Thoughtful Thursday: Why is there a shortage of shorts?

I’ll be defending my dissertation today so I’ll turn the thought-provoking question-asking duties for the day over to one of our readers. In response to Terry‘s Magazine Monday post, Mark Lawrence asked:

I’m a fan of the short story both reading and writing (not that any of mine were Nebula-nominated). I’ve always felt they deserved a bigger press/market/readership. It’s odd really… we’re told the public’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and yet the short-story market shrinks day by day and the best selling fantasy is delivered in 1000+ page door stops!

So, readers, why do short stories not have a bigger press/market/readership?  I personally love short stories — they are wonderful for lunch time reading, or a quick tale before bedtime — so I’m not much help here. What do you think is going on?

We’ll pick a commenter at random to win the book of their choice from the stacks.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. Shorts may be making a come-back with Amazon Kindle now offering, Kindle Singles.
    But I wish they would catagorize them by genre, like they do the Kindle Books. As they are currently, all genres are lumped together, sorted by best sellers.

  2. I like the singles idea!

    I sometimes get a book of short stories, read a few, and then forget to read the rest of the book. Because I’ve finished the plot of whatever I was reading, there isn’t the same “must keep going to find out what happens” impetus, if that makes sense.

    The other problem for me is that, especially in urban fantasy, they’re so entangled with the novels. Authors will write a short story or novella that doesn’t make sense unless you’ve been following the whole series–or they’ll put major plot points in a short story and you miss it if you don’t catch that anthology. I don’t mind if they’re set in the same universe, but I’d rather they deal with side characters or were less integral to the main plot. Ilona Andrews is a good example of doing this right; she did a novella for Must Love Hellhounds that focuses on a friend of the series protagonist who has an adventure while Kate is out of town.

  3. I think it takes a while to get into a book/story and to do so over and over again in short story form is harder than having the backstory down already and moving forward.

    Also, one of the reasons I read, at least subconsciously, is to recapture what I experienced with Lord of the Rings…a world you can feel a part of while you’re reading and again, this is hard to do with only a few pages.

  4. Speaking as someone who has made a few attempts to submit to short story markets, I think the “short” part is part of the problem. A lot of the maximum lengths allowed really limit the room you have to build. I think that can be problematic for spec-fic readers, since they’re often looking for world-building. With shorts, anything not absolutely essential has to be cut.

    Some of the ideas I’ve had I have simply been unable to do in short form, because they’re far too involved.

    On the other hand, I have sold one short story, which was published this month. So that’s something. But I had to really focus it down to the very most essential points to keep it at an acceptable length. I can see why that might not be enough meat for some readers.

  5. I would assume this is partly because short stories can get a bad rep. I’ve seen comments from readers about how they don’t like shorts because the story is too abrupt, because there isn’t enough depth, because the ending isn’t as good, etc. Personally, I tend to read short stories based on favorite authors. The more authors I already like publish short stories, the more I’m likely to read them. Particularly if their part of a series I’m reading.

  6. That’s supposed to be they’re not their. I can’t find any way to edit or delete my comment. =/

  7. I really love the idea of shared-world anthologies, like the Thieves’ World series from the 80s. I guess that’s kinda different form of short-stories, but I would so love to see a selection of the most popular fantasy authors do something like that today, even its just for one book.

  8. Maybe there’s too small a market for them at the moment, I don’t know. Myself, I’m not overly fond of short stories, at least in anthologies, because having to switch between styles and plots and whatnot very often throws me out of my reading groove, and I find myself lagging.

    On the flip side, short stories do absolutely have their place, and can be fun quick reads that can give a good feel for how an authors does what they do, without being too involving or taxing on the reader. I’ve been trying to do a weekly review of some of the free shorts found on Smashwords, to help find new authors and to spread a little love around.

  9. First of all, good luck with your thesis! I like the comment about Kindle perhaps rekindling (pun intended) the market. It seems like the market for short stories is small, although alternatives to paper delivery systems have reinvigorated the form to some extent. For myself, I like the immersion in a novel–I want to make a commitment for several hours/days, not minutes. It’s a personal preference.

  10. I’m a big short story reader and go through a few anthologies and best-of collections per year. Fantasy may be a format that benefits from length, allowing the author to build complex worlds and create an epic story, but I also love the condensed form of the short story which forces the author to evoke rather than describe. There’s a famous Mark Twain quote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

  11. I love short stories. I’ve got several books of them out. ;) But I do think that the markets are shrinking. The Kindle short program will be a big boost, I think.

