Publish or Perish: The Short Story

May 26, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 28 4 min read

“The Short Story is Not Dead.”  This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone.  The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading.  I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story.  I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying.

coverWhat has changed with the story?  Not the writing.  Short story writing is alive and well.  The evidence:  Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad).  And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors.  The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished.

What then?  Short story reading has declined.  With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories.  And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel.  The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell.

What to make of this conundrum?  Is today’s short fiction not as good?  Hardly.  Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain?  The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms.  The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines.  Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form.  Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish.

coverThe Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton,   There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week.  When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.

Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting.  And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations.  Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals.  Only later in books.

The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.  To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet.  But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways.

Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker.  Consumers like predictable engagement.  There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly.  Many — and there are a great many for readers to discover — are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors.  And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories.

Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption.  The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.  Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.”  If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”

So, how many Americans actually read short stories?  How large is the market?  There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them.  A few facts:

9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008).

2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.)

1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009

150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories).

50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate).

These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories.

Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon.  Collections are ways of repackaging known works.  Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell.

Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market.  Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets.  Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing.  Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television.  Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans.  We’re all ears.

(Image: 732 – Power Grid – Pattern image from zooboing’s photostream)

is co-Founder and Publisher of Storyville, an iPhone and iPad app that publishes a new story each week for a $4.99 six month subscription.


  1. I’m a devoted reader of short stories and I think that some of the best practitioners of the craft like Alice Munro, Edgar Allan Poe and Urdu writers like Ismat Chughtai and Sadat Hasan Manto, write short stories. It’s just so much more difficult to create a whole new world in those few words. And logically speaking, it seems to me that readers would be more inclined to read something that can be absorbed as a whole in short snatches of time, rather than devoting weeks or months of interrupted reading to a novel. Could the poor marketing of short stories have something to do with the fact they’re not really taken as serious literature? I know many people who feel that writing short stories is much easier than writing a novel. I feel like that is the perception that needs to be changed.

  2. I’m curious how you estimated the annual sales of the Pushcart Prize collection. 50,000-100,000 copies sold annually seems a pretty high estimation.

  3. When “they” say that something is “dead”, what do “they” mean?

    I believe that “they” mean either that that something is no longer lucrative or that that something is no longer socially relevant or hip.

    While “they” are heaping the last shovelfulls of dirt onto the grave of that something, there will be people who will still be enjoying the creation of that something, and others enjoying the experience of that something.

    And if that joy becomes contagious, then that something will reach a hand out from the grave and throttle “them” by the neck.

  4. Bookscan tells me that Pushcart Prize anthologies sell around 3500 copies. Not per year, but that the recent volumes have all sold around 3500 copies all told. Of course, Bookscan doesn’t measure sales to libraries, which can easily double that number, nor many independent bookstore sales (which is likely to cater to an audience interested in the Pushcarts). But even if we double, and then double again, we’re still only at around 14,000 per volume, not 50-100K.

  5. I would like to recommend to anyone receptive a book of interconnected
    short stories by Joan Silber. The title is “Ideas of Heaven,” and I think it
    is equal to, or even superior to, “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”

    Silber’s book was nominated for the National Book Award the year it was
    published, and I have never read a novel made out of short stories that I
    found so affecting. The range of the stories is staggering–everything from
    a story about a would-be dancer who doesn’t really have the stuff to a
    family of missionaries on its way to China to spread their faith. Every story
    has the ring of truth: read them and you will be rung like a bell. And wrung.

    And her sympathies are wide. The poor would-be dancer is badgered by
    her male teacher, who harries her and insults her and even mocks her.
    He’s a real bastard. Then, a few stories later, Joan Silber gives us a story
    about the teacher, and bam, he comes into focus as a whole person, too,
    and not just a smart-mouthed bastard.

    I have beaten the drums for this novel-of-short-stories to everyone I know
    who’s a good reader, and I pass it on here, hoping to find fertile ground
    for a fine, small book.

  6. You lost me totally when you got to literary journals and admitted that there are a lot of stories available to read – probably more than ever – but that these journals “are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors.” In other words – most short stories out their suck, and they will continue to suck being read on an iPhone while running on a treadmill with a TV screen and a shapely ass right in front of you for distraction.

    “Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly.” you write – Is that a serious refutation? Based on what exactly? If your main hope for short stories is technology than it’s time to call the priest.

  7. Just a few thoughts. As for the decline in magazine sales, you also have to consider that many people still read magazines, they just don’t buy them. I work in a book store, and not a day goes buy that I don’t curse the fact that we sell magazines. People grab whole stacks, go sit somewhere, and then read them. (And then leave them there.) But even more important to the discussion, it seems to me, is that even if magazine readership were up by 500%, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything about stories being read. I find it doubtful that people who read Maxim, Car & Driver, Cheri, Kitchen Remodeling, Airports, and all those wedding magazines would be likely to read the latest from Alice Munro, were it to be included in their particular magazine of choice. Many people get into playing golf or watching sports just so they have something to talk about with everyone else. I’d guess there was something similar going on back when everyone was reading those Fitzgerald stories in the Saturday Evening Post. The times, they done changed.

