26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.


  1. Great piece, RT. Very informative, but very sobering. I like to do both, novels and short stories, you make a lot of good points re: the novel markets these days.

  2. I love how you lay it out, R.T.! I'm primarily a short story writer. Short stories have always been my first love as a reader so it seems to follow that I would prefer writing them. However, I have cranked out a small hand full of novels and none have fared very well. So I have come to the same conclusion you lay out in such a practical manner, that novel writing (in my case, at least) hardly seems worth the effort. Thanks for the facts and figures here, R.T. Great post!

  3. Nice article, RT. Look forward to reading more of your stories.

  4. the only problem with short stories is that the markets are few in number and ever precarious.
    That said, I have to agree that at the moment, short stories in decent markets probably do pay much better than most novels.

  5. Oh, how that death spiral story sounds so grim. And I know what you mean about short story payment versus novel advance/royalties. Thanks for the perspectives here!

  6. Interesting piece, R.T., and real food for thought. I envy your sales rate at Alfred, and yes, they DO treat writers well, which is a delightful rarity now.

    I don't write many short stories either, partly because they're hard for me and partly because I'm trying to push the novels, but short stories have been my best money makers, too.

    I keep telling myself I should write more short stories, but it's hard to believe that when a rejection arrives ten months after a submission. And Janice is right: the long wait time is at least partly because there are so few decent-paying markets now that they get swamped with submissions.

    Short stories SHOULD be easier because the traditional markets will do the formatting, printing and distribution that I have to do for the self-published novels, but they involve different planning and thinking...at least for me.

    BTW my rejection rate at Alfred Hitchcock is about 80%, and 100% for Ellery Queen (0 for 26). The good news is I have three stories sold this year to new markets.

  7. Well done, RT. You make some really good points here. And yes, congrats on your track record at AHMM. I wish I had a 70% acceptance rate, anywhere!

  8. The market for short stories is broad (across multiple genres), but payment rates have bifurcated. When I started writing professionally in the late 1970s there were bottom-end markets paying nothing or a fraction of a cent per word, and top-end markets paying 10-20-30 cents/word (or more). Both extremes still exist. What's missing are the mid-range markets that were once my financial life-blood. Once upon a time I could count on receiving multiple hundreds of dollars for the short stories I sold. These days, cracking triple digits is less common than I'd like.

    I'm writing and selling more now than ever before, but because the average pay per story has decreased, my annual writing income has not shown much movement. Sigh.

    I don't know what my acceptance rates are for any particular publication (that would be a nightmare to figure out), but at one particular publisher I have at least 109 consecutive acceptances without a rejection.

  9. I enjoyed reading all your comments, and also picking up new information and insights from them on market trends.

    Steve, I am now zero for four with Ellery Queen, 100% rejection. Guess some markets are just tough to break into. I've discussed this situation with authors published in AHMM only, those published in EQMM only and those published in both. There doesn't seem to be any enlightenment as to the why.

  10. I can't argue with anything you say, RT. I've published a lot of stories (mostly in AHMM) and only two novels, and so far the short stories definitely show more profits, especially when I deduct the costs of printing bookmarks and paying for ads and such--I never did that for short stories. But I'll probably keep trying with another novel or two, partly because I enjoy writing both stories and novels, partly because hope springs eternal, in defiance of all the evidence, that the next novel will actually sell a decent number of copies.

  11. Steve Pease as Michael Chandos26 March, 2017 19:06

    I monitor blogs and on-line communities for both aspiring writers and wanna-be actors. NO ONE Ever mentions numbers!  Elect this man to Congress!

    I agree with BK - I write both novels and shorts, because I want to write both, to tell stories that require both lengths. I don't pay attentions to trends - you are probably too late to cash in by the time you notice a trend anyway. I write what I want to read, try to market smartly and hope for enough money to pay for the books I buy.

  12. I'm an even slower writer! Or rather slow self-editor and rewriter.

    It should be mentioned that RT writes his articles weeks in advance, so it's coincidence (or great minds in the same gutter, er track) that his article followed Melodies' article yesterday.

  13. Thank you, RT: I suddenly feel infinitely better about my career as a short story writer! I've never cracked Ellery Queen, but AHMM has bought almost 30 of my stories, and I get the occasional sci-fi (and other) market. Maybe I'm not as slow as I thought...

  14. R. T., my husband pointed out that I was making more money on my short stories than my novels, and he was correct. Sigh. Thanks for sharing the numbers. The best thing I've done for my writing career was to not quit my day job. Like you, I prefer having a roof over my head and three squares a day.

  15. I do enjoy writing both the novel and short stories. Thanks for sharing this.


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