Topic of the Night: Making a Living Writing Short Fiction
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 $10,000 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 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.
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.
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.
— Ability to generate your own clean epub files.
— A couple good copyeditors 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 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 a year 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks Dean, lots to think about here.
While math is not my favorite thing to do, I LOVE this kind of math!
Also, thanks for the link to Doug Smith.
I am very glad that I finally learned how to write short fiction. Took me awhile. I’ll have to go back to Smith’s book. It was good and he did have a link in there to markets. Will have to check them out.
Right now that is mostly what I have out right now is short stories and some novellas. I just put out my first novel under my romance pen name. I sold a copy on Smashwords which was nice. I have all of two sales there now. I sold a cat short story there. And you know I made the short story sale after I raised my prices to 2.99 on all my cat shorts stories. They didn’t move at .99 cents. I sold a few at the 99 cents on other sites. It certainly didn’t stop them from downloading samples after I put the price up. It was just an interesting observation for me. You make far more money on 2.99 than 99 cents.
I see you also do paper for your short stories. I guess you do this for another discovery factor. I have never done that.
I will continue to write in all forms at any length but it’s nice to see what can be made from short fiction as an additive to your income.
Michael W Lucas
It appears that CS has raised some of their prices. I just did a short story (about 7k words) in print. Minimum price CS let me set was $5.38, so it’s $5.99.
I could do some things to reduce that, I’m sure. But I don’t want to cram the text down to 10 point or squeeze lines of text togethter. Those rare folks who buy my shorts in print do so in part because it’s physically very readable.
But the contrast between $2.99 and $5.99 makes the ebook look like an even better deal.
I plan to read this in full later, but what you are suggesting mirrors our experience at LIP. However, I will note we make half of your anticipated number. BUT I think that has a lot to do with the work being put out being in the erotica market only and not doing magazines (much like pornography there are a lot of free markets and little on the paid in that area when compared to Sci-Fi or other more mainstream genres). We also haven’t done anything in anthologies and have only lightly hit paper.
That said, in 10 years at the current rate of expansion and a little promotion (as we see the value now, lol), it’s possible to kill 50k a year. It’d take a little more consistency than what we have going (life rolls are a pain in the butt), but, yeah, I could see it happening in time.
So, if anyone really wants to try the above, it is quite possible. With magazines, anthologies, a more paying orientated audience, more cash streams (audio and paper), most people with some skill and a work ethic could make this happen. (Probably the best advice I could give or have heard is “have an imagination.” There’s no better writing tool imo.)
Or, they could do what we’ve done and keep our day jobs. =) That’s not a bad idea either.
(I might chime in later when I’ve read the whole post fully.)
Ken, yeah, you hit on the exact issue, and that is applying a work ethic to your writing while making it fun. Sometimes difficult to cross those two things.
Well, if this isn’t a challenge I don’t know what is. 🙂 Thankfully right now I’m in the kind of mood to take something like this on! At this moment, I might not have time to write 15 stories a month, so I’ll start with a minimum of four – one a week, for the next six months, and more if I can manage it – until November. The more I create, the easier it gets, so I should be up to 15 by this time next year.
I’ll report back the next time I see this kind of post.
Good idea to ramp up, Nicki. Have fun with it.
To anyone who believes that 900 is a big number, and that short stories can’t be reliably produced at a high level of quality, please keep in mind that Harlan Ellison has written more than 1,700 short stories, some of which have been reprinted in college textbooks for decades. He wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in one night and it got turned into a video game.
He’s one of many prolific, well-to-do short story writers. Also see: Isaac Asimov, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, Eudora Welty, Michael Moorcock, Lord Dunsany, and several others.
Now, if only T.E.D. Klein were more prolific…
I’ll do it!
Great post, Dean. Thank you.
Dean, great article and interesting analysis. It supports what you and Kris have always said. It’s a numbers game. The writer with more content always has an advantage.
And thanks for the shout out! FYI, my book PLAYING THE SHORT GAME: HOW TO MARKET AND SELL SHORT FICTION addresses the entire process of a short fiction career (from the business side, not the creative side). That is, more than just selling to foreign language markets (but I also maintain the free Foreign Market List on my site).
Thanks, Doug. I think that book is fantastic and actually recommend it in a number of online workshops, such as the Short Story workshop. Thanks for maintaining that list. A very valuable service you provide.
Also, Doug, no one so far has noticed that it really is the consistency that makes the day. 15 per month is very possible rate. It’s the consistency of doing that month after month for years that wins the battle in this one. And that’s where most of us fall on our faces. (grin)
Yeah, for sure. Maintaining a consistent output of new words has always been my main challenge.
