Making A Living With Short Fiction 2018
Back By Popular Demand…
Actually, I am bringing this forward from May 2016 and it is mostly unchanged. I will put in BOLD ALL-CAP ITALICS when I have changed something.
Can You Make a Living Writing Only Short Fiction?
Every year or so I look at this topic once again, do the math, see if anything has changed over the last couple of years.
And now, here in May 2016, things have changed some, but in my opinion it would still be possible to make a decent living writing only short fiction.
Why do I like this topic? Actually, because I love short fiction, meaning any story under around 10,000 words. I love reading it and I love writing it. And doing this exercise is fun for me, even though no one will ever follow this path.
Besides, I am a pulp writer at heart and a lot of pulp writers made a good living, if not great living, writing short fiction for the pulps.
So here we go once again. Caution, some math ahead. And some things you might not want to hear.
What is a Decent Living?
To figure out if it is possible, I suppose we need to set a number here as to a decent living. To make things easier, I’m just setting a number of $48,000 per year.
That’s $4,000 per month average over a year’s time. Decent living in many places, low for others. But for this exercise, let’s go with it.
(I personally hate it when my writing income gets under six figures, but that’s just my personal level.)
Also, I am not saying it would be possible to make a living with short fiction after only one year. But clearly it would after five or six years. And every year after that as well if you kept writing.
Income from a Single Short Story??
Almost impossible to give a set income for a single short story. So not really going to try. I have made over $20,000 each on a couple short stories and I am sure I have a couple recent short stories that have been lucky to make me $100 so far.
So I’m going to come at this from a different direction. And then talk in general numbers.
Now, those who have been around here for a time know that last July (2015) I wrote 32 short stories. About 110,000 words of short fiction.
Do I think anyone could do what Bradbury did for a time and write a story a day like I did in July? Sure, very possible. If I could do it, anyone could.
But would it be possible to do that for an entire year?
Not likely. Life issues, or life rolls as we like to call them, such as sickness, emergencies, family problems and so on would just not much allow that.
(I NOW BELIEVE IT WOULD BE POSSIBLE… I DID 30 STORIES IN APRIL WHILE MOVING, SO I THINK THIS IS NOW POSSIBLE FOR SOMEONE TO DO A STORY PER DAY LIKE BRADBURY USED TO DO.)
So if you did nothing with your life but get up in the morning and write short fiction, how many stories could you produce in a year?
Got to take into account you would also be indie publishing these titles at some point along the process, so there is time there to do covers and such. I’ll talk about the methods below.
And some stories are just going to run longer.
So I think it would be safe to say a full-time short story writer could easily do 15 short stories a month for a year. That’s not even half pulp speed.
In one year at that rate you would produce 180 short stories. (I HAVE DONE THAT MANY ON SOME YEARS.)
At the end of five years you would have produced about 900 short stories.
Keep those numbers in mind.
(And keep in mind that 900 short stories is far more than most writers will every write in their entire lifetimes.)
What Do You Need in Skills?
— A love, passionate love of short fiction and the form of short fiction in all genres.
— Ability to do your own covers.
— Ability to layout your own paper books. (VELLUM HAS NOW MADE THIS SIMPLE.)
— Ability to generate your own clean epub files. (VELLUM)
— A couple good copyeditors (OR FIRST READERS) who would charge reasonable rates.
— A stunningly good organizational system.
— An ability to keep learning craft.
— A simple but solid bookkeeping system for both tracking sales and tracking the money.
— The mindset to sell your work everywhere in the world in all sorts of forms.
— The ability to write clean first drafts without rewriting.
— The ability to write short fiction in many different genres. As well as create series in short fiction. (I have five or six different short-story-only series, plus 37 Poker Boy short stories.)
So, think you can do or learn how to do all of the above? If so, then to what you do with each story when finished.
The Path of a Single Short Story
First, send the story to a major market, meaning a market that does the following:
— Pays 5 cents per word and up.
— Only licenses from you what they need and nothing more for a short period of time.
— Reverts your story to you for your use within one year after publication. (And preferably, the place you sold it to keeps a non-exclusive right on your story and keeps it in print as advertising for your other work.)
Keep the story in the mail for one year (I NOW SAY TWO YEARS) or until you run out of high-paying markets. (I said this was going to five or six years remember?)
And yes, I know not all stories will be suitable for mailing. Romance and western markets are rare for short stories.
Once the story is either returned to you or you run out of markets or (TIME) goes past without a sale, you do the following with the story.
— Indie publish it stand-alone electronic. Sale price is $2.99 electronic.
— Indie publish it stand-alone paper. Paper Price is $4.99
— Get the story combined in a theme collection of nine other stories. Price on those ten-story collections is usually $5.99 electronic and $12.99 paper. (FIVE STORY COLLECTIONS ARE ALSO POSSIBLE AS IS BUNDLE RABBIT FOR BUNDLES.)
Let’s say you have a fantastic sell-through to major markets and are learning your craft and getting better and better. So say you sell to a paying market one out of 20 stories the first year.
Stories sold average 5,000 words. You sales average 6 cents per word, so about $300 per story. You wrote 180 stories so you sold 9 of them, which gets you $2,700 for the year.
Year five: If you keep doing this, keep getting stories out there, you will be a major writer for numbers of publications and be selling far more than 9 of your stories per year. Safely you would selling upwards of 50 stories or more per year. That’s 50 x $300 = $15,000 per year in the 5th year just from sales to magazines.
Also, realize, if you are doing that, by the fifth year, the promotion and advertising for your indie books will have climbed, but not going to take that into account here. Going to keep sales on the bottom at average of one sale per story per month.
Now to the Indie side of things.
At the end of the second year, you have 180 stories up. Say each story sells 1 copy per month. AVERAGE. Some will sell more, some won’t sell at all.
(THAT IS SCARY LOW AVERAGE IN 2018… YOU COULD GET AWAY WITH 3-5 COPIES AVERAGE.)
So at about $2.00 profit (both paper and electronic) per sale, you get $360 per month.
Remember, this is from all sources, all outlets around the planet. Every tiny trickle of money does add up.
So that’s $4,300 with 180 stories up.
With 180 stories, you would have 18 collections. Each sale of a collection would make you about $4.00, and you might sell one copy of each collection somewhere in the world every month. (AVERAGE)
So that’s $4.00 x 18 = $72 per month or about $850 per year. (rounding)
Now, taking those numbers, move to the end of the fifth year or early into the sixth year.
You would be making about $4,200 on collections at a base rate. ($850 x 5)
You would be making about $21,500 per year on single sales. ($4,300 x 5)
You would be making about $15,000 per year from magazine sales.
Total would be $40,700 for the year.
So at the end of five years, writing 15 stories per month for that time, you would not quite be to what I figured was a decent living wage, but you would make the $48,000 by the end of the 6th year.
Keep in mind, with this kind of production, and sales, you would never be on any bestseller lists. Your author ranking would be very low on Amazon, and all that other silly crap we hear so much about. You would only be averaging one sale per story per month across thirty different online markets.
But a ton of extra money would be starting to pour in after the fifth year of this kind of production. Not only would you be getting constant requests for reprints, but constant overseas sales (no you do not need an agent… Get Douglas Smith’s book on how to sell short fiction to the thousands of overseas markets and follow his blog. You can find him at www.smithwriter.com)
You would also be getting a lot of invites into anthologies (because of the sales in the paying markets).
And you would be getting interest and money from Hollywood because they would be finding your work.
And you would have a fantastic inventory to do all sorts of promotions and other activities.
Yes, it is possible to make a living writing short fiction. My gut sense is that my numbers, if you actually did maintain that production pace, are very, very conservative. Discovery comes from products that can be found.
If you could produce 900 short stories in five years, sell numbers of them to paying markets, and get every story up live online and in paper, you could do it.
Do I think anyone I know is capable of this? Sure. I could do it easily. (IN 2018, I KNOW I COULD DO EVEN MORE)
And I know numbers of writers who could as well.
Will anyone do this? Nope.
