Short-Sighted: Big Success on a Small Scale Bruce Holland Rogers
This is an unusual column for Bruce, dealing with the writing life rather than specific techniques and forms. If you’d like to read his previous columns, you can find a complete list on his author page.
This month, I want to take a break from examining the forms of flash fiction and consider another aspect of flash entirely: the career aspect. What would it mean to have a successful career in flash fiction?
As readers of my essays in Word Work will know, I’m wary of any definition of success that makes money the sole measure. There are many different ways to be a successful artist, and certainly one standard is to have created some work that feels to the artist like a good, durable legacy. By this measure, Harper Lee was a successful novelist even though she wrote only one novel. To Kill a Mockingbird will go on being read and treasured far into the future. On a more modest scale, I feel that some of my short-short stories already constitute a good, durable legacy. “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” “Tiny Bells,” “Dinosaur,” “The Frog Prince,” “Halcyon Night” and others are stories that I think will continue to speak for me, will continue be read and valued, long after Bruce Holland Rogers is so much ash and vapor. Readers for those stories may not number in the thousands, but this sort of success is measured one reader at a time.
It is also true that I crave the trappings of success as more conventionally defined. I’d like more money. I’d like more fame. To me, money translates into the freedom to write more, read more, and wander the world looking for stories. As for fame, I do have an ego. It doesn’t happen often, but feels great when a stranger recognizes my byline. And when I’m wandering the world looking for stories, even a little bit of fame helps to open doors. I can more easily snoop in whatever odd corner I suspect might contain a story idea if the guardian of that corner has heard of me.
For novelists, the path to conventional success is familiar enough. In short, the successful novelist writes book after book, amasses a large and growing base of readers, whose book purchases through conventional publishers bring the writer a steady stream of royalties. Simple enough to describe, this sort of success is hard to achieve. It used to be that a great many midlist writers made careers by producing one modestly selling novel after another. In an era when even the best-known publishing houses were small — often owned by the same family for generations — some publishers counted their profits in a combination of money, prestige, and the satisfaction of bringing worthy books to readers.
At the best of times, the money for midlist novelists wasn’t great. They struggled while a few bestselling novelists feasted. James Michener once observed, “You can’t make a living [writing fiction], but you can make a killing.” But when Michener said this, he was exaggerating. A good number of novelists did make a living without ever cracking the bestseller lists. Then thirty years ago, the publishing world began to change. Publishing houses grew by buying up other publishing houses. Mass media conglomerates gobbled up these consolidated publishers, and eventually most of the book trade was in the hands of six or seven massive companies. Each company might publish books under a dozen different imprints, but the editors of each imprint were steered toward a profit-maximizing business model. Since bestsellers were the most profitable titles, the directive from the corporate leadership was this: Publish only bestsellers.
If the Michener quote exaggerated the plight of most novelists twenty or thirty years ago, it has become brutally accurate. Publishers see first and second novels as opportunities for writers to demonstrate that they can write bestsellers. If in two books the writer doesn’t show sales numbers that at least show a trend in the direction of an eventual blockbuster, the publisher won’t be likely to pick up the writer’s third book. Novel writing is an “up or out” business these days, and with vanishingly rare exceptions, there isn’t room for a midlist career.
This model of the big first novel and the bigger second novel drives the talk you’ll hear from agents and editors about publicity, self-promotion, and “platform.” When decision makers consider a manuscript, they also consider the writer as a commodity. Will she be able to get press coverage? Is she at least as good at self-promotion as she is at writing? Does she have an existing platform from which to reach potential book buyers? The ideal first-time author has both a good book and the platform that comes with already being famous for something else. A writer who isn’t already well-known at least in her home city has no platform and will have a harder time getting the attention of book buyers.
A successful novel career is hard to launch, and getting harder. So what hope is there for a writer who specializes in short-short stories? The only obvious advantage for writers of short fiction is that we get to sell our work twice, first to magazines and then collected in a book. However, selling twice is no real advantage when the payment each time is a pittance.
I once sold a short-short story to Good Housekeeping for $1,500. I have sold fewer than a dozen short-shorts to The Sun for $300 or so apiece. If my pay rate were always in that range, I’d make a modest living from magazine sales. I could have something like the income of the dying breed of midlist novelists. However, those rates are exceptional. My stories in the Vestal Review have earned about $15 each, and I sometimes publish in good literary magazines that pay me only in copies. At least the publication credit helps me sell the story collection.
Not that the story collection is going to pay the rent. Almost all collections are printed by small presses. Large publishers avoid story collections because, compared to novels, they don’t sell. Even the story collections of best-selling novelists perform poorly, comparatively. So my collections have been brought out by small presses with modest distribution. The advance for The Keyhole Opera, a collection that won the World Fantasy Award, brought me less than a thousand dollars. Some of my other collections received no advance at all and thin trickles of royalties.
If the foregoing were the end of the story, then it would be hard to see how I could make much of a career out of flash fiction. However, I think my prospects are bright and getting brighter by the day. That’s because alternative models for publishing have been springing up all over. Writers can publish their own e-books inexpensively on Amazon, and more opportunities like that are coming. Amazon lets writers keep a much larger portion of sales than writers would see in royalties for a conventional book. Writers who establish their own small presses can self-publish physical books using print-on-demand. As many readers of this column will know, I’ve also been distributing my short-short stories by email subscription for eight years, an enterprise in which I keep all the proceeds less the cost of my web site and internet connection.
Technology is making it possible for writers to control much more of their publishing destiny. It’s true that getting print-on-demand books into bookstores is difficult. It’s true that the self-publishing e-book writer has to find a way to tell readers that his book exists. And it’s true that self-published books have a high hurdle of reader skepticism to overcome since so many self-published books are, let’s face it, terrible. But increasingly, writers would have to do the work of publicity, self-promotion and platform-building even if they were working with traditional publishers. At least when arranging a book tour, writing a blog, podcasting free samples or performing a public reading, the self-publishing writer gets immediate feedback about how the efforts are resulting in sales. Publicity and hand-selling efforts reward the self-publishing author more handsomely per sale since the profit may be six to eight times what it would have been for each book in normal royalties.
Above all, this kind of selling is easier to do with flash fiction than with a novel. If you give a public reading from a novel, the potential buyer might be intrigued by what you read, but still doesn’t know if the whole reading experience will be worthwhile. If you perform some great flash fiction, though, the potential buyer has had a complete experience that buying the book will enable her to experience again. It’s true that she still doesn’t know whether your other stories — the ones you didn’t choose to read — are good. But at least your sample has been complete.
And flash fiction fits into all sorts of reading spaces. Here I don’t just mean small screens. Flash is suitable for classroom use, for public display as broadsides, for podcasting, for methods of distribution that no one has thought of yet, but that take advantage of the narrow spaces in busy lives.
So it is with my own work. Increasingly, I am choosing to control the distribution of my stories, to hang onto rights and pursue reprint sales in unusual places, places that needed especially brief fiction. Stories that first earned me fifty dollars to appear in webzines have sold to textbook publishers for ten and twenty times that much. I have sold story reprint rights for use in state-wide standardized tests of reading comprehension.
In time, I think that models for successful literary careers will be more and more diverse. With cheaper copying and distribution of texts, it should be possible to survive on the support of fewer readers closer to home. If I get out more, perform my stories more often, I should be able to make a living from email subscriptions sold to readers who have met me and heard me read in person. A readership of a couple thousand could keep me going. For me and for other writers of flash, it won’t take a national reputation to make living.
Of course, a writer needs some reputation. Starting out is going to be as difficult as ever. The stories will have to be good, and readers will want to see a goodly number of excellent samples before buying the book or paying for the podcast. But I do think that this century will see full-time successful writers of flash fiction.
I’m suggesting an approach that will lead to a local reputation and local sales, but as I’ve already said, flash fiction finds its way into all kinds of narrow spaces. Concentrating on selling to readers you can meet in person doesn’t preclude seeing your work spread far and wide.
A common fantasy for novelists goes like this: You’re on a plane. The passenger in the seat next to yours opens her carry-on and takes out a book. It’s your book. You wrote it.
That hasn’t happened to me, but when I was in Budapest on a Fulbright, I volunteered to visit some high schools and talk to students in English classes. The director of the Budapest American Corner called one teacher to say that I was available. “Bruce Holland Rogers?” said the teacher. “Really? Of course, yes, we want him to come. The students would love to meet him. We just read one of his stories this week in their textbook.”
Flash fiction. Micro payments that add up. Surprising little bursts of fame far from home.
I’ll take it.
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