You gotta start somewhere.
Once a week or so, a friend contacts me and tells me that she or he has written a novel or a bunch of short stories and wonders if I have any advice for them on getting published. I've already written a blog about the novel
, but thought I'd put down my thoughts on short stories here.
In a recent issue of Poets & Writers
magazine, four editors of literary journals lamented the fact that very few of the many individuals who submit stories or poems to their periodicals were subscribers. What did it say, they wondered, that writers weren't apparently interested in reading what other writers produced and didn't support the very outlets in which they were so eager to be published? None of them had an answer to this discouraging phenomenon.
Centuries ago, literacy rates were so low that writers and readers were few and far between. If you could read and write, you were speaking from and to an elite, and you were likely to be noticed. The rise of the reading public in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave writers a much larger audience. Because there were few publishers, the relatively few writers reached quite substantial markets. These days, any fool can set up a publishing concern and write a book, and publish it on demand or electronically. However, the number of readers has not increased much in decades. The result is that lots of writers and outlets are chasing the same number of readers—which means that a book that might have sold 10,000 copies four decades ago now does well to reach 2,000 today.
Given these market realities, then, how should you approach publishing your short stories? In no particular order (and with a pinch of cynicism), here are some options:
- Subscribe to literary journals that you want to be published in. Write to the editors; tell them how much you like the work and comment on it; go to the journal's fundraising parties and meet and greet the other authors and editors. Feign interest in others and they may feign interest in you—at least enough to publish you.
- Get into an MFA program, where you will have published authors as your advisors. Wine and dine them and show them your work. Make them your mentors, and ask them to write an introductory letter to the journal(s) or their agent on your behalf. Then do as above.
- Enter competitions. You will have to spend money. You will lose many, many, many times. But you may win once or twice, and you will be published. This will build your resume with book publishers.
- Publish your short stories separately as downloadable e-books. An e-book can be any length. Turn each story into a self-contained unit. You can charge for the download or make it free. Either way, you bypass the publishing gatekeepers. If you "sell" lots of copies, you can then tell a publisher that you've a built-in market. Visit Smashwords for more.
- Read your stories aloud. Visit your local bookstore, library, old age persons' home, shopping mall, high school, neighborhood cafe etc. and read your work aloud. Do poetry slams. Invite friends around for an evening. Build your audience. Who knows who might come along as a friend of a friend to take you to the next stage of getting published?
- Start your own salon. Tired of not being heard? Create your own salon and invite other people in your same situation to read their work. You'll meet friends, like-minded souls, and maybe an agent or publisher will show up and lift up the light of their countenance upon you.
- Record your work. Get a microphone and use your audio recording software on your computer and read your work. Sell or give it away on iTunes or CD Baby. You're building your audience and perhaps making some money on the side. More importantly, your stories are being heard.
- Publish the stories yourself. Use xlibris, iUniverse, Lulu, or Author Solutions. You'll have to pay money for typesetting, a cover, and printing anywhere from one to one thousand copies. But you'll have books that you can sell. If you sell thousands, you can approach a "regular" book publisher to take on your costs and risk—and to keep most of the profit.
- Take it on the road. If you can afford to take time off and you have the resources, then go on a road trip, reading your work wherever you can. If applicable, create an evening lecture or an all-day or weekend workshop out of it. Become an expert.
Remember: a writer is in the business of communication. It's no longer good enough (if it ever was) for you, like Emily Dickinson, to sit in your house waiting for posterity to shower you with honors. You need to be confident in public, a capable reader/performer, and possessed of a wide and engaged circle of friends/supporters. Somehow the reading public kept their spirits up in spite of the fact that they were unaware of your writing, and they'll probably keep their chins up even after you bring your work into the world. So you need to maximize the number of ways you reach out to (and create) your audience. Be flexible, creative, and committed.
It's finally worth pointing out that only in the rarest of circumstances does the amount of effort, time, and angst you put into a book equal the financial rewards, level of fame, or number of opportunities you'll receive in return. You must write because you feel compelled to: because an idea or character is knocking at the inside of your skull, demanding to be released. There are, to be sure, collateral benefits
, but you should not rely on these. Write because you're a writer, and that's what you do.