Can You Make A Living Selling Short Fiction?

There are many things you can do with short stories. They don’t take as long to write as novels and you can try out a lot of different worlds and styles. They can be pilots for books you plan to write or expansions or delving into backstory of characters of existing novels.

If you have a short story to give away, you can use it to get people to sign up to your mailing list either by offering it as a prequel, or offering it as an extra bit of interest after people have read the first book.

But it is possible to make a living selling short fiction as a self published writer?

I certainly know writers who are doing this, and they fall into one of two categories.

The first type of writer starts off in the traditional circuit, submitting and selling to major genre magazines and then reselling the same stories to different markets and eventually self-publishing it digitally.

This is the type of writer who would have come up through the ranks of the traditional circuit. They would have come up through writing workshops and traditional writing events and would, after selling a few stories, realise that they can resell the stories in many different ways.

Short stories can be made into a longer stories, they can be translated, they can be made into graphic novels, you can sell them as reprint, they can be made into audio stories. Each of these can be re-sold. The possibilities are endless.

The second type of full-time short story writer is a writer who writes volume to a specific audience. They know this audience well, they know how to deliver the stories this audience is looking for, and they write a lot, like a story every week. The stories never get submitted anywhere, half the time they don’t even get edited very much, it is all about satisfying the readers who are keen to read more of the same. Most of those latter writers are in the genres of hot romance and erotica. The demand for short stories in those genres is quite high.

Anywhere else, you’re going to find that you have to provide a pretty strong driver for people to want to buy your stories. Either you have to put out a lot of them, they have to be connected to a certain world, and you have to bring a market ready to buy those stories.

When putting out short stories on retailer sites, they are definitely much harder to sell than full novels. And then there is the presentation. A lot of writers think they can just fling a short story onto Amazon with a home-made cover because it’s only a short story, and then they’re surprised if it doesn’t sell. Short stories still need great covers. Great covers cost money.

This past year, I have found a decent amount of success with the Jonathan Bartell series. These are technically novellas since each of them is over 20,000 words long. I have clearly branded them as series. I have paid for an editor, but since I can do my own cover design, the only costs I have for the cover are the images, if any, and other costs such as the font and the graphics software.

As is the case with novels, short stories to do better when there is more of the same available for sale. I feel that a lot of people don’t mind reading short fiction, but I hate having to invest in different characters all the time. So publishing them in a series is a good alternative. People can then read one short story every day if they want, and at the end you can bundle them into a bigger book which will then make a it a worthwhile investment for a novel reader to buy. And you can also make a print edition.

So if I wanted to make money with my short stories , I would do either of these things. I would try the traditional route as first port of call, keep my stories in circulation until they sell, and then self-publish and re-sell them. Or I would write them in series and publish a lot of them quickly.

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Short story release: Whispering Willows

I love a lot of things about this short story: its voice, its quirky character Loesie, who will be a character in a novel that follows the events in this short story, and the isolated feel of the farm with its people who are wise through experience, and not formal education.

The setting is based, of course, on random real-life facts about the pre-industrial area in mainland Europe that today is the Netherlands. The geography is–ahem–concentrated. Most of the names are made up, although one or two are real. For this story in particular, if you close your eyes and think away the cars and electricity lines, you could be forgiven to think not much has changed. The farms are still there, the truncated willows are still there, the lapwings and buttercups are still there. Just add magic… oh, and bears.

I’ve copied the first scene below. Click on the image for the link to Smashwords to download the entire story. The novel, which will most likely be called For Queen and Country, will be out some time later. Loesie will feature in the book, but not as the main character.

Clicking on the picture will take you to Smashwords. This link will take you to Amazon


The river behind Granma’s house runs deep. The water’s like a vat of dirty milk, all murky, with eddies and floating sticks that twirl and twirl downstream.
From the top of the dike, with only green fields and willows around me, I can see the other side – just. Maybe I could make out a person if they stood on the bank, but I’s not sure ’cause no one ever does. The other side is Gelre and them’s bad as they come, at least so says Granpa in between stuffing his pipe and stripping willow twigs.
No one with half a brain would try to cross the river. No one ever could.
Except the man and his enormous horse.
I were cutting willow switches, and then I seen them in the middle of the water. Two heads, a black horse’s and a man’s. It seemed the horse was walking-like, on the bottom, but I don’t know ‘s the river has a bottom. But whatever it were doing, the horse were coming straight for me.
I hid in the tree, which were pretty silly-like, ’cause a willow’s no leaves in early spring.
The man didn’t see me, or he pretended as much he didn’t see me as I pretended to be a bird. Or something.
He had hair red as a fox, all curly, and the bit below his shoulders were wet and dripped water onto his jerkin.
The horse – it were huge, with a long mane and masses of fluff around hooves big as Ma’s milking bucket. It were noisy-like, snorting and blowing and grumbling.
The stranger sat straight on the horse’s back, no saddle, and grabbed a breath of wind in his hand. He whispered into it, and let it go. He were using magic. His eyes met mine and my cheeks glowed like they’s on fire.
He kicked the horse’s sides and rode off. The orange spot that were his hair grew smaller and smaller amongst the grass and the buttercups.

