On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Making a Living with Your Short Fiction

Way back, over two years ago now, I did a post in my Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series called “Myth: You Can’t Make Money Writing Fiction.” You can find that article either in any electronic bookstore or for free here. If you are having trouble with thinking about making money with your fiction, that post might be worth the read even though I wrote it two plus years ago. Especially those of you thinking of staying almost 100% traditional publishing.

But in this post, I want to go after a saying that used to be almost 100% true before three years ago. “You can’t make a living writing only short fiction.”

Not so true anymore.

Why this topic now? And why again, since I have touched on this at various times in various ways in various posts? Well, as I sit here in my office at WMG Publishing, in the other room Kristine Kathryn Rusch is working with a group of professional fiction writers. The topic of the workshop going on out there in the big room is “Short Stories.”

For those of you who don’t know my wife, she is the only person in history to win both the professional editor Hugo Award and a Hugo Award for her short fiction. She is also the only person in history to be in all four Dell Magazines in the same year. (Asimov’s, Analog, Ellery Queen, and Hitchcock’s) And she has done that four out of the last five or six years. She has also been nominated for just about every award there is in short fiction in both science fiction, fantasy, and mystery and won a bunch of them. The eleven writers in the other room are having a great time, learning a ton, and being worked harder than they could have imagined.

So the workshop and all the focus this week on short fiction got me thinking about the math of short fiction and how that has changed so much in this new world of publishing. And how a good short fiction writer can now make a living with their short fiction. They might not get rich, but a living wage is very, very possible these days. And maybe a nice retirement income as well.

Requirements Needed For a Writer To Make a Living Writing Only Short Fiction

1) A Work Ethic.

I started to say “speed” but so many writers think of speed-of-writing as speed-of-typing and no matter how much some of us say that isn’t so, it doesn’t cut through that myth. So I’m going to start calling “fast writers” simply writers with a work ethic.

For your information, I type between 750 words to 1,000 words per hour and I have to take a break every hour to protect my hands and arms. I am pretty normal on that pace it seems after talking to hundreds of professional writers over the years. If you can go faster, good for you. Don’t tell me. My little four-finger-typing has served me well over the decades. Typing speed means nothing.

What is important is work ethic. How many hour-long sessions can you do in a day? In a week?

Once more to the math that just makes myth-believers angry and frees the rest of us to do what we want.

If you type 250 words in 15 minutes, and considered your writing important enough to type for 15 minutes every day, you will finish 91,250 words in one year. Or about one longish novel. (Sorry, but it’s true. 250 words x 365 days = 91,250 words. By the way, I passed 250 words in this article somewhere in the middle of the paragraph about Kris above.)

Note that if you type for 15 minutes every day and produce 250 words and work only on short fiction, by the end of a year you would have completed about 18 short stories of average length of 5,000 words.

If you work for one really, really tough hour of writing (snicker) five days per week, and take two weeks off from the really rough pace (more snickers), you will produce (1,000 words x 5 days x 50 weeks =) 250,000 words in one year. Or about three novels.

Or about 50 short stories (at average length of 5,000 words).

That’s right. 250,000 words in a year. Working one hour per day and taking the weekends off and two weeks vacation.

So to make a living writing short fiction, you need a work ethic that will drag you to the computer at least one hour per day, five days per week. I know that’s tough. But if everyone could do it, there would be a lot of writers making a living with their fiction.

(Sorry, this work-ethic topic just makes me very snarky. And please don’t give me your pitiful excuses about having to research or think about your story or build character worksheets or rewrite your story a dozen times to make your story dull and boring and just like everyone else’s story. And please don’t talk to me about how your day job is 60 hours. I have heard all the excuses and am not interested in why you can’t dig out one hour a day average out of your life. If you can’t do that much, stop claiming you want to be a writer. At least to me. Thanks!)

2) Writing Across Many Genres

If you want to make a living at short fiction, you need to understand and be able to write in most of the main genres. And if you think you can’t write in a genre, then you haven’t tried yet.

The main genres that short fiction sells well in are science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, erotica, western, mainstream, thriller, and all the subgenres of those genres. The more you can write in the different genres, the better off you will be in the long run. Of course, all genres, including literary short fiction, sell at one level or another, so don’t let genre thinking limit your writing.

Yes, I know, you might need to have a few pen names and build them all. As I said… “in the long run.” It will take longer to build more than one name in just volume of work available to the readers. But trust me, it’s better to have three different authors pouring money into the cash stream than just one.

3) A Love of Short Fiction

If you don’t love short fiction and read it all the time, don’t even think about this. Use short fiction at times to help your other work and learn how to write it well. But don’t even think of making a living with it alone.

So what is a living wage?

Now let me come at this topic from another direction. What is a living wage?

