Should authors avoid short stories if they desire literary success?

A young writer recently asked me what's the best path to becoming a successful author. Specifically, she asked if she should focus on short stories or novels or both.

I told her the path to take was up to her. I suggested she study the careers of authors she liked for clues on which path to follow, with the understanding that what worked for one writer might not work for another. And most importantly, she should write the types of stories she yearned to write.

But I also said that if she wanted to have a shot at literary stardom or hitting the bestseller lists — if that was how she defined being a successful author — she should avoid focusing exclusively on short fiction. In fact, maybe she should avoid short stories altogether. Instead write novels. Or nonfiction. Or memoir.

Anything but short stories.

Anyone who knows me will realize I'm not saying this to dismiss short stories. I'm primarily known as a short story author and I love reading and writing short fiction. My stories have been published in a number of top magazines and book anthologies — from Asimov's Science Fiction and the British magazine Interzone to journals such as Pindeldyboz and the Beloit Fiction Journal — and have been translated into many languages including Chinese, French, Russian, and Czech. I've won arts fellowships and awards for my stories. I even founded and edited a literary journal named storySouth, through which I ran a well-known award for online short fiction.

I'm not saying this to brag. I'm trying to show how much I love short stories and how much I've invested in them.

But I still wouldn't recommend new writers start their careers with short stories.

Today relatively few people read short stories, at least compared to novel-length fiction. If you're a new writer with a solid first novel, you have a decent chance of landing a publisher. Self publishing has also been very friendly to novels.

But approach a publisher with a short story collection and they'll run away screaming. Try to self-publish a collection of short stories and you're unlikely to ever make the Amazon bestseller lists. The reason — short stories and collections of stories rarely sell anywhere near the copies sold by the worst of novels.

Things were not always this way. The September 2014 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction contains a fascinating essay by Robert Silverberg in which he reminiscences about breaking into the SF genre during the early 1950s. As an ambitious young writer trying to land his first publication, Silverberg set his sights on what at that time was the one true measure of successful SF authors — short stories.

As Silverberg states, "Science fiction was primarily a magazine medium in the early 1950s, with only a handful of book-length works being published each year. The best writers of the field — and there were dozens of top-notchers at work then — wrote short stories, bushels of them, more than even the numerous magazines of the time could absorb.

To Silverberg and the other SF authors of that time period, short stories earned more money than novels and were also where authors gained the most exposure and prestige. Readers loved short stories, and the market was set up to provide readers with as many short stories as they could take in.

The same pattern applied decades earlier. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway that he wrote short stories for magazines because they paid enough to support his novel writing. Fitzgerald believed this was "whoring" but that he had to do it to earn enough money to write "decent books."

But the days described by Silverberg and Fitzgerald are long gone. In the 21st century almost no top author in any genre focuses exclusively on short fiction, and very few write much short fiction at all. Instead most authors focus their energy on novels, where the potential payoff — and the potential readership — far exceed that of short stories.

For example, John Scalzi is one of the science fiction genre's bestselling authors and the winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But he didn't achieve this success by publishing short fiction in traditional SF magazines. As he tweeted a while back:

I suspect Scalzi is being polite with that "huh" comment. For the time he'd invest in writing a 6,000-word short story, he'd make more money and reach far more readers by putting those 6,000 words toward a new novel. And while Scalzi has written a few short stories over the years, his novels like Old Man's War are what have reached the largest readership and taken him to where he is now.

If you look at current bestselling or highly acclaimed authors, you can't help but notice that only a few of them have published much short fiction in recent years. Or if they have, it was earlier in their career before they turned their focus to novel-length fiction. Or you'll find they only write the occasional short story as a promotional tool for their novels, or as the literary equivalent of charity.

There are simply more readers and money to be had with novels. 

Of course, there are still people like myself who worship short stories and will keep on writing and reading them. And if you're a writer who loves short stories, by all means follow your passion. Short stories are also a demanding fictional form which can force you to sharpen your skills as a fiction writer.

And some new authors continue to make it big after starting with short fiction. One of the most exciting new authors of recent years is Roxane Gay, who first hit the scene with her amazing short fiction. In 2010 one of her short stories was a finalist for the Million Writers Award, and in that same year she placed an astounding six stories on the award shortlist.

In the SF genre, Paolo Bacigalupi is another author who hit it big after first becoming known as a short story writer, with his stories originally being published in leading magazines and winning major awards. He followed up these short stories with ground-breaking novels like The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker.

Gay and Bacigalupi are both great examples of authors whose reputations as short fiction writers helped them climb to literary success when they began publishing novels.

And it's always possible to defy the norms of today's publishing world, as author Ted Chiang has done. Chiang is solely a short fiction author, having published just over a dozen short stories across the last two decades. Despite this limited output, his stories have won multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards and his influence in the genre rivals bestselling authors. Hollywood is even making a major motion picture out of his "Story of Your Life."

Jhumpa Lahiri is another author who defied these reading and writing trends. Her first short story collection Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize and sold millions of copies. Her follow-up collection Unaccustomed Earth likewise earned major acclaim and a large readership.

But Chiang and Lahiri are in many ways the exception which proves the oh-so-cliched rule. For a new writer to try and duplicate their success would be like hoping to win the lottery after being abducted by aliens who drop you off at an interstellar casino headlined by Elvis himself. If you have the talent and ability, and your short stories resonate with people, there's indeed a chance you might make a career from short fiction alone. But few people would bet on such an outcome.

So here's my advice to new writers — write short stories if you love the genre, but don't expect them to carry you to the bestseller lists or literary acclaim. For that you'll need to branch out into novel writing. 

I have no regrets about my love of both reading and writing short stories. Even though I recently wrote my first novel, I'll always love short stories and will always write them. Short stories fit perfectly with what I want to do with my fiction. Short stories are too large a part of who I am to ever be forsaken.

Perhaps one day short stories will again be loved by readers like there were in the first half of the 20th century. Perhaps one day authors will again compete to publish the best short stories in the best venues. Perhaps one day short stories will again be the golden standard of literary success and acclaim.

But until that day comes, I suggest new writers who desire to become successful authors think long and hard before writing short fiction.