Self-Publishing Standalone Short Stories: Time to beat a hasty retreat?

I’m nothing if not jittery. It could be the caffeine, or the self-esteem issues, or the joys of being a parent to two spirited children.

I know that I can be too rash in my decisions, and that it’s always a good thing for me to take a breath and sleep on it and weigh the options and etcetera. I need time to let the common sense float in. That’s the number one reason I don’t own a gun. (Note to potential burglars: I do own other weapons for self-defense, and that may or may not include a crossbow.)

Right now my arm hairs are standing on end like meth-addled meerkats, and that’s because two of my short stories on Kindle are receiving the same complaints by readers over and over again: they’re too short.

Sometimes it’s packaged with other helpful criticisms about character development, setting, or that my writing reads like porn for children. Other times it seems that the reader is saying “I’d like it a helluva lot more if it was actually a full-length story.”

To Science Fiction readers in particular, and to Fantasy readers a little less so, the short story is a perfectly legitimate form of storytelling. But the short story has been dying a quiet death in mainstream fiction, to the point where I’m curious how many non-genre readers have even read short fiction outside of English class. (Yes, I’m aware that some people never took English, but these people are generally fortunate enough not to encounter my writing in their daily lives.)

Oooh! Oooh! Anecdote time, because anecdotes are almost like data: :)

My wife told me today that when she downloads an eBook for her Kobo reader, she sometimes grabs a short story without realizing at first. And by the time she does realize, part way through or at the now abrupt last page, she finds that she usually gets angry. It’s almost as though she feels she has been tricked into investing her time in something that’s for all intents and purposes not a real story.

So, based on my scientific anecdote, mainstream short fiction may not be considered “a real story”. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are scores of Fantasy readers who feel the same way. Science Fiction might be different, but I’m sure there’s still a large minority of readers in that genre who feel that only novels are worth reading.

I’ve released a large number of my short stories for free on Smashwords over the past two weeks, and they seem well-received. Meanwhile, I gave away 55 copies of one of my stories from Amazon, “Gnome on Girl on Gnome: A Love Story” on LibraryThing. I gave away 26 copies of another story, “Vegans Are F**king Delicious”, as well. The stories were not as well-received as I’d hoped; in fact, I’d say that from what I can tell, more readers disliked the stories than liked them. Not only is that a surprise considering the size of my ego, but it doesn’t match the feedback I’ve received through other channels for my other stories.

But there are differences between the stories I’m worried about and the stories that I’ve received positive feedback from readers and editors:

  1. The “good” stories are free, free, free. The Amazon stories are $0.99 each.
  2. The “good” stories are science fiction and historical fantasy stories, with a couple of humourous fantasy shorts. The Amazon stories are a strange flavour of contemporary fantasy/paranormal; I thought they were light and quirky, but my wife has informed me that cannibals and gnome sex don’t really qualify as “light”.
  3. The “good” stories are built around more traditional genre ideas, new spins on old tropes. The Amazon stories are weird, weird, weird, and I think they have a strange sexuality to them that could be a turn-on for some people and a turn-off for others.

I haven’t found any writers talking about self-publishing short stories being a bad idea. I know that Dean Wesley Smith talks about charging $2.99 for a short story, but I’ve also noticed many of his single short stories (5-6000 words) being priced at $0.99 on Smashwords. I personally think that even $0.99 is a hard sell for a short when so many authors are giving away their novels for the same price. But you can do $0.99 or you can do free; there is no in between for many ebook distributors. If I’m selling for $0.99 and people are saying what I’m selling is too short, maybe the only alternative is lower the price to nothing or stop selling those stories on their own.

It’s possible the world isn’t ready to buy standalone short stories. Not yet, anyway.

So what is a jittery writer to do?

Why, gather more information, of course.

So the experiment will continue. From Wednesday, July 17 to Friday, July 19, “Vegans Are F**king Delicious” will be available for free on Amazon. The following week I will be doing the same for a slightly revised version of “Gnome on Girl on Gnome: A Love Story”. (I’m listening to feedback on that one.) I’m also doing another LibraryThing Member Giveaway, this time for my Science Fiction Adventure Novelette, “Ghosts of Niagara”.

Maybe I’ll learn just what it is that’s causing the negative reaction. Is it story length, genre, or subject matter? Or maybe it’s just a sign that I need to critique the work some more and get some additional beta readers?

Hopefully I’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.

7 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Standalone Short Stories: Time to beat a hasty retreat?

    1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

      @Antoinette M–, I’m a little jealous of the erotica genre for having all those short stories. I don’t think my issue is resolution, but that’s certainly something I’ll be watching out for.

  1. Kyle Dunlap

    A thought for you: perhaps freely distributing your short stories might work if you are also a novelist or, perhaps, start offering a compilation of short stores (or even a short story cycle like James Joyce did). Free short stories might get you into the eyes of a reader who’s looking for something quick. Pricing them at .99 seems a bit much for the average reader (as you said, books are going for the same price), but earning name recognition through free short stories is priceless. Freebies might entice future readership for long-form works. :-D

    1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

      @Kyle: Good point. To be honest, if I could go free on Amazon I probably would (I want to release a collection of these “weird” stories in the fall). I do think the free stuff is working on Smashwords.

  2. christine

    In shorts it is important to determine of merits of the contained tale – versus trying to impose a desired length – character development and style elements found in longer works. I find myself overcoming my own impulses to “direct” where I think it should have gone length or ending or character wise). I am more successful now, than when I started reading shorts. While many shorts COULD become fulls, it does not mean the story is not worthy on its own merits as is. As a reader – when picking up a prominently declared short – I am doing so merely to get a feel of author ability and style for determining future purchases of longer works by said author. OR, I am picking up shorts (when free) from authors I have found enjoyment reading in the past. I try to take into account (when reviewing) that shorts do not (and cannot) contain depth related to full character fleshing and plot devices that are going to create tension and suspense beyond a few paragraphs. It is cannot be expected that a couple thousand words is going to build detail like 100,000 can and does. Since I have come to such conclusions /resolutions for self, I obtain more enjoyment in reading shorts.

    Christine

    1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

      @Christine: It’s nice to hear your perspective on learning to love shorts. :)

      I’ve noticed that not only is there a difference between shorts and novels, but that there are differences just in the length of the shorts. For instance, my short short stories are better received on my blog than as ebooks, where they’re often seen as too short to stand on their own. Meanwhile, my 5000 word short stories may be too long to put on my blog.

      It’s strange how much length affects where I can publish my short stories.

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