You never forget your first time. Mine was on the couch – tucked under a blanket, hiding from the cold January wind gnawing at the walls. And when it happened… man. When my phone buzzed with that email, telling me I was going to be a published short-fiction writer, I think people heard me ululating from three blocks away.
I’ve always loved short stories. A good one is like a strong dose of LSD: it takes moments to consume, but the effects last forever. The masters – Stephen King, Alice Munro, Chuck Palahniuk – can conjure something close to magic in just a few pages. Seriously, have you read Palahniuk’s Guts?
Short stories used to be a great way to get into the writing game. You’d plug away at the big short-fiction magazines until you had a publication record, and then use that to springboard to a full-time career as an agented, published novelist. For a long time, these magazines ruled the roost, but as the twentieth century drew to a close, the subscription-based business model began to whither and die. Something must have changed – reading habits, perhaps – because the big names started to close: Black Mask, a pulp fiction magazine that started life as a money-making side project that published the likes of Raymond Chandler, closed in 1987, the sci-fi mainstay Omni in 1995. Amazing, another sci-fi magazine, spent a decade hanging on for dear life before expiring in 2005.
The ones that survived soon found themselves in a busy market, thanks to a surge in self-publishing outlets online. Suddenly, anyone could create their own home for short stories. Pay rates plummeted, and as traditional outlets faded, it became impossible for writers to earn any kind of living off short fiction alone. Add in tools like Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, which allows writers to publish short work very quickly, and you have an odd situation: there are more avenues than ever to get a short story published, but almost no way to judge whether any of them can sustain a livelihood or kickstart a career.
Having just got started in this short story lark, I realised I didn’t actually know all that much about the industry. I didn’t just want to discover how these magazines were doing; I wanted to find out if there was any point writing for them at all. Was it even worth putting up with the attention-deficit audiences and countless rejection letters (by the time I got my first acceptance, I was already ten deep)? Were my quirky little horror stories and whimsical political thrillers ever going to rise above the thousands stagnating on literary agents’ desks? And if they did, was anybody going to give a damn? Were there readers for these things?
I needed to shove a thermometer up the ass of the short-story industry, and speak to writers, editors and publishers to get some answers. I’d start, I thought, with a writer. Someone with experience. Someone who had been through the short-fiction magazine mangler and had something to say.
Which is how I ended up exchanging emails with a woman who skins bears for fun.
From: Submissions – Stupefying Stories
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. After reading and discussing it, we’ve decided it’s not right for us at this time. Good luck placing it elsewhere.
I have a thing for slightly pulpy sci-fi, and Sara King is one of my favourites. Not all of her work is short stories, but she’s had plenty of experience, publishing several alongside her novels. Plus, the Alaskan is possibly the only author on this planet with a picture of herself butchering a black bear on her website.
I wanted to talk to a writer in the trenches, about whether short-fiction magazines were worth going for anymore. On her website, King once wrote in staunch defence of traditional short-fiction journals and why it was important to keep them alive. So I’m a little surprised when she says that, as far as she’s concerned, magazines can go lump it. “Nowadays,” she says, “the only real purpose that subscription magazines play is to be a place to spotlight stories to be nominated for awards. The pay sucks, and the circulation and readership is so atrociously low that most people have never even heard of today’s most famous short-story writers.”
So how’d this happen?
I don’t really know what to say. I haven’t thought of Microsoft Word in years. It’s just, you know… there. But she’s got a point – about technology, if nothing else.
“Any schmuck with a Word program can write a piece of crap, slap a title on it and, with a click of a button, send it to a hundred magazines to be added to the slush pile,” she says. “Editors are getting overwhelmed when half the adult population considers themselves a budding writer who’s ‘just waiting to be discovered’ and has full access to email and some sort of word processor.”
I can see her point. While self-publishing tools – like WordPress and Blogspot – can be a democratising force, you also risk drowning in a sea of turgid writing. Presumably, this is one of the reasons writers can’t make a decent living off short fiction anymore.
“It’s a numbers game,” says King in one of her post-midnight emails. “Professionally paying magazines are dying off because the readership has been dwindling because the story quality has declined… The money magazines can offer writers is down to about a fifth of what it used to be, which means that writers can no longer devote their time to perfecting the art of writing short stories, which means quality is declining. Which means less people are going to be interested in the magazine itself.”
