Friday, March 15, 2019

How Saleable Are Short Stories? The Benefits of Writing Shorter

By Sarah Dahl, @sarahdahl13

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: With the "publish or perish" vibe of today's hectic publishing world, authors can feel pressured to release multiple novels a year. But writing short stories or novellas can be a viable alternative that lessens that pressure and still keeps readers happy. 

Novellas and even shorter works are on their way to becoming a strong literary form. They can stand alone or be extras/appetizers for bigger works of fiction. Many writers do them, and more and more readers read them. Attention spans shorten, and time to read, too. So today in our series Focus on Short Fiction we’re looking at the benefits of writing shorter, and especially saleability.

Many authors say they can’t write in the short form, and don’t see the point of mastering the craft for their business. Writing short doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is a lot to gain from writing and publishing short works. Many big-name authors also do short stories in between their longer works. So there surely must be a benefit beyond mere exercise of a creative muscle.

Short works are a growing market

From a readers’ perspective: the recent impression of many authors is that shorts are gaining in popularity at the moment. Readers often want to invest less time in a story (and its author, if they are giving someone new a chance). Reading short works fits with busy lives, with commuting or having to otherwise kill time in a meaningful, entertaining way. Attention spans have shortened, and a full-length novel is much more brain- and time-consuming, for readers and writers, and therefore sometimes something smaller is needed.

As I say on my blog short stories are often underrated today, easily dismissed as “easy” writing and low quality. I strongly object! For some, writing short is a major skill, and for some readers a treat. So treat your writing of them seriously – and also your use of them once they’re polished!

How to use your shorter fiction

An array of shorter works gives you more material, meaning more practice to perfect the craft – and more flexibility for different marketing purposes.

For free marketing/exposure:
  • A short can be work sample/teaser/gift on your site and social media, or
  • You can dive into themes, minor plots, or characters of works readers are already familiar with and demand more of while you’re busy working on a long sequel (paid or for free)
  • You can practice your marketing and provide fresh material while in the background working on something longer. Therefore, you rehearse the steps for the “big” book
  • You can keep interest up and show off, seduce readers to your writing and themes with all the freedom writing short gives you
  • You can do giveaways and/or to gain subscribers for your newsletter
  • You can enter contests for short fiction (see screenshot on phone) and collect awards faster – you can enter more works and increase your chance to win
All these are benefits away from pure financial gain. But can you make money, too?

A question of portfolio – and confidence

As Kassandra Lamb here on Fiction University states, many authors believe that shorts are not about direct sales. She quotes bestselling YA SciFi author, Susan Kay Quinn, who says, “Novels sell. Shorts are great for lures to get people to try your series and to advertise your writerly awesomeness.”

Many of the authors Lamb 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.’” Lamb says putting ‘short story’ or ‘novella’ on the cover and/or in the blurb can prevent misunderstandings and negative comments. 

(Here's more on deciding whether or not to write short) 

I agree with her there. Be honest. Especially when you want to sell your short fiction, don’t make readers feel short-changed by not clearly stating length, but proudly name the baby what it is: a short story, novelette, etc. that has pride of place in your portfolio.

However, I disagree with this strong notion that ‘short’ doesn’t sell. These authors say they have sales from shorts. And if they’re known for novels mainly, their readers might rather have those, yes. So it depends also on who you are and what your portfolio is. Mine is mainly short stories/novelettes that sell individually, and the resulting collection of short stories (Tales of Freya – Sensual Short Stories set in the Viking Age), which sells as a ‘proper book’. What works for whom seems to be a highly individual thing.

If you’re interested in this aspect of portfolio, I recommend a very in-depth insight from Alison Morton about her ‘Roma Nova’ alternate history books: How Writing Fiction of Different Lengths Offers a Book Marketing Advantage.

How saleable are short works in today’s market?