That’s going to depend on your overhead and what part of the country you live in. $25,000 per year might be enough in some places. $100,000 a year might not be enough in other places. All depends.

So I’m going to go with something reasonable as my number. $40,000 per year for the rest of this article is a living wage. Figure out what’s good for you and do the math accordingly as I am going to do below.

Income Sources

Okay, quickly, I want to outline the different major sources of income from short fiction. And under the Magic Bakery thinking, there are a lot. But many will not happen for every story. So I’m going to just list some of the major ones here first and then go into details later.

1) Sell your story to a magazine or anthology

2) Indie publish your story

3) Group your story into a collection (or collections) and indie publish the collection(s) both electronically and in paper format.

4) Audio sales

5) Overseas sales to overseas magazines and publishers

There are many others, including movie sales, apps, and secondary print markets, but for this discussion, let me just stick to the top five.

Some of the keys to the above five are pretty simple.

For #1 you must only sell your work to five-cent-per-word markets and up that return the exclusive rights to your story to you no longer than six-to-nine months after publication. Maybe one year at most. (Most magazines and anthologies will keep nonexclusive rights beyond that to allow the story to stay in their issue or anthology, but that is no big deal since you can republish and control your story. The key is that the exclusive rights must come back fairly quickly.

For #2, you must price your short story at at least $2.99 and if your story isn’t long enough, add a second bonus story or other bonus material to the mix for the reader. (I know some of you don’t like this idea. Fine, keep your story at 99 cents and keep making 35 cent in the discount bin. No problem for me, and not something to talk about in this discussion.) You also must dig out the few hours extra per week it takes to publish your story and do the cover.

For #3, you need to price your collection decently and also get it into paper. We are moving our collection prices at WMG Publishing slowly to $3.99 for a 20,000 word collection and then up from there. Most of our short five-story collections go into a paper version for $8.99. You also must dig out the few hours to do the collections every time you fill another one.

For #4, either do your own audio recordings of your short fiction and sell them through the different sources, or go to Audible.com and run through their program. Better to have some stories going one way, others another way. No matter what, getting the audio cash stream running is the key.

For #5, you need to be aware of overseas markets and contract them at times to see if they are interested. (They often take reprints.) Yes, there are places to find overseas fiction markets. And yes, just as here, magazines buy from writers from all around the world. This takes time to build, but can be a slow but steady source of income once you have magazine editors overseas that like your work.

Building a Career and Income

I know a lot of you beginning writers out there are upset that your first novel or first short story didn’t sell. Or even your 30th short story isn’t helping the flow much. And we can go on for a long time about the reasons. Another time.

For this, I am going to assume you are mailing appropriate stories to top magazine markets, indie selling your stories in every electronic market, doing collections as often as you can, and pushing toward audio and overseas markets. In essence, using at least the five major ways of earning money from short fiction.

SALES ASSUMPTION: I am going to assume each indie-published story and collection sells an average of five copies around the world each month. Some stories will sell none, others will sell thirty. Again, the number is five for both the short fiction and the collections from ALL sources, not just Kindle.

Average!!!  Remember, average!!!

Will you hit five copies average early on? Not unless you are really lucky and writing in some genre that you are hitting dead center. Most of us take a lot of time to average five copies. Some writers I  know haven’t done it in the first two years of this new world, others have. It all depends on dozens of factors. Again, a later topic.

Even more frightening is that most writers don’t know how many copies every month they are selling. They look at the Kindle numbers and get depressed. Remember, Apple has thirty-two stores at last count around the world and Kobo has even more. Amazon has five. Think world and long term.

And by the way, “long term” means longer than six months.  I am going to talk about the third year from the start of a short story writing program. Nothing sells well if you only have a few titles out.

Okay, how will all this work out? Time to find out.

— You write 50 short stories in a year. They average around 5,000 words.

— You keep doing that for a second year and a third and so on.

— You and your first reader think that about 25 of the stories each year are appropriate for mailing to traditional magazines and anthologies. (Romance has no short fiction markets, so most of those would just go indie right off the bat.)

— You are good enough storyteller and marketer to sell 5 stories to those traditional markets the first year and ten per year after that, since some of the stories from the previous year are still on the market..

Income from Point #1 during the third year: 5,000 words x 10 stories = 50,000 words x 5 cents = $2,500.00 income per year. (Chances are it would be more than that, but let’s stay low.)

The advantages of doing this are far more than the money. Those traditional sales to magazines and anthologies push new readers to your indie published work as well and help you get on award ballots and into organizations and so on. Some of the best promotion a person can get is by selling to a major magazine or anthology and they pay you to advertise your work in their magazine.

— The other stories each year are published indie. And also the ones that are coming off the market after exhausting the good-paying traditional magazines. Or they have been published and reverted to you from the market after a sale.

