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Fall, 2006 : Feature:

Short Fiction, Novels and Careers

One of those questions seemingly subject to endless debate by aspiring writers (and general indifference by established writers) is whether to focus on novels or short stories in building a career. (1) The debate itself assumes that a writing career can be a matter of calculation, which both of us tend to regard as a myth. To answer the question right up front in the most obvious way possible, write what you care about. That's the best advice you'll hear on this topic, and it's where we're going to wind up in this column. Nonetheless, it can be worth the effort to understand the markets.

First of all, let's pin down the numbers themselves. In short fiction, there are four major pro periodical markets currently in print—Analog, Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), and Realms of Fantasy. There are a number of other pro periodical markets of varying strength and promise, ranging from Baen's Universe to Strange Horizons to Interzone. Then there's the anthology market, including the DAW anthologies, various major market one-offs, as well as markets such as Polyphony which verge on pro-ness but don't necessarily meet all the usually understood qualifications (print run, pay rate, circulation, etc.). Extrapolating from numbers presented in the 2005 Book Summary in the February, 2006 issue of Locus, there are about sixty of those anthologies per year. (2)

To do a tiny bit of math:

Table 1: Total professional short stories in 2005
Market Stories per Year (approx.)
Analog 66
Asimov's 66
F&SF 66
Realms of Fantasy 36
Strange Horizons 51
Other pro markets 120
60 anthologies at 15 stories each 900
Total professional short stories ~= 1,300

While it is a very loosely calculated total, let us call it 1,300 pro short stories in 2005 in speculative fiction, give or take a few, and depending which markets are counted.

On the novel side, again using February's Locus as a guideline, there were 591 books included in their "Total Books Published by SF Imprint" chart. Locus separately lists 89 anthologies published, a number broken down from a larger superset that refers to SF, F, horror, art books and other categories. Figuring that 60 of those were part of the number of total books previously cited, we can cut the total of 591 down to 531.

So call it 530 pro novels per year, with a similar allowance for give or take.

Given those numbers, what path should an aspiring writer follow?

The first and most obvious answer is that the publishing process is not especially suited to being gamed. This is not a business of odds or probability. This is a business of quality and productivity and—sometimes—sheer dumb luck. Still, understanding what you're facing in the publishing process can be educational, and ought to be encouraging. Write what you want to write, whether that's short fiction or long, and send it out into the world.

That being said, let's look at the numbers a bit more. Polyphony 6 has 24 short stories in its table of contents. Wheatland Press saw approximately 500 submissions for those 24 slots. Taking a ratio, that's about one acceptance for every 21 submissions. In the case of the major digests, the numbers run longer. Jed Hartman anecdotally cites a number of 500-800 submissions per month (3), from which six stories are bought. That's one story for every 100 submissions, roughly. That would seem to be close to the high end of the scale.

Picking a middle ground, we might presume that there were at least 40 submissions for every one of the 1,300 short stories which were published in 2005.

On the novel side, Tor Books receives between 12,000 and 15,000 unsolicited submissions per year for the genre and general book lines, exclusive of romance. (4) According to a sample shipping schedule on their Web site (5), Tor drops approximately 10-12 original titles per month in genre (presuming that hardbacks which later drop as paperback editions are only counted once). So if you cut the unsolicited submissions in half to restrict it to genre books, that's 7,000 submissions per year for 120 published books per year. To complicate matters, many of those books were solicited, being books by established Tor authors, or represented by agents rather than sent through the slush—we'll momentarily ignore that factor for this discussion.

That gives us a ratio of about 60 submissions for every novel Tor published in fantasy and science fiction. For the sake of argument, we'll assume that number holds up for the other major genre imprints.

Table 2. Ratio of submissions to publications for short fiction and novels
Short Fiction 40:1
Novels 60:1

Those are some very frightening numbers.

Do not lose heart.

Understanding the market is a key element of knowing where and how to submit your work for publication. And these numbers are daunting. Even if a number of the assumptions in these calculations are misplaced—we don't have authoritative, detailed data—the orders of magnitude are not.

But the road to publication does not follow the numbers. The road to publication follows passion. Because what those numbers don't reveal is which of those stories and novels were good. As the Tor FAQ says:

The question that puzzles us the most is, "What are the odds of getting published by Tor?" That is, what is our ratio of acceptance to rejection for manuscripts in our slush pile?

Answer: for very good books, the odds are excellent. For books we don't like, the odds are abysmal. No other measurement is meaningful. If we have a month in which we don't see any manuscripts we like, we don't buy manuscripts we dislike just to keep up our acquisition rate.

If you absolutely have to have a rough estimate of our rejection rate, the answer is that we reject most of them. But look at it this way: if you don't send us your manuscript, the odds that we'll publish it approach absolute zero. It's your call. (6)

It's certainly the case that the Polyphony slush pile winnows submissions in much the same way. For very good stories, the odds of being accepted are excellent. For stories we don't like, the odds are abysmal. The slush pile shakes out very quickly from 500 to 50 or less, and from there we make our choices. Any other market works the same way.

There are other factors that feed in to the question of whether to try to build a career on short stories or novels. For example, the effort/feedback/reward cycle to short fiction is very different from novels. You can write a story in a weekend, send it out to a market with a response within a month or two or three. Meanwhile, you've written a handful more stories and sent them out in turn. That's more and more opportunities to practice your craft, perfect your art, and push your name into the marketplace. Compare that with the six months, year, two, three, or more it takes to write a novel, as well as the similar time frame (or longer) it takes for your unsolicited manuscript to work its way through a slush pile at a major house. Assuming the publisher you are targeting will even look at unsolicited and unagented manuscripts.

Believe it or not, while we find these numbers daunting, we don't find them discouraging. Publishing is a meritocracy. Not necessarily a just meritocracy, but quality will out in the end. And quality arises from the passion and commitment reflected in the work.

There are always exceptions to statistics. But it might make you a tad more realistic in your expectations if you know the statistics.

But what it come down to is this: if you are passionate about short fiction, write short fiction. If you're passionate about novels, write novels. The passion will show through, in the glittering edges and glowing heart of your story. That's when the numbers stop mattering and the story captures an editor, and then readers.

Footnotes

  1. Jay recently conducted an analysis of award distribution with respect to publishing density, which prompted us to explore this line of thought. See http://jaylake.livejournal.com/691363.html and http://jaylake.livejournal.com/692692.html. [back]
  2. In the interests of full disclosure, one or both of us have sold to all these markets mentioned, except for Analog, and Polyphony, of which Jay is the co-editor. [back]
  3. http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2004/04/21/1976.html. [back]
  4. http://alg.livejournal.com/75477.html. [back]
  5. http://www.tor.com/scheduletor.html. [back]
  6. The Tor Books FAQ. [back]

Copyright © 2006, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

COMMENTS!

Dec 12, 17:42 by IROSF
A thread to discuss the authorial career path.

Ruth and Jay's article can be found here.
Dec 13, 00:07 by Simon Haynes
60:1 and 40:1 sound incredibly low to me, and I'm guessing that's because the ratios include pro writers and agented submissions. A lot of those TOR publications would be series books, sequels, or titles by existing TOR authors, and many anthos are invite-only, or contain reprints of fiction which already appeared in pro publications.

If there are 1300 pro short stories published each year, it'd be interesting to know how many were written by first-time authors. That's more like the ratio other first-time authors should be working from.

For argument's sake, let's say 300 of those 1300 were by first timers. (By first timers, I mean people for whom this is their first pro sale.) Therefore, 52,000 shorts with 300 published would be a ratio of approx 175:1, which still sounds high to me. Then again, how many of those 52,000 subs are simply going from one slushpile to the next, getting counted over and over again?

If you've allowed for this and I mis-read the article, my apologies.
Dec 13, 05:49 by Nancy Beck
Thanks for the article. I've actually been going around in my head as to whether or not do shorts or just stick to trying my luck with novels.

The jury's still out.

I do think you hit it on the head, though, when you said what it comes down to is passion. Without that, why bother writing at all?

~Nancy
Dec 13, 06:00 by Jay Lake
No, no, you're absolutely right, Simon. We hand-waved past that early in the article -- did mention it. The numbers on the novels especially go much deeper when you count up first-time pubs, as you say. We can also pull those numbers back up through judicious application of Sturgeon's Law, among other things, but we decided to stick to the data at hand.
Dec 13, 08:14 by Ellen Datlow
If you're counting stories from 2005, then SCIFICTION should have been counted, which would have added another 45 or so stories to the number.

Also, I still believe that writing and publishing a few brilliant short stories can bring notice to a writer quicker than writing and publishing one novel. Call me a dreamer :-)
Dec 13, 10:08 by twosheds
I was on a con panel with Mike Resnick and Gene Wolfe recently, and this very topic came up. (I'm still thrilled about sitting between two legends!). Anyway. Mike did some number crunching in his head and came out with a 1000:1 chance of a new writer breaking into the short market. Several established authors have advised me to dump short stories and plough ahead into novels where there is more (perceived) demand. However, as this article points out, I get much faster feedback as to the progression of my craft with short stories. And now that Iíve got some pro credits, if I ever approach an agent or publisher, I believe those credits will show that I have at least some marketable skill (if Iím being compared to others of equal ability with no credits).
Dec 13, 10:15 by Jay Lake
Ellen --

You're absolutely right about counting SCI FICTION from 2005. Sigh. I mean, really, one of those stories was *ours* -- you'd think we'd know that. And yes on short stories...Mr. Chiang is a lovely example of that career path.

Jay
Dec 13, 11:26 by Chris Pugmire
Really breaking into the writing market isn't possible regardless of weather you do short stories or novels. There is a huge over supply of writers in the world and a publisher doesn't care how good the book is, they only care if it will sell (otherwise they will go out of business) so they need writers who are already successful or famous, there are plenty of those to choose from.

My point. Write for fun, and give away what you write so people might do you the honor of reading it, don't kid yourself that you will 'make it' as a writer.

I've setup a web site with this principle in mind, it allows authors to distribute their works free of charge (well that's the plan)

Only-free-fiction.com
Dec 13, 13:32 by twosheds
7 of 9,

That sounds like throwing up one's hands and admitting failure.

I love it!

The more people who follow your model, the less competition Iíll have as a new writer. I wish you unbridled success in this endeavor.

Ok, Iím being facetious, and I apologize. But I collected many, many rejection slips before I got that one acceptance. It wouldíve been so easy to give up and quit or give it all to a free website. Now I get more checks than condolences.
Dec 13, 15:10 by Jay Lake
People who are "already successful or famous" came from somewhere. In December of 2000, I had never sold anything. In December of 2006, I've sold 200 short stories and six novels. I'm pretty much walking, talking proof that it's possible to break into the writing market.
Dec 13, 15:36 by Mikal Trimm
Just as long as you don't try walking and talking at the same time... ;)
Dec 13, 17:30 by Joe Prisco
I'll agree with half of Seven of Nine's bleak manifesto: if it means having to write stuff I don't enjoy, I really don't care to 'breake' into writing. This doesn't mean I don't have aims for publication; it just means I write them for myself as my main audience. If F&SF or Asimov's wants to buy work I've written with them in mind, that's all right with me; if the Atlantic wants to buy it, so much the better. Pulitzer prize? Oh, if they insist ;-)

True enough, quality isn't everything; 'The Da Vinci Code' is proof of that. But then again: Dan Brown jammed his character-poor potboiler with a lot of ideas that excited a lot of people. I think it's fair to ask: are you doing the same?

For me, the answer was to put away Brown's book and write one that did what I wanted his to do but it didn't (but not by writing sentences like that!). Passing around my chapters-in-progress at work has begun a writer's group. The first thing I noticed was that there was a lot more bellyaching about wanting to write than actual writing. Of course, getting published is a lot easier if we actually write ;-)

No doubt it's a lot easier to manage the short story than the novel, and a lot less heartache in waiting for a sale. But I don't see why we shouldn't work on novels as well; in my own experience it's been quite an education both ways. However, it's the short stories I expect to sell first, if only because they'll take less time to be read.
Dec 13, 18:02 by Simon Haynes
Sorry about that, I must have been wearing my mention-sensitive sunglasses ;-)
Dec 14, 02:03 by Brian Dolton
As Jay says; breaking in has to be possible, or where do these successful writers come from?

I sold my first ever submission, to a pro-rate market. That was a good feeling. On the other hand, I've now started racking up a lot of rejections. I'm trying to deal with that (I've never been the kind to take rejection in my stride). I don't sub to free markets, or even token payment ones, because I genuinely want to succeed in this business, and (on some days) have the faith that I'm good enough to do it.

I'm by nature a novelist (I have been writing for more than 20 years, though I only started submitting stories a year ago), but writing short stories over the past year has allowed me to learn much more quickly what works and what doesn't. And I currently hold to the belief that I may get a more favourable reception from agents/publishers, when I start hawking a novel around, if I have a few short story pro credits to my name. At the very least, it can't hurt.
Dec 14, 11:36 by Michael Turner
Nice article, but I feel it kind of left the middle out. Like talking about breaking into major league baseball and forgetting to mention the minor leagues. The many not-quite-pro-rate-paying markets out there do play a part in making it in the writing biz. The best of them feature stories every bit as well written and entertaining as any in the promarkets, and all of them provide the neophyte writer with the one element they will need to make it beyond their first pro sale-- readers.
So a short look at markets like Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Fantastic Stories, Black Gate, Aberrant Dreams, Paradox, and all the many other small press or semi pro markets, many of whom appear on the racks right next to the industry staples, would have rounded this article out nicely.
Mike
Dec 14, 18:07 by Jay Lake
So a short look at markets like Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Fantastic Stories, Black Gate, Aberrant Dreams, Paradox, and all the many other small press or smi pro markets, many of whom appear on the racks right next to the industry staples, would have rounded this article out nicely.

Hey, Mike. Thank you very much for the feedback. As you may or may not be aware, we're very conscious of the middle market -- small press and semipro. I've been very active there as both a writer and editor all through my career. We made a conscious decision to discuss pro markets and pro careers in this column, rather than trying to span all the possibilities. We may well talk about the semipro market in the future, though.
Dec 15, 16:16 by twosheds
You're right, Erazmus! My favorite mag of all (including the pros) is Black Gate.
Dec 15, 18:37 by Michael Turner
Thanks twosheds, its mine too.
And thank you for responding Jay. I'm glad you plan an article on the semi-pro market and can see why you'd start with the pro market end. I'm well aware of your activity in those markets, having enjoyed many of your stories in them. I think it pretty obvious from your pro-market article that there are not enough slots to even sustain the writing efforts of established professionals in the top tier alone. I look forward to your next article.
Mike
Dec 24, 04:32 by Scott Sandridge
In a nutshell, it really comes down to what Han Solo once said: "Never tell me the odds!" ;)

But other than that, great article. The numbers alone showed me how important is to have a spine of iron in this business. And you're right about it being more about quality than quantity. I recently discovered that while reading slush for Ray Gun Revival. And also just dumb luck. Sometimes, even a good story had to be rejected just because it wasn't a good fit for the e-zine.
Jan 2, 09:50 by Tracy Bovee
Jay (and Ruth!) - Thanks for this article! It's interesting to get a snapshot like this - and, so, some ideas - of what one can expect when trying to break into the market with one's own work. For some time, now, I've kept a body of work stashed on the word processer - some of it finished and some of it WIP - wondering where, when and how to give it a shot. Wondering where the market might be best to try. This article provided some answers. More would be nice; for instance:

As you may or may not be aware, we're very conscious of the middle market -- small press and semipro. I've been very active there as both a writer and editor all through my career. We made a conscious decision to discuss pro markets and pro careers in this column, rather than trying to span all the possibilities. We may well talk about the semipro market in the future, though.

Please do talk about it, when you can. I'll eagerly look forward in hopes of that. It would be very illuminating and edifying to understand what one might expect in this area as well. More in terms of your personal experiences - also in the pro field as well - would be not only interesting but instructional as well.

I'm also curious if there is a significant difference between trying to publish for strict science fiction and for fantasy (noting that we are including both genres in this subject). Also, what differences may be involved in trying to seek publishing in a pre-existing environment, such as Star Trek or Star Wars to name two of a great number?

Looking forward to more!
TMB
Jun 19, 23:53 by wikirass@gmail.com
Nice that you described it in such way


Excorts whore

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