That Drink During A Marathon

For my first post of the new year, which I believe is my 100th post, I’ll be addressing a point brought up in the comments on my last post.  But before that, some updates:

  • My outline spreadsheet template is taking shape, which was a goal I had for this year.  After looking at examples from a lot of different writers, I think I have a format that’ll work for me for planning things out down to the chapter/scene level.  I’ll apply it to what I have done on my NaNoWriMo manuscript so far, then plan the rest of the story out to the end, so I can get those word counters on the left moving again.
  • I Should hear back soon about a couple submissions I have out.

So, in my last post, one goal I listed was:  Self-publish a story every other month.

Ambitious for me, to be sure.  I’m gunning for those to be novella length, but it’s likely some of those will be short stories.  Timothy C. Ward commented on that post and posed a question about that goal:  “Do self pub’d short stories really make money?”

Answer:  Yes.  Caveat:  If your Hugh Howey.

And I totally understand Tim’s point with that question.  An unknown writer with a small audience self-publishes a 7,000 word short story on Amazon for 99 cents, and spends time promoting it and hopes it gets enough exposure to get noticed.  On the other hand, that same unknown writer can submit and sell that same 7,000 word story to a magazine or anthology and get paid a per word rate for his or her effort.

Each option has its pros and cons.  Which is the best?  In my opinion, it depends on your individual long-term goals and publishing strategy.

So let’s examine our 7,000 word example as a submission to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  F&SF publishes fiction up to 25,000 words at a rate of 7-12 cents per word paid on acceptance.  On the low-end of that scale, the 7,000 word story should get you $490.  A very nice payday.  I’d love to get that check.  What does it take to get that payday?  The story is submitted and gets added to the slush pile.  F&SF is an upper tier short story market and a sale there has its benefits:  Potential Hugo and Nebula award exposure, counts as a qualified sale toward meeting membership requirements in SFWA.  A sale to F&SF is a big deal, so the slush pile is extra high and, consequently, the editor can probably only give each story a limited window of opportunity to grab their attention.  You’re asked to wait at least 8 weeks for a response.  They will buy stories that fit their publication, so you could wait 8 weeks or more to (most likely) receive a form letter response that doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of your work except in the rare occasion you DO get a personal note on the rejection that may say its good, but not for them.

If you can make this sale then you’ve accomplished something, no doubt about it.  If not, then the conventional wisdom is to get it right back out in the mail to another market.  Rinse and repeat until it sells or you run out of places to send it to.  If that’s the case, then you have a story that’s spent months, possibly even years, in limbo, doing nothing for you except having given you practice at your craft (which is vitally important).

At the other end of the spectrum, the unknown writer can self-publish it.  Until the rise of the e-reader and the associated self-publishing platforms, this wasn’t even an option for shorter works unless they were part of a published collection.  E-readers changed all of that.  Story length means virtually nothing.

I see most short stories published on Amazon and B&N priced at 99 cents.  It’s what I price at, so let’s use that as the example.  Royalty rate is 35%, so the writer will earn 34 cents.  To make that same $490 from selling to F&SF, that story would have to sell 1441 copies.

1441?!?!?  That’s just crazy talk!!  Oh yes, it is.  If you out source the cover design and formatting, it gets even crazier than that.

In my opinion, one shouldn’t need to hire out formatting for a short story.  The front matter should be fairly simple.  There should be no need for chapter links or anything like that so it ought to be straight forward.  Covers for shorts shouldn’t need to be epic, but they do need to look professional so if you can afford to hire out, it can only help.  Then there’s the edit.  Again, best if you pay for a pro edit.  For me, these aren’t options.  I barter for some of these services in other ways, and I’m rolling the dice by not buying these services.  It’s a risk I take.

So self-pubbing shorts doesn’t look very appealing, does it?  So where’s the benefit?

As I’ve said before, self-publishing is not a sprint race.  It’s a marathon.  The tools available now allow writers to make their content available to readers as fast as they can create it.  Thanks to the internet age, readers are consuming more content than ever before.  To keep the masses from going hungry, you must feed them.

