“Short stories are loose change in the treasury of fiction.”
That’s what J.G. Ballard wrote in the introduction to his Complete Short Stories collection. Considering the dwindling attention spans of many readers, you’d think that short stories would be more popular than ever. But when’s the last time you saw someone reading a short story collection? Just like Ballard wrote, it seems short stories are the pennies, nickels, and dimes of literature.
So why don’t short stories sell?
First, I think it’s about the characters. Take a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. Fantasy fans and non-fantasy fans alike revere that series in large part because of the characters. They’re dense, they’re layered, and they evolve over the course of many volumes. In short stories, however, you don’t have hundreds of pages to devote to character development. That’s not to say that short stories don’t have good characters—it’s just that, with such limited space, writers must focus on a few key characteristics rather than many.
Furthermore, I think agents and publishers are less likely to go for collections because they don’t have the potential for a series. This one’s a no brainer: once readers get attached to the first book in a series, you’ve got them locked in to buy the rest. The Harry Potter series, for instance, only got more and more popular with each new release. And once the series ends, publishers can package the whole thing into a box set for even more sales. All told, that’s a heck of a lot of money.
And another thing: authors often use short story collections to explore different styles and genres, which is the opposite of what they do with novels. Another truism of the publishing industry states that once an author makes it big with one book, she/he should pretty much rewrite that story, only make it a little different this time. For readers, this is a good thing; you can pick up a novel by an author you know, and you’ll probably end up liking it.
Short stories don’t necessarily follow that rule, though. Things like second person narrative and interview style, which rarely work in long-form narratives, suddenly spring to life in a short story. Authors also tend to explore subjects they stray away from in their longer fiction. Roald Dahl is a great example. Sure, you know him as the guy who wrote James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But have you ever read his short fiction? Just to get a taste (sorry for the pun), try Lamb to the Slaughter. It’s a clever short that includes murder, adultery, deception, and dinner.
Or, in other words, good fun.
Will short stories ever sell like novels do? Maybe not. Historically, the novel has always been far more popular, and, for the reasons listed above, I can see that trend continuing for a long, long time.
But don’t let that stop you from trying short fiction, if you haven’t already. There’s an elegance to a good short story, a brevity and directness that many novels are missing. Some of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read say much more with far less.
So, for J.G. Ballard’s sake and the sake of short story writers everywhere, always hold on to that loose change.
If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy some of my short stories. Check them out here.