Good morning, class.
Good morning, sir.
Our subject today is “Whither the short story?” I’ll begin with a quick historical summary, and all I really need to do toward that end is drop the question mark from the end and the H from the first word. Because for the past sixty years or so, short fiction has indeed been withering on the vine. I could suggest causes—television, mass-market paperback books—even as I could point out symptoms—the demise of the pulps, the decline of general-interest magazines. It all adds up to a pretty interesting tale, and an instructive one in the bargain, but as we’re discussing the short story, it seems only fitting to keep my preliminary remarks short.
Arnold, did you say something?
I could have sworn you just said, “Well, it’s too late for that.”
It may have crossed my mind, sir. Perhaps you heard me thinking it.
That must be it. So I’ll just summarize: After half a century or more of cultural dominance, short fiction largely disappeared. What magazines no longer published and readers no longer cared to read, writers stopped producing.
When I began writing in the mid-1950s, the shrinking market still had enough depth for me to get started there. Like most of my contemporaries, I’d published a dozen or more short stories in magazines before I even attempted a novel. (Remarkably enough, all those early stories have been assembled in One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.) As soon as I could, I moved on to paperback original novels, but I never entirely stopped writing short fiction, and I’ve had cause to be grateful to the form, far beyond the relatively small sums I’ve earned from it.
More than once, short fiction kept Matthew Scudder’s heart pumping when I thought the series had come to an end. After Dell did nothing much with the first three books, it seemed unlikely that another publisher would want to pick up the series. But I had the character very much on my mind, and wrote a pair of novelettes for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I found them sufficiently engaging to write a fourth novel on spec, and Arbor House published it as A Stab in the Dark, and Scudder was back in business.
Then. when the fellow stopped drinking at the end of Eight Million Ways to Die, I figured I’d written myself out of a job. Only a commitment to Bob Randisi to produce a Scudder short story for an anthology led to “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” That story became my first sale to Playboy and brought me my first Edgar Allan Poe award, but more to the point it kept Matthew Scudder in business. Within a year I’d spliced in a couple of subplots, upped the word count from 8500 to 90,000, and produced When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the favorite Scudder novel of a large number of readers.
A few years later I wrote a story, “Answers to Soldier,” about a hit man on assignment in Roseburg, Oregon. It was well received, with a Playboy sale and an Edgar nomination, but it was clearly a one-off. Or so I thought, until a couple of years down the line it struck me that my hit man was just the sort of Urban Lonely Guy to wind up on a therapist’s couch. So I wrote “Keller’s Therapy,” and one thing led to another, and there have now been four novels about the fellow, with a fifth in the works.
Now I certainly never set out to develop a series about a hired killer, but—yes, Rachel?
Sir, I was just wondering if “anecdotage” is a word.
It’s a stage in a man’s life, Rachel, and I do seem to have entered mine. So let me just say I have ample reason to be grateful to the short story. And, with the whole world of writing and publishing turned upside down by technology in general and the eBook revolution in particular, I wonder if the short story might be in line for a renaissance of sorts.
I speak as one who has been self-publishing short fiction for Kindle and Nook for some months now. At latest count, I have 23 stories on offer, all but two of them priced at 99¢. (Two novellas, Keller in Dallas and Speaking of Greed are $1.99.) What is it, Edna?
That’s quite true, Edna. It’s also true, just as Emerson told us, that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
I’ll remember that, sir.
You do that. At either price, my royalty on Kindle sales is 35%, as a minimum price of $2.99 is required to qualify for their 70% royalty rate. The math’s not terribly tricky here; when somebody downloads one of my stories, I get 35¢.
It is, as you may imagine, a slow way to get rich.
On the other hand, it’s a quick and easy way to put a whole batch of short stories into the hands of readers who might enjoy them. Some of these stories are available in book form, in my omnibus collection Enough Rope. Many, though, were written for anthologies, or published in magazines, and have essentially disappeared.
And, if it’s a slow way to get rich, it’s also a hard way to lose money. Some of the earlier stories needed to be scanned, but that’s not awfully pricey, and it’s virtually the only cost involved. I cobbled up covers for the individual stories by downloading stock photos (@$2.99 apiece) and adding type with Picasa; that process was so much genuine fun that I can hardly begrudge the time spent on it.
And are folks downloading them? Well, yes, as a matter of fact they are. Some stories get a lot more play than others, and it’s probably not surprising that the four Burglar stories and one Keller novella have outdistanced the rest of the pack. A couple of stories had fewer than ten sales in the month of August. One of these slow sellers is a one-act play, How Far, and I didn’t really expect a huge eAudience for a dramatic work; I put it up more in the hope that someone might be moved to stage the thing. As Dark as Christmas Gets hasn’t moved many copies, either, and that’s more surprising as it’s a Chip Harrison story, and the books have had a decent following. Maybe its sales will pick up some in December…
Why don’t you tell us about some of the winners, sir?
