I’ve always loved writing short stories. Like a lot of authors, I find the shorter form makes it more challenging to capture a full story arc, and the economy of language required develops strong habits at the sentence level, meaning it improves my writing and editing skills.
Short stories also give me freedom to try out new ideas or concepts before committing to a long-term story arc. Sometimes I even find that my favorite story ideas are ones that can only be told well in the short form.
I enjoy reading short stories, too, as do other writers I know. Good short stories serve as windows into moments of chaos, the kind that leave characters forever altered after. There’s an art and skill to writing them that is totally separate from writing novels or novellas.
But readers on the whole seem reluctant to read short stories, whether in magazines or anthologies. Why? No one seems to know for sure, though I have a few ideas which I’d like to explore.
The prevailing market wisdom is that only writers read short stories. Journals and magazines are seen more as curative venues where writers cut their teeth than entertainment products with their own intrinsic value.
Anthologies are seen as fun for the writers, but problematic for readers because of the varying styles contained within, and no carryover characters from story to story.
Readers, and mystery readers in particular, seem to prefer to stretch out with a protagonist they like. Across multiple books, if possible.
I assume this is because mystery stories have long been as much about the detective as the mystery itself. A good mystery novel is a character study almost by default. Even better if that study takes place across an entire series of books.
Mystery readers seem reluctant to accept a compelling protagonist’s confinement to a few thousand words when that character could be studied with more depth in a book-length work.
It makes perfect sense from a publishing standpoint, too. If a reader loves a protagonist, why settle for one product when you can have five, ten, or even fifty of them, each a potential sales funnel into all the others? It’s more profitable for both publisher and writer.
A Market for Short-Form Storytelling?
So will there ever be a day that the crime fiction market develops a love for the shorter form?
It’s hard to say, but doubtful. It’s tempting to assume that in a world of increasingly short attention spans, readers would eventually discover short stories and begin consuming them in greater numbers.
But short attention span doesn’t necessarily mean short narrative. Readers can always put the book down and come back to it in spurts. In doing so they can still come back to a character who feels like a familiar friend instead of a whole new story with new problems and unfamiliar characters to contend with.
Readers simply may not ever come around to shorter narratives when there are so many great series out there waiting to be consumed.
Related: Great Jones Street closes up shop
Magazines and Anthologies: Entertainment or Development?
Which begs the question: What is short fiction’s place in the current crime fiction market and community? Will it ever undergo a renaissance of the pulp glory days, where pulp crime magazines not only curated the next generation of great crime authors, but were also read by the general public?
My instincts say no. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.
Short story magazines (including Crime Syndicate) are mostly read by writers these days, and the lack of market value has been slowly suffocating even fantastic publications for years (Anybody else miss Thuglit?).
If magazines serve as a platform for young writers to hone their talents, that alone seems worth ensuring their ongoing success for. But what steps would help magazines thrive in that mission? Submission fees generally don’t go over well with writers, nor does requiring the purchase of a back issue in order to submit.
And yet magazines’ inboxes are often brimming with submissions from writers who (rightfully) expect a piece of the pie in return for their work. A piece of a pie that never quite gets made, most of the time.
Related: 7 Crime Fiction Editors on the Current State of the Short Story Market
Should magazines serve as more than a notch on writers’ belts, or a stepping stone to a career writing novels? Are anthologies, which often have their own notorious sales deficits, the answer? We’ve tried it before, and the experience wasn’t all that different, though it was a lot of fun.
I wish I knew. Because I love short fiction. This magazine exists solely because of that love of short fiction. As far as I know that’s true of all the other magazines hanging around, too.
There are no easy answers. Maybe short stories will always exist as they do now, teetering on the edge of obscurity, moving from folding magazine to folding magazine, none of them catching on for more than a few minutes. Short fiction’s glory days seem to be behind it, if such days ever existed in the first place.
Related: The return of Black Mask Magazine
Conclusions and Discussions
In the meantime, some good news. There are easy ways writers can do our part to preserve markets. We can support publications by purchasing their products, reading them, and reviewing them whenever possible. Many of us already do.
But we can also support them by developing our own individual love for short stories.
At a minimum, short story magazines and anthologies are our trade journals. They provide insight into the market, a place to discover new talented writers, and opportunities for writers to experiment without making the long-term commitment to a novel. They also provide GREAT entertainment, provided readers can develop a taste for shorter narratives.
I’d love to have an open discussion here on the topic, so please chime in with your thoughts.
This post is not at all a complaint, but rather an acknowledgment of the difficulties facing short story magazines, and an attempt to explore that reality. Here are a few questions I’d love to discuss (though feel free to comment however you’d like):
What are magazines and anthologies doing that you appreciate?
Where can they improve their systems and approach?
What do you love or hate about short stories in general?
What place will short stories have in crime fiction’s future?
And, by the way, The Short Mystery Fiction Society has a great list of current short crime fiction markets you can support, read, and submit to, so be sure to click over and check them out.
And submissions for Crime Syndicate Issue Four are now OPEN, so send us your best work!
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