This question has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks, ever since I made a couple of semi-pro story sales. From all of the classes and conventions I’ve attended, the answer has been no, but I’m starting to wonder if that hasn’t changed in the last few years.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that short stories are not like longer books. In my experience (and I am not a master of the short form by any stretch), short stories do not sell as well in ebook form as longer books. That’s been corroborated anecdotally by virtually every indie writer I’ve spoken with.
At the same time, they aren’t like longer form books in the traditional sense either. I have three deal breakers when it comes to traditional publishing: no non-compete clauses, no ambiguous rights reversion, and no payments based on net. Short story markets typically only buy first publication rights with a 6-12 month exclusivity period, and pay by the word. That means that there’s no reason (unless you want to self-publish immediately) not to sell your short stories to a traditional market first.
(For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’re not writing erotica. It’s a completely different market with its own idiosyncracies, which I’m going to ignore just because I don’t write it. But numerous indies have already proven that it is definitely possible to make a living writing short-form erotica.)
So let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope to see what a professional short-story writer can make.
According to SFWA, a short story is any piece of writing less than 7,500 words long. For the sake of argument, let’s say you average about 4,000 words per short story.
If you write one short story per month, you’ll have 12 by the end of the year. If you write two per month, you’ll have about 25. That comes to about 300 words per day.
If you buckle down and write one short story a week (only 600 words per day), you’ll have about 50 short stories by the end of the year. Raise that to two short stories per week, and that’s 100 short stories per year.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’ve written 100 short stories. The next step is to put them on submission, using a database like The Submission Grinder to help you find markets. Here are the basic rules you’ll follow:
- Start at the top-paying markets and work your way down.
- Don’t submit to a market that pays less than $50 for your story.
- Don’t submit to markets that purchase full copyright (in other words, markets that won’t allow you to self-publish it after they buy it).
The professional markets pay upwards of $.06 per word. For a 4,000 word short story, that comes to $250 per sale. If we apply the Pareto principle to short story sales, only about 20% of our 100 stories will sell at this level (which is pathetically low for a professional short story writer, but let’s err on the conservative side). That comes to $5,000.
For the other 80 stories, let’s say you only manage to sell half of them at the minimum $50 rate—pathetic, I know, but we’re trying to be conservative. Forty stories at $50 each comes to $2,000. Together with the professional sales, that comes to a total of $7,000.
For reprint rights, let’s just apply the Pareto principle again to say that reprints account for about 20% of your income from traditional story sales, and original sales account for 80%. $7,000 divided by .8 is $8,750, which we’ll round down to $8,500 just to make the math easier.
So before you do any kind of self-publishing, you’ve got a positive balance of $8,500 just from writing and submitting those 100 stories. It’s not a lot, but it’s not insignificant either.
Now let’s say it takes about three years for you to make that $8,500, since it takes about two or three years to submit a story to all of the pro and semi-pro markets. That’s about $750 per quarter, or two professional sales, two or three semi-pro sales, and two or three reprint sales.
If I were going to self-publish short stories in order to make a living off of them, I would bundle and price them like this:
- Singles for $.99 (ebook only).
- Bundles of 3 for $2.99 (ebook only).
- Collections of 10–12 for $6.99–$7.99, with paperback editions.
For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the $.99 singles. They only bring in 35¢ per sale, and you’re probably not going to release all of your short stories as singles. They can be useful for promotions, especially if you make them free from time to time, but they aren’t going to be moneymakers.
If you put all 100 stories into the $2.99 bundles, that comes to 33 (which we’ll round up to 35, just to make the math easier). The royalty rate on each of those sales is 70%, or $2. If you average only 8 sales each month of the $2.99 bundles, that comes to $560.
Looking at it another way, let’s apply the Pareto principle to say that 20% of those 35 bundles are selling a book a day. That’s 7 bundles making about $60 a month, or $420, and the rest are making $105, bringing the total each month to $525.
So for argument’s sake, let’s round down and say that you’re making $500 a month on your $2.99 bundles.
For the larger collections, let’s say you average only about 5 sales each per month, earning about $5 per sale. That’s $50 per collection, or $500 for 10 collections. Paperback sales may add to that, but let’s be conservative and just roll print sales into that number.
If it seems unusual to sell that much with self-published short stories, remember that each story published in a magazine serves as a de-facto advertisement for your self-published stories. With each new magazine publication, your name is put in front of hundreds or even thousands of short story readers, a portion of whom will search for you online and find your other work. Combine that with periodic free promotions on your singles, and it shouldn’t be too hard to build an audience.
So a typical month at these numbers would look something like this:
- A pro-sale or a couple of semi-pro / reprints ($250)
- About 250 sales of the $2.99 bundles ($500)
- About 100 sales of the print/ebook collections ($500)
This is after only a year’s worth of work, writing 2 short stories per week or about 1.2k words per day. It might take a few years to get to this point, since it takes a few years to submit a short story to all of the markets, but if you can keep up this pace then by the time you’ve got 100 self-published short stories, this is probably what your career is going to look like.
And this is using conservative numbers. If you manage to sell half of those 100 stories to professional markets, the numbers go way up. Same if you have a couple of bundles that sell more than 1 copy per day. Same if you build a respectable email list that can push a couple hundred sales with each new release.
So is it possible to make a living writing short fiction? Well, let’s flip that question around and ask: is it possible to make a living writing short non-fiction? Of course it is—it’s called freelance writing. If anything, writing fiction gives us an advantage, because with fiction, the author is the brand.
These numbers look meager ($1,250 a month isn’t a great living), but remember, it’s only after 100 stories, or a year’s worth of work, writing at 1.2k words per day. If you can keep that up for several years, your income will scale up accordingly—especially on the self-publishing side.
Before the digital disruption of publishing, short fiction was dying a long, slow death. There weren’t a lot of paying markets for it, and self-publishing wasn’t a viable option. Now, there appears to be a renaissance of the short form. New pro and semi-pro markets are popping up all the time, ebooks and print on demand are opening up all sorts of new opportunities, and reader engagement has never been higher. That’s true of short fiction just as it’s true of the longer forms.
Is it easy to make a living writing short fiction? Hell no! It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, personal organization, and dedication. Even though 1.2k words/day isn’t a whole lot, headspace does become an issue with multiple stories. Above all else, you need to have an iron-thick skin when it comes to rejection. I’ve accrued over 150 rejections and only 4 semi-pro story sales over the course of my career.
But if you’re a prolific, hard-working writer with an efficient system for submitting, self-publishing, and marketing, then in theory at least it appears to be possible to make a living writing non-erotica short fiction.