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When Was the Last Time You Paid for Short Stories?

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“More crappy news for short story writers,” is how The Rumpus interpreted a literary agent’s polite rejection note to short story writer writer Mark Tainer:

... I have no confidence in being able to place a collection at this time in the world of publishing. Publishers don't like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian. In the current climate, it is harder to publish even those. Some of the authors I represent have story collections I have not been able to talk their loyal publishers into publishing. I can't in good conscience encourage you to send them to me. It will just make both of us feel bad. I am very sorry. If you write another novel, I will gladly read it...

This triggered Rumpus blogger Seth Fischer. “The form of the short story collection is so uniquely well-suited to the Internet age,” writes Fischer. “A good short story should grab you by the junk and make you yelp in that first line. So should good web copy. A good short story should be no longer than it need be. So should good web copy. There are many very important differences between the two types of writing, but the publishing houses could be taking advantage of the similarities to develop a model that could turn a profit.”

Is the publishing industry’s lethargy towards short story collections really news? A commenter at Tainer’s blog points to a newspaper column by short story writer Dennis Loy Johnson, who took up the issue way back in 2001:

The problem, it is often said, is that story collections have never sold much, although I'd point out that they've never been promoted much, either. Hype them as heavily as some novels get hyped — Raymond Carver, Melissa Bank — and they sell just fine, thank you. I mean, no American should ever forget that we live in a country where someone not that long ago made a fortune selling pet rocks at Christmastime.

“It seems to me that all it would take is a tiny bit of ingenuity to make money off the right short story collection,” writes Fischer. “Why aren’t the publishing houses trying it?”

Are you supporting the lowly short story writer? When was the last time you paid for short stories?

Source: The Rumpus 

Image by ginnerobot, licensed under Creative Commons.

raul dasilva_2
3/3/2010 2:46:35 PM

All half hour and one hour television programs are in effect short stories. They are a mixed bag in quality, some that have fine production values are poorly conceived and written fare. Literary quality as everyone knows, is low ebb tide on television these days, unlike the early years of Playhouse 90, et al. A one hour program, for example is actually 40 minutes of story. A half-hour is half of that, a short-short. Thus the so-called "lack of public interest" mantra voiced by the publishing industry is very odd.


tom hendricks
9/18/2009 10:22:10 AM

This is probably me just being skeptical, but I note that Oprah has come out with a book endorsement of short stories for the first time - just this week. That is a very odd coincidence that you Jeff, and Utne would be talking about short stories just right before her big annoucement about short stories. Neither of you have paid much attention to them before. Jeff Severns, do you in any way work for, or any way help promote, books for Oprah or are in any way related to this promotion on her part?


nona
9/18/2009 1:34:24 AM

I buy short story anthologies all the time, but they're almost always genre fiction: horror, fantasy or some other area of speculative fiction, with the occasional anthology of crime/mystery stories. Of course that describes the bulk of my fiction purchases regardless of the format. I do read a few mainstream authors and will buy collections of their short stories. I imagine that the speculative fiction market wouldn't keep producing as many short story anthologies as it does if they weren't selling, so perhaps the mainstream market should look at what they could learn from their low-bred cousins.


megan_4
9/17/2009 5:10:17 PM

Last month I bought the Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. Such great short stories with surprising parallels to our contemporary society. I encourage anyone to check out her work if you haven't before. I haven't been this satisfied with a book purchase in quite some time! Thanks for the great blog, Jeff.


kit kellison
9/17/2009 3:14:06 PM

Actually, it was a Raymond Carver collection that I last bought, that was a month ago (had to replace one that I'd lost). That collection sits at my nightstand. I also get The Missouri Review, The Paris Review and read stories in the New Yorker. I dropped The Atlantic when they dropped short stories. Literary short stories are the most intense and most highly crafted kind of prose outside of free verse. What a student of language learns in reading and writing stories is useful in every application of language. Public schools can share the blame in not engaging kids to appreciate our most accessible arts. You would think that in twelve years of education that the simple concepts that exemplify good writing and design would be basic rigor.


frederick dickinson
9/17/2009 1:51:19 PM

Love short story anthology. Get variety in your entertianment. Recently bought: (well releatively recently) Zoetrope collection, Hardboiled, L.A. Shorts, the workshop, seven decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop. I'm a writer too, so I like to see what others are doing.


alison_2
9/17/2009 10:25:36 AM

Thanks to Jeff and Utne for this worthy discussion! I thought I’d weigh in as the publicity manager for a small publisher, Borealis Books. One of our lead titles this fall is A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts, a collection of short stories by N. M. Kelby. While we are aware of the so-called conventional wisdom that short stories are hard to sell, we are very supportive and excited to be promoting this book and working with N. M. on a national author tour. To quote N. M., “short stories are the new black because they are the perfect read for the digital age!” There are publishers, booksellers, and authors out there who are supporting, celebrating, and writing the short story and collections of these perfect gems!


