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WHITHER THE SHORT STORY?

September 3, 2011

Good morning, class.

Good morning, sir.

Our subject today is “Whither the short story?” I’ll begin with a quick historical summary, and all I really need to do toward that end is drop the question mark from the end and the H from the first word. Because for the past sixty years or so, short fiction has indeed been withering on the vine. I could suggest causes—television, mass-market paperback books—even as I could point out symptoms—the demise of the pulps, the decline of general-interest magazines. It all adds up to a pretty interesting tale, and an instructive one in the bargain, but as we’re discussing the short story, it seems only fitting to keep my preliminary remarks short.

Arnold, did you say something?

No, sir.

I could have sworn you just said, “Well, it’s too late for that.”

It may have crossed my mind, sir. Perhaps you heard me thinking it.

That must be it. So I’ll just summarize: After half a century or more of cultural dominance, short fiction largely disappeared. What magazines no longer published and readers no longer cared to read, writers stopped producing.

When I began writing in the mid-1950s, the shrinking market still had enough depth for me to get started there. Like most of my contemporaries, I’d published a dozen or more short stories in magazines before I even attempted a novel. (Remarkably enough, all those early stories have been assembled in One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.) As soon as I could, I moved on to paperback original novels, but I never entirely stopped writing short fiction, and I’ve had cause to be grateful to the form, far beyond the relatively small sums I’ve earned from it.

More than once, short fiction kept Matthew Scudder’s heart pumping when I thought the series had come to an end. After Dell did nothing much with the first three books, it seemed unlikely that another publisher would want to pick up the series. But I had the character very much on my mind, and wrote a pair of novelettes for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I found them sufficiently engaging to write a fourth novel on spec, and Arbor House published it as A Stab in the Dark, and Scudder was back in business.

Then. when the fellow stopped drinking at the end of Eight Million Ways to Die, I figured I’d written myself out of a job. Only a commitment to Bob Randisi to produce a Scudder short story for an anthology led to “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” That story became my first sale to Playboy and brought me my first Edgar Allan Poe award, but more to the point it kept Matthew Scudder in business. Within a year I’d spliced in a couple of subplots, upped the word count from 8500 to 90,000, and produced When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the favorite Scudder novel of a large number of readers.

A few years later I wrote a story, “Answers to Soldier,” about a hit man on assignment in Roseburg, Oregon. It was well received, with a Playboy sale and an Edgar nomination, but it was clearly a one-off. Or so I thought, until a couple of years down the line it struck me that my hit man was just the sort of Urban Lonely Guy to wind up on a therapist’s couch. So I wrote “Keller’s Therapy,” and one thing led to another, and there have now been four novels about the fellow, with a fifth in the works.

Now I certainly never set out to develop a series about a hired killer, but—yes, Rachel?

Sir, I was just wondering if “anecdotage” is a word.

It’s a stage in a man’s life, Rachel, and I do seem to have entered mine. So let me just say I have ample reason to be grateful to the short story. And, with the whole world of writing and publishing turned upside down by technology in general and the eBook revolution in particular, I wonder if the short story might be in line for a renaissance of sorts.

I speak as one who has been self-publishing short fiction for Kindle and Nook for some months now. At latest count, I have 23 stories on offer, all but two of them priced at 99¢. (Two novellas, Keller in Dallas and Speaking of Greed are $1.99.) What is it, Edna?

Sir, isn’t Speaking of Lust also a novella, and sort of a companion piece to Speaking of Greed? And isn’t it a mere 99¢?

That’s quite true, Edna. It’s also true, just as Emerson told us, that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I’ll remember that, sir.

You do that. At either price, my royalty on Kindle sales is 35%, as a minimum price of $2.99 is required to qualify for their 70% royalty rate. The math’s not terribly tricky here; when somebody downloads one of my stories, I get 35¢.

It is, as you may imagine, a slow way to get rich.