Good idea. Well, this past month just over 500 readers downloaded The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke. That’s a Bernie Rhodenbarr story, and like The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis it’s a locked-room mystery, so it’s no surprise that it’s moving nicely. That single story earned me $175 for the month of August. If it finds readers at that rate for a full year, it will net me more than it brought when I placed it with a magazine.
More to the point, it’s finding an audience. Another story, Catch and Release, is not about one of my series characters; it’s a dark and nasty story about a fisherman, written for Stories, the anthology superbly edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, and it too has found a post-publication readership as a Kindle short story, with well over 200 August downloads. As you can see, it’s got a particularly attractive cover, but I don’t know that thumbnail cover art makes that much difference online. My guess is that it must have generated some positive word-of-mouth; readers evidently liked it, and let their friends know about it.
My guess is that short stories work well for the eBook audience. The demand on one’s wallet is negligible, and for a hot 99¢ you can have something to read during lunch hour, or while you wait for the bus.
The real test, I suppose, will come when I write a new story, and one that’s not committed in advance to a particular anthology. If it’s suitable, and if it makes the cut, I’ll probably want to publish it first in EQMM or AHMM—because I think highly of those two magazines, and have a long positive history with them both.
But suppose it’s not right for either magazine? Could I ePublish an original short story and reach enough of an audience to make it worth the trouble? I won’t really be able to answer that question until I try it and see, but my guess is that it’ll work.
And simply having the option of self-publishing short fiction for eBook readers makes it a good deal more likely that I’ll write it in the first place.
I guess you go where the money is, sir.
Not really, Rachel. And when I try to, it’s generally gone by the time I get there.
I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a good idea for a short story because the profit possibilities were slim. I’ve always written the story and then tried to figure out what to do with it.
But first one has to have the idea. A novel may begin with a scene and gather momentum and focus as it goes along, but a short story is a good deal more idea-dependent. And the writer’s imagination, that magical entity from which ideas arise, has other principles besides ars gratia artis. It’s more apt to come up with ideas if there’s a use for them.
Back in the mid-1960s, my good friend Donald E. Westlake wrote three or four contemporary short stories about people in relationships. They might have landed in one of the slicks—Redbook, Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post. They were well wrought, as you would expect from Don, and they were charming, but the market was a thin one and his was not a Big Name back then, and none of the stories sold.
So he didn’t write any more of them. Not out of disappointment, although he was surely disappointed, but because he didn’t get idea for more stories in that vein. His imagination looked at the results and concluded the game wasn’t worth the candle, and it turned its attention in another direction.
The more ePublication of short stories becomes a viable option, the more short stories will be written. That’s just how it works. Does that mean the short story may once again become the dominant literary form? No, but here’s the thing—it won’t have to be dominant. The playing field has not only become increasingly level in the eWorld. It has also broadened out, stretching nigh onto infinity. There’s plenty of room for everything.
Yes, Arnold? You have a question?
Two questions, sir. If that’s all right. First of all, do you think you could post a list of all your ePublished short fiction? With live links for those who want them? It would be handy to have it all in one spot.
That’s a brilliant idea, Arnold, and I can but wish I’d thought of it myself. Here you go:
A Bad Night for Burglars
As Dark as Christmas Gets
The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis
The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke
Catch and Release
A Chance to Get Even
Dolly’s Trash and Treasures
Headaches and Bad Dreams
In For a Penny
Keller in Dallas
Like a Thief in the Night
Speaking of Greed (the novella)
Speaking of Lust (the novella)
Sweet Little Hands
Terrible Tommy Terhune
Three in the Side Pocket
A Vision in White
Welcome to the Real World
Who Knows Where It Goes
You Don’t Even Feel It
There you are, Arnold. These are all Kindle links, but all the stories are available for Nook as well.
Thank you, sir. My other question is about “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke.” Didn’t you write that in collaboration with your wife? And have you been giving her half the Kindle royalties?
Let me take Seth’s question first, Arnold. Seth?
I was just wondering, sir. You wrote several Matthew Scudder short stories, didn’t you? Including the one you mentioned, “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” Wouldn’t those be a good bet for ePublication?
An excellent question, Seth. And I may have a very interesting announcement on that very subject before too long. Keep coming to class—or make sure you subscribe to my blog—and you’ll find out all about it very soon.
Oh, dear. Look at the time. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to respond to your question after all, Arnold. What was it again? Something about “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke,” wasn’t it? Ah, well. We’ll get to it next time…