alison_2
9/17/2009 10:25:22 AM

Thanks to Jeff and Utne for this worthy discussion! I thought I’d weigh in as the publicity manager for a small publisher, Borealis Books. One of our lead titles this fall is A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts, a collection of short stories by N. M. Kelby. While we are aware of the so-called conventional wisdom that short stories are hard to sell, we are very supportive and excited to be promoting this book and working with N. M. on a national author tour. To quote N. M., “short stories are the new black because they are the perfect read for the digital age!” There are publishers, booksellers, and authors out there who are supporting, celebrating, and writing the short story and collections of these perfect gems!


ekirlu
9/16/2009 6:59:09 PM

I love Short Stories... I'll always find the little time time needed to read a wonderful Short Story,from beginning to end; never having to wait too long for a punchline, a solution, the happy end or a sad ending. I have a bookshelf filled with short stories... D.H.Lawrence, Tolstoy,Oskar Wilde, Maupassant, Balzac, kafka, Hesse...any many more... Not long ago I read a book of Contemorary Latin American Short Stories. My last purchase was a collection Of The Best American Short Stories, edited by John Updike. And I agree...Short Stories are not often mentioned in literary magazines or Book Reviews.


tom emswiler
9/16/2009 4:52:25 PM

I LOVE short stories. I think they are perfect for our quick paced lives. I often run out of patience with a novel, but a short story must draw us in quickly and often short story writers produce gems of great artistic beauty. I teach alternative courses in various settings and I use short stories a lot. They provide a common experience without taking a great deal of time to read. I buy short stories all the time and am always on the look out for something new and good. If you like to listen to older stories. the podcast "The Classic Tales Podcast" is great. Of course, "Prairie Home Companion" and "This American Life" use a lot of short stories. Let's continue to give short stories a chance.


lynn_1
9/16/2009 4:40:12 PM

I just recently have gotten into reading more short stories. Luckily I have quite a few volumes in my to-be-read pile. It's a shame when publishers won't publish new collections, it keeps us from having more options.


sd
9/16/2009 4:26:39 PM

I buy tons of short story collections- and as a short story writer, I wasn't thrilled to read this. Oh well. C'est la vie. PS- As an Indian person- I wasn't thrilled about the editor's comments in italics. Maybe I'm being too sensitive there. Maybe not.


jeff severns guntzel_1
9/16/2009 12:20:39 PM

Tom, I think your emphasis on consolidation is spot on. It's certainly an issue we engage with at Utne as we do what we can to highlight the work of independent and independent-minded media. However, if we're going to talk about the poor decisions of the sometimes risk averse (or at least innovation averse) publishing giants, why not also look at how we spend our money? I asked the question ("When was the last time you spent money on short stories?") in part because I would love to know if there is any logic to an apparent industry fear of publishing short story collections or if it is just a matter of getting behind these collections and promoting them in new ways, as both Dennis Loy Johnson and Seth Fischer suggest. And even if reader preferences are not the problem, they are certainly interesting (especially at a time of such rapid change in the publishing industry and any industry that has creative content at its core). Perhaps a better discussion is this: how do you get your short stories these days? On our Twitter feed, one reader talked about The Moth, a radio program. I'm reading CellStories on my phone every day. What else is there?


jeff severns guntzel_1
9/16/2009 12:20:19 PM

Tom, I think your emphasis on consolidation is spot on. It's certainly an issue we engage with at Utne as we do what we can to highlight the work of independent and independent-minded media. However, if we're going to talk about the poor decisions of the sometimes risk averse (or at least innovation averse) publishing giants, why not also look at how we spend our money? I asked the question ("When was the last time you spent money on short stories?") in part because I would love to know if there is any logic to an apparent industry fear of publishing short story collections or if it is just a matter of getting behind these collections and promoting them in new ways, as both Dennis Loy Johnson and Seth Fischer suggest. And even if reader preferences are not the problem, they are certainly interesting (especially at a time of such rapid change in the publishing industry and any industry that has creative content at its core). Perhaps a better discussion is this: how do you get your short stories these days? On our Twitter feed, one reader talked about The Moth, a radio program. I'm reading CellStories on my phone every day. What else is there?


tom hendricks
9/16/2009 10:43:33 AM

Mainstream publishing ( a handful of publishers) has done everything they can to kill plays, short stories, poems, zines etc. It's not our preference that is the issue. It's the consolidation of the publishing industry into a couple of big media giants that only produce dinosaur novels, and biographical tomes from political figures, that is the problem. Utne it is time to address the real issue - the abuses of consolidation of the arts and media , and stop trying to shift the emphasis from their abuses to our reading habits.


aisling
9/16/2009 5:41:05 AM

I agree with Dennis Loy Johnson that short stories just haven't been promoted much. I keep a number of short story collections on my bedside table as I can't fall asleep without having read something but often can't pick up in the middle of a novel, so the short story is perfect. Also, for short commutes that are a part of city living the short story collection is an essential handbag item! I'm not a literary buff but an advocate of excellent writing. It would be a shame if we really were witnessing the death of the great short story. Another piece about the negative perception surrounding the short story here - http://womenrulewriter.blogspot.com/2009/08/stop-dissing-short-story.html