Making a Living With Short Fiction 2021
Back By Popular Demand…
Actually, I am bringing this forward from 2014 and then May 2016 and then again July 2018. It is mostly unchanged. I will put in BOLD ALL-CAP ITALICS when I have changed something.
A note: I used to say it was possible to make a living writing novels in traditional publishing. I made a great living in traditional with novels for 15 years. That is no longer the case for novels for all but a tiny few in traditional publishing in 2021, but novels indie published you can make good money.
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 December 2021, 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 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 and publish them indie. 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 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. (Heinlein’s Rule #3.)
— 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 or until you run out of high-paying markets. (I said this was going to take 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 five or ten stories. Price on those ten-story collections is usually $6.99 electronic and $12.99 paper. Slightly less for five story collections.
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 30 stories or more per year. (Tracking system will be a major need at this point or before.) That’s 30 x $300 = $9,000 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 2021… 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 averaging 1 sale per month.
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 $9,000 per year from magazine sales.
Total would be $34,700 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 over $40,000 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 2021, 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 2021. NO ONE WILL DO THIS, BUT IT IS FUN TO PLAY WITH. REMEMBER, I HAVE PUT THIS POST UP FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES SINCE 2014 AND NO ONE HAS DONE IT. NOT EVEN ME.)
Great post, Dean. This has got my gears turning. I think writing a short story a day is untenable for me, given my schedule, but writing a short story a week is certainly doable, and what Bradbury did when he first started learning how to write. And indie publishing gives us more options beyond the few magazines a story might be a fit for. I already have short story collection out. The paperback sells pretty well at cons, back when we could have cons. And I put a couple of short stories into an ebook (one previously published in a anthology, one never before published) that I give away to subscribers of my newsletter.
By the way, what are your thoughts on novellas? I love writing them, but they can be a hard sell to magazines and readers think they are “too short.”
James, don’t let what readers think into your writing. Readers don’t know what they think until you give it to them. And if they complain about it being too short, you didn’t tell them up front that it was a short novel or novella. If you did tell them and they still complain, they are too stupid to bother with.
And Bradbury started for years with a story a day. He slowed down to a story a week and maintained that for decades. The story a week is what he told people to try for.
Thank you for posting this, Dean! It reminds me that I wanted to keep writing a story a week, but I just fell out of the habit somehow and my shorts are a bit more sporadic now. The plan above is scary, and this is why:
Yep, that kills me. I’m not afraid of writing many stories. Writing is fun, learning craft is fun, submitting isn’t even scary anymore (although it used to be,) but keeping track of all those submissions is a PITA. I have a spreadsheet or three, and they need constant tweaking. The submission spreadsheet has a tendency to morph into an inventory spreadsheet, plus then there’s the “licensing to your company” spreadsheet. Collections tend to muddle the picture as well – do they count as individual IP? Do I bother about prorating the profit to reflect a per-story income? (I don’t. I currently don’t track money in any formal way, I just add it up at the end of the year, which is probably a mistake.)
A mess, a big hot mess.
If anyone has an integrated system to keep track of short story submissions, I’d be happy to pay money for it.
That is the problem of any prolific writer. I am no exception. I am using Smith’s Monthly as a large tracking device, to be honest, never repeating a story in it. But even that takes massive organization and I am way behind because it was on hiatus for a few years. We all invent what works for us.
The organisation is killer. Tracking current and past submissions, the submission periods of so many magazines, augh. I didn’ t expect polymath to be the the thing I needed to be to become a professionally published short fiction writer!
Kate, you could check out short story submissions software by Simon Haynes.
Dean — This is like a Christmas present to me. I constantly re-read your Short Story post because I am a huge reader of short stories and love to write them. I have an entire book case in my apartment devoted to story anthologies and single-author collections. In fact, even novels I prefer around 50k-60k — to me, that’s the sweet spot with no fluff. I despise fluff in a story.
