Friday, April 14, 2017

To Write or Not to Write Short?

By Kassandra Lamb, @KassandraLamb

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Often, "being an author" equates to "writing a novel," but plenty of authors focus on short stories or novellas, preferring the shorter form to a lengthy novel. Please help me welcome Kassandra Lamb to the podium today to share some insights on the benefits of writing shorts.

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist/college professor turned mystery writer with two bestselling series, the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries. She has also written a short guidebook for novice writers, Someday Is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book. She blogs about psychology, writing and other random topics.

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Take it away Kassandra...

Short stories, novellas, novels—what’s the best route to go as a fiction writer? Are there advantages to writing short?

This is a more complicated question than it may seem to be on the surface. There are several factors to consider:
  • The definition of a short story vs. a novella
  • The appeal of writing short for the author
  • How readers feel about short stories and novellas vs. full-length novels
  • The benefits of shorts for authors
  • The bottom line: how much can you make off of shorts?
In order to give you more than just my take on writing short, I surveyed several authors from various genres. I’ve included their experiences along with my own, and in some cases, quoted them when they said it better than I could.


First let’s define our terms. A novel is considered to be full-length if it is at least 40,000 words. A novella is usually defined as 17,500 to 40,000 words. Technically, a short story is under 7,500 words.

There is this thing called a novelette that is 7,500 to 17,500 words, but the reality is that readers have rarely heard of this term. The 12K novelette I published several years ago is almost always referred to as a short story in reviews, and even my 25K novellas are sometimes viewed as short stories by readers.

So perhaps we should be defining short versus long differently. A “short” story, regardless of its length, is one with a simpler story arc, few if any subplots and simpler character arcs for its main character(s).

The Appeal of Writing Short

To put it bluntly, it’s quick and easy.

Mystery writer Vinnie Hansen says it best: “The single-arc of a short story is so much simpler—character, conflict, a complication or two before a climax, and a resolution. I can hold that in my head in its entirety. In a matter of weeks, or months, I can write and polish a short story.”

For me as a writer, novellas are like snacks, while full-length novels are gourmet meals that I am preparing for guests. I often have both a novel and a short going at once. When I get bogged down in the complexity of the novel, I jump over to the short story or novella where the words flow more readily.

How Readers Feel About Shorts

Shorts get mixed reviews, literally. Readers with busy lives often appreciate a shorter read that they can consume along with their lunch or on the subway to and from work. Also, shorts related to holidays, especially Christmas and Valentine’s Day, tend to appeal to readers.

But many of the authors I spoke with have found that novellas and short stories are their lowest sellers. My experience is similar with my Kate on Vacation novellas, which are tied to my longest series. They don’t sell nearly as well as the full-length books, and I’ve had reviewers complain that even a 30K novella was “too short.” (Note: putting “short story” or “novella” on the cover and/or in the blurb may forestall at least some of these negative comments in reviews.)

Many readers prefer the complexity of plot and character development that is only possible in a full-length novel. But readers who don’t normally like shorter works will often read them if they are connected to a series that they like. Shorts also work well for prequels.

Which brings us to the...

Benefits of Shorts for Authors

Many authors believe that shorts are not about direct sales. As bestselling YA SciFi author, Susan Kay Quinn puts it, “Novels sell. Shorts are great for lures to get people to try your series and to advertise your writerly awesomeness.”

One of the greatest benefits is to maintain reader interest and visibility while writing those longer, more complex works. I started writing my Kate on Vacation novellas mainly to give my readers a “snack” so they would hopefully wait more patiently for my longer Kate Huntington mysteries (85K words).

I also used them to stick my toe in the cozy mystery subgenre pool and gain some visibility there. And I discovered I really liked writing a bit shorter and somewhat less complex stories, so I’ve since launched a second series of novels, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries (55K words).

As promotional tools, short stories and novellas can be very useful as:

Giveaways to encourage subscribers to your newsletter — My subscriptions increased by 30% when I started using instaFreebie to gift my first Kate on Vacation novella to new subscribers. They quadrupled when I participated in an instaFreebie group promotion with other authors.

Inclusion in multi-author anthologies — Romance writer Stina Lindenblatt describes these best: “Often they are designed to raise money for a charity. After a few months, the authors then publish their novellas on their own... The benefit of the anthologies (if they sell well), is that fans of the different authors might fall in love with your writing and check out your books.”

Submissions for contests — It’s a lot easier to write and polish short submissions to contests than to come up with an award-winning novel. And once you’ve won that short story contest, you can legitimately call yourself an award-winning author.

Last but not least, you can make money off of shorts. Two authors in my informal survey disagreed with the general consensus that shorts don’t sell all that well.

One was best-selling and award-winning SciFi and Fantasy author Anthea Sharp, who contends that there is money to be made in the traditional short fiction market. She regularly contributes to SFF magazines such as Asimov’s and Clarkesworld. “They usually pay 6-10 cents a word. There are scads of other places to submit your story for pay. Generally publications only license the rights for anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.”

