One of the criticisms of the digital book market is that it puts pressure on authors to constantly churn out new material: that on top of the ‘book a year’ demands of mainstream publishers, authors are now expected to produce digital-only short stories to keep their profile high and, of course, bring in extra income. (Although these are generally priced very low, for writers as popular as Tess Gerritsen and Lee Child – both of whom have successfully embraced this model – a lot of 99p sales soon add up). Short stories are now often used as ‘promos’ for new novels, either priced low or given away free in the weeks before a novel is published (a strategy used by Marcia Clark, for her Rachel Knight novels).
My reaction to this trend – both as a fan and a writer – is a positive one, and I must admit my sympathy for those professional writers complaining about this ‘punishing’ regime is, well, zero. For a start, it’s not exactly new: most novelists will regularly produce content for magazines and anthologies (just look at the Terry Pratchett book, A Blink of the Screen, a collection of his writings that brings together pieces from a surprisingly diverse range of sources). While some writers eventually have enough of this material to be compiled into standalone publications (Kelley Armstrong and Jim Butcher being good examples of this), often this isn’t the case, and fans either have to shell out for anthologies they may not be that interested in or simply miss out on stories by their favourite authors.
Digital has changed all that. New stories can be released as standalone pieces, and old stories that would have been buried in the archives of long-defunct magazines and publishers are now getting new life as digital-only releases. I was recently delighted when I discovered that the Lawrence Block’s ‘Burglar’ series – which the author stopped writing years ago – had a whole series of related short stories that had been published in print magazines over the years now all made available for less than a quid.
As an author, I have also enthusiastically embraced the trend. I had always planned to put out one Dark Dates book a year, but in the gap between the novels, when a couple of ideas for stories occurred to me, I published them as standalone stories. The benefits were multiple: readers got a chance to catch up with characters they had already become fond of, sometimes in very different settings that those of the novel; it was an opportunity to explore relationships that weren’t filtered through the subjective lens of Dark Dates’ first person narrator, Cass, and it helped create a steady stream of reviews and interactions, which helped feed the promotional machine which is so much part of today’s indie publishing world. Later, such a mechanism provided a useful stopgap when I realised I was behind on my schedule: last year a series of personal catastrophes meant I knew there was no way I would get another full length novel out on time, so I wrote a longer short story to, hopefully, keep readers interested in the interim between books.
Considering doing the same? Here are some tips:
Short, but not too short: If you’re selling a story as a standalone, it needs to be a reasonable length so buyers don’t feel shortchanged: if it’s only 1,000-3,000 words of so you may be better off just putting it on your website or as a blog post.
Expand your world: If you’re writing as part of a series, this is your chance to really have some fun with the world you created. Write about side characters, delve into backstories, play with perspective (Jim Butcher has done this well: his Dresden Files story narrated by Harry’s brother, Thomas, is a great twist on his usual style and we get the fun of seeing a narrator through someone else’s eyes).
Price it low: Even very successful authors can’t really charge more than a couple of quid for a short story, so you’re best keeping your price point low. If you’re publishing on Kindle, consider doing a free promotion to get attention for your other books.
Have realistic expectations: Lots of people don’t like short stories, and even when they do, reviews can be less enthusiastic than those for a full length piece. Don’t get hung up on this, or it’ll put you off!
Compile them! Once you have a few standalones, you can put these together as one product – this is particularly useful if you’re moving from digital to print. I did this with my three short stories (admittedly, one of these was more of a novella, so combined the book was a decent length) and it was well-received by readers who prefer print books.
You can check out my series here.