I get what she’s saying, but I still feel like I’m only getting half the story. I can’t write off print magazines based on this alone. Time to go editor-hunting.
Thanks for submitting ‘Pantechnicon’, but I’m going to pass on it. It didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid. Best of luck to you placing this one elsewhere, and thanks again for sending it my way.
It’s a freezing February afternoon when Linda Landrigan calls me. On Skype, she looks like someone’s maiden aunt: greying hair, blue cardy, thin-framed glasses. In fact, she’s the editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which, in short fiction terms, makes her God. A very nice, charming God, but still God.
Hitchcock’s is a big dog of short fiction, along with magazines like Ellery Queen, Asimov’s and Analog. The mag has been putting out the best mystery writing since 1956; these are the guys who published Hitchcock screenwriter and prolific crime-fiction writer Ed McBain. Landrigan has been there for seventeen years, spending a large chunk of that time in the editor’s throne. I don’t care if magazines are dying: I still really, really want something published in hers.
“I think the cachet is important,” Landrigan says in her tinkling voice. “We do publish a lot of new writers, and some of them have said, ‘Gosh, you know, I was in your issue and I was right next to Jerry Healy!’ That’s kind of fun. You feel there’s a bonus being next to somebody who’s well-known.”
There’s no question that Hitchcock’s is hurting. Their circulation has dropped from 100,000 to 70,000 – and they aren’t the only ones. “One of the things that we see is that it’s really difficult for us to get on the newsstand,” Landrigan says. “It used to be, go into the grocery store and there’d be this huge magazine section. Now, it’s really shrunk, and it’s expensive sometimes to get out there.”
Landigran agrees that there are way, way too many writers trying to get published – and that some of their material is decidedly mediocre – but she’s also positive about the stuff that does make it through the net. “For mystery fiction, there’s been this great opening,” she says. “Categories are less defined right now; cosy stories are very dark, and there are a lot of supernatural stories, a lot of thriller stories. I feel like the range of mystery stories is pretty broad.”
I can’t help but wonder what other editors think. So, at the suggestion of fellow HUCK writer D’Arcy Doran, I call up Lorin Stein, the urbane editor of The Paris Review. Despite the name, they’re New York-based, and boast cult writers like Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace in their archives.
For Stein, the decline of the short-story readership was to be expected: “[People] were really in the habit of reading this stuff. When did they read it? On trains, when they got home from work, on the bus, waiting rooms, in line at the bank – and now, that kind of time has been taken up with work, because work has become something we can do on our phones. When people make time to read, it’s not just a matter of filling bits of time – nowadays, they have to make time.”
The Paris Review is one of the few magazines to actually increase their circulation in the past few years; Stein says that although reading habits have changed, mags that devote themselves to quality stories can retain their audience. “The thing that we’re good at, other magazines have stopped doing,” he says. “Even the ones that do still publish short fiction – I’m not sure they’re passionately in love with what they publish. I sometimes feel that some little magazines think that literature is good for you. It’s not a view that I hold, particularly. We publish what we publish because we enjoy it.”
If we believe the editors, then, the short story industry is in good health, even as it changes before their eyes. Thing is, I have a healthy distrust of editors – it is, after all, in their interest to put a positive spin on things. And besides, big magazines aren’t the only outlet anymore: if I want to make a go of writing short stories, should I be looking for new ways of getting them out there?
From: Fiction, The New Yorker
We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.
The Storyteller and The Publisher
So what’s the good news? If I can’t get stories into the old magazines – or if there’s no point – what’s left?
Someone emails me a link to an article in The New York Times: short-story collections are selling! Publishers are releasing loads of them! But there’s a hitch: they’re all by established authors. Great for them, not so great if you’re just starting out.
Then there’s Amazon. It recently let writers self-publish shorter works on their Kindle Singles service, which is fantastic news for anybody tired of the long lead times between submission and publication of most magazines. Podcasts, too, have become a surprisingly rich outlet for stories, and while I’m chasing up this particular lead, I catch a real break: I get to talk to Marc Laidlaw.
You may not know him, but you might have heard of Half Life – generally considered one of the best video games ever made. He wrote that, along with a zillion other things, short stories included – some of which have been turned into audio. You wouldn’t think that stories written for the page work on the ear, but they do; Pseudopod, a fantastic horror fiction podcast, recently adapted Laidlaw’s story Cell Call.