I bought your book yesterday, Doug. Looks really promising. Thanks for the rec, Dean! The trick here is “high paying publications.” I’ve been barking up the wrong trees.
Is there a problem with writing stories that are short? Last Friday, I only had an hour of writing time before driving home (I have an hour commute) and managed to put out an 1,150-word short using the Writing into the Dark method. I read over it a couple times, fixed the typos, and then put it up for 99 cents. (I don’t have a trusted first reader yet, so that’s something I need to get on top of.)
I absolutely don’t feel right about listing a piece of flash fiction for $2.99, but 99 cents seems appropriate and could be a “low barrier of entry” product to the rest of my catalog. If I were to target $2.99, I suspect 5,000 words might be the ideal length. Advice?
I agree with you, Scott, on the 99 cents. I tend to avoid that area, but on a story that short, better to do that. Kris does that with her shorter work as well. For me, just my opinion, I would go to the $2.99 level above 3,000 words. But no right answer, just each person for their own business.
This post? Sheer awesomeness. Holy Cow, where the Patreon tip jar button??? Shut up and take my money!! (grin)
Thanks, Mark. I’m just glad it made sense. (grin)
J. D. Brink
Thanks for the post, Dean. Good to know I’ve been kind of on-point with my shorts efforts.
I generally use Duotrope for finding markets and seeing what the usual turn-around time is. I then start with the highest paying ones that will take my stories (they usually end up too long for most mags/sites) with the quickest rejection–I mean response time. Or start with the Writers of the Future Contest, and then start on the magazines. If the response time averages multiple months, I generally don’t bother. I figure if the first several didn’t take it, I don’t need to wait for 6 months for the same result.
Once I’ve exhausted the “pro” paying markets, I move into the “semi-pro” mags and anthologies that look promising. I figure some payday and advertising is better than none. And I’ve actually had 4 accepted in the last year, some on the 4th submission, or 14th, or 17th. Persistence! That’s about a 400% increase over the last decade, so I must be getting better. 🙂
What are the costs involved in this process? Copy editing, ISBNs (Are they needed?), covers?
Thank you for the post,
Jonathan, I’ll follow up with that information tonight. A longer answer.
It has gotten much harder to sell shorts at $2.99 than it once was. Not impossible, mind you; but harder. It’s not really a matter of there being “so many books” as it is visibility – it can be hard to achieve visibility for a short work in the first place, and then selling them at the price many authors sell full novels can be especially tough.
Not impossible. Just tough. 😉
One thing I would recommend would be building a mailing list. Heck, you’re producing a TON of work each month, if you’re following Dean’s plan. Imagine if you had an email list of 10,000 people, built up over those five years. Imagine if just 100 of them bought each new story (very conservative estimate with a list that large) as you released it. That’s $200 right off the bat for each new story; almost as much as you’d get per commercial sale to a magazine.
As for how to get those readers, use magnets. I know Dean usually recommends against free – but hear me out. 😉 Have one or two short stories that you ONLY give to email list subscribers. Not available in bookstores. In every single short story you produce, put an ad for one of those exclusive stories, a picture of the cover and a link to a landing page in the front and back of each story.
They give their email address, you ship them a copy of the story free.
Every time someone buys one from a store, there is a chance they’ll want the free one and sign up. You can also get email subscribers by running giveaways, promotions, joint promos with other authors, and so on. I picked up 2400 new subscribers last month from a joint promo, and stand to add another 2000+ this month from another one. (Of those 2400 , about 1/4th engaged in my last email, and hundreds bought.)
Email lists are more effective the more you write. If you can send out fun, snappy, weekly emails to fans, they will love you. And a lot of them will buy.
Just one more tool for the toolbox to help this work better. 😉
Pulp speed for the win. 😉
Kevin, I have nothing at all against free, and I’m going to be doing exactly what you have suggested as soon as I fire up my first letter for my mailing list.
I am against stupid use of free, but giving supporters a free short story for a short time is a fantastic way of doing things. And Kris has a free story up every week for a week and that actually sells copies of the story every week while it is free.
So I like free if used correctly as you suggested.
Yup – I know you are OK with “smart free”, just not “dumb free”. That’s why I said “hear me out”. I had a feeling you’d like the idea. 🙂
There are a lot of people doing some AMAZING things with novellas right now too. It’s not hard to write a couple of 20-30k word serial novellas every month and sell them for $2.99. I know some people making four or even five figures a month doing precisely that.
Lots of options. Lots of story lengths. Lots of possibilities.
Re “not even half pulp speed”–if pulp speed is 1 million words/year, then 180 stories x 5000 words each average = 900,000 words/year = Pulp Speed .9
Thanks for the posts!