She graciously shared two of her favorite resources: The Grinder – a submission tracker site and market database for writers of short fiction, and Angie’s Desk – a monthly round-up of open-call anthologies.

The Bottom Line:

The question is: How much money can one make on shorts?

And how much should we be charging for them? The general consensus was that short stories should be priced at $0.99.

The price for novellas is more open to debate. The price point of $1.99 seems to be a no-man’s land (I’m one of the few hanging out there with my novellas). Many authors price novellas at $0.99, while a few have dared to charge $2.99 and contend that they sell okay at that price.

Regarding her novellas, bestselling paranormal mystery writer, Amanda Lee says, “I only charge $0.99 for them (compared to $3.99 for a full mystery). I still hit the top 100 with them every time but they don't stay as long... I will continue doing them for visibility but I'm of a firm mind now that the best way for bigger money and more longevity is full novels.”

However, SciFi Romance and Erotica author, Yamila Abraham disagrees. “All I write are novellas and I make a good living. My stuff is romance or erotica, though... My ultra-short 12k-15k stuff is $0.99, higher than that is $2.99, and when I get over 30k words I do $3.99.” She admits though that this is in “...a fringe genre (gay SFF erotica) with not much supply and a lot of demand, so the $2.99 price works.” In heterosexual romance and erotica, she finds that novellas have to be priced at $0.99 to compete.

Genre matters when it comes to pricing shorts. The more popular genres also have much more supply as well as more demand. Readers figure why pay $2.99 for a novella when they can get plenty of full-length novels at that price.

My mystery novellas have done okay at $1.99. I’ve experimented with lowering the price to $0.99, and sure enough sales doubled, but profits stayed the same. But at $2.99, sales dried up completely.

One other interesting note on pricing. Going back to my earlier contention that our definition of shorts should be more about complexity than length, my shorter (55K) cozy mysteries, with semi-complex plots and character arcs plus a subplot or two, sell twice as well as my longer mysteries, at the same price!

The ultimate bottom line: You’re not likely to get rich off of shorts, but if you enjoy writing short stories and/or novellas, they can definitely be beneficial products to add to your bookshelf, for a variety of reasons.

(Other authors who contributed input: Elliott Kay, Amir Lane, and Joyce Reynolds-Ward)

About Someday Is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book

Psychotherapist turned successful mystery writer, Kassandra Lamb takes novice writers by the hand and walks with them on their journey, pointing out pitfalls along the way, some of which she discovered through stumbled-head-first-into-them experience.

From the decisions to be made before setting pen to paper to whether to submit to agents or self-publish, from the basics of writing craft to the nuts and bolts of copyrighting and ISBNs, from promotion strategies to the perseverance needed to make your writing business a success, this overview of the writing and publishing process is a must-read for new authors who aren’t sure what they’re getting themselves into.

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  1. Thanks so much, Janice, for inviting me to "guest lecture" at Fiction University today!

  2. I found this to be really helpful! Been toying with the idea of writing shorts for a while, but couldn't really see how they could be useful. Now I do! Thanks!

  3. Never heard of the novelette before. Lots of great information here, Kassandra. Thanks for the post. Interesting that your shorter novels sell better than the longer ones. I've always written on the short side, so it's good to hear there's a market for these kinds of works.

    Also, as a reader, I find myself with less time and patience to lose myself for a day or two in a long book, so I prefer to read shorter as well.

    1. The shorter novels are in the cozy mystery sub-genre, so I don't know how much that affects things. That sub-genre seems to have a voracious bunch of readers. They even buy paperbacks!

      Initially I felt guilty pricing them the same as my 85-90K Kate Huntington novels. But I'm glad I did.

      And I agree, as a reader and writer, I'm liking the 50-60K length better. Still complex and a satisfying read, but not nearly so time-consuming to write or read.

  4. Thank you, Kassandra. This was so helpful. I am thinking of writing shorts and it feels like the right move for a niche market at the moment. Even if you don't get rich with shorts, you can pay your editors or the costs to produce your ebook. It's still worth it, and it adds visibility.

  5. Thanks, Sussu. A niche market is a great place to experiment with shorts, and my novellas definitely pay for themselves within a few months (I don't put them out in paperback, however).

    I feel that visibility is their greatest benefit. I've had quite a few readers discover me and my characters because they stumbled on one of my novellas first.

  6. Your overview here was so helpful Kassandra! And it's always so good to here other author's experiences--it's easy to doubt yourself, so hearing another author share their experiences can help tremendously. I've been considering writing short stories as a way to gain readers and get visibility. I do have a few writer friends who say the short stories on Amazon are gaining more and more popularity and are making them more money though. But of course the terrain is always shifting. Genre is always important to consider. Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

    1. Yes, the terrain is definitely always shifting in this business, Gilian. I agree that shorts are gaining in popularity right now. We'll see if that trend continues (I hope it does).

      I'm glad you found the post helpful!

  7. Really helpful and informative article. Thank you!

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Michele. Thanks for stopping by.