On the other hand, it’s a quick and easy way to put a whole batch of short stories into the hands of readers who might enjoy them. Some of these stories are available in book form, in my omnibus collection Enough Rope. Many, though, were written for anthologies, or published in magazines, and have essentially disappeared.

And, if it’s a slow way to get rich, it’s also a hard way to lose money. Some of the earlier stories needed to be scanned, but that’s not awfully pricey, and it’s virtually the only cost involved. I cobbled up covers for the individual stories by downloading stock photos (@$2.99 apiece) and adding type with Picasa; that process was so much genuine fun that I can hardly begrudge the time spent on it.

And are folks downloading them? Well, yes, as a matter of fact they are. Some stories get a lot more play than others, and it’s probably not surprising that the four Burglar stories and one Keller novella have outdistanced the rest of the pack. A couple of stories had fewer than ten sales in the month of August. One of these slow sellers is a one-act play, How Far, and I didn’t really expect a huge eAudience for a dramatic work; I put it up more in the hope that someone might be moved to stage the thing. As Dark as Christmas Gets hasn’t moved many copies, either, and that’s more surprising as it’s a Chip Harrison story, and the books have had a decent following. Maybe its sales will pick up some in December…

Yes, Paula?

Why don’t you tell us about some of the winners, sir?

Good idea. Well, this past month just over 500 readers downloaded The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke. That’s a Bernie Rhodenbarr story, and like The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis it’s a locked-room mystery, so it’s no surprise that it’s moving nicely. That single story earned me $175 for the month of August. If it finds readers at that rate for a full year, it will net me more than it brought when I placed it with a magazine.

More to the point, it’s finding an audience. Another story, Catch and Release, is not about one of my series characters; it’s a dark and nasty story about a fisherman, written for Stories, the anthology superbly edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, and it too has found a post-publication readership as a Kindle short story, with well over 200 August downloads. As you can see, it’s got a particularly attractive cover, but I don’t know that thumbnail cover art makes that much difference online. My guess is that it must have generated some positive word-of-mouth; readers evidently liked it, and let their friends know about it.

My guess is that short stories work well for the eBook audience. The demand on one’s wallet is negligible, and for a hot 99¢ you can have something to read during lunch hour, or while you wait for the bus.

The real test, I suppose, will come when I write a new story, and one that’s not committed in advance to a particular anthology. If it’s suitable, and if it makes the cut, I’ll probably want to publish it first in EQMM or AHMM—because I think highly of those two magazines, and have a long positive history with them both.

But suppose it’s not right for either magazine? Could I ePublish an original short story and reach enough of an audience to make it worth the trouble? I won’t really be able to answer that question until I try it and see, but my guess is that it’ll work.

And simply having the option of self-publishing short fiction for eBook readers makes it a good deal more likely that I’ll write it in the first place.

I guess you go where the money is, sir.

Not really, Rachel. And when I try to, it’s generally gone by the time I get there.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a good idea for a short story because the profit possibilities were slim. I’ve always written the story and then tried to figure out what to do with it.

But first one has to have the idea. A novel may begin with a scene and gather momentum and focus as it goes along, but a short story is a good deal more idea-dependent. And the writer’s imagination, that magical entity from which ideas arise, has other principles besides ars gratia artis. It’s more apt to come up with ideas if there’s a use for them.

Back in the mid-1960s, my good friend Donald E. Westlake wrote three or four contemporary short stories about people in relationships. They might have landed in one of the slicks—Redbook, Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post. They were well wrought, as you would expect from Don, and they were charming, but the market was a thin one and his was not a Big Name back then, and none of the stories sold.

So he didn’t write any more of them. Not out of disappointment, although he was surely disappointed, but because he didn’t get idea for more stories in that vein. His imagination looked at the results and concluded the game wasn’t worth the candle, and it turned its attention in another direction.

The more ePublication of short stories becomes a viable option, the more short stories will be written. That’s just how it works. Does that mean the short story may once again become the dominant literary form? No, but here’s the thing—it won’t have to be dominant. The playing field has not only become increasingly level in the eWorld. It has also broadened out, stretching nigh onto infinity. There’s plenty of room for everything.

