Can you make a living writing short stories?

Posted by John Brown on June 22nd, 2010

We already know that many people break into the novel market WITHOUT writing short stories. So they’re not necessary for starting a writing career, although they might have helped some folks. See this page http://johndbrown.com/writers/writing-business-facts-figures/ for links that will show you how people break in. But some people just love short stories, so the question is can you make a living writing them?

The answer is yes, you CAN do it–you go into television and get hired to write scripts for TV series (grin).

But what about doing it in print? Well, let’s try some conservative math.

1) How much would you need to sell?

TARGET: a conservative $30,000 gross per year.

The median household income in the USA is $50,000. But you can find a place (rural Ohio or Indiana or North Dakota etc.) where housing is relatively cheap and live on $30k. I think this is a reasonable target. So let’s make some assumptions about the stories. We’ll assume each short averages around 4,000 words and that you get paid seven cents per word. To earn your target amount you’d have to sell:

  • TOTAL WORDS YOU NEED TO SELL: 428,571
  • TOTAL STORIES YOU NEED TO SELL: 107 (words divided by average story length)
  • TOTAL STORIES/WEEK: 2 sales per week (weeks in year divided by number of stories)

At 10 cents a word:

  • TOTAL WORDS YOU NEED TO SELL: 300,000
  • TOTAL STORIES YOU NEED TO SELL: 75
  • TOTAL STORIES/WEEK: 1.4 sales per week

No, this doesn’t count reprints, movie deals, gaming contracts, etc. But reprints usually don’t pay well and movie deals, while they pay well, can’t be counted on. Besides, we’re being conservative. 

2) Is this a feasible production rate?

Again, a little math.

TARGET: 2 stories, 8,000 words average per week

If we assume you write five days per week for six hours per day at a rate of 500 words per hour, which may be very aggressive if you try to include thinking and revising time in that, then you’ll produce 15,000 words per week.

So, yes, this is a feasible, if aggressive, production rate–on paper. But I don’t know anyone finishing this many stories per week. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely you will sell 100% of what you send out. So you need to actually produce MORE than two stories per week. You might have to end up writing three or four. Week after week after week. That’s one story every day or two.

Theoretically, yes, that rate of production still fits in the 15,000 word capacity. But I’m going to say it’s doubtful anyone can do this because I haven’t seen anyone do it. Have you? 

But even if you were the Lizard King of writing and could pull this off every week of the year, the question is can you sell all those stories?

3) Is it feasible to sell two stories per week?

According to http://duotrope.com/index.aspx there are about 200 venues for short fiction paying pro rates, which for them is 5 cents or more. No,  anthologies are not represented there. But I’m not sure it will change the equations that much. So you have to sell 107 stories to these 200 markets. I don’t know how many slots are open in these places. Some of these venues publish one story per year, some publish twelve, some more. Some are published semi-annually, quarterly, bi-monthly. Let’s say there are 2,000 slots. Of course, we might need to count total wordage up for hire at these venues instead, but we’re just doing this on the back of a napkin. So 107 stories out of 2,000 slots means you’d have to make up 5% of the market. You sell five of every 100 stories these folks buy.

FIVE PERCENT OF THE WHOLE MARKET!

Nobody makes up 5% of the whole short fiction market. NOBODY. Okay, let’s say there are 4,000 slots. Each venue averaging twenty stories per year. So you have to make up 2.5% of the market. Nobody does that either. What about 1%? Anyone? One out of every 100 stories? No.

Is this because writers are lazy? Could it be done? You might be the first?

That’s lotto thinking. What you want is demonstrated income, i.e. people have DEMONSTRATED it can be done. Nobody has demonstrated this can be done in the current market. So it’s not reasonable to expect you’ll do something nobody else is doing.

So the answer is that even if you produce three to four short stories per week, you’ll never be able to sell enough to make a living. Now, I know of a few authors who can make a few thousand dollars per year writing short stories. I’ve heard of one guy who made $10,000 a year for a few years. But can you live on that? Even if you move to a place where housing is very, very cheap? Besides, we’re trying to avoid lotto thinking here. We’re trying to be practical and conservative. This is one guy. Do you yourself know anyone who has done this? I wouldn’t want to base my future on what one guy did.

CONCLUSION: there’s no evidence that strongly suggests it’s feasible to sell at the necessary rate to make $10,000 per year let alone $30,000.

4) Re-purpose the wordage to Novels!

Go back up and look at the annual output of words. If you can write 300,000 to 450,000 words per year, you could write four to six young adult novels (averaging 70,000 words per book) or two to three adult novels (averaging 120,000 words per) in that same time.

Why not build a career in novels?

Yes, you may start at $5,000 – $6,000 advance per book. But if you sell well, that goes up. Plus, if it does sell well, you get royalties. Plus you can sell foreign novel rights. Plus you get an advance to help with some expenses. More importantly, we have thousands and thousands of folks DEMONSTRATING they can make a living writing at that pace.

So write short stories if you love them, but don’t expect to make a living at it.

5) But what about Amazon and self-publishing?

Could you make a living selling your shorts out there?

Only if your shorts were once worn by Brittany Spears.

For more on e-book sales, let me recommend you read a few posts by J. A. Konrath. I’ll let you decide. But please note that he’s selling NOVELS. And as always, you want to be realistic about this and make sure you see many people DEMONSTRATING it can be done. Do you think Konrath presents such evidence? You tell me.

Postscript

Read these two posts by Dean Wesley Smith where he busts some big myths about not being able to make a living writing:

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only 300 Writers Make a Living

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Can’t Make Money in Fiction

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7 Responses to “Can you make a living writing short stories?”

  1. Tweets that mention John Brown – the author’s official site » Blog Archive » Can you make a living writing short stories? -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Nicholas Rose Says:

    Really informative post, John. I’ve made an effort to write a number of short stories each year when I need a change of pace from novel-writing, but (for me) it’s a tough market to break into. I think I’ll keep writing more shorts from time to time, but it’ll probably stay second-priority after my novels.
    I’ll have to take a closer look at J.A. Konrath’s posts there though–they look interesting.

  3. John Brown Says:

    Konrath’s stuff IS interesting, although I approach it with caution. I’ve seen too many multi-level marketing, real estate, sales situations with a lot of hype and very low success rate. People ARE doing it, but very few out of the many, many, many who try. But, hey, that sounds like normal publishing :)

  4. Wednesday Wanderings 2 « Brad R. Torgersen Says:

    [...] John Brown ponders whether or not a writer can still make a living on short fiction alone? The short answer is: probably not. You’d have to sell too many stories too often, and for too little money, to make anything more than a token income. This wasn’t necessarily true during the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, when many of the Name authors routinely sold to magazines, and lived off the revenue. But these days, the economics are different, as is the publishing landscape. And no, e-publishing is not likely to change that. In fact, if I may be so bold, I almost suspect e-publishing might make it worse, because as more and more no-name authors rush to get their manuscripts on-line, there will be more short fiction competing for reader attention than ever before. As if the FanFic deluge didn’t consume enough reader hours? Already-established authors might do quite well — they have a platform and an audience. Unknown authors — such as yours truly — are left to ponder how and where to raise market visibility. With few sure answers. Suffice to say, if you want to “live” on fiction, novels are still the best bet, and then, definitely go the New York route first, before you dive into e-pub. The editor filter isn’t perfect, but it’s there for a reason. And New York still pays fairly well too, especially for writers not afraid to get outside the SF&F “ghetto.” [...]

  5. GlennLewisGillette Says:

    How did you get Duotrope to list 200 pro-rate venues? I pick:
    * Payscale=Pro payment
    * Sort By=Pay (high-low)
    & the site complains “You have not entered enough search criteria!”

    If I specify Genre=General, then I get 89 markets.

    What’s your secret, pls?

  6. John Brown Says:

    Glenn, it appears Duotrope has changed its search method since I wrote this (which was about a month or two before I published it here). At the time, I just did a wide open search on pay rate. To get the full list now it appears you’d now need to select Pro-payment, then do a search by each story length, copy each results list to Excel, and then sort and remove duplicates. For example, I just did one on pro-payment, any genre, short story length and got a result of 112 venues. I’d need to do it for flash, novella, etc.

  7. GlennLewisGillette Says:

    John, thanks for the answer. Thus I will proceed, but I use a real database (MS-Access does qualify) rather than Excel (which gets clumsy quickly) for tracking submissions; I even wrote an application to handle matching my stories to markets, which I prefer to Duotrope’s support there (tho it beats most of what’s available, especially for free), partly because I dislike having to ignore the same markets over & over. I also sift thru Duotrope’s RSS feed every weekend (with another custom application), a good way to catch changes, posting my progress on Twitter with hashtag #writingmarket.