One of those questions seemingly subject to endless debate by aspiring writers (and general indifference by established writers) is whether to focus on novels or short stories in building a career. (1) The debate itself assumes that a writing career can be a matter of calculation, which both of us tend to regard as a myth. To answer the question right up front in the most obvious way possible, write what you care about. That's the best advice you'll hear on this topic, and it's where we're going to wind up in this column. Nonetheless, it can be worth the effort to understand the markets.
First of all, let's pin down the numbers themselves. In short fiction, there are four major pro periodical markets currently in print—Analog, Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), and Realms of Fantasy. There are a number of other pro periodical markets of varying strength and promise, ranging from Baen's Universe to Strange Horizons to Interzone. Then there's the anthology market, including the DAW anthologies, various major market one-offs, as well as markets such as Polyphony which verge on pro-ness but don't necessarily meet all the usually understood qualifications (print run, pay rate, circulation, etc.). Extrapolating from numbers presented in the 2005 Book Summary in the February, 2006 issue of Locus, there are about sixty of those anthologies per year. (2)
To do a tiny bit of math:
|Market||Stories per Year (approx.)|
|Realms of Fantasy||36|
|Other pro markets||120|
|60 anthologies at 15 stories each||900|
|Total professional short stories||~= 1,300|
While it is a very loosely calculated total, let us call it 1,300 pro short stories in 2005 in speculative fiction, give or take a few, and depending which markets are counted.
On the novel side, again using February's Locus as a guideline, there were 591 books included in their "Total Books Published by SF Imprint" chart. Locus separately lists 89 anthologies published, a number broken down from a larger superset that refers to SF, F, horror, art books and other categories. Figuring that 60 of those were part of the number of total books previously cited, we can cut the total of 591 down to 531.
So call it 530 pro novels per year, with a similar allowance for give or take.
Given those numbers, what path should an aspiring writer follow?
The first and most obvious answer is that the publishing process is not especially suited to being gamed. This is not a business of odds or probability. This is a business of quality and productivity and—sometimes—sheer dumb luck. Still, understanding what you're facing in the publishing process can be educational, and ought to be encouraging. Write what you want to write, whether that's short fiction or long, and send it out into the world.
That being said, let's look at the numbers a bit more. Polyphony 6 has 24 short stories in its table of contents. Wheatland Press saw approximately 500 submissions for those 24 slots. Taking a ratio, that's about one acceptance for every 21 submissions. In the case of the major digests, the numbers run longer. Jed Hartman anecdotally cites a number of 500-800 submissions per month (3), from which six stories are bought. That's one story for every 100 submissions, roughly. That would seem to be close to the high end of the scale.
Picking a middle ground, we might presume that there were at least 40 submissions for every one of the 1,300 short stories which were published in 2005.
On the novel side, Tor Books receives between 12,000 and 15,000 unsolicited submissions per year for the genre and general book lines, exclusive of romance. (4) According to a sample shipping schedule on their Web site (5), Tor drops approximately 10-12 original titles per month in genre (presuming that hardbacks which later drop as paperback editions are only counted once). So if you cut the unsolicited submissions in half to restrict it to genre books, that's 7,000 submissions per year for 120 published books per year. To complicate matters, many of those books were solicited, being books by established Tor authors, or represented by agents rather than sent through the slush—we'll momentarily ignore that factor for this discussion.
That gives us a ratio of about 60 submissions for every novel Tor published in fantasy and science fiction. For the sake of argument, we'll assume that number holds up for the other major genre imprints.
Those are some very frightening numbers.
Do not lose heart.
Understanding the market is a key element of knowing where and how to submit your work for publication. And these numbers are daunting. Even if a number of the assumptions in these calculations are misplaced—we don't have authoritative, detailed data—the orders of magnitude are not.
But the road to publication does not follow the numbers. The road to publication follows passion. Because what those numbers don't reveal is which of those stories and novels were good. As the Tor FAQ says:
The question that puzzles us the most is, "What are the odds of getting published by Tor?" That is, what is our ratio of acceptance to rejection for manuscripts in our slush pile?
Answer: for very good books, the odds are excellent. For books we don't like, the odds are abysmal. No other measurement is meaningful. If we have a month in which we don't see any manuscripts we like, we don't buy manuscripts we dislike just to keep up our acquisition rate.
If you absolutely have to have a rough estimate of our rejection rate, the answer is that we reject most of them. But look at it this way: if you don't send us your manuscript, the odds that we'll publish it approach absolute zero. It's your call. (6)
It's certainly the case that the Polyphony slush pile winnows submissions in much the same way. For very good stories, the odds of being accepted are excellent. For stories we don't like, the odds are abysmal. The slush pile shakes out very quickly from 500 to 50 or less, and from there we make our choices. Any other market works the same way.
There are other factors that feed in to the question of whether to try to build a career on short stories or novels. For example, the effort/feedback/reward cycle to short fiction is very different from novels. You can write a story in a weekend, send it out to a market with a response within a month or two or three. Meanwhile, you've written a handful more stories and sent them out in turn. That's more and more opportunities to practice your craft, perfect your art, and push your name into the marketplace. Compare that with the six months, year, two, three, or more it takes to write a novel, as well as the similar time frame (or longer) it takes for your unsolicited manuscript to work its way through a slush pile at a major house. Assuming the publisher you are targeting will even look at unsolicited and unagented manuscripts.
Believe it or not, while we find these numbers daunting, we don't find them discouraging. Publishing is a meritocracy. Not necessarily a just meritocracy, but quality will out in the end. And quality arises from the passion and commitment reflected in the work.
There are always exceptions to statistics. But it might make you a tad more realistic in your expectations if you know the statistics.
But what it come down to is this: if you are passionate about short fiction, write short fiction. If you're passionate about novels, write novels. The passion will show through, in the glittering edges and glowing heart of your story. That's when the numbers stop mattering and the story captures an editor, and then readers.
- Jay recently conducted an analysis of award distribution with respect to publishing density, which prompted us to explore this line of thought. See http://jaylake.livejournal.com/691363.html and http://jaylake.livejournal.com/692692.html. [back]
- In the interests of full disclosure, one or both of us have sold to all these markets mentioned, except for Analog, and Polyphony, of which Jay is the co-editor. [back]
- http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2004/04/21/1976.html. [back]
- http://alg.livejournal.com/75477.html. [back]
- http://www.tor.com/scheduletor.html. [back]
- The Tor Books FAQ. [back]
- http://www.tor.com/scheduletor.html. [back]