What Readers Want – On Short Story Collections

what readers want logoAs an author, do you ever struggle with a decision about your book and wonder, “What would a reader say?” You probably aren’t the first author to wonder about that same thing. Indies Unlimited has two reviewers on our staff, the fabulous Cathy Speight and venerable Mr. BigAl, who are here representing readers. In this series, we’ll pose your questions to them for their take and encourage other readers to weigh in with their thoughts.

First the question from the author:

Do readers like short story collections by the same author? How long should they be?

Yes and no. Or maybe my answer should be that this is the wrong question (actually questions) to ask. My friend, Mike Crane, has written some fabulous short stories. (I especially recommend his collection called In Decline.) But he’ll tell you that the short story market is tough. Compare the overall Amazon sales ranks of the top selling short story collections and anthologies to the top selling novels and you’ll come to the conclusion that readers prefer novels. So the first unasked question should be: do readers like short stories, whether bundled together or not? Obviously some do, but the majority either don’t like them or at least buy and read them infrequently.

None of that means you shouldn’t write or publish short stories though. Only that you should recognize the market for them is relatively small. Just like you shouldn’t refrain from writing the novel combining dino-porn and regency romance, if that’s the story aching to get out. For all you know, it could turn into the next Fifty Shades.

Which leads me to the next unasked question (but possibly implied) of whether it is preferable to have your short story in an anthology with other authors or as part of a collection of short stories all written by you. There is no reason you can’t do both, assuming the anthology is willing to accept a previously published story or, if it comes first, you’re allowed to republish it in a collection of your own. Each of these story bundles is aimed at a slightly different market. While you’d promote either to your current readers, the goal as I see it is different. The collection (a bundle of short stories by one author) is aimed at satisfying the demand for your writing from your readers, past, present, and future. The anthology (a bundle of stories by multiple authors) is aimed at converting the fans of other authors into fans of yours.

As for length of a collection, I think the ideal length is in the range of a long novella or a short novel. Say 30,000 to 60,000 words. A collection of this length can be priced like a novel, has enough to it that a reader doesn’t feel like it was over as soon as they started reading, yet doesn’t stretch on too far. This assumes the individual stories are at least a couple thousand words each with some more toward the top of the short story range for length (7-10,000 words, depending on who is defining it). For flash fiction or a collection of ultra-short works, my answer would be different.

If you have a question you’d like considered for our “What Readers Want” series, drop us a line by using the contact form. Please put “What Readers Want” as the subject line. Cathy and BigAl will choose from the questions submitted for future posts. Please make sure to let us know if you want to remain anonymous. If you’re lucky, they’ll both answer your question. Maybe they’ll even agree with each other.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

20 thoughts on “What Readers Want – On Short Story Collections”

  1. That was a really good read. I’m enjoying these “short story” posts. Great stuff Big Al!

  2. Thanks for the info Big Al. I’ve been pondering this very issue. I’m working on a collection of philosophical nonfiction essays. I’ve written 21 essays with a totalword count of a little over 36,000 words. I have an outline of more than 60 essays in this series and I want to turn this into several volumes. I’ve been trying to decide the optimum length for the first volume. I’m traditionally published so far with an agent, but I am planning to self publish this – with my agent’s approval as she doesn’t think she can sell it and I want to explore the self publishing world. I’m about to choose between several offers and sign a contract to write my 3rd trad-published book. I was hoping to get this collection out there before I have to focus on this other book but don’t want to rush it out prematurely and too short. I’d appreciate any advice you can give me.

    1. It seems to me as though you’re on the low end of a reasonable range with what you have Richard. If the other essays are going to be about the same length on average the 60 you’ve sketched out would seem to fill out 3 more volumes of about the same length, right? If you put the first volume out soon you’d be in a position to test the market and see what the reaction to it is while your’e working on your unrelated project.

      My theory about reading short, whether individual stories or the next story in a collection or anthology is that some readers consume them differently, reading a single story when they only have a short amount of time. A collection that would feel too short as a novel is more likely to seem okay when consumed in bites, if that makes sense.

  3. I agree: Great stuff, Big Al!

    Anthologies and collections of all kinds are popular now–but the short-story market has always proved a tough one. Still, I hope that won’t keep anyone from exploring the medium. Short stories cannot be measured by the number of words alone, but rather by the power of the piece.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Linda. One thing I didn’t mention is that I think how short works are obtained is changing because ebooks make any length practical where it wasn’t in the paper world. In the past the short story market was largely magazines . I’d guess that market is contracting, but now the author has other choices.

