Lawrence Block on the Renaissance of the Short Story

Over on his blog the great Lawrence Block is talking about short stories. He thinks that ebooks might be the salvation of the form. If you’re interested in the short story I urge you to go ahead and read what he has to say. Block is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living writers and the very definition of what it means to be a professional. What he has to say is always worth hearing. I’ll still be here when you get back.

When I was starting out a quarter of a century ago, I wrote a lot of short stories, maybe 40 in about two years. There were a lot of reasons for this. Writing novels was intimidating. Writing short stories was much more manageable. Believe it or not, there was a time when I struggled to finish anything over 2000 words.

Magazines were accessible. Their contact details were right there on the editorial page and they positively encouraged you to submit. And hey, I read those magazines anyway so I could not help but notice. I saw people my own age, without any previously published work, breaking into print in Interzone and I thought maybe I could do the same.Trying this was a lot less daunting than submitting a book to a publisher. I did not even know where to find those. In the days before the Internet this sort of information was harder to get hold of. I never even knew that books containing this stuff existed.

You could write short stories quickly, sometimes at a sitting, and you did not need to have a grasp of the complex architectural process a novel demands. One of the common career paths for SF writers of my generation was to get some attention for your short stories and then sell a novel. It worked too. I can remember talking to editors at conventions who had a vague idea of who I was because of the short stories I had written. Eventually short stories got me a gig writing for Games Workshop.

Over time I drifted into writing novels. They paid more money up front and more to the point, there was a chance, just a chance, that they would stick around. Back in the day, when you wrote a short story, it appeared and it vanished. If you were lucky it might be reprinted somewhere in a Best Of anthology (I had this good fortune a couple of times with my first published story) or in a collection of your own shorter work. In general though you sent a short story out into the world and it sank without trace. A book could, if you were lucky, stick around for longer. If you don’t believe me, go read George RR Martin’s introduction to his collection Dreamsongs. In it he talks about how many of his short stories simply disappeared after the first printing. And in a world where that could happen to Mr Martin what chance do your stories have or mine?

I am not saying I stopped writing short stories.  If I had an idea I really liked for one I would sit down and write. If someone asked me to write a short story for a magazine or an anthology I would do that too, but it was hard to motivate myself to write short stories when the path to fame, fortune and even solvency was lined with novels. There was once a time when F. Scott Fitzgerald could support himself while writing The Great Gatsby by dashing off shorts for the Saturday Evening Post. Our age was not like that. If you wanted to be a professional writer, it was pretty much novels or nothing.

Ebooks may change that as Lawrence Block points out. One of the pleasant surprises of the last month has been how well my short story Guardian of the Dawn has sold. (91 copies in a calendar month.) Quite honestly when I first noticed this trend, my jaw dropped. As LB points out, you only earn 35 cents a story so it’s a very slow way of getting rich, but, as he also mentions, that is not the point. If this trend continues the Guardian of the Dawn will earn me 30 dollars each and every month. That one short story I wrote 7 years ago,if it keeps on selling, potentially represents $360 a year for the rest of my life. Now I realise that’s a lot of big ifs but again if it sold 10% of that it represents $36 a year for quite some time.

It’s a game changer in terms of the economics of writing short stories. So far in this second month, sales of Guardian are holding up and sales of The Graveyard Night are following a similar pattern. If this trend keeps up, the financial disincentive of the vanishing short story has, well, vanished. And short stories still have all of their old advantages. They are fun and they are a great place to try out new ideas for things like series. (Gotrek and Felix were born in short story form and stayed alive in it for a decade, one way or another.) Guardian of the Dawn just got a five star review over on from someone who said he would like to see more stories about this character and the sales would seem to bear out that there is an audience for Kormak. That being the case, I have started work on a second story The Stealer of Flesh and we’ll see how that does when it comes out.

Some of my favourite sword and sorcery series started out in short story form: Kull, Conan, Kane, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Imaro…the list goes on and on and on. Who knows — maybe some new heroes will emerge in this new age of publishing. I certainly hope so.

4 Replies to “Lawrence Block on the Renaissance of the Short Story”

  1. Interesting. I am finding the same thing with “The Smell of Magic” a story I published in Realms of Fantasy in 2004 selling 118 copies last month. I had originally only put up some short stories separately as a teaser for the collection of stories, but the shorts seem to be outselling the collection itself.


    1. That is absolutely brilliant about the sales, Mike. Hopefully this is the start of a trend. I was genuinely surprised to find there was a market for short stories at all. I expected to sell a few copies a month. I figured it would be worth doing for the Long Tail sales. I was really taken off-guard by how well things have gone.

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