Novellas, short fiction, making a living, and other fancy stuff

Two months ago I was in Detroit and sitting on a panel at ConFusion when someone had just asked the question. “Can you see a time when writers can make their living on short fiction?” I replied (paraphrasing here) that yes, I could envision that time, and that is now.

I don’t think any of the other panelists agreed with me, but that makes sense because they were reviewers and publishers of small press magazines. The fact is that there will probably never be a way you can make a living selling stories to magazines and whatnot in the classic way, but that is the environment they knew. It’s what they understood to be true, and so for them it was the truth. There is no way that short fiction could sustain them, nor would there ever be.

But I came into the room after going straight to the reader, and after marketing a very successful series of eight novellas. A novella, being considerably less in size than a novel, is certainly considered short fiction (and if you don’t believe me go read almost all my most negative reviews on Amazon—most of which say great story, well written, but I’m giving it 1-star because it’s too danged short … sigh). Anyway, given that, I came into that conference room with a balanced position—I sell several short stories a year into the traditional markets, and I’m publishing serial short fiction out of Skyfox, my own house.

This is important, because until I actually did it myself I’m not sure how I would have answered the question. But given the results that I HAVE SEEN MYSELF, I can say that yes, verily, I can envision a period where writers could live off short fiction, and that this period is right now. All you have to do is become a publisher. Take your time, write a good story, and publish it well (meaning invest in professional covers, editing, etc). This is a lot of work. And it’s actually quite complex.

But the fact is that the novella (or novelette, or whatever) can certainly bring in money to writers who are willing to do the work it takes to do it well. However, I think it’s fair to say that many, many, many writers do not want to actually be a publisher.

I’m thinking about this right now because a little while back io9 interviewed editors at TOR about their view that the novella was the future of the genre. This, they said, was specifically because the once mighty, but now over-looked novella, was perfect for today’s busy reader who may not have the time (or attention span) to dedicate to a novel. This created quite a stir, and caused many writers to weigh in on both the idea itself and the flavor in which the idea was presented.

Personally, I love the idea of the novella making a return. I’ve always liked novella length work. Not because it’s short enough to fit my time available, but because I just love the form. Its dimensions (17-40,000 words) are big enough to allow for complexity, but constrained enough to drive the writer to just get on with telling the danged story. Novellas are, for me, the movies of the book world. Give a novella two or three hours, and it will return to you a grand old time.

But, I also admit that I struggle with the idea of crowning the novella as the king of the hill. The novella is the future of SF, perhaps as Bruce Springsteen was once the future of Rock and Roll. For all the hype and heraldry of that iconic statement, and for all that Springsteen is and has been to the world of music, there’s still been lot of Rock and Roll that isn’t the Boss. Still, to my way of thinking, it’s good and fun to see the novella making a name for itself again.

So, anyway, back to the convention, and TOR, and the question at hand.

The issue, you see, is that to me what’s different today is not the novella, nor is it the question of time on hand for readers (though that may well help to some degree). I say this, though, because more readers read more things today than ever, including novels. So, no, it’s not time. The thing that is different is that the market is now direct to readers. It’s that the market is now not constrained to Analog or Asimov’s one novella per issue, or even’s novella program (which I note is now already closed to submissions because it can only afford to pay for so much, right?).

You see, I posit that readers like me have always loved novellas. We’ve always loved those short 40-50K word novels. There has always been a readership (hence a market) for these writers to hit, but until the technology that enables today’s explosion of independent publishing became available, the only reasonable pathway to get to those readers was through the artificially constrained market of the magazines. Now, assuming you can write well, and assuming you publish well, you can make a reasonable cash flow with this short fiction because you can use the Amazons and other online venues to reach that readership directly. At that point, the market itself makes its decisions.

And if you can write enough of it quickly enough, you can “easily” make a living doing it.


To this, I will of course say, Yay! I love it as a writer, and I love it as a reader.

The thing I find most interesting about this whole situation, though, is the fact that so few people in the industry itself seem to actually see what’s happening. No one else on the panel did, for example. And the audience at that panel (which was mostly newbie writers), were surprised at my point of view. In fact, they pretty much discounted my position. This, of course, did not surprise me. Realize I said, after all, that I find the viewpoint of the industry today interesting, not surprising.

The reason for my lack of surprise is because I spent 30 or so years working in corporate America, and one of the most important lessons I took away from that experience is that unless something “destructive” happens, people do not change their thinking much. This idea seems so ubiquitous and so simple, but it slips away from me so easily that I find myself having to remind myself of it so often it’s embarrassing. But, the fact is this: people don’t give up their preconceived biases and opinions lightly, or easily, or perhaps ever.

No matter what is true, whatever you believe will always be foremost in your mind and will almost always crowd out what is real.

Think about that last statement. Think about it hard. Then go apply it to something important to you today. Tell yourself that something you believe in fully about the world is wrong. I bet you can get something useful out of it, because (and here’s the kicker, eh?) if no one else around you sees the world as it truly is, you have a great competitive advantage.

So, yeah.

Think about it.

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Posted in Daily Writing, Short Stories.

One Comment

  1. Great post, Ron! 🙂

    This why I no longer find going to genre conventions relevant in the business sense (I still think going to see friends is a great reason to attend). My audience (and yours) is pretty much out there in the great big world, waiting to be reached directly. And it’s a *great* feeling! 🙂

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