Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Not To Starve As A Short Story Writer

By John McDonnell

Back in 2001 I decided to start sending out short stories to online magazines. Short fiction writers like Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor have always been my heroes, and I had a dream of being a successful short story writer myself. I put that dream off for many years, but when I saw how many magazines there were on the Internet devoted to “flash fiction”, or ultra-short stories, I decided to jump into the pool.

I joined an online flash fiction writing group, used its feedback to polish my stories, and I started sending them out.

And I had success. Some of my stories got published. Actually, a lot more of my stories got published than I had expected. It turned out that editors liked my writing. I went around in a pretty good mood for awhile, thinking that I could finally call myself a short story writer, because, hot damn, I was published!

My euphoria faded a bit with time. I was still happy with my decision to send out my stories, but there were times when I wondered, Is this all there is? The reason is that the  rush of seeing my name in print was followed by an empty feeling in my wallet.

The fact is, online magazines don’t pay very much. Actually, most of them don’t pay at all. If you get a dollar or two for your story, consider yourself lucky. In most cases you get a byline and a link to your Web site or blog, and maybe a 50 word bio.

Now, I’m not griping too much, mind you. It’s a great thrill to see your story on the screen, and to have the validation that an editor liked what you wrote. Sometimes you even get fan e-mail.

Money, though, is a kind of validation, perhaps the most telling kind. If somebody parts with their hard-earned cash to buy what you’ve written, it means more than if you’re giving it away for free.

And that’s why I love ebooks. The ebook revolution has made it easy for authors to publish their short stories, and to actually sell them to the reading public. I have four ebooks of my short stories online now, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well they’re selling.

What makes me really happy, however, is this interesting fact. My first ebook has 13 horror stories in it. Five years ago I could have sent all 13 of those stories out to online magazines, waited weeks or months for editors to decide if they wanted to publish them, re-submitted to new magazines the ones that were rejected, waited some more, and kept at it until maybe a year later when I could see every one of the 13 published.

My net income would have been at most, 13 dollars, assuming every one of the stories got published in a magazine that paid a dollar a story (which, like I said before, is a princely sum for most online magazines).

Instead, I put those stories in an ebook, and started making money on them immediately. Now, I’m not on the level of a Joe Konrath or Amanda Hocking, people who are selling thousands of their ebooks every month, but I can tell you that I’ve made many, many times that 13 dollars I referred to above.

The lesson to me is clear. Online magazines are a great outlet for short story writers, but if you like to be paid for your work, and you don’t like waiting for an editor to get back to you with a decision, and you like immediate feedback from readers, put your stories in an ebook and sell them on Smashwords, Amazon, or one of the other ebook outlets.

What happens if every writer does this? Will online magazines go out of business for lack of story submissions? Maybe some will, but I imagine there will still be enough people out there who want the validation that comes from an editor wanting to publish their work. And who knows, maybe the online magazines will have to increase their pay rates to get good writers to send stories to them in this new environment. 

All I know is that from now on, my stories are going straight to ebooks.