I’d like to add that as wonderful as Vellum is, if new authors are on a super tight budget (i.e., broke), Draft2Digital has free formatting that produces both a nice ebook and paperback file. They don’t even require you to actually publish through them to use the service, you can download all the files.
Thanks for this Dean, this is perfect timing as I want to do more short stories next year and sell them.
Thanks for confirming what I thought.
Have a great Christmas and New year.
Awesome post! I’ve been reading your blog everyday for a little over a month now, and this post is the best one so far. I am in the writing challenge also. (48 for 48!) I need forty-eight NEW stories (even short stories & anthos) by Sept 2021. I started last month (mid Nov 2020), 2 months after my b-day, but I am confident that I’ll reach my goal of NEW forty-eight stories/titles by next Sept. Writing into the Dark helps!
p.s. I bought Douglas Smith’s book that you recommended.
Dean — I meant to include this in my other comment, but my challenge for 2021 is to do this precise thing. I’m going to actually test this out and, quite frankly, it would be so much fun to email you on Dec. 31, 2021 and say, “Guess what? Someone–me–actually tried this.”
Although I love many genres, I’m going to focus on Westerns because I’ve been obsessed with reading them lately and I completed your great workshop on westerns. I love how people call the western genre dead when you can clearly see on Amazon and Goodreads, just to name two, that there are hundreds and thousands of reviews and comments because so many people grew up watching and reading westerns and they crave them because traditional publishing, for the most part, gave up on them.
Have fun with it!! And you could build into the next major western writer, since not only does no one much do this, but almost no one would try it with westerns. Have fun!!
Dean – quick question: if I succeed in putting out 180 short stories (assuming all westerns), that’s a ton of covers. How do you feel about essentially using the same cover for each but change up the title and colors. In other words, brand it like a series, albeit of short standalone westerns. Similar to an encyclopedia where all the books are the same design but with different titles.
No, you would want your branding to be on your author name, large and at the top of each one. You would set up a template so your name and your title fonts would be the same, then you can switch out the color to go with the art.
So to do a cover you would basically open up the template, change the title, add in the art, and be done.
If you watch the sales on the royalty free art sights, you should be able to get art down to 50 cents to 75 cents per art. And more than enough art on the different sites.
So the same cover art would confuse the readers. Not a good idea.
One more tip, from the blogging world: if you use pieces of art, instead of the whole image, you can combine them for the covers.
It takes some time to set up, but using, say, unsplash or pixabay, you get lots of art you can blend in with a few model shots that you buy. The key is to vary which elements you put in each cover. So one is model + car + saloon. Next is model + car + empty road. You throw a color filter on it to make it coherent and match the mood of the book. Use a set of standard filters for each series, which makes them an element, too.
That way you can do covers in literally minutes using your pre-prepared elements and it doesn’t cost you anything extra (but check the license on the model shots you buy so that it does allow it).
Philip M Smit
Great tips. Thanks!
Any chance of a similar post / math for indie novels? As honest as this one is? Or did I miss that post?
Way back and wouldn’t be up to date. I might try writing a new one at some point.
I love writing and reading short stories, but there’s no paying market for them in Germany. So I’ve never tried this approach. But it sounds reasonable for the American markets. Since I meant to focus on marketing next year anyway, I might as well use the time to also build my portfolio by writing and publishing short stories. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull ist through with the commitments I have (special needs kids and more), but I’m willing to try. My plan of action: create a good organizational system (since that seems to be the key) and get going from January on as best as possible. Even if I won’t make your numbers, it should be an overall win. Thank you for this. It’s probably the one thing I can actually manage right now.
Loved this post, Dean! Would you recommend that a new writer publish every short story (or novel!) that they create, right from the beginning? Even those potentially awkward early efforts? All under the same pen name?
Sure do. Let the readers decide if they want to read it or not. If it is good, they will remember. If it isn’t, no one will read it or buy it and no one will remember. Totally no real consequences except on the upside.