“Judging from listener reaction,” Laidlaw says, “it seems like it’s a very different demographic than the people who would encounter these stories as prose… So it’s a good way to reach a new audience. I do tend to read my stories aloud while I’m revising them, and I used to put together radio plays as well, and most of the writing I do for games is specifically intended as audio performance. But I didn’t ever have an audio performance in mind for this particular story.”
He hasn’t neglected traditional fiction, either. “I’ve got a handful of short stories underway, including one called Bonfires that’ll be out in Nightmare Magazine in April. I made a concerted effort to start writing more fiction this last year, partly because I felt those muscles were atrophying, and they remain the basic skills I draw on to contribute to games.”
Here’s the really weird thing about short fiction: the big magazines might be struggling, but if you’re prepared to look for alternatives, you’re spoiled for choice. Little ‘zines and websites have exploded over the past few years. And they have truly fantastic names: if I could boast a publication record bearing the names of Nickel Steak, Pank and Thousand Shades of Grey, I’d be stoked, even if potential publishers might be less than impressed.
New York-based writer and editor Patrick Trotti has helped edit all three of these publications, so he should know if newbie writers should go the route of smaller publishers. “I think the writer should just be really honest with themselves in terms of what they’re hoping to gain from publishing, whether it be a story, poem or longer work,” he says. “If you’re in it for the money, then you’re probably in the wrong field. Exposure is great – hell, so is money – but I feel that a lot of writers have unrealistic expectations of what getting a story published can or will or should do for them.”
Damn. I knew he was going to say that.
From: Apex Submissions
Thank you for submitting ‘Phase’ to Apex Magazine for consideration. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.
It’s a few days before HUCK goes to press. I’m trying to work on another short story, about two thieves who run into trouble when they steal a witchdoctor’s car. But I can’t concentrate. There’s something bugging me, like a loose tooth, jiggling in its socket.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that one of the best ways to get the attention of a literary agent – still the best way to make a life out of this writing game – is to have a good short-story publication record. Well, fine. But he wrote that in 1999, when the only kindling you did involved setting fire to your rejection letters. Do agents still value short fiction? Would they care if I just had my first piece published? I needed to find out.
This was almost hilariously hard to do. It took me days. It seems that even when your question isn’t related to a manuscript in their slush pile, agents just assume it will be, and reject it outright anyway. I try again, and again, and after the fourth of fifth agencies puts the phone down on me, I’m about to abandon that particular line of enquiry and go to the pub.
Then I find a man named Ben Mason. He’s not only approachable, but also happens to be a jolly nice chap. He’s with London agency Fox Mason, who represent (among others) Welsh comedian/writer Mark Evans and London-based journalist and author Karl Manders. “Short stories are a good testing ground for writers to exercise different voices and perspectives and find themselves,” he says, “[but] I’m probably not that interested if they’ve had short stories published… Unless they can demonstrate that they got into a fantastic literary magazine, it’s not going to mean a great deal. Even if they’ve written a competent short story, it’s quite another thing to imagine them writing a whole novel – to stretch themselves out and commit themselves to what is an arduous task.
“The good thing about short-story writing is that it does show a kind of commitment and an energy,” he adds, “taking your writing out into the world and facing the readership is only a good thing.”
From: Fiction On The Web
Hi Rob Boffard,
Congratulations! ‘One on One’ has been accepted for publication at FICTION on the WEB, and will appear on www.fictionontheweb.co.uk on 15 March. I enjoyed it so much I’m making it a “pick of the month”.
It’s only after I speak to Mason that I realise something crucial. I started off thinking that maybe short stories were in trouble – that their homes were being demolished, that they were somehow being lessened by having more people write them. Both of those are true, sure, but only up to a point. The reality is that great short stories are still being written; they’re just more nomadic.
Getting published remains, as it should, a question of quality and taste, and one can never quite know what editors and audiences are looking for. But just as the number of writers have increased, so too have the avenues for getting stories out there. And I think, when it comes down to it, I disagree with Sara King that quality is suffering. Because while I was doing all this, I got to read some truly amazing stories.
I’m never going to make a living off short stories – that’s about the only rock-solid conclusion I’ve stumbled on through this journey – but somehow, that doesn’t bother me that much anymore. You never forget your first time. But maybe the second and third can be just as good.