Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Earning Cents on Shorts

John Brown, author of Servant of a Dark God, asks an all-important question at his blog: Can you make a living as a writer of short stories? Excerpts:
We already know that many people break into the novel market WITHOUT writing short stories. So they're not necessary for starting a writing career, although they might have helped some folks. ... But some people just love short stories, so the question is can you make a living writing them?

The answer is yes, you CAN do it -- you go into television and get hired to write scripts for TV series (grin).

But what about doing it in print? Well, let's try some conservative math.
Read the whole thing. Brown gets pretty in-depth with his calculations, going so far as to estimate a necesary gross annual income ($30,000), how much you'd have to write per week at ten cents a word to earn it (8,000 words) and the annual number of story openings in pro-paying markets (approximately 2,000). It's an illuminating exercise to go through, but if you've ever sold a short (or even if you've only tried), you probably know Brown's conclusion: It's awfully hard to earn more than the price of a venti Frappuccino by selling the short stuff. Brown's suggestion? "Re-purpose the wordage to novels!" I'd say that's a good goal -- but only if you've achieved some storytelling competency first. It's a lot easier to fail under the ten-thousand-word mark.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
basheertome; Hat Tip: S.D. Smith)

24 comments:

Deka Black said...

well, for me: i write as a hobby, this first. But must say i LOVE short stories. With all my heart. is a visceral thing. I love them.

But for someone who follow thwe wish of make a living, well, i understand the hardship of make it with shorts.

With all, i believe the short is a type of story who makes the writer go straight, without detours, right to the fact. More hard than write a novel, whre you have plenty of pages to walk and reach certain points.

To make it short: I love short stories, i hope never dissapear, and i always search for anthologies of old.. and NEW shorts. But i understand.

Sometimes, being a romantic help to undeerstand the pragmatic ones ;)

B. Nagel said...

Hrrm. I remember reading about Fitzgerald writing short stories to pay the bills for his drinking. Well, and Zelda too.

Looks like that couldn't happen these days. And not just because ladies aren't named Zelda.

I'm just looking to place a story. For now, payment in copies is more than fair.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I can't imagine anybody even trying to do that. Wow. Isn't it like 99% of novelists have other jobs?

Scattercat said...

The short story is its own form. I heartily disagree with the advice to put the wordage to use in a novel. That's like telling a hip-hop artist to "Put all that bass to use in a tympani section." It's not the same thing; it's got a separate purpose and its own rules and language; and it's a little insulting to even make the suggestion.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Nathaniel, I agree with you on that all the way. There's a reason a novel is called a novel and short story is a short story and a novella is a novella. You can't mix and match. People who start short stories and say they can't write them because they always turn into novels never started a short story in the first place because they obviously don't understand the medium.

Loren Eaton said...

Deka,

I'm with you on loving short-form fiction. It is quite a lovely form and a shame that readers don't really gravitate to it anymore. I still think it's useful, though, for writers to learn their way around the short story before moving on to longer pieces. It requires so much more focus than a novel and (as such) can help us hone our craft.

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

After I left The Magazine, my wife and I used to joke that I would "write for positive affirmation." Seriously, some days it feel like that's all you need.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

Brown's suggestion does sound pretty brutal, doesn't it? Of course, there are a few authors who still seem to doing about that. Tim Pratt is one of the hardest-working writers in the specfic business.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

As strictly business advice, Brown's counsel seems to make sense; better to churn all those words into something that pays. But when it comes to the craft, well, you're absolutely right: They are different forms, although there's a little more overlap between them than, say, "Straight Outta Compton" and "Clair de Lune."

Scattercat said...

Oh, I don't argue the business logic of it. But who the heck gets into creative writing for the money? Frankly, if I was just looking for the most efficient way to convert my time into money, I'd be on my way to a business degree or something.

Does it suck that you can't earn a living on short stories anymore? Absolutely. It's depressing. But I don't write to earn a living; I'd love it if I could, but it's not why I'm writing. If I write a novel, it will be because I had a novel I wanted to write, not because it's a better deal monetarily speaking.

John Brown said...

