When we talk about publishing and self-publishing, we talk a lot about books. A lot. But not every author loves writing whole novels.
There are many whose writerly arts lie in short fiction. These authors have perfectly captured the pacing and nuance of a really compelling and well-told short story. And more often than not, they have a massive file filled with different works. Some authors just sit on them, feeling pressured to write full books as a means to try and make their name. Others try to get their work out there.
But if you’re an author who doesn’t have the credentials and reputation to just hammer out a submission to The New Yorker—because the truth is, a recognizable name counts for a lot with the big publications, and the same goes for short-story collections with publishers—how do you turn your short stories into a source of income...or even a book deal?
Consider starting slow
We’d never presume to tell authors and writers what to do as a “one size fits all” (unless it’s a really big no-no). The truth is that every author’s path to success is different. So absolutely aim high, and if you see a chance to submit to your dream publications, we’re here to cheer you on, 5,001 percent. But in the event that going big doesn’t quite net you the opportunities you were hoping for, it’s sometimes worth taking a two-pronged approach. Aim big, but also start small. You can do both.
Start with getting a great pitch together. Whether you’re submitting your story to a publication, an agent, or a publisher, you’ll want to craft a killer query letter to go with it. (Check out our Writers’ Center tips for writing a great query letter in “Conquering Query Letter Anxiety.”)
The world is filled with literary contests both honest and profane. Most contests also have entry fees (usually somewhere between $15 to $50 per submission). Prizes can range from publication in a modest literary journal to cash prizes—and more. Make sure you budget carefully, and tailor each story submission for the contest—it’s easy to find yourself spending $75 to $100 without realizing it! (There are also a lot of free contests.)
But there are some pitfalls to watch out for. Ensure that you retain the rights to your work so you can publish it elsewhere, either alone or as part of a collection. Also keep in mind that depending on the contest, some publishers will happily use your work, sometimes for profit, and you won’t receive a cent (this happened to me).
Suss out reputable literary publications
If you’re looking to get your name out there, being published in a respected literary journal is one of the best ways to start growing your author reputation, as well as to potentially get your work in front of agents and publishers. No guarantees, of course—the chances of being plucked from obscurity and whisked into an exciting world of six- or seven-figure deals and world travel are negligible. But this is one of the ways to start developing your credentials. Look for publications that fit your style and genre as perfectly as possible, and make sure you follow the submission requirements to the letter.
Once you’ve started publishing your work in journals, you’ll find it easier to get your pitches/queries noticed by slightly more prominent publications. Just remember to respond professionally both in your dealings with them and online. Rejections suck as a rule, but the writing community is smaller than you think it is, so handle your frustrations with grace and good humor in public, and draw mean doodles in secret.
Look for collections
Some publishers, especially small and independent presses, actively seek short stories for a collection they’re publishing. Often themed, these collections generally offer a diverse range of voices, and they're a fantastic opportunity that will really boost your credentials. Keep in mind that these opportunities are more likely to come your way if you have an agent representing you. The biggest downside is that these smaller publishers have small budgets, which means that your payment will likely be small. Make sure you read the fine print with regard to retaining the rights to your work—or at least be fully aware if you consent to sign the rights away.
Self-publish your own collection
Nothing is stopping you from releasing your short stories as a collection. While the likelihood of becoming a bestselling author or making oodles of cash is slim, this is a fantastic option for all authors who just want to get their work out there. (This could also be a great way of boosting your backlist while you’re between writing projects.)
But remember, once your stories are published as a collection in book form, it’s unlikely that publishers will want to publish them after that, so make sure you aren’t planning to shop them around to any literary journals or publications.
Things to keep in mind when assembling a short-story collection:
1) Choose stories that share a similar theme or character.
2) Lead strong. Start with something lively and fresh to keep the reader engaged.
3) Remember that a short-story collection should be a kind of journey. When choosing where to place each story in the collection, try to create a kind of story arc or evolution.
4) Make sure your stories are fully edited for both style and structure.
5) Make sure you have an incredible cover to draw readers in. Books absolutely get judged by their covers.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.