Yes, Arnold? You have a question?

Two questions, sir. If that’s all right. First of all, do you think you could post a list of all your ePublished short fiction? With live links for those who want them? It would be handy to have it all in one spot.

That’s a brilliant idea, Arnold, and I can but wish I’d thought of it myself. Here you go:

A Bad Night for Burglars
Almost Perfect
As Dark as Christmas Gets
The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis
The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke
Catch and Release
A Chance to Get Even
Dolly’s Trash and Treasures
Headaches and Bad Dreams
How Far
In For a Penny
Keller in Dallas
Like a Thief in the Night
Scenarios
Speaking of Greed (the novella)
Speaking of Lust (the novella)
Sweet Little Hands
Terrible Tommy Terhune
Three in the Side Pocket
A Vision in White
Welcome to the Real World
Who Knows Where It Goes
You Don’t Even Feel It

There you are, Arnold. These are all Kindle links, but all the stories are available for Nook as well.

Thank you, sir. My other question is about “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke.” Didn’t you write that in collaboration with your wife? And have you been giving her half the Kindle royalties?

Let me take Seth’s question first, Arnold. Seth?

I was just wondering, sir. You wrote several Matthew Scudder short stories, didn’t you? Including the one you mentioned, “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” Wouldn’t those be a good bet for ePublication?

An excellent question, Seth. And I may have a very interesting announcement on that very subject before too long. Keep coming to class—or make sure you subscribe to my blog—and you’ll find out all about it very soon.

Oh, dear. Look at the time. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to respond to your question after all, Arnold. What was it again? Something about “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke,” wasn’t it? Ah, well. We’ll get to it next time…

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55 Comments
  1. Great. Now I will be downloading all weekend. Thanks a lot there buddy!

  2. Well, you just sold another copy (copy?) of the Chip Harrison story, because that drove it to the top of my queue… maybe you should put “A Chip Harrison Story” on the book cover? (book cover?)

    Just mentioned the cover of Catch & Release to a friend who is Kindle publishing novellas. Though the cover wasn’t what made me click the Buy button, your covers have been interesting and evocative and are a factor. So – you are spending that $2.99 very well!

    • Copy, book cover—new times call for a whole new vocabulary, don’t they?

      Hard to know how much effect the covers have. I’ve had fun with them, though sometimes it’s impossible to find anything suitable from the stock photo people, and for Keller in Dallas I gave up and downloaded a brick wall and threw some type at it. Sales were just fine. (And if my covers are interesting and evocative, it’s all I can do these days to restrain myself from spelling it eVocative…)

  3. Thank you for a most interesting class, Mr. Block. Next time I’ll bring apples.

  4. Thank you, Jaye. And apples are always welcome, but your radiant presence is gift enough.

  5. Love your alter-egos. Hubby has been downloading all your stuff since he is the official Kindle owner. I’m the over-the-shoulder reader.
    E-publishing is the salvation of the short story. I grew up with shorts and I love them – short stories introduced me to myriad authors. As you say, long before the publishing world suffered any upheaval or financial problems, the short story was in danger of going the way of the dodo bird. I get a thrill both from reading and writing a well-crafted short story.
    Baby, if you can write good short fiction, that’s the first step to a excellent longer work.

  6. Well, I should say you love my alter-egos. A little bird tells me you’ve got a big old girl-crush on Jill.

  7. There seems to be a growing readership of short stories published online. I think this also is helping to bring the short back.

  8. After recently re-reading “Telling Lies…” it’s nice to be back in the “classroom” again.

    • Nice for me as well, Jaq. Arnold and Rachel and their friends have begun turning up in my monthly column for Linn’s Stamp News, and I realized how much I enjoyed having them around.

      • I actually have a question for you. Do you happen to remember if you’ve written any columns on adaptation? I’m teaching a class on it at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, and would love to have your take on it, as someone who has seen their prose work both done well and mutilated.

