It’s hardly a secret that I love writing and selling short stories and novellas, so I get questions. The most common question: can you really make an income writing short fiction?
For many authors, “fiction” means novels. I understand. For years, until I became a copywriter and stepped out of my author bubble, I assumed that real writers wrote novels. Somehow I dismissed de Maupassant, Chekhov, and O. Henry from my mind…
Regarding short, I give you Exhibit 1: short videos. The TikTok craze continues, and YouTube has jumped into the mini-video craze too. Authors use successful promotions on TikTok as a sales point, so TikTok has an effect.
Whether you like little hits of entertainment or not, audiences do. We’re all busy. Sometimes you have just a few minutes, and a short story is just what you want. They’re fun to write, moreover.
Short stories: fun to write, and profitable too
Here’s the thing about short stories for me: they’re quick to write, and publish. Sometimes I get tired of my current novel, and would happily kick my main characters off the nearest cliff.
You can write an itty bitty story in an afternoon, and publish it next day. What’s not to like?
Let’s look at some ways you can write short fiction, and profit from it.
1. Publish to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) et al
Here’s how I make money writing short stories under my pen names. (I have several, because I publish historical fiction, as well as mysteries and thrillers.)
- Decide on a theme. It might be Christmas, or St Valentine’s day. Or a collection of cozy mysteries set in a particular location, like an English village (think Christie’s Jane Marple.) Perhaps a series of stories about a family, or a business, such as a department store, or a riding school… Don’t fuss too much about theme. Start writing, and chances are a theme will come to you.
Go with your instincts. If you have fond memories of your childhood spent living near a beach, use that as a theme.
- After selecting the theme, I decide how many short stories will make up the collection. Usually it’s from 5 to fifteen: sufficient stories so that the total word count will be around 40,000 words.
- Each story is self-published to Amazon KDP. I don’t enroll the story in KDP Select, I want readers to pay. Readers who pay are a good indication that you’ve hit on a group of readers who are hungry for the kind of fiction you write.
I treat the short story as I would any other kind of ebook: order or create a cover, and publicize it as much as I can on social media.
- After I’ve published each story in the collection independently, I’ll publish the entire collection as an ebook, and a print book too. I publish widely, using Draft2Digital, so that I hit all the online marketplaces. (Publishing widely is the reason I don’t use KDP Select. When you use Select, you must give Amazon an exclusive.)
2. Use short stories and novellas to become visible and recognized as a fiction author (and make a little extra money)
Millions of books are published to the online marketplaces such as Amazon’s Kindle Store each year. Most vanish without a trace. With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) text and image generators that flood of content will become even stronger.
Today, it’s impossible to make money on the Kindle Store solely by publishing, unless you have a following already.
So, it’s vital that you’re recognized as a fiction author.
Consider querying magazines which publish fiction—and which PAY for fiction. Most literary magazines don’t pay. Nor do they publish “commercial” fiction, so I don’t suggest you send queries to them.
However, some mass market magazines still publish a little fiction, and some will pay. Review this article, 128 Active Publications That Pay You for Short Stories in 2023; you may get some ideas.
Look for paying publications on your own, too. If you’re a member of a group which publishes freelance opportunities, you’ll occasionally find publications which pay for fiction.
If a publication doesn’t mention rates for writers, it means that they don’t pay. If you’re unsure, contact them and ask.
Why only consider publications which pay?
- You write fiction for money. You have bills, so you need to make money from your words.
- Publications which pay are professional. They’re not hobbyists. As a commercial author, you need to deal with folk who take fiction seriously.
- Paying markets are good promotional venues. Free markets mostly are not.
3. Join with other writers to publish a short fiction collection (and add their audiences to yours)
You need other writers, and they need you.
One of my friends and her family are organic market gardeners. They’ve been growing organic produce for a couple of decades. At first, it was a very niche activity. They sold their produce to restaurants, and at weekend markets.
When they started “organic” wasn’t a mainstream thing.
Then, over the years, organic produce became more widely known. Suddenly there were opportunities at farmers’ markets, and selling online, as well as locally. My friend’s an amazing baker, and they’ve done well with organic Christmas puddings and wedding cakes.
As their market grew, their business grew. My friend started to make real money once she formed a cooperative of organic market gardeners. They were stronger and more profitable together—together, they grew their local market.
Similarly, you’re stronger when you join with other writers, because you share audiences. Consider joining online groups for self-publishing authors, and for your specific genres. Make friends with authors who are similar to you. Promote other authors, and they will promote you.
Once you’re part of a group, suggest a short fiction collaboration: an anthology. You can choose a theme, as you choose themes for your own short stories. Each author who wants to become part of the anthology gets a chance to promote their own work, with a blurb at the end of their story, linking to their website.
Publish the anthology for free, just to grow your audiences, or for a minimal sum.
Short stories may not make you rich, but they may well contribute to your success
Some authors find short fiction a challenge. You have to compress a lot, into a little. Sometimes that’s impossible. Before you know it, your characters have bolted, and you find yourself writing a novel.
Of course, that has advantages too. Try writing short stories. Share your successes on social media.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.