Guest Post, Colleen Stinchcombe: Are Short Stories the Future of Publishing?

Enter a commercial bookstore – say, Barnes and Noble – and take a look at the display sections. Likely what you will find are different novel-length books, be it fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, or young adult. Enter the shelves and, if you search a little, you will be able to find collections of short stories by some particularly well-known authors, or maybe an entire section devoted to short-story form. For many amateur writers there is a sense that one starts writing short stories only to better understand the structure of a story, but “real writing,” successful writing, involves novels. Short stories are a way of getting one’s name known to better sell a novel later, or a way of generating ideas and themes that will eventually show up in a later novel.

This is not to say that short stories are not an often-used form, but rather that they are not marketed or praised with as much enthusiasm as novels. Book clubs, college essays, even library shelves are more likely to be promoting novels than short fiction.

Is that still true? There are thousands of literary magazines with focus on short stories across the country, and MFA Creative Writing programs are bursting at the seams with hopeful writers – most who are learning to write short stories as their primary craft. Almost three weeks ago, Junot Diaz, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel released not another novel but a book of short stories. It is currently fifth on the New York Times Bestseller list for hardcovers. A book of short stories selling well to the general public.

Other writers are taking this risk as well. Emma Donaghue was a finalist for the Man Booker prize for her best-selling novel Room, and recently she released a collection of short stories named Astray. No longer are short stories something authors do until they can get a book deal – now the short stories are book deals in themselves.

Olive Kitteridge is a best-selling “novel in stories” by Elizabeth Strout – a marketing tool that has been popular lately. Is it a collection of short stories with a central character, or is it a novel separated into different stories? Likely, in the interest of a more mainstream readership, the publisher decided to market it as a novel.

For many readers, short stories are a form used only for convenience in classroom settings or slipped into magazines they were already reading, but this is beginning to change. The market is finding more and more value in short stories and the public is beginning to recognize and buy these collections. Is their smaller form easier to finish in our busy-bee lifestyles? Are they better suited to our oft-thought shrinking attention spans? Is it a result of a plethora of talented short story artists coming out of MFA programs? Or perhaps the many different places to find short stories – literary magazines, collections of prize-winners, e-books, online?

The makeup and background of literature is changing, from MFA programs to e-books. It will be interesting to see if novels soon become less ubiquitous and short stories more popular and accessible. In a few more years, will bookstores be selling out of popular short story collections more often than popular novels?

15 thoughts on “Guest Post, Colleen Stinchcombe: Are Short Stories the Future of Publishing?

  • November 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    I like what you have to say about short stories and it is interesting to see how it is changing the way a novel presents itself. Recently, the publishing industry has changed drastically as technology allows room for different approaches. I believe the question of how well short stories sell in a novel format is similar to how well e-books sell to readers. We know the reader who prefers the paper smell and the gratification of seeing the bookmark progress through the novel. Or there are readers who like the e-book because they can carry several books at once. The question lies in what will people be willing to read. I think time will tell just as more readers have grown to see the benefit to e-books. Also, we could point out that those who are selling their short stories as novels are usually accomplished writers and the publisher is willing to take a chance. After these writers have pave the way, I think more unfamiliar writers will find their recognition through this form of publishing. It would be interesting to watch it evolve.

  • November 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    I’ve been meaning to purchase and read Room ever since I saw the title and brief summary in a magazine from two years ago! I’ll have to add Ashtray to the list.

    I think that the novel will still be just as popular as a collection of short stories will be in the future. In our creative writing classes, I agree with you that we learn how to write short stories to study structure and conventions, but if there was more time and less students, I’m sure many people would like to workshop novels. I remember in elementary school when I was just discovering my passion for writing, all I wanted to write were novels. Now, I’m not sure! I tend to start one novel after another without finishing the previous one; I usually write a chapter or two.

    Do you think it’s harder to write a novel or a collection of short stories?

  • November 12, 2012 at 5:47 am

    I would like to see some change of short stories coming from classrooms and review magazines to be more popular like novels. The day they will get the same recognition, i will be happy

  • November 12, 2012 at 8:01 am

    I think that the novel is getting a little “nudge over” from the short story collection because readers are becoming as diverse as the marketplace. Also, with less time for reading, shoppers might want the more artistic effect of a short story to fill their time and their mind. I take it as a good sign for the whole market.

  • November 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Great blog post. At Press 53, we made a decision last November to focus only on publishing poetry and short story collections, while leaving the novels and memoirs to the other presses. And we are growing. We just celebrated our seventh anniversary and our 100th title, 40 of which are short story collections. Thanks to the Internet, small presses like ours, and readers who love short stories, are no longer dependent on brick-and-mortar bookstores, and their limited choices. There has always been a sizable chunk of the reading public who love short stories, but finding story collections was a challenge. Short stories are not gaining in popularity today because our time is limited, they are gaining because readers are finding more collections available through the Internet and are discovering the powerful reading experience that can take place in only a few pages. And those readers, unlike readers who prefer novels, revisit the publisher again and again to discover new voices and new experiences. I believe there has always been an audience for short stories, but today the audience is no longer being ignored.

    • November 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      We completely agree! Hopefully bookstores will catch on to this short story popularity and begin selling printed collections of short stories. One can only hope…

  • November 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

    It is true after all that in MFA programs and undergrad creative writing programs, we focus almost solely on short stories. It could be that the market is changing because of authors’ formation in universities, or I suppose it could also be that the creative writing programs responded to the changing trends in the market. Either way, the short story form has its benefits!

  • November 14, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Great post Colleen, it will be interesting to see what happens with the future of books and whether overall more short stories come in to play.

    Also, it’s interesting to see was happening with the introduction of Kindle and EPUB.

    I just had a lengthy conversation with a client of mine who helps authors take their manuscripts and does all the processes of creating a hard copy book and EPUB Kindle and all electronic versions.

    I think the art of reading should be more pronounced in our society as one of the systems I use as a Calgary Marketing Company is that I tell my clients. They should be reading 15 to 30 minutes every single day as a system and process. Because overall I find that the majority of people I talk to don’t read, which is something that I find to be astounding.

    Reading can transport you to anywhere in the world and can educate you on almost any subject. What a joy it is to read stories that transport me to faraway world or lands or teach me what it means to be a leader and a great father.

    Once again calling. Great post. I hope you don’t mind if I send a bunch of traffic to your blog by creating link backs.

  • February 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    I love the fact that people are finally realizing that novels are not the only form of writing out there, and that short stories can be just as good if not better. However, I just love the fact that people are reading, be it short stories, novels, magazines, anything! Reading has the ability to take you anywhere in the universe, and to any time, so whether they choose to read 500 pages or 50, at least it’s something!

  • October 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    It does seem that novels get more attention than short stories, and it’s nice to see short stories getting the attention they deserve. On top of that, it seems like you can’t publish a novel unless it’s extremely long. At least that’s what I’ve observed while browsing the books at Barnes & Noble, especially in the Science-Fiction and Fantasy section.

  • October 19, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Very interesting! I wonder if it also has to do with people’s shortening attention span. It can be really fun to read a short story and feel extremely accomplished! I also really enjoy writing short stories, so this works out well for me.

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