When Was the Last Time You Paid for Short Stories?


Lovely Pile of Books

“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.

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?

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.

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