  8. Nick, thanks for correcting my estimate of annual sales of the Pushcart Prize collections.

    Michael, thanks for the comments. I think lit journals play a critical role in the american literary scene, largely because they are often the first place emerging writers are published, and so careers get started. They also publish established writers. My reference to lit journals isn’t about the quality of the writing, but rather the scale at which they operate, the size of audience reached.

  9. Good article, as always, but why are we counting ‘A Visit From the goon Squad’ as short fiction? It’s a novel. It never once occurred to me while reading it that it might be a short fiction collection. It’s hardly the first novel with a non-linear timeline. But forget my take: it says “a novel” on the cover.

  10. Justin, thanks for raising the issue about whether Goon Squad is novel, or stories, or a hybrid. I think it could fit any of the categories. Most of the chapters appeared as stories before the publication of the book: Shelfari and Found Objects in The New Yorker, others elsewhere. Egan herself was uncertain what to call it (I interviewed her in April 2010, and asked her directly). She was eloquent on this point. Knopf clearly wanted to market the book as a novel because that gave it a better shot at strong sales. Still, the general point is that great short fiction continues to be written. There is a long list Pulitzer Prizes for short fiction that includes Jhumpa Lahiri and Robert Olen Butler and others.

  11. Yes, Joan Silber. Also Anna in Chains and Anna in the Afterlife in addition to the book Robert Getchell above recommended.

  12. On one point you’re certainly wrong. The American short story has changed from its heyday of O. Henry, Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald and company. The pop element was taken out of it to leave the obsessively literary. Writers no longer write for a mass audience, perceived or real. Their actual focus is a writing instructor– in a classroom or in their heads, the idea being not to entertain, but to impress.
    Or, see a short analysis I did of current literary stories at

  13. I don’t know…I’m sick of the short story. Even after reading a great one I often feel: what’s the point? It’s well made, but the world remains the same afterward (I don’t know how else to say it), whereas with the novel I don’t think that’s the case–some novels can really change your life. The short story, especially the contemporary short story in all its manifestations, is the only literary form that I think is really, really exhausted and lifeless…now the novella, that’s another story.

  14. @Mark Olague, I agree with you on the whole, but I do think there are some writers still creating life-changing short stories. Kelly Link’s name jumps immediately to mind, for one.

    But, yeah, overall, fewer short stories in a smaller paying market (than in the form’s hey-day) have that kind of pulsing, joy-infusing greatness. Maybe some part of the tech revolution currently ongoing will allow for the short story to become viable in the marketplace-which would then logically cause greater shorts to be written.

  15. But Nick, there aren’t “fewer short stories” than in the form’s heyday. MFA programs crank out tens of thousands of new writers every year, almost all of whom are trained in the short story form. We are seeing a massive investment, through these hundreds of programs, in the short story art. Yet where’s the “joy-pulsing greatness” from them?
    While marketing strategies need to change, and ways to access stories already are changing, you also need a better product. The pace of standard literary stories is lethargic, because they’re weighed down by craft.
    Or, if stories were automobiles, selling a slow-moving and dull-looking state-produced Lada doesn’t cut it.
    It’s the nature of the world that writers somewhere will offer that better, quicker, flashier product. A few already are. If I’m not mistaken, you have a story in the new Frank Marcopolos collection of kickass underground zine lit, The Whirligig. (Available as an ebook through clicking on my name at the top of this post.)

  16. Hi Karl, I think you’re confusing me and Nick, but I agree with you — there are more stories being produced overall, but fewer short stories that people LOVE. That may be a hard claim to prove with unassailable data, but it’s my opinion, anyway.

    And, yes, Nick has an incredible story in the collection, “The Birth of Western Civilization.” Well worth checking out. Thanks for mentioning it.

  17. A larger part of the problem, I think, is that there is a school of thought afoot today that the short story can be “learned” and “taught”–which is true, to the extent that you can crank out reproductions of stories by great writers. But when the great short story writers write their stories, they rarely work from a template, or a well-worn one. What Hemingway was doing in his early work was virtually never seen before. What Carver was doing was a radicalization of what Hemingway had done–a reinvention, almost. Wallace went to an MFA, so it’s not that MFAs themselves are the problem–his stories are inventive, obviously–but the mindset that one can “learn” and then write well-made short stories that are in any way worth reading is an absurd one, at least to my eye.

  18. Awesome post Paul! Great comments as well. I’m really interested in creating building a place where people can get short stories and writers can publish quality stories and make some money. It would be awesome if you can take less than five minutes to fill out this 5 question survey. The link is here:

    No hard sell here. Thanks for your time

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