A vampire walks into a bar

Anyone who reads slush at a magazine can often tell when there has been a call for submissions for a themed anthology. Recently, we’ve been pummelled with vampire stories. Why? Because of Ticonderoga Publications’ Dead Red Heart anthology.

Those stories didn’t make it into the anthology, and the ones I’ve seen so far won’t be making the cut into the magazine either.

Why? Because they’re ‘A vampire feeds’ type of stories, stories that rehash tired plots. Everyone says that it’s OK to write about tired tropes, as long as you bring something new but very few people attempt to quantify what ‘something new’ means other than ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’

Here is my take on ‘something new’. If there was an anthology covering a tired trope, such as vampires, such as zombies, such as elves, such as, indeed, first contact, I’d make sure that the discovery of the subject matter was never the plot point.

What do I mean? Consider the following two (lame) love story plotlines

Storyline 1:
Mary meets Jack and likes him, but as she becomes more familiar with him, she notices that he never seems to eat. After some poking around, Mary discovers that OMG he’s a vampire! But aaawww, she likes him anyway and that doesn’t matter.

Storyline 2:
Mary likes Jack and knows he likes her, but she knows he’s a vampire, and she doesn’t know if he’s good or bad. Then the zombies attack, and people are dying. Mary realises that hey, vampires are undead, too, so they can drive away the zombies. Jack does this and wins her over. Aaaawwww!

In the first one, the fact that Jack is a vampire is the point of the story. Having read one or two of these stories (already published), I can see the ending coming from miles off. It brings nothing new. In storyline 2, the fact that Jack is a vampire is a given, and is used to resolve the plot. Vampires attacking zombies is fairly lame, but this is where the writer can think of new ideas. How do you use a trope to resolve the plot?

That is the way I would deal with writing a story about a tired trope.

to those wanting to publish short stories

There are a lot of writers writing and submitting short stories. There is, of course, no fail-safe path that will ensure publication, but I have a strong suggestion:

Try reading some.

Next time you visit sites like or Duotrope (both good for finding markets. Duotrope is a bit more schnazzy, but I prefer Ralan – easy to use, simple and quick to load), make sure you venture beyond the ‘submissions’ page of a magazine. Make a habit of reading what is available. Read the free online magazines, subscribe to a few others. I know it’s impossible to read everything and every magazine, but…

I see a fair number of short stories in crit groups or the slush pile which make me wonder if the writer has ever read a short story in his or her life.

How do you tell?

Well, if the writer had taken the time to read and analyse a couple of short stories, even those free on the web (and there’s some excellent material available *points at Clarkesworld, my absolute-favourite online magazine*), the writer would not have:

– Submitted a story without a plot
– or a story that’s an utter cliche
– or a story with hardly any worldbuilding
– or a story that’s way too pedestrian to be of interest
– or a story that has no SF element to speak of

Honestly, to see what’s necessary to get published in a ‘good’ magazine, make sure you read a fair share of ‘good’ magazines. You won’t develop that ‘feel’ instantly, and part of the process will always remain hit-and-miss, but you’ll give yourself a much better chance.

Try it. And while you’re at it, don’t ignore the ‘donate’ buttons of free magazines.

the long and the short of it

I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction recently. Quite a few writers do this, and the saying goes that a writer’s output of short fiction goes down markedly once the writer sells a novel. Some writers never write any short fiction at all. I think, though, that you can learn from writing short fiction, and some lessons come from unexpected angles.

Here is what I’ve learned from writing short fiction:

1. A couple of short stories make a novel. Well, not literally, not unedited, but writing short stories allow you to explore story ideas and build background information for a novel.

2. Short stories allow you to experiment with different techniques and styles before committing yourself to a longer piece. This also shows you the importance of finding the right voice for the main character, and the fact that this is probably more important than your personal voice as a writer.

3. Short stories are just like novels, but only shorter. Yeah – duh, that’s rocket science. What I mean is that you can use the same techniques. Since I’ve been writing short stories, I have a lot more novel drafts where, when I hit a spot that’s hard, I simply skip it and write something later in the story. I started doing this in short stories and found it an easier way to write. I work on my drafts by nibbling away at it a sentence at a time in a whole number of scenes at the same time.

4. One big difference: short stories often end up going into the world much more polished, simply because there’s not as many words to pore over again and again. Yes, I get that we should send all our work out at polished as possible, but the reality is that a 5000-word story gets a lot more attention per word than a 100,000-word novel. What is the lesson for novels in this? Getting things right the first time. Because short story editing attunes your brain to style issues (such as word repetition), you simply don’t make the mistakes as often in first drafts.

What have you learned while writing short stories?