Monday, February 11, 2013

When art butts heads with commerce.

I’ve got one of those stories that sort of works at less than 4,000 words. Yet I know it’s a shitty way to end a story. By keeping it short, I can submit to the most markets, and there aren’t all that many to begin with.*

There is something to be said for the safe, sane, conventional approach—it’s the generally recognized way of doing things. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is kid stuff. I need better motivation, or at least a long and rambling manifesto…right? I don’t feel like writing that for free. (The mark of a real pro. – ed.)

To sell the story for five or ten bucks, and have it archived in perpetuity on a website operated by a perfectly nice person, (which I cheerfully admit,) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. All that does is gratify my vanity, and not much else.

Giving away a big long story that I sweated over for days, just for exposure, again archived for the life of the site, is another option. Exactly how much exposure would I get?

Aren’t I the ruddy great artist guy? Or is it all about the money, then?

Yet the right thing to do is to tease it out to its natural length, because otherwise the first thing that goes is description, and the second thing is characterization. I need the plot, at a minimum, just to get to the end. Otherwise I have no idea of what happens.

This thing is so short it looks like the plot was beheaded, and at the same time, my instinct tells me that to take the basic premise to 60,000-word novel length would be to pad the thing out. Padding for word count isn’t really an option, once there’s nowhere to submit it anyway! And making it novel-sized just for the sake of a given cover price is kind of cheesy as well.

Getting a magazine sale would bring some prestige, some credibility. It would represent cash money, which is always good.

On the other hand, I could write it to its natural length and self-publish it. Say it ends up at 12,000 words. Or 32,000. We’ll call it a novella or novelette, whatever. If I sold five copies a month across a number of retailers, earning $0.60 per sale, then that’s three dollars per month. Over the course of a year, that’s $36.00 in income that I didn’t have before. Okay, after ten years, I’ve earned $360.00 from one short story that was never submitted to anyone. Let’s assume I am competent to edit it, (and I am,) and also assuming I pay nothing for cover images or formatting, (which I won’t.) Is it a good story? This is where the actual ‘talent’ comes into play. Everything else is applied effort, and a certain amount of cost-benefit analysis, (which I can do.)

Do I, ah, have any talent? I guess we’ll never know until we try, right?

Huh. This is fun! I’ve never really looked at it that way.

More than anything, I want my stories to be read. They have a better chance of that happening if they’re being published, rather than sitting on my hard-drive waiting for conditions to be perfect. And conditions, are never perfect.

So this is where art begins to head-butt with commerce. At one cent a word, my story is worth less than forty bucks, as realistically speaking I’m not ready for prime-time just yet. I’ve never made a pro sale, so, ah, why expect one now? Especially with this particular story, which I already admit is kind of truncated?

Here’s another simple equation. If the average turnaround time is two weeks, and you keep getting rejected, you can submit your story twenty-six times in a year, assuming there are that many markets in your genre. Starting at the top first, at some point, and after some time, as you go farther and farther down the list, you are in the ‘for the love’ or exposure markets. At that point, you can give it away for free or self-publish it.

*Noteworthy is the fact that Duotrope, a market listing service, which has an astonishing 4,468 listings or so, is now a paid-membership service. Yeah, if you pay for this service, it’s part of your cost-benefit analysis.

Ralan: at any given time, there are so many pro, so many semipro, so many pay and so many exposure markets. Also at any given time, anything up to one-third or even half might not be accepting submissions, due to the volume of submissions and the limits of each magazine. And some of them require postal submissions. Submitting from Canada to the U.S., this entails a $0.85 U.S. stamp for the self-addressed stamped envelope. Lately, the USPS website won’t let me complete a transaction, as they are ‘experiencing technical difficulties’ which have gone on for weeks now. Also, not all markets are science fiction, fantasy, whatever. Mystery markets seem especially few and far between. I recently wrote a 17,000-word mystery. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine wants no more than 12,000 words. The Strand, which published Conan Doyle all those years ago, requires postal submissions. Crimewave, in the U.K., same thing. I have little choice but to publish that myself as well, assuming I can create a good marketing image.

Next time someone says 'self publishing is the last resort of failed writers,' you can either laugh in their face or smack them around a bit for me. Your choice, but I promise I will be eternally grateful either way.


As for giving stories away, shorter is better, and flash fiction is an art form in itself.

Is it wrong to try and make money from our art?

Why not, all the best ones do. Incidentally, pointing at Vincent van Gogh and mentioning that only one of his works sold in his lifetime is a cop-out. It’s just another excuse. He never sacrificed quality for the sake of a sale, did he? But then he had the dream real bad...

I may be a little stupid, but I’m not that crazy.

Vincent is the one we all remember, isn’t he?


Photo: 'Starry Night Over the Rhone.' Vincent van Gogh. (Public Domain.)


  1. Hey, if it was easy everybody would be doing it. Oh wait - everybody is doing it!
    It's tough to get published. I often thought it might be easier to find the market, check out the submission criteria, and THEN write the story.

  2. If you can bring your story in at 3,000 to 5,000 words, there are definitely more markets for it, rather than 17,000 words. After haunting the listings for a while you sort of get a feel for the markets. Mystery writing is all right, but there are a limited number of paying markets. If I had more ideas, I would write the stories and just keep submitting...there is something to be said for persistence. I've only written a few mystery stories. The key to getting better would be to write a lot of them.


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