Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Short Story Business Model

Lately I've been thinking about the business model for writing and how it affects the short story form, writing as a vocation, and the publishing process.

It must be in the stars or something. For starters, KWAX is holding its bi-annual fund drive, Realms of Fantasy is closing (after a resurrection lasting 18 months), and I've just read about a web standard that would stream fonts.

For those of you just tuning in, there's a notion that writers write short stories, submit them to a market, the market buys the story and pays the author. The market turns around and submits a collection of stories it has bought to readers (and advertisers), and receives money for their efforts.

A writer at my level receives five cents a word from professional short story market sales. That's $50 for 1000 words. To put that into perspective, as a technology trainer and maintenance guy, I made roughly $20 an hour; so -- assuming I sold every story I ever wrote -- I'd have to write, edit, polish, and send out 400 words every hour (or, 2400 words in six hours every day) to make the same amount as I did helping folks with their computers (but without health insurance).

The short story submission process (at least for me) has a 90-95% rejection rate -- meaning in practice, I write ten times as much as I actually sell. (So to factor in non-sales, make that production rate 4,000 words an hour or 24,000 words in six hours in order to sell one 2400 word short story).

This is, of course, assuming that there are markets out there buying my short stories. There are, but if I limit myself to the science fiction and fantasy genres, the number of markets falls.

And this brings us to Realms of Fantasy, which is another sad statistic in the trend of paper publications versus electronic ones. Following the news of Realms' second death, the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a free on-line speculative fiction market, Twittered that he was tired of being blamed for print media's death.

(As an aside, Clarkesworld pays ten cents a word. They publish two short stories a month and occasional collections. Authors may only be published in Clarkesworld twice a year. The stories I submit compete with those by Cat Rambo, Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert Reed, Peter Watts, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman -- so it's sort of like Writers of the Future, only for seasoned writers; or the lottery.)

In summary: short story writers work hard to produce stories that have to be submitted multiple times before they're sold (if they sell at all) to a professional market. More experienced (and presumably better) writers sell more. And print markets are going away.

The question becomes: if the demise of Realms of Fantasy is part of a trend of subscription print publications giving away to free electronic publications, how should short story writers adapt?

The secondary question is: if the market shrinks so that only a few free on-line publications (i.e. Clarkesworld, or something like The New York Times) default into accidental monopolies, how can a new short story writer get published at all, much less make any kind of money?

One answer is: "Sorry, honey -- to quote Ms. Le Guin, 'writing to make money is a damn-fool idea.'" I think this is very true for the short story form. It seems to me the folks making a living writing are writing novels (except that only the Glam Stars of writing don't have some kind of day-job or sugar-spouse). So write because you like to write, because your short stories and a dollar will get you a cup of tea at the cafe.

Another answer is, in the age of the internet, writers (and other artists) might try to become their own editors, publishers, and debtors -- in other words, their own content providers.

Some folks post their writing and put an "electronic hat" at the end; a PayPal button and a text along the lines of "If you've enjoyed this story, please contribute whatever amount you'd like." I'm not sure how well this works. Based on my experiences busking at renaissance faires, it probably helps to be well known, have a little dog, or be five years old. And really loud.

Then there's the proposed streaming type face model. You pay me (the writer) a small monthly subscription fee, and that allows you access to my short stories. Bruce Holland Rogers does this -- he e-mails a short story a month to paid subscribers. I haven't spoken with Bruce about how well this works, but I do know that Bruce has a day job.

Of course, the difficulty with self-publishing is that one has to build a subscriber base. Which means marketing, social networking, and other business things that take away from time spent writing. Perhaps authors could band together to form a kind of "authors' web ring" -- in addition to the PayPal button at the end of a story, the author puts in a button that takes the reader to another story by another author in the ring. Your mileage with a distributed editorial board may vary.

To go in a different direction, I could widen my scope: write non-fiction (because, as Ellen Kushner notes, people say they only want to read The Truth), romance, or take a cue from Dan Brown and write cliffhanger-ending chapters in a thriller. Or would that simply delay the inevitable -- science fiction and fantasy are simply the first, but all the print markets are going?

Maybe in the age of the internet, the short story form and the written word are going by the wayside. Entertainment consumers want icons they can press, and content they can watch or listen to (and fast-forward through). I can see a hybrid web site with a story inventory like AnthologyBuilder only with Pandora's interface (wait, isn't that PodCastle, and Escape Pod?).

If written short stories are no longer in fashion, but audio-books and video are, perhaps I should create a training program that teaches people how to those. After all, isn't that what all those writing seminars and workshops are all about? Which isn't writing; it's writing about writing.

Or maybe I should just go work for Google.

Thoughts? Comments? Answers?
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