Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 30)

Where Do We Go From Here?: Career progression for short fiction writers (conclusion)

Welcome back! This week, I finish off the discussion I began in part 29 on some of the paths a writer might choose to take for their short fiction career, this week focusing on publishing a collection of your short fiction.

Free Stuff and a Request for Support

While I have your attention, for the Canadians who might be reading this, my short story “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” is on the final ballot for the 2013 Aurora Awards. You can learn how to pick up a free ebook copy of the story (or read it online) as well as how to vote in the awards via this blog post on my site. Voting closes September 13. Any support would be greatly appreciated!

More Options for Your Backlist: Collections

I talked in parts 25-27 about marketing reprints (second rights) of your short stories, provided that you ensured in your original contract that those rights revert to you after publication. In those posts, I focused on selling reprints to the same types of markets to whom you market your first rights (unpublished stories), namely short fiction magazines and anthologies.

However, once you’ve published enough short stories, you’ll have another option for publishing your backlist (previously published stories), namely putting out a collection. Terminology reminder: an anthology is a book length work of short fiction by different authors, whereas a collection is a book length work of stories from a single author.

The Best Timing for a Collection

So at what point in your short fiction career should you consider publishing a collection? The thinking around this has changed in the past decade. The standard practice used to be for authors to build their name in short fiction, then move on to novels. Once they had established their name in the long form, they would then publish a collection, often from the same mainstream press that published their novels.

Collections have never sold as well as novels. They became even less popular with publishers when the automated inventory systems in the big retail book chains started basing their orders for an author’s new title on the sales of that author’s previous title. Suddenly those lower sales on collections were depressing pre-orders for the author’s next novel. This started a trend for even established authors: to seek out smaller presses when they wanted to publish a collection (or dissuaded authors from publishing collections at all).

However, if a writer was going to go with a small press, then they no longer had any reason to wait to publish a few novels before putting out a collection. Writers were advised to publish a collection as soon as possible, since having something published in book length form where they were the sole author gave the writer added credibility and visibility that could assist in both building a fan base and in marketing a future first novel.

So When Is “As Soon As Possible?”

The simple answer is when you have enough strong, previously published stories to fill a book-length volume, which generally means 80,000 – 100,000 words. The length will vary by publisher. Assuming that you’ll do a print edition as well as an ebook, just remember that the longer the book, the higher the printing costs for the publisher.

(Some publishers put out much shorter collections. The award winning UK press, PS Publishing, published my first collection, Impossibilia. At that time, PS had started their “Showcase” series, intended to “highlight genre fiction’s best up-and-coming writers.” Since PS at the time only published print editions and since “up-and-coming writers” almost by definition would not be widely known, PS reduced their risk by keeping the Showcase collections shorter, most of them being about 30,000 words.)

Putting Together a Collection: Only Your Best

Length is only one factor to consider. If you want your collection to be your calling card and something to enhance your reputation as you move to novels, then you’ll want to ensure that you include only your very best published stories and avoid any weak or even “just okay” stories. The sixteen stories in my second collection, Chimerascope, include an award winner, a Best New Horror selection, eight award finalists, and several “Year’s Best Fantasy” honorable mentions.

One other consideration: if you’re planning a novel based on or set in the same universe as one of your short stories, then you’ll probably want to include that story as well. Just make sure it’s a very good one.

Finally, most publishers will want to include a new story from you, something not previously published. This helps attract buyers, especially your already established fans. They’ll be able to read your new story only if they buy your collection.

Putting Together a Collection: Who’s on First?

Once you feel you have enough very strong stories to pitch a collection to a publisher, you’ll need to pull them together into a book-length manuscript. Trust me, that is harder than it sounds.

First, deciding on the sequence of the stories is no simple task. There are no hard and fast rules, but the general wisdom (also followed by anthology publishers) is to start with your best story, and include your other strongest stories in the second and last positions, with another strong one in the middle of the book. The theory is you want to pull the reader in with a couple of strong entries at the beginning, and finish strong to leave them with a good final memory of the book. Adding another strong tale in the middle as a tent pole helps in case the reader’s attention is flagging once they get past the opening stories.

Unfortunately, determining your strongest stories is not easy. If you’ve been lucky enough to have some award winners or finalists, that can help in the decision. Ultimately, different readers have different tastes. I’m always amazed at the stories that readers pick as their favourites in my collections. Personally, I’d recommend that you go with the stories that you are most proud of in the key positions in the collection.

More Sequencing Considerations: Crafting the Reader Experience

A subjective assessment of a story’s strength is only one consideration in sequencing your collection. You also have to consider the reader’s experience as they move from one story to the next. Some of the factors to consider include:

  • Length: Don’t put all of your longest stories back-to-back. Or your shortest. Mix the lengths of the stories as much as possible to give the reader some variety.
  • Genre: In Chimerascope, I wanted to emphasize that I write across multiple genres, so I purposely followed an SF story by a fantasy, then a horror, then a slipstream, etc.. You might decide that you want to lump all your SF into one section, your fantasy into another.
  • Mood or tone: Did you start with a dystopia with a downer ending? Then you might want to follow that with something more uplifting with some hope and promise.
  • Stories in a series: If you’ve written multiple stories in the same universe or with the same cast of characters, you’ll need to decide whether they appear together or scattered through the book. I had this problem in my translated French collection, La Danse des Esprits (Spirit Dances), which included three of my shapeshifter Heroka stories.

 

Trying to balance all of these factors (quality, length, genre, mood, series) is a huge challenge since each factor generally conflicts with at least one other. There’s no perfect answer, but as long as you keep the reader’s experience in mind, you’ll come up with a workable order.

Marketing a Collection

I mentioned above that collections do not sell as well as novels, so unless you’re a Very Big Name (as in Stephen King level), none of the big, traditional, New York City publishers will be interested. However, small presses are growing and thriving, and many regularly publish collections.

You need to do your own research, but I’ll list two that I think should be on your list: ChiZine Publications (Canada) and PS Publishing (UK). They published my collections, Chimerascope and Impossibilia respectively, and my experience with both books was excellent.

For a longer list, I’ll point you to the recent finalists for the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection, one of the few awards that recognize collections. A review of the finalists for the past few years will provide you with some more publishers, as well as reinforce my point that most collections these days come from the smaller presses.

Another Option: Translated collections

In posts 26 and 27, I dealt with reselling your previously published stories to foreign language markets. Related to this, you also have the option of marketing a collection to a foreign language publisher. However, unless you know some foreign publishers or editors, or unless you’re an established name, this will be a harder sell.

One of the advantages I mentioned in those earlier posts from selling to foreign language magazines is developing relationships with the editors and publishers of those markets. In part 27, I related how my sales of several stories to the French dark fantasy magazine, Ténèbres, led directly to my selling my French collection, La Danse des Esprits, many years later when the Ténèbres editor established his own small press.

And remember, as I’ve said ever so many times through this series, the key is to ensure that you retain the required rights to your stories when you first sell them in English. In this case, you need to ensure that you don’t sell the foreign language rights along with first English rights.

Next Week

Next week, I’ll finish this series by dealing with another publishing option for the short fiction writer: self-publishing your stories, including both publishing your backlist of previously published stories as well as the option of originally publishing your stories yourself.

Next Week: A Brave New World: The indie publishing option

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.

I’ve written these posts in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on previous ones. You can read my earlier posts here.

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PLAYING THE SHORT GAME  — The Book!

I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

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Doug is an award-winning Canadian writer whose fiction has appeared in twenty-five languages and thirty countries. His works include The Wolf at the End of the WorldChimerascope, and Impossibilia.

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