Supply and demand.  Economics FTW.

I see self-pubbed shorts serving a couple of vital needs:  Exposure to the target audience – This is self-explanatory.  If you publish enough stories on Amazon and categorize them properly, inevitably, people will see it.  How soon?  How many?  This all depends on what you’ve been doing to make yourself seen by the audience.  Are you interacting with your audience on a consistent basis through social media or some other means?  And by that, I DON’T mean tweeting 100 times a day “Buy my Story”.  Sure, you do want to let people know when you release something, but 90% of the twitter feed from writers I follow are tweets pimping their stuff.  I followed them because I found some of what they posted (when I found them) to be interesting but the interesting stuff turns out to be buried treasure in a desert of spam.

But I digress.

Actual reader feedback – When you can get actual honest reviews, from complete strangers, it can go a long way to finding your strengths and weaknesses that may have gotten by your beta readers.

I also see shorts functioning as a gateway for new readers to find your content.  Self-pubbing gives you total control over your product.  Any time you want, you can run a special or even give a story away for free.  People like free stuff.  A KDP Select free day is a big help with this.  On a free day, I get a 100 times more “sales”.  This doesn’t always translate into cash sales of other works, but it can.  If they like your writing, they may be inclined to click one of those links you have in your front matter to another book you’ve published and, if you put together a good product where that link takes them, you may have a sale and, more importantly, possibly a fan that may be back to pick up your next book.

Resale potential – Let’s say you have a couple of 99 cent short stories that follow a similar theme, and have been out for a long time, buried in your backlist.  You can always breathe some new life into them, but packaging them in a collection with a couple of new stories of the same theme.  If all of those stories would have been priced at 99 cents individually and sold one copy each, you would net $1.73.  Put those five in one collection, price it at $3.99 (which saves the reader a dollar vs. buying them individually) and you qualify for the 70% royalty rate which nets you $2.79 – an additional 61%.

There’s a bit of an upside here, after all, don’t you think?

So, how does long-term strategy factor in?  To use Tim as an example, he uses the sale of his shorts to traditional markets to help cover the expenses of self-publishing his longer works like Scavenger: Evolution.  He got a pro edit, pro cover, and even an audiobook, and looks like it belongs sitting next to any other pro work on Amazon.  And those things cost a lot of cash-a-ronies, which means there’s a return on investment to consider that will impact the frequency of future publications.

For myself, I’m using them for all the reasons stated above:  Exposure, gateway for building my audience, etc.  Whether this works for the long-term.  I’ll be rolling the dice on quality if I can’t afford to buy services for novels and do it on my own, but its a chance I’ll have to take.  One reason for initially beginning with a pen name was to get my feet wet in self-publishing.  Make all the mistakes under the pen name and cut over to either another pen name or use my own when I think I’m ready.  I’m making that change sooner than I had planned, but again, its a chance I’m willing to take.

Which way is right?  Both…and neither.

What I think is one of the most beautiful things about publishing in the 21st century is you can work it from both sides.  A lot of what I write doesn’t feel like a good fit for things like F&SF and rather than waiting months to find out, I publish them myself.  But when I write THE END on a story and the re-read has me thinking; Holy crap, this is a story for Asimov’s if I ever read one, then that one is going out in their slush pile, no doubt about it, and I’m thinking of the next thing to write before I even finish walking back from the mailbox.

Conversely, if I think a story is ready for prime time, can make a cover I’m happy with, and format it flawlessly for e-readers, then its going up for sale.

Back to the original question, do self pub’d short stories make money?  You make the call.  Everything I’ve said here has been said a hundred times before by the likes of Michael Stackpole and Dean Wesley Smith

While they don’t put a lot of money my pocket directly, I do think they’re a great cup of water to keep you going in the marathon.


Till next time.






About Thomas J. rock

Writer of Science Fiction

Posted on January 13, 2016, in The Daily Grind and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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