Dean you said: “A STORY PER DAY LIKE BRADBURY USED TO DO”
In Zen and the Art of Writing, Bradbury tells the reader that he wrote one story a week and that he actually re-wrote it everyday.
“All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thurs- day a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting
under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of”The Lake,” I would soon let them out.”(Zen…pg 62-3)
“You have been working, haven’t you?
Or do you plan some sort of schedule for yourself starting as soon as you put down this article?
What kind of schedule?
Something like this. One-thousand or two-thousand words every day for the next twenty years. At the start, you might shoot for one short story a week, fifty-two stories a year, for five years.” (Zen… pg 144)
And he said ““Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” implying the 1 story a week routine again. That 2nd quote is from a speech he had done as the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea (at Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001) and can be found all over the place online.
But I tend to believe you. I really doubt that he wrote only one a day (either in his 20s or at anytime) and that he REWROTE it everyday as he states in the Zen book. That would drive me crazy. Is he lying? What exactly is going on here.
Yet you say he wrote one story a day and as I said I believe you because you probably spoke to him perhaps or to others who knew him etc. And because the receipe he gives in Zen would bore I think 90% of writers and turn out drivel (5 drafts-insanity!)
Dean, any idea why he said this in the Zen book? It just doesn’t add up for me, and I doubt it does for many readers of that book. This has always bothered me. Especially as every pro like yourself who mentions Bradbury said he wrote one a day. And you can tell this advice is not just for new writers because he says do it for “the next fiver years”!
Any light on this you can shed would be much appreciated.
Yup, he did one a day right at the start, and maintained that for a while, some say over a year. Julie Swartz, his first agent and a friend of mine, said he did it longer than a year before dropping back to one per week.
You got to remember that writers who worry about their readers and what their readers will think will always tell a fan or reader they did a lot of rewrites. Always because remember readers and fans were brought up on the same myths as you and me. And to put money down on a book, the reader has to think the writer “struggled” over it, which is why I tell writers to shut up about their process or lie through their teeth. As Lawrence Block said in a book title, “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” is what we do.
It is no business at all for readers to know a writer’s process. But when stuck, you always tell readers you do multiple drafts. Always. Don’t fight the myth between what a reader believes and what it actually takes to be a professional writer.
Ray never rewrote any more than Harlan Ellison did and hundreds of others including Lee Childs, who got tired of lying to readers and had a reporter sit in the same room when he wrote a Jack Reacher book without an idea or outline in one draft and turned it in. But Ray sure made it sound good in that book, didn’t it? Problem is, young writers bought into it hook line and sinker. Just follow Heinlein’s Rules and you will be fine.
opps you bet me to it. Did not see your reply until just now. I suspected it was a case of “they can’t handle the truth”. Yes re: Heinlein’s Rules. I bought your book on that and am re-reading it. My sanity has been restored, thank you Dean !
correction: “I really doubt that he wrote only one a week (either in his 20s or at anytime) and that he REWROTE…
Also I missed your comment earlier where you say he started with one a day and slowed down to one a week. In Zen he states he started with 1 a week “all through his twenties” and then tells the reader to do it for “the next five years”
Anyway I love Bradbury but I don’t believe him just like I don’t believe Koontz (another favorite_ when he says he rewrites his stuff something like 20 times (cant remember the number but it was alot). I know you say they just say this stuff for the general public but to write it in Zen like Bradbury did it seems dishonest or off (hard for me to write that about a favorite writer). And I can’t find anywhere where Bradbury said he wrote one a day. I have all his published interviews including the ones from the European publications. Yet from the evidence (his output) you are clearly correct!
Most of those early stories, as Julie said, never saw the light of day. Julie sold Ray’s first publishing short story for him like in 1939, but Ray had already been writing for years and bothering the heck out of writers in the LA area. He was very young at the time. He wanted to be a pulp writer in those days and pulp writers never rewrote anything.
If he had been a young guy today he would have indie published those early stories I bet! Pulp Era 2.0