— By the end of the third year you will have written 150 short stories and have about 100 of them indie published.

Income from Point #2 during the third year: 100 stories x 5 sales per month average = 500 sales per month around the world. Income from sales is $2.00 per sale. So 500 x $2.00 = $1,000.00 per month or $12,000.00  for the year. (Again, a lot of factors to drive this number up or down such as number of pen names, ability of storytelling, ability to do covers and blurbs, and your choice of topics.)

— Each story needs to be in at least one five-story collection. So by the end of the third year you will have 20 five-story collections published.

— Each story needs to be in a larger collection with at least ten or more stories. So by the end of the third year you will have at least 8 large collections.

— Five-story collections priced at $3.99 electronic and ten-story collections priced at $5.99 electronic. Profit from the first is $2.50 (rounding) per sale and from the large collections $4.00 per sale, again rounding.

Each collection also needs to be in paper editions, but let’s just round that money into the five sales for now. But it might be pretty large as your list of books grow and you get them into bookstores down the road.

Income from Point #3 during the third year: 20 collections x 5 sales per month = 100 sales x $2.50 = $250.00 per month or $3,000 per year. 8 large collections x 5 sales per month = 40 sales x $4.00 = $160.00 per month or $1,900.00 per year. (rounding)  Total Income from Point #3 is $3,000 plus $1,900 = $4,900.00

Income Points #4 and #5: Just assume if you are doing them they are making up for any shortfall in the numbers above. Given a few years, audio could bring you in a few thousand per year easily, if not more. I know a number of people who are making a ton more than that. But for now, we’ll leave these out of the calculations. Too much to explain. Just call points four and five insurance back-up.

So during year three what is the total income? Are we close yet to making that $40,000 per year income?

$2,500 + $12,000 + $4,900 = $19,400 for year three.

Nope, only about half way after three years. (Remember I said long term?)

So year #4 you add in another fifty stories.

Your traditional sales of $2,500 stay the same under Point #1. (Remember, you are getting paid to advertise your own work in their pages.)

You make 50 x 5 = 250 sales per month x $2.00 = $500 per month more x 12 = $6,000 more per year from Point #2

You have ten more short collections and say four more long collections. The math works out to about $2,400 per year extra.

So each year you keep up the pace you add into the mix about $8,400.

So at about halfway through year six you will go past the $40,000.00 per year income figure.

And it should keep climbing as long as you are writing. (It will level and drop slightly if you are not, but still a nice steady retirement income for a long time.)


There are lots and lots of ways this could go better or go worse than the numbers I laid out above. Let me list some.

— Success or failure on such a plan will depend on your ability to write stories people want to read and traditional editors want to buy. That means (as you write) you must continue to work on your craft and skills as a storyteller. If you don’t do this, just forget even trying this. You must have a hunger to get better every day, every story.

— Success or failure on such a plan will depend on your ability to make sales traditionally with short fiction. The more times your stories appear in traditional magazines and books, the better your indie stories will sell and the better the reader base you will slowly build. (Note: An ad in Asimov’s/Analog is about $800 per page. They pay you instead for filling ten pages with your story. And then give your story back in a few months.)

— Success or failure will depend on your ability to learn how to do good covers, keep your costs down to almost nothing, learn how to do active blurbs, and that you keep up with the changing technology. (If you hire out the work of laying out covers and books, forget this. You have to do it yourself for your own publishing company.)

— Success or failure will depend on your ability to get to writing regularly most days, and when life tosses you a  monster, you go back to writing when you get through the issues. This is the most difficult for all of us. I’m just now climbing back on the writing after a long life event that took me away for nine months. It happens. You climb back on and keep going.

— Success or failure will depend on your ability to think long term with your planning. (Watch, most of the comments I will get about this post will be about looking at their short-term sales on a few stories. Those mean nothing I’m afraid.) Average. Become a better storyteller. Think long term.

— Success or failure will depend on your ability to start and push new cash streams such as audio or overseas sales or whatever is coming next. You may discover that over time your biggest cash stream isn’t something that exists right now, or that I didn’t mention. 

But, all that said, it is very possible these days for a good short story writer to make a nice living writing only short fiction. You have to love it like I do. And you have to love writing it and be challenged by it.

But no matter what your belief is about the chance that writers can make a living with only short fiction, the math does not lie.

You might not agree with my assumptions. Fine. Change the sales to three sales average around the world every month, including paper for the collections. It will take you a few years longer to get to the goal. It will still happen if you write the stories and make it happen.

We are just entering  a new golden age for short fiction. For those of us who love to write and read short fiction, this new world is just heaven.

Ten years ago I never dreamed making a living with short fiction was possible.

But it is possible now.

Have I said lately how much I love this new world?

Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. 

In fact, this article is about 3,100 words long. I could have written a short story in the same amount of time.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

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