This is one of those gems of publishing wisdom that rarely gets tested. Short story collections are believed not to sell, so they don't get published, which means they cannot sell (since readers obviously can't buy something that does not exist in book form). A self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words. But with a new way of bringing short stories to readers as e-books, maybe it's time to think again?
In theory, readers will enjoy any story that obeys this simple rule discovered in our local library:
Despite the popular concept of an "overnight success", authors seldom emerge on the publishing scene with a best-selling novel. It takes time to write something other people might want to read. It takes even more time to write a book a million others might want to read. In fact, it takes a surprising amount of time to write a novel nobody wants to read. That is why many writers cut their teeth on short fiction. Not that it’s easier to write a short story than a novel… far from it. You still need "a good beginning and a good end and a good bit in the middle", yet you've got less words to play with, so it can actually be harder to write. But it probably won’t take a year out of your life if you feel like trying. Many of these early short pieces will be learning experiences, but some will be publishable, and provided they obey the rule above those stories will sell.
A confession: when I started writing for publication, short stories were the ONLY thing I could sell. I was sending my early novels to publishers and agents at the same time, but managed to place around 50 short stories before I sold my first novel. Granted some of those short story “sales” were only free copies of the magazine in which they appeared. Others were token payments of around £10 or so. A few were competition winners (I think my biggest win netted me £500 – that story was published in a paperback anthology called Raconteur alongside stories by James Herriot and William Boyd... my early claim to fame!) I also sold a few non-genre stories to women’s magazines for three figure sums. Not too bad, really, considering the advance for my first novel was in the (very) low four figures. As far as I was concerned in those days, short stories did sell.
So “sales” from an author’s point of view is clearly something different from a publisher’s “sales”, which seems to mean number of copies sold regardless of how much actual profit is made from each book. But your publisher’s sales are the important figures once you sign a publishing contract, since these define your income in the long run (assuming you have a royalty agreement and are not working for a flat fee). So we should probably define "sell" in the above statement as “copies sold”, rather than a cash sum from the sale of first serial rights to a magazine, or prize money in a competition.
Of course, what publishers really mean by the above statement is “short stories do not sell as well as a novel by the same author.” I’ve read collections of short fiction by writers such as David Almond and Ursula Le Guin, so obviously they must sell in some sort of numbers. But a short story and a novel are not the same animal. A best-selling novelist is rarely an award-winning short story writer, and vice versa, so I can believe the figures for short stories and novels might differ. Since short story collections by authors with smaller novel sales are not usually published at all, might our saying really mean: “A collection of short stories by a best-selling novelist does not sell as many copies as a new novel by the same author?” Very likely true!
From an author's viewpoint, I would naturally prefer to publish a book that has a chance of selling more copies than the last one, not one saddled from the start with such a doom-laden prophecy as “short stories do not sell”. That’s why my own collection of short fiction has sat dormant in my files for several years. I briefly considered a print-on-demand edition for my fans, but shelved that idea because the price of each book would have been too high for all but the most dedicated collectors of my work. But with e-books I now have an affordable way of bringing my short fiction collection to readers. This also gives us a perfect opportunity to test this perceived gem of publishing wisdom. I have already published one of my novels as an e-book. If I now publish my short story collection and make it available at the same price on the same virtual shelf with the same amount of (tiny) publicity, I should be able to conduct an interesting experiment. Here it is...
I'll monitor the e-sales of my novel and the e-sales of my short story collection over the next few months and supply you with some figures. Yes, I realize this will just be me, a sample of one, not even "8 out of 10 authors". I might be the writer who breaks all the rules and proves to be the exception (one way or another). But other writers on this blog also have short story collections published alongside their novels, so maybe they will be able to supply some relative figures, too? I suspect publishers are absolutely correct, and my short story sales will turn out to be smaller than my novel sales. How much smaller, though? Time will tell.
Short story collection: Death Singer and other fantasy tales