I had yet another short story acceptance in this morning’s email, which now means I’ve had four sales in the first twelve days of 2015. That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it, as if selling short stories is as easy as falling off a log? It’s not like that at all, of course. In the whole of last year I only had six short story sales and some years I haven’t had any? In 2014 I sold six short stories, but submitted stories more than sixty times. Some shorts sell first time out, others may go out thirteen or fourteen times without selling. You’re almost considering retiring them, believing them to be fundamentally flawed, when – BINGO! – they are accepted and published. It’s mostly a matter of hitting the right editor’s desk at the right time, and try as you might, finding a formula for achieving that is almost impossible.
What’s changed for me? Am I writing more? Are editors suddenly buying my short stories because I’m now a published novelist? Have I suddenly learned to write great short stories?
None of the above. (In fact while I’ve been concentrating on novels I’ve written very few short stories, though I still have a small backlog of unsold stories to keep in circulation.) The only thing that’s changed since the years when I sold NO short stories at all is that I’ve started to make sure I send out submissions on a more regular basis. I use the market listing called The Grinder, although I have my own database of submissions so I can keep track of where stories have been. (It’s bad form to send them to the same place twice and no matter how confident you are that you will remember where they’ve been, believe me, you will not.) I also use the dashboard to track subs through the Grinder. As soon as a story is rejected I immediately find another market to sent it to.
So this is a list of short stories that have sold but haven’t yet seen the light of day:
The Urbane Fox (Reprint) to Trysts of Fate, February 2015
Mort’s Laws to Nature’s Futures 2015.
Times Two to Saturday Night Reader (Canada) 2015
Late Breakfast to Every Day Fiction, 2015
Last Train to Grievous Angel, sold 2014 for 2015 publication.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Panda (Reprint) to Buzzy Mag. Sold 2014 for 2015 publication
Absolution Pass to Andromeda’s Offspring (Anthology – Sold in April 2013, still not out.)
As you can see from the last entry on the list, even when a story has ‘sold’ there are sometimes delays in publication. Some markets pay upfront when they buy the story (i.e. on acceptance), others pay on publication. Those that pay on publication may hang on to your story for longer than you would like (and in some cases the publication folds before your story is published, so you never get paid and the story ends up back on your submission pile through no fault of its own).
Even when a story has sold and has been published, after a certain length of time (variable depending on the market) you are free to re-sell it as a reprint or to a foreign language market. Most stories sold to English language markets can be resold as first time publications to other languages.
You’ll never get rich from short story sales. I have occasionally sold longish short stories to markets that pay 6 cents a word, resulting in a cheque for $350 (you get paid in the surrency of the market you are selling to, of course), but also I’ve made reprint sales that have only paid $10.
So why do we do it?
Every writer needs readers. Yes, we can self-publish and if we already have a legion of fans, self-publication may be good way to reach readers, but for most of us, getting our stories to the widest readership means funnelling our work through the gatekeepers (editors) to established publications (paper or web-based) with an established readership. Getting published in the first place is what validates our writing.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t write because I CAN write, I write because I CAN’T NOT write. Every time I sell a piece, whether it’s a novel or a short story it gives me an excuse (to the outside world) to continue writing.
I am grateful to my fellow Milford colleague Deboarah Walker for the motto, ‘Submit until your fingers bleed!’