I've held workshops for a lot of aspiring authors these last few years. Some people love shorts to death, and that's what they must write. But a lot of writers just want to tell stories, in whatever form they can. And they want to do it full time. The article was targeted at them. Its purpose is not to say everyone must write novels, only that if you want to make a living writing, you've got to do a lot more than write shorts. And it's not impossible to make a living writing. See the links to Dean Wesley Smith's articles at the bottom of my original blog.

It's true shorts and novels are sometimes very different animals. You can sustain reader interest in some things for the duration of a short that you can't over the long haul. Some flash pieces are more like the opening of a chapter, the posing of a question, than they are a full arc. Some work more like a joke: a quick setup and a punch line. But sometimes shorts and novels are very similar, the only difference being the size of the story problem the character is trying to deal with.

Anyway, I hope you all find success at whatever form you enjoy!

John Brown said...

One last thought. I write because I love stories and I love creating them (most of the time). So wouldn't it be natural for me to want to do this thing I love for a career? Although it's possible to make millions, I don't think most of us wanting this as a career expect to do that. We just want to be able to spend our days doing this instead of, say, working as a CPA (myself, Larry Correia, James Dashner), which pays a heck of a lot more money, on average.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Have I mentioned that I'm in the process of getting an MBA? Corporate Finance is kicking my rear right now.

Yes, very few of us are getting into fiction writing with hopes of a big payday. But many would like to make their hobby into a profession. Brown's point seems a pretty narrow one: If that's what you'd like to do, you can't get there through short stories alone. Of course, what we do with that is up to us.

By the way, if you wrote a novel I'd buy it. Or a short story collection. Or a chapbook of flitterfics. Anything really -- so get to it!

Loren Eaton said...

John (may I use your first name?),

Thanks so much for stopping by! It's great to have your input.

Its purpose is not to say everyone must write novels, only that if you want to make a living writing, you've got to do a lot more than write shorts.

This really was what I took away from the article. Some of us may be happy writing strictly for the love, but others who want to do more need to wake to the fiscal reality of the situation. Writers Digest, I think, had an op-ed a while back saying that MFA programs were doing a disservice to their students by allowing them to turn out unmarketable collections of shorts.

Deka Black said...

All this reminds me of a poem from Francisco Quevedo what says "Poderoso caballero es Don Dinero", in english: "Mighty knight is Mister Money".

I believe this verse resume plenty of things then and now.

John Brown said...

Loren, you may call me whatever you want (grin). And I do realize that there are a LOT of writers who don't want to be in the writing-as-living rat race. They prefer to compete in another one. Or not in any at all.

I wonder about MBA's as well. I got accepted into a top 20 program. At least, it was ranking that way by one service. And I have no idea how they rank these programs anyway. But I mention the ranking because it's supposed to be good. While I've met many great professors and students, I've actually learned more about writing craft and business from public workshops held by professionals. One MBA instructor I do think would be interesting to study under would be TC Boyle. But he's too many states away for me.

S.D. Smith said...

Great post, Loren. As usual. More famous authors should check you out. Plus, John Brown gives me, Sam Smith, hope that people with very ordinary names can make it.

I like what Garrison Keillor said about MFA programs.

http://www.publicradio.org/columns/prairiehome/posthost/2008/07/14/dont_inhale_too_deeply.php

Scattercat said...

Yeah, I didn't get the impression that the article was a prescription for everyone. I just rankled a bit at the pull-quote.

Loren Eaton said...

Deka,

Here we call it the Golden Rule (although not the one from Jesus). This version is "he who has the gold makes the rules."

Loren Eaton said...

John,

Alas, my MBA program isn't prestigious at all. But it is close to my home. I enrolled because I realized that my Lit degree (as much as I enjoy having it) isn't going to put food in my child's stomach. And he likes food quite a lot. He also enjoys knocking over chairs and pulling out Daddy's hair, so there's more money for broken furniture and hair plugs. I'm telling you, the expenses never end.

Loren Eaton said...

Sam,

Well, you've been commenting here for a while, so I already considered my myself having reached the attention-of-famous-authors mark.

Keillor is hilarious. His bit on useless degrees is funny, too.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Rankling's okay. Its health benefits are often underrated. Gets the heart pumping, gives a healthy little push to blood pressure, makes the synapses start sparking. Why else would one start the day reading the newspaper?

John Brown said...

That Keillor response was great

Loren Eaton said...

Hard to beat Keillor, isn't it? He has such a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor.