1. Understanding Publishers
From time to time, the mainstream press brings out general anthologies, and a relatively unknown author has at least a chance to submit a story, even though name authors get first consideration. But, if you’re thinking of submitting a single-author collection of your own stories to a mainstream publisher—forget it! Publishers are reluctant to bring out single-author collections even from writers with big reputations. It’s a proven fact that such collections sell only half as many copies as a novel—so why would anyone take a risk on a newbie?
(An author with a big reputation has a different problem. Since so much ordering is done by computer, the author’s next novel will be ordered into shops according to the sales of his or her last publication, i.e. half as many, if that last publication was a collection of short stories.)
The best publication opportunities for short stories are magazines, webzines and small-press anthologies. I’m talking only speculative fiction here, because it’s all I know about. As regards these outlets, I suspect writers of short speculative fiction have it good compared to most other popular genres. The pay is low, but the outlets are many.
Some fully professional magazines in the US have paid editors, but in Australia, it’s all voluntary labour, done for love alone. Sometimes there’s a single editor, sometimes a group of editors; often there’s an assisting group of readers. (‘Editor’ here means commissioning editor, or what I’ve been calling the ‘publisher’ for a novel. The main difference is that these editors normally have to carry out all the other tasks too!)
In Australia, small-press anthologies have become the favoured way to publish stories without getting trapped in a regular schedule of annual or half-yearly issues. Australian anthologies are often like magazines in that they don’t have an overall theme—or only a very loose one. They’re one-offs, but recurring one-offs.
Webzines often pay better than print magazines. For me, a story that appears for a limited time in cyberspace is more ephemeral than a volume you can hold in your hand. But I’m probably old-fashioned. A growing number of people do read stories online.
I don’t have much experience of POD (print on demand) publication, but I think you’d want to know there’s at least enough of a print run to get the zine into (specialist) bookshops and selling at conventions. I can’t see how the collection will reach many readers otherwise.
Okay, whoa! reality check here. No small-press production will reach that many readers anyway. But it can still reach people who matter. There’s a core of aficionados at the centre of the speculative fiction world who have an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.
Remember, also, that in this world the awards for short stories carry almost as much prestige as the awards for novels. Winning awards for short stories builds your reputation and gives you another form of recommendation when you approach a publisher with a full-length MS.