      • Vytautas? Prince of Hrodna and of Lutsk? Postulated king of the Hussites? That Vytautas?

        I assume you’re asking about film adaptations. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a column on the subject, but I did post a guest blog on Glenn Kenny’s site. I’ve had three books adapted for the screen, and didn’t like any of them—nor did the critics or the public.

  9. Chris permalink

    Thanks for the links. The trick now will be to figure out which stories here are not already in Enough Rope or One Night Stands and Lost Weekends. But I think I’m bright enough to figure it out… maybe.

    • Chris, none of the listed stories are in One Night Stands & Lost Weekends. Several are in Enough Rope; in the list on the About LB’s Fiction page of the blog, those stories are indicated with a hashtag.

      • Chris permalink

        Pefect, thanks. As I’ve told you in person, I think you’re one of the best ever short story writers in the business – and glad that you are giving these stories the “e” attention they deserve. I also think you don’t give enough credit to your early stories (i.e. from One Night Stands) – these are still fun to read after all these years.

  10. Thanks very much, Chris. As to the early stories, I’ve observed that most of us tend to judge our early work harshly. It may be our own callow immaturity, reflected in the work, that bothers us. My own decision, arrived at over time, has been to make everything available and let readers sort it out.

  11. I hope you’re right about short stories coming back, as at its best the short story is a powerful art form all of its own (I can’t stand people who think short stories are just truncated novels; they also tend to be the same people who think ‘shorts’ is an appropriate term for them…). I’ve certainly found some great new short story authors since ebooks took off.

    I host a guest-blog feature on my site called ‘In Defence of Short Stories’ – it might be of interest to some on here.

  12. jalfieri permalink

    I’ve discovered your short stories in the several collections, and really enjoy them. Catch and Release was terrific. And although I’ve only been fishing a few times, I can now justify why I’ll never do it again.

    • Thanks, Joe. And if your determination to avoid fishing should ever waver, you can reinforce it by reading “Sometimes They Bite”—another cautionary tale…

  13. Lawrence,
    You are not the only one doing good business with short stories. It is increasingly becoming a trend. I do not have hard data to show you, but I have seen enough and heard from other authors doing the publishing to be inspired to do my own set of short stories, a connected series, if you will, with each story around 100 pages each in ms. form. It’s a brave new world! And I’m lovin’ it so far….

    • Very interesting, Brian. It’ll be good to see how it all shakes out. The brave new world of publishing is whirling like a dervish…

  14. Yup! That Vytautas 🙂

    If you need anything from Lithuania, just say the word. In fact, being here makes it difficult and rather expensive to get English books so I’m extremely grateful for your current cornucopia of affordable fiction!

  15. LB,

    Do you think the future of “e-” short stories is that they will be sold individually like you’re doing now, or will they eventually be collected into a single e-book and sold as a collection like Enough Rope? I ask because, from a consumer’s point of view, if you wait for a collection you are usually getting the stories at less than $1 apiece (& of course, the author’s royalties go up since the collection probably sells for $7.99).

  16. Thomas E permalink

    I was wondering what you think of the future of the short novel… the novel between say, 25,000 words and 60,000 words that has almost died out in traditional publishing.

    It seems to me that it could be in for a resurgence.

    • Possible, but hard to say. Fifteen years ago the then-head of Waldenbooks thought short books were the future. Didn’t happen, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen now. Many in science fiction regard the novella as the ideal length for the genre, but it hasn’t been commercially viable. Could that change in the eWorld? Maybe, maybe not.

      My own sense of things is that length is going to be less of a consideration than it once was. No more Procrustean bed.

      • Thomas E permalink

        Thank you for your reply, very interesting thoughts.

  17. Craig,
    If I can add some insight to your question (and I do not mean to hijack this thread but my experience may help)… my best-selling title is my short story collection “Reaper’s Dozen”. I have three novels also available that do not sell as well. For some reason, the short stories are bringing in the most money right now.

  18. Bonny Millard permalink

    Ahhhh, LB, I’ve missed you and “Arnold” and the gang! I loved reading your columns in WD back in the ’80s and really hated when you left the magazine. Those were the early days of my writing, and you always gave me something important to think about and some laughs along the way! I’m recently new to your blog (and we’re FB friends) so I will keep up with you now. I also met you several years ago at a Harriette Austin Writers’ Workshop. Bonny

    • Bonny, I had to Google “Hariette Austin” to remember where it was. I remember that visit to Athens , but barely; it must have been quite a while ago. Thanks for the kind words.

  19. Michael Fishman permalink

    Articles like this are priceless, so thank you.

    I like short stories. I like to read them and I like to try and write them and I don’t think they’ll ever go away entirely. You mentioned the eBook audience, but I think it’s more than just that group. I think people, deep down, really want to read but for whatever reason don’t want to commit to a novel so they turn to short stories. I think that’s a big reason for the recent popularity of flash fiction.

  20. Excellent post. I’m happy to see Arnold and Rachel and the gang are still around.

    And I’m also happy to see that you have a blog. Most excellent. Looking forward to reading more and to reading through the archives.

    • Thanks—I’m glad as well to have Arnold and Rachel back again. Their occasional impertinence is a small price to pay for the pleasure of their company.

  21. I wonder how much your sales are driven by your name. You are a well-known author, after all. I’d be interested to read a breakdown like this from someone with less of a reputation. Still, as a writer hoping to make a living from the craft, I appreciate this little lesson. Thanks, Mr Block!

    • Thanks, Adam. OTOH, had the piece been written by someone unknown to you, you’d have been less likely to encounter it. QED, I guess.

  22. John permalink

    Thank you for the fun post. I think I’ll budget out some money to buy your list. 😀

  23. The royalty scheme for Amazon frustrates me a bit. Price something at $2.50, and you earn 88 cents. Price it 50 cents higher, and you earn $2.10 – $1.22 more. I realize that there’s some overhead that makes it difficult for Amazon to offer the 70% royalty at the very lowest prices, but it would be nice to see more of a sliding scale.

    I did contribute a few bucks to your retirement fund over the weekend. I finally picked up the Kindle version of A Drop of the Hard Stuff (yeah, I know. It’s been out forever – but my schedule has been a bit hectic). Also picked up Ariel, Tanner’s Twelve Swingers, and Hit and Run in the dead tree edition at bargain prices. I’m a rabid Bernie fan, pretty big Scudder fan, and have less interest in the other characters (but I find it difficult to pass up a book that has scenes in Iowa).

    I really believe that the short story is due for a revival. With the shorter attentions spans of many of today’s readers (fueled by the internet’s method of doling out things in bite sized portions), it seems that short stories are a good alternative to novels.

    I started writing short stories as a way to practice technique before beginning work on a serial killer novel. A few years later, I have more than 100 stories, on a strangely odd assortment of topics (serial killer stuff, yeah, but also a lot of sports stories and even one about a talking turtle). I’ve also tried to give back to the writing community by helping some others along. I ran a small (3 student) fiction seminar in the spring. At least one of the writings in that seminars seems to have re-dedicated herself to her writing.

    Sales for a non-established writer? Yeah, that’s the negative aspect. I’ve bundled 74 of the stories into a collection (80K words) and initially priced it at around $3.50. It’s been selling like broccoli in a school cafeteria, even after slashing the price temporarily to 99 cents (I’ve yo-yo’d it back up to $1.82 to see if the odd price catches anyone’s eye).

    I even tried to break off one of the individual stories into its own eBook. It’s a roughly 10K word story about the employee of a cell carrier using inside info to spy on customers. Pretty freaky story (or so I’ve been told), but even at 99 cents (or 1/100th of a cent per word), sales are non-existent. I shot the cover photo crouching in the bushes outside my house and taking photos of a lower level window. Happily, nobody called the cops to report suspicious activity.

