More Crappy News for Short Story Writers


Mark Trainer publishes an excerpt of a note he received from a “thoughtful, well-respected agent” on his blog.

“I have no confidence in being able to place a collection at this time in the world of publishing. Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian. In the current climate, it is harder to publish even those. Some of the authors I represent have story collections I have not been able to talk their loyal publishers into publishing. I can’t in good conscience encourage you to send them to me. It will just make both of us feel bad. I am very sorry. If you write another novel, I will gladly read it.”

I may be doing a bit of armchair publishing here, but what are the publishing houses thinking?

The form of the short story collection is so uniquely well-suited to the Internet age. A good short story should grab you by the junk and make you yelp in that first line. So should good web copy. A good short story should be no longer than it need be. So should good web copy. I could go on. There are many very important differences between the two types of writing, but the publishing houses could be taking advantage of the similarities to develop a model that could turn a profit.

For example, a publishing house could publish one of the stories online — a story that is particularly well-suited to the Internet —with a link to purchase the book, somehow getting the blogs to link to and excerpt the most exciting few sentences of that story. They could also do trailers like this one at Electric Literature to help build awareness of their product. If something, either a trailer or a story, went viral, they could make a ton of money on advertising, as well as help create a “brand” so people will see the book and buy it in the stores (P.S. the word “brand” makes me want to vomit on the nearest person wearing a suit). Next thing they know, they could have their short story collections next to the zombie books at Urban Outfitters.

I don’t see publishers taking advantage of these possibilities very much at all. Or if they are, they aren’t doing it loudly enough that I, a nearly thirty-year-old nerd with no kids who spends too much money on books (i.e. their target audience), has heard anything about it.

It seems to me that all it would take is a tiny bit of ingenuity to make money off the right short story collection. Why aren’t the publishing houses trying it?

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →