The Curious Case of Why Short Story Collections Don’t Sell



by Kyle Massa


“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.





Guest post contributed by Kyle Massa. Kyle writes speculative fiction, blogs, some non-fiction, and the occasional tribute to coffee. 

24 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Why Short Story Collections Don’t Sell

  1. I’m a devoted collector of short story anthologies, single author and anthologies. My most recent purchase was a collection of Frank O’connor stories. I like these collections because I can read one or two before bed without feeling I’ve entered into a long time commitment to stay up all night to finish.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. As a writer of short stories, I appreciate this article. There at times length will kill the story. Pack a lot into few words and keep the reader guessing at what comes next.
    I guess the problem is to find readers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember a prominent author( name forgotten) many years ago commenting that short stories are much harder to write because you can make a lot of mistakes and still have successful novel, but short stories must be well crafted to work. I re-read a lot, both novels and short stories and often the short stories reveal a lot more on a second reading; another reason to buy, not just check out from the library.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. I like writing short stories for the reasons mentioned. I’m a direct person, for the most part. Short stories force me not to dwell on details. You have one chance to hook in readers, so you have to choose your words carefully. I like that challenge.


  4. I tend to avoid reading short stories. I hadn’t really thought about why until I read this post, but I think you got it right. I love novels not because they’re written better, but because they have more content—they devote pages and pages to characters, setting, and plot.

    When I do go looking for short stories, it’s usually because they feature characters I already met (through a novel). I should probably remedy my reading habits if I want to become a truly well-read reader. But novels are so tempting!


  5. I enjoy writing short stories because, as you mentioned, they give you a lot more flexibility to play with form, but I admit, I don’t much care for reading them. For me it’s about the pay-off. I feel like to really invest myself in a piece of fiction I have to want to have a relationship with the characters. I still feel that with a good short story, but then the relationship ends so soon, it ends up feeling like a bad breakup. The exception I make to this is flash fiction, the really short kind, say under 300 words. I LOVE flash because there’s no pressure. It’s just a really well-constructed, clever snapshot. And if it doesn’t meet my expectations, I haven’t invested much of myself anyway.


  6. There seems to be an ever-increasing market for shorter reads as people access material while waiting around. Phones, tablets, laptops, folks seem to gravitate more towards stories that fall into the “short reads” category.

    Etgar Keret (one of my absolute favorite authors) is world famous as strictly a short story author. So too is Amy Hempel. While they may be outliers, I wonder if the continuing expansion of time-killing devices such as phones and tablets, may ultimately increase interest in bite-sized stories.


  7. I loved this! I don’t write the short stories to sell. It’s exactly like you said, exploring other options. Maybe eventually I’ll expand the stories, but right now they are just great practice!


  8. Its a tough pill too swallow, but you certainly make some good points. My blog is devoted to shorts stories and miniseries, and I do believe that there is a community of people out there who want to read good flash fiction. The hardest part of being a short story writer is marketing. I think the problem lies in the fact that when you go scouting for a book, you have time to read a book. Whereas those who would only have time to read a short story normally don’t think they have enough time to find one. Finding a good book is like finally getting the treasure chest on the map. Short stories are seen as a small loot, whereas a novel is a real treasure.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t agree with many of the points here. First off, characterization can be much greater in a short story than in a novel. It’s not about how many pages you use to describe a character, it’s about how real you can describe a character. You can spend five pages writing “John has a blue shirt and red pants and a white hat …”, that will not make a reader feel attached to the character. Second, why would a short story not have the potential for a series? If a short story is well appreciated, there is nothing stopping the author writing more stories with the same characters. It actually happens, just like with novels. Regarding your third point, yes, authors often use collections of short stories to try different styles. And I think that makes it fun. I don’t read a lot of short stories, but most of the ones I do are from my favorite authors exactly for this reason, to see them get out of their comfort zone and try something different.


  10. I love short stories. My favorite book of all time is The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, which is a collection of amazing short stories based on a man’s body art. It is so unique and all the stories are so different. I love a great, deep read, but sometimes also starting a book knowing you are going to get 25 great reads in one is just as gokd, or even better 🙂


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