I’d say the market is in our favor. Reader habits and expectations are shifting. More people read and buy shorter, and if readers paid for your work it will likely be valued higher than the tons of free stuff buried in their library. Even the big Amazon made categories for selling short works and keeps fiddling with new models to offer shorter works. So as readers seem keen and the platforms are there, saleability depends on how you as an author treat your work. Be professional and handle your short works with the same pride and care as you would handle a longer work.

Saleability also depends on genre, though. Short doesn’t work for everyone. There will always be writers for whom selling short doesn’t pay off, and others will thrive, because of a demand they satisfy. If you are writing in a high-demand niche, you will sell more than those in crowded spaces. We can’t conclude anything general. But I know writers who, for example, make good money with regular sales of shorts to magazines.

So I’d say: Treat your shorts just like your longer works. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain beyond the obvious creative development.

Where and how to sell shorts?

I think Kassandra Lamb’s conclusion that shorts should be priced at 0.99$ is accurate, because competition is tough, among short works but also with novels. So many longer works are out there for free or as a bargain. But: genre can make a difference here, too. If demand is high and supply low, you can price higher. Learn your niche – in reading, analyzing, writing and marketing. And choose wisely how to use your shorts once they’re ready.

The sale options are just as manifold as they are for novels:
  • you can sell them regularly, on their own (price according to genre and length) or in anthologies, in bundles, as extras coming with a longer work or a bundle …
  • which means you keep publishing for real and practice the publishing/marketing game, perfecting keywords, blurbs, promo etc.
  • you maintain reader interest/visibility and are constantly “out there” with something fresh to grab – and to buy: ‘free’ is often valued (and actually read) less
  • you can make money with magazine and online publications that require shorts, and even sell to those regularly
  • you can try to go into multi-author anthologies – and readers of the other authors might love your writing and become paying fans
So yes, ideally short stories are fun to write and carry less pressure – ideally they let you exercise the craft AND your marketing/publishing muscle. With readers picking up shorter works more and more often, I would definitely take shorts as seriously as novels, in all respects!

Over to you: do you write short works, or “shorts”? Do you love reading them? What has your experience been so far, with marketing and selling them? Do you agree that new times allow authors to make money with short fiction?

Happy reading & writing!

writing short stories, kindle short reads, short fiction
Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She was an editor in several German publishing houses and managed a translation agency. The magic of writing re-entered her life at UCD Dublin, where she sat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office every day, while working on the ‘Dictionary of Hiberno-English’. Tolkien’s spirit must have done something to her creative muscles – it sure wasn’t the bland view from his office. She became a full-time writer soon after and still works as an editor, translates, and coaches new authors. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts. Sarah just released her collection Tales of Freya, seven sensual short stories set in the Viking age.

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About Tales of Freya

short stories, vikings, A collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking Age

In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.

A warrior recovering by a river is drawn into an unforeseen skirmish with a beautiful shield maiden. An enslaved Christian monk is entranced by his captors’ pagan allure. A dissatisfied housewife finds that her home holds an unexpected and liberating secret. An injured farmer is captivated by the magic of his irresistible healer ...

In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.

“Vikings meets Last Kingdom with a huge dose of the ‘feels’”

Amazon | Amazon UK |


  1. Great post! I love shorts! The ones I write in my genre are what you called "appetizers" and based on the characters and situations from my novels. They are often questions I have about a particular character's backstory or something that happened. One of my favorites was one I wrote about an event that happened "off-stage." My POV character couldn't be there, and I really needed to know exactly what happened.

    I have other shorts not in my genre. They are random stories that have presented themselves to me. One thing I enjoy about writing shorts is I have that feeling of accomplishment. Novels can take a long time and it's nice to be able to start and finish a work quickly.

    I like what you said about shorts being good practice, not just for your craft, but for marketing as well. I hadn't thought about it that way. Of course, when I decide to sell them, I'll need to create blurbs and covers. Such a good point!

    1. Hi - thank you, and yes, that's such a great way to add depth to your novels! And really interesting for readers to dive into these extra scenes of your world. I really want to do that too for my WIP now. And very right: you get less frustrated and feel like you finished something sooner :-) Thanks and always happy writing! <3