How to Sell a Short Story

Amazing Stories

Over at the Rumpus, Seth Fischer has kicked off a discussion about the viability of short story collections in these tough economic times. Though it’s well known that these sorts of books have never been an easy sell, it seems the big-house publishers have become even more wary of taking a risk on them, despite the fact that the short story form seems ideally suited to today’s ADD popular culture. So what’s to be done? Fischer’s scenario involves marrying the short story and viral marketing, with publishers posting samples of an author’s collection online and including a link to buy the entire book, along with more inventive methods like creating trailers for their products. I’m skeptical about this latter suggestion but Thomas Pynchon’s publishers have managed to drum up quite a bit of interest, or at least quite a bit of publicity, with the trailer for Inherent Vice. I enjoy it because the narrator (reported to be Pynchon himself) sounds like The Dude but it still strikes me as an odd way to advertise a novel. Plus Pynchon is a well-known enough name that he’ll probably sell alright anyway. I’m not entirely sure it would work for a debut writer, though I would love to be proven wrong.

Regarding the first idea, Amazon has starting offering individual short stories from new collections (such as One Story author Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing) but for now, this is the sole privilege of Kindle owners. Harper Perennial is doing a promotion via the website 52 Short Stories, which offers a free short story from the back catalog once a week for the entire year. Admittedly most of these are classics (though Lydia is there too) and I have no idea how well it’s generated sales. But it’s definitely an intriguing start and I hope that they continue to offer it into the next year.

So what are your thoughts, One Story readers? Aside from enjoying authors you’ve read in our publication, what would induce you to buy a short story collection by an entirely new voice? Are you open to internet marketing or do you prefer more grassroots efforts? What could make short stories something readers get excited about again? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

9 thoughts on “How to Sell a Short Story

  1. I personally think there is a big problem with redundancy in the publishing industry today. Take Lydia Peelle for example. I’ve read her collection. It’s wonderful. Go buy it. It will give you a fuzzy sensation in the cockles of your soul as you bathe in the prose that make you feel like you’re reading a Van Gogh painting.

    That said, look at where everything has been published. I can’t speak for certain, but at least half of the stories in there were published in lit mags. Maybe all of them were. They’re all certainly good enough to be published. But then two stories won Pushcarts, “The Mule Killers won an O’Henry, and two other stories were put in “Best New American Voices.” So then right there you have five eighths of her collection being anthologized before her collection ever sees the light of day. I loved this collection, but if I’ve already bought anthologies that contain most of the stories, if I already read the mags that print her stories, why am I going to buy the collection? I’m playing the devils advocate here, because I did buy the collection. And you might argue that in the past this system had worked well. But in the back content wasn’t as readily available as it is now, and you can’t get away with giving the milk away for free and then expecting people to buy the cow anymore.

  2. That’s a really great point Chris but I think what we’re forgetting here is the unspoken point of the Rumpus article: how to sell a short story to the “general public.” It’s true that people who are already interested in short fiction will have been exposed to Lydia’s work through her appearances in Pushcart and Best Of anthologies as well as lit mags. But what about the people who have never heard of or read her before? The bigger question is how to get them interested enough to have a sizable hit. What’s a “hit” is admittedly relative these days but it seems like this sort of push takes a Pulitzer Prize (as with this year’s winner, Elizabeth Strout) to generate much interest. Since almost all stripe of reader is increasingly getting exposed to content online, it seems natural that offering a taste of a story, a la iTunes, could be the next step.

  3. The thing that should be the focus of short story appeal today is not going to be something like organizing a bonanza for the short story or something like a free-drink win-big thing. I don’t think that would go far. rather, the publishing industries should discover the writers that have collections of at least 5 GREAT stories and then beat their drums about it. even people in Afghanistan or me here in Cyprus, would pick our phones and ring a relative in the USA to go to the nearest Barnes and Nobles store and get copies of Interpreter of Maladies, Drown by Junot Diaz or Once The shore by Paul Yoon.
    consider the recent story that was published in the New Yorker by the young little known Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s wife and the laugh at Atlantic monthly, many people have already pre-ordered her Novel and are begging her to get a collection out. even without seeing the book yet, the collection could sell in thousands. thats how one single story or 2 or 3 powerful stories can push a collection. art and literature always speak for themselves, sometimes they dont need to be pushed too far.

  4. I buy short story collections by new voices all the time – usually from reading something I’ve discovered online. We need powerful, dedicated writers to publish their work from a blog or website, and lit bloggers who pay enough attention to the online writers to recommend the good ones.

    Of course, I’m rather prejudiced in this regard. I can’t imagine wanting to bother with a submission process.

  5. Thanks for the comments, John and Lee! Nice points in both. John, you bring up the New Yorker, which is a very interesting case. While I’m a loyal subscriber and love the magazine, I find their fiction selections too repetitive. I feel like every time I open it, it’s another Lethem or Trevor or Lahiri. All amazing writers but it’s a little disheartening to see a magazine like that take so few chances. Tea Obreht is a good example of a debut voice they’ve exhibited this year, but I’m pretty sure the selection they published was a novel excerpt, not a story, and thus more easily marketable for her publishers. Whether she even has plans for a collection and how well it’d sell is anyone’s guess at this point. I’m more interested in seeing what happens to Kirstin Valdez Quade, whose story “The Five Wounds” was published a few weeks ago and is one of her first to appear nationally. There are definitely success stories like the authors you mention and I agree that two or three strong stories can get a collection noticed, as well as friendly word-of-mouth via telephone, email, etc. Wells Tower is one of the most recent examples of that. But we’re at the point now where agents and publishers are actually discouraging writers from even bothering with collections, at least if the note the Rumpus quotes from is to be believed. And that’s pretty sad.

    Lee, your point about authors publishing online is interesting but I think there’s still a big stigma that comes with that, one that many readers (I include myself here) find difficult to overcome. But there are some interesting lit mags out there that publish their stuff exclusively online, like Narrative or Juked. Would you care to share some of the sites where you’ve discovered some great voices with us?

  6. I actually do like the fact that stories are published in separate titles and then gathered into a momentous personal anthology. Even if you’ve read the stories before, separately, I think it gives you a solid sense of the writer’s voice when you find them all bundled up together. You may even appreciate the author differently. Plus, this promotes an interesting competition for those spots in the Best Of anthologies, which keeps the short story market running, and also makes individual stories stronger. When they come together in a single-author anthology, they’ve had a fair share of criticism.

    What beats me here is how short stories do seem finely tuned to our short-attention-spanned world (as the blog post says), and yet there is so much trouble selling them to the general public. Perhaps a freebie is a good idea, but I’ve found myself falling more easily for those inaccessible yet much-acclaimed titles. For instance, I was intrigued by Wells Tower’s volume, but I put it on hold after I heard him read his story for The Guardian, and then read “Leopard” in The New Yorker. (By the way, I do agree that The New Yorker, despite its brilliance, does get repetitive in its selection of authors, and slightly annoying in reserving its sliver of fiction to slices taken from novels.) Perhaps, as some have said, the short story has become such a darling of MFAs and professional writers and aspiring writers that it’s becoming estranged from the general public. That may be part of the problem.

  7. I think you’re completely right, F. Short stories seem to be starting to go the way of poetry, another art form with a rich history that is now read by much fewer people than it used to be. Joe Meno actually made this very point in his Q&A with us. You’ve hit the nail on the head though, I think short stories have gotten this reputation of being something written by writers largely for other writers, something that MFA students use to practice craft while working up to something novel-length (full disclosure, I’m about to start my second year in one of these very programs). They’ve got an “insider” quality that makes them inaccessible for a lot of people. And it’s probably worth noting that there are many readers who just flat out don’t enjoy the form; the stories end just as they’re getting interested. For people like that, a well-marketed freebie could make a difference – say, if a Kindle user purchased an author’s new novel and received as a bonus a short story they’d written in the past? Or a story by an author with similar qualities? Or maybe we should just embrace that the short story is a specific art form and trust that interested readers will find quality collections without too much hype.

  8. Thanks for your reply, Sarah. Funny enough, I was thinking of Joe Meno’s Q&A when I referred to what “some have said.” There’s also Stephen King’s introduction to the BASS 2007, along the same lines. I don’t have anything against MFAs per se, but they do seem to sponsor a virtuoso approach to short stories that don’t appeal to many people outside the circle of critics and writers. Mix that in with a publish or perish mentality, and you get a market flooded with short stories written for other short story writers. The idea of a short story bonus with Kindle purchases is good. I guess it’s tough to make a short story reader out of habitual readers of novels. It may work to try to connect short story readers with good stuff that’s coming out. One Story goes a long way in that sense.

  9. I’m late to this discussion, but here are a couple of thoughts:

    1) The general public seems to like the continuity and scale of the novel. Short story collections geared to a larger audience probably aught to have some unifying trends (I’m thinking like Corpus Christi Stories by Bret Anthony Johnston).

    2) Internet presence, free literature. People don’t like diving in without a taste. With a novel, you at least know it’s one continuous experience. I think people are wary about taking five or six or seven journeys with an author they might not love. Selling individual stories doesn’t solve that problem and the price points are usually not very compelling.

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