But it sure is fun for me to talk about once every few years.
Just think of it as a way to keep an open mind to all the millions of possibilities of this new world of publishing.
(AND I AGREE WITH THAT CONCLUSION STILL HERE IN 2018. NO ONE WILL DO THIS, BUT IT IS FUN TO PLAY WITH.)
D S Butler
Thanks, Dean. Good to see this post again. I wondered if you’ve ever worked out something similar for novels. Writing a chapter everyday rather than a short story.
Nope, because books vary so long in length and chapters and all that, it would never work out that way.
But for my own pleasure, I did work out what would happen if a person wrote fifty novels in a year. (I wrote four in July, and older pulp writers wrote that much.)
Then I worked out what would happen if a person wrote 36 novels in a year (3 per month).
The math is brutal and funny and I would never post it. You can do it for yourself. I did it with sales at 5 per novel per month average (way under my sales numbers) and the money got laughable really quickly after a few years with all the extra sales stuff you get with novels tossed in. (grin)
Lol. Do the math with 1 novel a month and 1 sale a day…hell I’ll do it for you. 🙂
4 hours of writing (for me) is 2500 words.
20 days of writing a month (not a hard pace) is 50,000 words = 1 novel.
x12 months = 12 novels.
with 12 novels x 1 sale a day x 30 days = 360 sales a month.
360 sales x $3 profit is $1080 a month after year one.
With 24 novels at the end of year 2, that’s $2000+.
Then $3000 after 3 years. 4k after 4 years, etc…
With decent covers and books written in series, with 4 hours a day 20 days a month, you can build a hell of a career over time.
So why haven’t I done it? I dunno. What stops people from doing anything? Delayed reward? Sloth?
Average one per day sales would be very high until you get a bunch of novels out. Early on it would be lucky to do a few per month. But once you got up to 20 plus novels and such, it would pick up more and more.
To average one sale per day, you’ll have to write 20 novels in a single series. If you write in multiple genres (5 in Romance, 5 in thrillers, 5 in horror, 5 in fantasy), the one sale per day math may not add up.What do you think?
Prasenjeet, averaging one sale per day with that many novels or more is a little much unless you got a very good series going on, and even then that would be tough. Some books are going to sell hundreds, some not one copy. So I suppose it would be possible to average 30 sales per book over twenty or forty books. You make $4 per sale, so that is $120 per book per month, and thus $2,400 per month for 20 books and around $5,000 per month for 40 novels. Decent money. Possible, but almost impossible starting off. Genre shouldn’t matter much if you are under the same name. Some will sell more than others, but that is normal no matter what.
I worked it out for 12 books a year… Selling only 5 copies per book a month and with no other income in 3 years I’d be making more than my retail job.
Yup, the math does work even at that number. Just takes a little longer.
I just read the 2013 and 2016 versions yesterday, so it’s great to see the refresh.
Why do you now recommend submitting a story for two years before self-publishing it? It’s that a reflection on a wider traditional marketing, changes in payout, increased response time, a change in the profitability of self-publishing versus traditional publishing or something else?
Nope, just the increase in more top markets caused that. Before you could get through four or so top markets in about a year. Now in sf and coming more in mystery, it takes longer to get through the top markets. That was the only reason. Depends on the story how long it would be out. Fantasy probably a year, romance and western, no time at all. Science fiction and mystery, two years. So it would all depend.
thanks for brining this article forth again.
Sounds like a challenge to pick up…
I know I write far more if I have a partner challenging me. Still working on finding one willing to commit to the same goal. In the meantime I write and practice my craft and have fun with it. 🙂
There is one point in your Math I disagree. Probably I read something wrong.
First you wrote: Keep the story in the mail for one year (I NOW SAY TWO YEARS) or until you run out of high-paying markets.
Later you wrote: At the end of the second year, you have 180 stories up
With the stories in the mail for two year, I have to write short stories for two years ahead before counting the years, because at the end of year two my first story is coming out of the magazine submission circle. Yup worst case scenario where nobody wanted it.
I love your Math. Thanks for this article.
Yeah, in the old way of only one year, you would have 180 stories up. Exactly. But if you keep them in the mail for two years, add a year to that number. Good spot.
Great post as always. Almost makes me wish I wanted to write only short fiction. My own primary reason for writing short fiction is to explore characters and worlds and find novels. (grin)
Yeah, I do a lot of that myself. About one out of every five stories has novel written all over it. The last thirty I wrote I ended up with four new novel ideas. It would have been more, but I got wrapped into writing one character for eleven stories.
I have started to make my short fiction available in large print instead of regular print. My theory is that anyone can read large print, but people who want large print won’t buy regular print. And for print on demand short fiction you are usually/often below the minimum number of pages in the book so if you end up with one less or no blanks at the back, that works out as the same cost to print whether in a larger or font size or not — so the writer hasn’t lost anything.
But what if author is out of stories? Sometimes I feel totally empty gor short fiction ideas and never can rememberhow i got ones I used for my 50+ stories already written
Rikki, ahh, the critical voice found a way to stop you. (grin) I never think of stories ahead of time. If I did that, I would write two a year. What I do is have a trigger and just start typing and see where it goes. Off, into the dark, enjoying the story I am telling myself that I never would have thought of any other way. For triggers, I personally use titles.
So the worry about where you get your ideas means you are looking at having an idea before you write a story. Nope. That is the critical voice using that to stop you from writing. Nothing more.
I went to your site and this struck me like a bolt of lightning. It feels like Christmas in July! I requested this a while ago and I’m grateful for the post.
I’ve focused my attention solely to short stories this year because I’ve yet to finish a novel and wanted to get back to finishing stuff I start. I submit them to New York and self-publish after I’ve exhausted Pro Markets to which to submit.
Also, I love the idea of being a prolific writer like all of my idols and shorts are the easiest way to have a lot of titles under your belt.
Have you considered expanding on this post and putting out a book solely on writing and selling short stories? I took the Teachable course on short stories and that material would work well, too.
Finally, I’d love to see a collection of just your Bryan Street stories. I love those weird tales.
Yes, I will be working on some collections of Bryant Street stories this fall. I keep writing the things. Always weird. My Twilight Zone, only all set in suburbia. As King says, write what scares you and suburbia scares hell out of me.
I feel like this is some kind of a dare. 😀 I’ve been writing a bunch of soft-scifi short stories and wondering what to do with them. I love them all and feel like they’re some of my best work. Submissions, you say? Anthologies, you say? Hmm. I think I need to write a few more. 😀
D J Mills
I picked up Douglas Smith’s eBook “Playing the Short Game” a few days ago as it was on sale at Smashwords. Love it. Clear explanations. Then I reread everything I could find where you talked about “writing into the dark”.
Now I just have to come up with titles, or characters with problems, and “write the first sentence”.
So to clarify, you keep sending it out to markets for two years, AND then indie publish if it is not licensed?
Yes. And after the magazine publishes the story (reverts), then you can indie publish it then.
If a writer is producing 15 stories per month and a market’s average turn around time to reply is 2(?) months, then at least 30 markets are required, otherwise there is a logjam in submissions?
Sorry, I am slow to understand here. Unless, Dean, you are referring to multiple genres!
I would assume if you are writing that many stories, you would be all over the genres. And some stories just won’t be right for traditional markets and would go directly to indie.
This is all just sort of silliness, because no one is going to do this. It is all an exercise in how it would be possible in this new world to make a living writing only short stories. But go back to what I said was required. And then think about doing that for six or seven years in a row. It would require you be clear of every myth in writing and love and read short fiction with a passion.
Yup, if you loved short fiction like Edward Hoch and didn’t write much of anything else, it would be possible. But again, this are far too many myths in the way of anyone really doing this. And that is not a challenge, just a reality.
Not to be a splitter of hairs, but Bradbury actually wrote one short story a week for an entire year while he was learning to master the form and produce publishable stories. And while I don’t think I could produce one short story per day unless they were really short given my work schedule (1,000-1500 words, my average during my lunch hour) I could certainly write one story per week for a year if I wanted to.
But this is still great advice, and a solid reminder of what the new world of indie publishing makes possible beyond submitting to short fiction markets only. I know some writers who make nice side income by writing monthly short fiction for sites like Gumroad and Patreon.
Well, I lack two things required: A bullet-proof organizational system for tracking submissions (what do you use, people?), and a burning desire to write nothing but short fiction.
This being said, even writing one short a week would add up quite nicely. Two a week would be amazing, and neither would slow the novel-writing process too much. I generally take a break once or twice a week to let a plot gel in my head. I’ve learned not to hop to another novel, because then I have a hard time returning to the “primary” WIP. However, a short story would be a finite, time-limited palate cleanser 🙂
That one per week while writing other things is what many writers do and it is sane and helpful, as you pointed out. And fun. And you finish something, which is sometimes important while in the middle of a longer project.
Writing a short or two is a great palate-cleanser between longer novel projects. I do that myself from time to time if I hit upon a good enough idea.
Why do you need an idea?
Because otherwise my story peters out after a sentence or two. No idea kernel, no story. At least for me.
Interesting way the critical voice wins there, James. Remember, critical voice’s job is to stop you. So it has you believing you can’t write the next sentence and see what happens, and it stops the creative voice.
Critical voice is sneaky for all of us.
Kate, I use Excel. One column that says Story title-Market, another for date submitted, the last for date accepted or rejected, either A or R, then the date. At some point I may need to add a column for publish date and date I can republish, but right now I don’t have enough published for tracking that to be an issue. I also have another page for stories and where each has been submitted, so I know not to resubmit there.
For long term, I thought a simple database program would be better to track multiple reprints and where the story has been submitted. I wanted to use PC File, but it hasn’t been updated to run on any of the newer operating systems (I think the most recent was XP).
I haven’t done the math yet, but suspect that you might need to take two years to finish submitting a story just because of the number of stories you’re creating and the no multiple subs policy of most publications. Also, a lot of markets have limited submission windows to 4 times a year, or close for months at a time because they have enough work or for other reasons.
I also use a very similar system, with a spreadsheet. It works very well, as long as you are disciplined enough to immediately report all the answers you get, as well as all your new submission. So that you know that you don’t accidentally submit the same story to two markets at once, or keep stories unsent.
It also helps to have a separate list (for me, it’s just a simple text file) of potentiel markets, with all their specificities (submission page on their website, genre(s), number of words, name of the editor, next submission times, etc.).
My system was triple-check. I did the spread sheet of all the stories and where they were. Then I did a sheet for each magazine and what was at the magazine at that moment. Then I did a chronological list of stories sent out and tacked it on the back of my office door (on my fridge when living alone). I would cross them out as they came back after changing the other two methods. So triple checks kept it all straight.
Mary Jo Rabe
I use Duotrope. It costs money but does an excellent job of organizing things and helping you find markets.
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your organizanizing methods!
Hey Dean, do you have any suggestions for keeping up to date on the fantasy markets for short stories?
Not a clue. Since all my stories are going to my own magazine at the moment. But some people here do. Anyone?
Ralan.com is an amazing resource and is kept very well up to date.
Excellent, thank you James and Dean =]
Hey Dean… I saw that some of the short story collections you and KKR are in (Little Green Men Attack, for example) have Robin Wayne Bailey. Someone suggested his Dragonkin books to me for my gryphon reading list and I went to buy them… out of print, no e-book, $90 on Amazon. If you happen to talk to him, would you just let him know he has readers looking to buy his books who can’t get ahold of them? There were five or six of us who would have purchased his entire Dragonkin series on the spot if he’d tossed up a $5 ebook or $15 paperback and not batted an eyelash. $15 * 6 people * 3 books in a trilogy = $270 in sales in that moment if he’d just make them available. I know trad authors can be a little set in their ways sometime, but maybe if he knew he had fans begging for his books it might help. It’s heartbreaking to want a book and see it’s out of print in 2018.
Vale, if it was that easy. I keep shouting here over and over about how bad traditional publishing is. Well, you now see. Robin has NO CONTROL of those books. He most likely sold all rights and his publishers have let the books drop out of print. They are gone. And sadly, the readers think it is the author’s fault. Well, actually it is, for being stupid enough to go to traditional publishing. But past that, the author can do nothing in 99% of the cases.
I have an odd question. I asked it over at TPV but didn’t get many answers. Maybe you guys know.
I have stumbled across two authors that are Indy publishing on a regular basis, and have done 50+ books the past ten years. Looking at the books they are each about 100k words.
Please list any other Indy authors you have come across that regularly put out 100k books and have crossed the 50+ books line.
I know about Dean’s books, but his books are usually about 50k. I’m looking for 100k books at least.
If there is a site that tracks or discusses Indy writers like these, let me know.
– Daniel Arenson 50+
– Bella Forrest 100+
Well, two spring to mind instantly. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rush. A lot of her books are up at that range or longer. And M.L. Buchman. Both are way beyond that 50 number. Both are mostly indie.
And I find this topic just slightly uneasy-making, to be honest. Why would you discount my books as worthless because they are shorter? Long books are only a creation of traditional publishing since the middle 1980s because they had to increase book prices and forced the writers by contract to do longer books.
Or am I missing a point here because I sure don’t see one and I see it as a rather insulting way to divide up writers to be honest.
D S Butler
Amanda M Lee. I think her books are over 90K usually. I haven’t checked but I suspect Lindsay Buroker is close to that point. It’s hard to give an accurate answer though because who has the time to confirm the word count of other people’s books?
Also Bella Forrest’s first few books were novella length.
As a side note, my favourite author is traditionally published and her books typically come in at around 50K.
HA! This isn’t about you, Dean, or Kris.
I can’t find valid answers, despite having mad google skills, so I thought I’d ask all of you guys.
The answers are there, I’m just not asking the right question. HA!
But you missed my point, allynh… Why does it matter at all? A story, if done right, is the length it needs to be. Not padded out for a contract or shortened to make it quicker to write. Just the length the story needs to be told.
There are all kinds of articles pointing out all the major classic books that are from 18,000 to 50,000 words long.
D S Butler
What does HA mean, allynh? Like Haha? Is it short for something?
You might get the answers you want if you ask your question on Kboards or a Facebook indie group.
D S Butler said: What does HA mean, allynh? Like Haha?
It’s exactly what is sounds like. HA! a short, sharp, burst of laughter, where haha is a longer duration laugh.
Using letters avoids the problems of those odd little characters(emojis?) that have become common of late. HA!
I’ll keep searching and asking questions. See my answer to Dean below.
M. Night Shyamalan did the movie Unbreakable. The villain believed that if someone like him existed, who had bones like glass, then there had to be someone else on the other end of the bell curve who was Unbreakable. Mr. Glass set out to find that Unbreakable.
If you exist in this Indy world, able to write many short novels in a month, then at the other end of the bell curve are people writing 100k novels each month. The problem is, how do we find them. So far, I don’t have the right search criteria to locate them.
BTW, This has nothing to do with your preference of novel size.
Even you can acknowledge that there are people like Stephen King, Neal Stephenson, etc…, who are only getting warmed up at 50k, and routinely do 300k novels that are not padded to fit some contract.
In this Indy world, there are no contracts forcing book size — and there are people out there just getting warmed up.
Yeah, allynh, I’m really not that stupid, honest. I’m just trying to figure out why you or anyone would care. Really makes no sense to me at all. And there are enough ways to divide writers without making up something that stupid as to novel length.
Do you really self-pub them at $2.99 for a <10k story? I thought that was the sweet spot for most long-form fiction? My instinct would have been an anthology of a few at $2.99 but not a single story.
Yup, $2.99 electronic and $4.99 paper. I have published a story that way under 2,000 words called “In Search of the Perfect Orgasm or How Doing It With A Giant Lizard Can Be Fun.”
Sells solidly and no complaints. Novels and collection prices are from $4.99 to $6.99. Larger collections higher.