  12. It’ll be interesting to see how the Kindle affects shorts. My own guess is it will have a similar kind of impact as iTunes (or, for those old enough to remember–45s) but not to the same degree as fewer people read than listen to music and I think lots of people have built-in reasons to resist short stories. What I mean by the first is story collections suffer from the same problem as CDs; it’s rare that you’re going to like everything in it, even less so if it’s a multi-author collection. But, if you can sample a story (read the first few pages) and see if it catches your interest, you might be willing to plunk down some money for just that one. I almost never buy short story collections but instead, like poetry, get them from the library because I assume I’ll only like anywhere from a third to two-thirds, so why pay for 15 stories to enjoy 10? As for the second part, it’s pretty much what people have said. Short stories I think tend to be more plot-driven than character-driven, and less immersive, so people who prefer character or immersion will still probably not buy many stories even in single format.

  13. Is there any current research to show that the short story market is getting less readership than in years past? From what I can see there’s a flowering of various short story anthologies and magazines, and maybe that’s the problem. It’s far easier now to set up a magazine and collect stories for your particular niche than it was 10 years ago. As a result the market has become fragmented. Instead of a handful of major magazines publishing everything you’ve got a bunch of smaller publications focusing on one genre.

    Instead of one giant you’ve got a dozen Davids. The giant laments about the decline in readers while the Davids rejoice that they have readers. It’s a matter of perspective I think.

  14. These are some really good points about why many people don’t read shorts (and John Johnson has a good point about the market).

    I tend to not purchase them for the same reason Bill doesn’t (not likely to like most of them in a collection), however, I agree with Stefan that shorts can be extremely clever in the way they evoke a mood and tell a story with few words, and it takes a great writer to do that effectively. I WILL purchase short stories by authors who I know can do that (e.g. Jack Vance) and when they pull it off, those stories are even more rewarding and memorable than the novels I read.

  15. I would think that the shorts are a perfect way to see if you like a new writer. You get a chance to see a finished product instead of committing to a novel without knowing their work, and yet it is easier to get a feel for whether they can complete a thought than just reading sample novel pages. Just a thought that came to me reading Kat’s comment.

  16. Definitely, Rie. That’s one of the great things about shorts and I have discovered several authors that way.

  17. Yes, I have found new authors that way, too. And it’s very exciting when you read someone’s short story and think “why haven’t I read this author before — I have to find more!”

  18. Yes, I think the internet and electronic reading devices could lead to a rebirth of the short story market. Kindle seems made for magazines and short stories to me.

  19. I agree with Kelly regarding UF authors who write short stories about their main characters. I’ve had to track down a few anthologies in order to find out what exactly happened with the banshee/witch/whatever that gets referred to in a later book. On the good side of that, I’ve discovered new authors I really like. And found a couple that I won’t ever read.

    Short stories are an art form, and not every author can create a decent short story. They are a lot of work, and it is great to read well done short stories. I can’t remember which anthology, but there was one I read a while back by Neil Gaiman I think that was told only in answers to questions. We didn’t get to see the questions, just the answers. Interesting concept, but it worked.

  20. One more thing, Congrats Ruth on getting to add PhD to your signature.

  21. I’ve learned to trust a few editors when it comes to anthologies. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling almost always have excellent anthologies, and Sharyn November also has had great skill in putting anthologies together. November features some lesser known authors on a regular basis, and I’ve gone and tracked new books down because of some of the shorts I’ve read.

  22. Like Seak, I need time and space to appreciate a novel or a movie (I don’t watch series either). The very few anthologies I liked to read were all collected short stories from the same author – no need to get used to different writing styles.
    So for me, short stories are not a good way to discover new authors but it can feel better when they are connected to a world I already know from a novel as Lee & Miller do in the Liaden Universe.

  23. So, now we should call you Dr. Ruth, right??

  24. As a secondary thought, one way to sort of get around that non-immersive or plot-driven aspect of short stories is to do a book of linked stories. As much as I’m not a huge fan of anthologies, I often really enjoy the linked collections. Classic versions would be Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles or Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, and it seems just from personal notice it’s becoming a pretty popular sort of construction the past 5-7 years or so. In those cases you get to see either a character develop or maybe a community or at the least a general theme or two.

  25. Joe57 /

    I guess I am not sure how the marketing and purchasing of short stories is supposed to work. Unless it is a collection of short stories from one author or an anthology, I don’t think I would pay any appreciable amount of money for a single short story. I do read a lot of free short stories and could see how e-books could cause them to gain greater popularity. Buy this author’s book and for an extra dollar get two short stories.

  26. Just realized we never picked a winner here.

    Jo, if you live in the USA, please choose a book from our stacks and send me (Kat) your address. Thanks!

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