Can you write short stories for money today?
In my last post, I gave you a taste of one of the short stories I wrote for the pulps when I was experimenting with short story writing for money in the 1980s. I made a number of sales, but it was a highly competitive market then — and a dead market now.
This month, I want to talk about what happened to kill the paying magazine market and what you can do about it to get money for your short stories.
I’m not here to scam you so I’m going to tell you upfront: Most people will never earn a dime from their stories and should write them for fun. If you’re happy with that, you can find an audience today by posting your fics at Archive of Our Own, Wattpad, or any of a number of free sites.
If you want or need to earn money from short stories, and you’ve heard that some guy decades ago made it big writing short stories, then you may want a deeper explanation.
How old are those guys you heard about who earned money writing short stories? Harlan Ellison and Stephen King old? Thought so.
I was the token unknown writer in this issue featuring Dean Koonz, Robert Bloch, J. N. Williamson, George Alec Effinger, among others.
I’m not entirely sure when writing short stories died out as a way to earn a living, but it was well before I started writing. It was still possible in Stephen King’s day, but if you’ve ever read his book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, you might remember that he seems at a bit of a loss to tell young writers coming up what to do to make money.
The scam at the time King wrote On Writing was to have young writers send their short stories to various academic and literary zines, an expensive process that — at best — involved tons of postage and buying of zines you wouldn’t ordinarily buy or read and then, if you do get published, being rewarded with a token fee of a few dollars or, more likely, some complimentary copies.
That isn’t a scam if you know what you’re getting — readers who are mostly not readers but academics and other aspiring writers — but it is a trap if you are under the illusion that it will lead to an income. It’s also the wrong road if you’re into genre writing rather than literary writing.
Another great short story writer, Kurt Vonnegut, was equally at a loss for what aspiring short stories writers could do to survive. In a famous The Paris Review interview, he touched on the topic several times:
After our family lost almost all of its money in the Great Depression, my mother thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms…Strangely enough, though, Mother was right: Even mediocre magazine writers were making money hand over fist…when I grew up, I was able to make her dream come true. Writing for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal and so on was as easy as falling off a log for me.
But he also acknowledges that those markets are no longer there:
Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time…Something’s got to be done, now that free enterprise has made it impossible for [new writers] to support themselves through free enterprise.
That was 1977.
In the 1970s Cosmopolitan alone, which published a novel excerpt and multiple short stories every month, was probably a bigger market than the entire paying magazine market available today. And Vonnegut had already acknowledged that new writers could no longer make a living selling to magazines.
You’re probably not smarter than Stephen King or Kurt Vonnegut.
$400, a typical payment for a short story in the 1980s, it’s probably more like $4 today…photo by Adam Kuban via photopin cc
That’s the bad news. Ain’t nobody going to buy your short story the first time out of the gate.
The good news is that if you are prepared to polish your short story and to build a world behind it that can support a continuing series of involving fics, then you may be able to do it yourself by publishing on Amazon. The plan is simple:
Write a short story set in your universe, give it away free to everybody that will stand still, and then follow up with longer stories or novels set in your universe that you can market on Amazon in the Kindle and paperback format.
It still isn’t guaranteed but at least you can get your story out there and see what happens.
By the way, if you want me to edit and/or rewrite your short story and/or give me my thoughts on whether or not your short story is likely to earn money, feel free to get in touch, but do NOT include your story until we have a contract.
If you’d like to read a previous short story series that I recently edited, check out The Mortal Passage Trilogy.
Kindle ebook cover for The Mortal Passage Trilogy, a book I edited and published for the author Roger Williams