s, I didn't even know the markets. I was barely aware of manuscript format.

When things started to happen, I never looked back. There was no plan. I was winging it.

And the death of the short story was as popular a writing magazine topic as it is today.

So my advice is to hear the cautionary tale. Take it in. Absorb it. Then, with a boulder-sized grain of salt, bury it and do what you want to do. Write for yourself.

But if you want to publish an anthology, sell the stories to magazines first. Then have the reprints published as an anthology.

This serves three purposes. First, it gets you paid a little (and I do mean a little). Second, it gets you used to the "business" of writing — acceptances, rejections, editorial rewrite requests. While it's great to get paid for your work, dealing with the business adds multiple layers of complexity. It takes time and experience to adjust, and cultivate a professional attitude.

Third, professional publication gets your name out there, which is by far the most important of the three. Credibility helps you sell. Ms. Cameron perked up quite a bit when I told her about the short fiction sales. It makes a difference.

I met several writers at the Agents and Editors Conference who noted a resurgence of interest in anthologies, and short story writing in general. I love short fiction, and so I would love to believe it, but that is not my experience. In my weekly visits to Books-A-Million, I see lots and lots of novels. Not so anthologies. The ones that jump out are the tried and true, yearly best-of collections.

That said, if I didn't believe in the viability of the form, I would not have started a webzine that publishes it.

So now we know that we can publish a book of short stories. As Jeff Goldblum observes in Jurassic Park, we are often inclined to focus so sharply on whether or not we can do a thing that we don't stop to think about whether or not we should.

If you're in the same boat with the author of the above question — and a right big boat it is — you really shouldn't be thinking about publishing at all. Not yet, anyway.

You should think no further than your next word.

I know I've trotted out this old wheeze before, and I'll probably do it again. If my writing experience could be summed up in one phrase, it's this: publishing is not the be-all, end-all of your entire existence.

Sure, Dave, you might think. Easy for you to say. You've published umpty-ump short stories. You have a completed novel being reviewed by an agent. You're there. You've arrived.

But where have I arrived, exactly?

I'm standing in the middle of the road, and I can't see either end of it. That's writing. It's the journey.

We might look enviously at a writer like Stephen King and say, "now that's a guy who has arrived." I'd bet Mr. King would be the first to refute the idea. He just published Duma Key, and has several other books projected for publication over the next three years.

If he had truly arrived, there would be no more stories. Tales of the journey. We're all on it, no matter where we might be as writers.

It's a journey of belief, run principally on faith. Be happy about that. Faith is a mighty big engine. You need it. You need a rocket motor the size of Gibraltar to keep this kind of dream moving.

I've strayed a bit from the original question, but not that far. Yes, you can publish. Publish short stories in magazines. Then, after you have 1) a professional reputation and 2) legions of rabid fans, pitch your anthology to an agent. Do your research, and find out which ones accept anthologies. Or use your face-to-face novel pitch as an opening, like I did.

You can publish in any form you desire. But if you're thinking about publishing and you haven't finished your first story yet, the cart is verily before the horse. Switch 'em around. Your journey will proceed far more smoothly.

©2008 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

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