    At this point, it’s really hard to justify my fiction writing from a financial perspective (especially since I’m doing freelance writing on other topics for actual payment). However, it’s really easy to justify from a personal enjoyment perspective. It’s a cheap hobby, and I’m not financially dependent on my writing (I’m a professional cubicle dweller).

    My next project is a set of two novellas that will serve as the foundation for a series of books about a detective character. I want to do a simultaneous launch of the two titles (so that there is immediately a series), and I’m anxious to squeeze this into my free time between now and the end of the year, which pretty much requires them to be novellas of around 20K words.

    I’ll either become the next John Locke … or not.

    (OK, I’m done hijacking your post, LB. Carry on …)

    • Thanks, Kosmo. Some interesting observations here. I don’t know that short stories are the future; I think it’s enough if they have a future in the eWorld. Regardless, I suspect they’ll always be a slow way to get rich.

  24. Lisa Scott permalink

    Lawrence, my romantic short stories (singles and the collections) have been selling quite while on amazon and nook. But I’ve sold more on itunes than amazon and nook combined. Make sure you’ve got your stories for sale there, too. Maybe people like reading shorts on their iphones? (I go through Smashwords, which distributes to retailers like Sony, itunes, Kobo etc.) And here’s a huge plus: you’ll get 60% royalty on apple. Let’s hope you’re right that shorts are hot now!

  25. While it certainly helps to have a fan base, short stories by unknown authors can also be successful. I’ve got a 2700-word locked room mystery that’s been selling about one copy per day, and is on track to sell 50 copies this month. It’s been a pretty consistent seller for over a year now, with sales gradually been creeping up. I wrote the story it as the first of a series, and haven’t written any more yet, but this post reminds me I should probably get on that and write some more shorts. A lot more.

    Thanks!

    • David, thanks. Good to know, and it seems to confirm what I’d like to believe—that the work and the audience are increasingly able to find each other. That’s true on eBay and Match.com, so why not in our world?

  26. I came over here from Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, which I have been following for over a year now. I found your post very encouraging. I’ve been writing short stories for years, selling them slowly slowly, and mourning as one by one traditional markets folded. Then DWS and his wife turned me on to the joys of electronic publishing and it’s like sighting a wonderful new world after many months at sea. I love short stories; I love to read them and love to write them. I now have over a dozen individual short stories, a few short memoirs, two collections, and a book-length memoir for sale at Kindle and Smashwords. For some reason I can’t fathom one short story, a post-apocalyptic tale, far outsells everything else. What I like about this new revolution in publishing is that it is new for everyone. We are all learning at the same time. Thank you for aiding in my continuing education.

    • And thank you, John, for aiding in mine. It’s remarkable the way some stories outsell others. I have one, “Three in the Side Pocket,” a nasty story about a badger game gone wrong, that hasn’t sold a single copy this month—and it’s got a nice cover, too. Five other stories have sold well over 100 copies each this month, with one of them closing in on 400 with a week left in the month. Unfathomable, all of it.

      Electronic publishing is a real game-changer, isn’t it? I see a parallel with eBay and Craig’s List and the dating sites; people are able to find each other as never before, for whatever purpose they’ve got mutually in mind. Whatever you want to write, there’s probably someone out there who wants to read it. Used to be you couldn’t find each other. Now you can.

  27. Brandon Wood permalink

    I love writing and reading short stories! Don’t get me wrong, longer fiction is (of course) great, but I like that now there are options in length.

    I don’t sell hundreds (or even tens) of any of my short stories but I’m having fun writing them and learning as I write. I want to write five short horror stories before Halloween and put them in a collection and the best part about indie publishing is that you can do things like that, think of an idea and get it in front of potential customers all in the span of a month. I have no idea if I’ll ever be able to quit my day job (which is actually a night job haha) and make a living from writing, but I certainly never will if I don’t write, right? 🙂

    Thanks for the encouraging and informative post!

  28. Harvey Stanbrough permalink

    Thanks for this, Mr. Block. I’ll be posting a note about it on my blog, and tweeting about it as well.

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