  4. Timely post, BigAl,

    As it happens, I have a collection of short and micro stories I put together and shelved last year. Might dust them off and take another look. Some of them may actually be readable.

    Possibly. 🙂

  5. Excellent post, thank you! It’s a tough market, but I chose to put out a collection regardless, so I could have something different on my list. No dino porn, though. 😉

  6. I have two short collections out. But maybe TOO short. Just 3 stories each, maybe 4500-5000 words each collection. Yeah, too short. They keep getting passed over by my favourite reviewer… 😀

    1. I have no clue who your favorite reviewer might be, Julie, but if he or she reviews shorter works, there is always a chance. 🙂

      I know that from a reviewer’s standpoint, collections of shorts, no matter how long the collection, as well as stand alone short stories, have some positives and some negatives. One of the big positives is that if the reviewer has a blog or website it requires less reading time than a novel for the same amount of content (1 review) on their site. However, reviewing shorter works is sometimes harder (not nearly as much to say) and collections are often a challenge to review as well. Coincidentally, I already have a short collection you’re aware of on my Kindle to read. 🙂

  7. Good post. I think short stories are a tough sell because they’re a smaller market. Still, I really like the idea of having a short story that’s part of your own collection as well as being part of a collection with other authors. That same story getting double exposure is great.

    1. Thanks, RJ. While outside of the original question, your comment started me thinking about short stories in general. Someone with an ongoing series could write short stories in the same story world which would keep the series in front of fans and continue to whet their appetite for more. Do enough of those and then they could be combined into a single volume. More product = more entry points and means of exposure. In fact, I Melinda Clayton has done this with her Cedar Hollow series. Maybe she should write a post. 🙂

  8. Well now, BigAl,
    You’ve done it again, piques my interest.

    I’m in the middle of publishing a series of crime novels, each of which takes about a year to produce. During the editing process, I often discard short cases that focus on the minor characters in the crime team. I was thinking of posting them individually on my website to keep the series fresh in the minds of the readers.

    I’m now considering putting them together in one collection. Again, the rider being whether the stories stand up as interesting in their own right. We’ll see.

    One of the challenges of being an indie writer, is realising that not everything we write is of publishable quality. Trad authors have the filtering system of agent and publisher–we don’t.

    I’m not conceited/confident enough to think that I should publish everything, although I did compile a rather interesting shopping list the other day. Hmmmm, wonder what I should do with that one?

    1. “Trad authors have the filtering system of agent and publisher–we don’t.”

      And now you’ve done the same for me, KJD and got me thinking. 🙂

      Several considerations come to mind that I think are pertinent while you’re mulling this over. Some of them contradictory.

      First I’m going to address the line I quoted above. My belief is that an indie author’s goal should be to always be aiming to have products that are as good or better than what the traditional publishers are putting out. Sometimes, for some authors, the way to do that is to use many of the same processes as the trad pubs do, sometimes not. In this case, you’re the publisher and there is no agent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t find someone, probably a small group of trusted readers who aren’t afraid to tell you a story isn’t up to standards, whether a novel or a short story. If they don’t tell you a story doesn’t cut it, the market will, but at the risk of doing damage to your brand.

      The kind of story you mention, short stories with cases that focus on minor characters, is exactly the kind of story I was picturing. My idea is to release them between novels and eventually bundle them together. The purpose is two-fold. One, keep your readers interested and engaged in your world and two, increased discoverability due to more titles being available. Putting the story on your website does the first, at least for those who visit your website. Another possibility is to send them to those who sign up for your newsletter and letting them know to expect that as an inducement to sign up. But nothing says you couldn’t also release them as stand alones at the retailers. They wouldn’t be eligible for KDP Select, so you’d want to price them at 99 cents or maybe even try to get them set as permafree.

      1. Hi BigAl,
        Fancy being my agent? 🙂
        Seriously though, you’re dead right. For my last book, I sent the penultimate draft out to six beta readers. Five said it was great (a couple even raved about it), but the sixth said it was tosh. Better still, he told me why it was tosh.
        You know what? It actually was tosh, but I fixed it and now I reckon it’s … well, adequate. (Don’t like blowing my own trumpet – it’s an Irish thing).
        As for the short stories, I’m definitely going to take your advice and publish the better ones on my website, and eventually put them together in a collection.
        Finally, I always, always, always, try to produce the best damned writing I possibly can, that’s the first and last thing. Whether they’re good enough … (there I go again).

        Cheers, mate.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: