Discover more from Writer Therapy
Wrote a Short Story Collection. Now What?
Do people still publish these? Will I be laughed out of the literary world?
I've published several short stories (OK, it's like, four) and have a linked short story collection that I'm close to finishing. All of the stories have been written and revised and revised and revi— well, you get it.
Now that I'm getting close to be done, done, I'm wondering what to do now? Have I published enough stories to publish the collection? (There are 15 stories in the collection.) Should I query publishers? Agents? I've heard agents don't represent linked short story collections, especially when it's your debut so I'm wondering whether I should just query independent publishers. I'm not sure what to do.
Overthinking in Ontario
When we get into the world of agents and book publishing, it sometimes feels like there is a secret society of special handshakes and codewords that we’re trying to get into, hopefully by casually walking up to the door like someone who clearly belongs, but inside we are terrified that we’re walking in wearing a neon bikini when everyone around us is in black tie.
If we turn to the Internet for advice (as one does these days) we can quickly overwhelm ourselves with the many authoritative-sounding takes on what The Market is looking for, and what agents never want to see, and all the reasons we’re about to prove to the world that we don’t actually belong to this secret society of Writers With Published Books, and in fact, the agents and publishers are actually having a roast where they read our manuscript and query letter and bio out loud, and are laughing at the absolute gall that someone like us thought they could enter those hallowed halls.
It’s no wonder that we start overthinking. Trust me, I do the same. For all the advice and coaching and bravado, the imposter syndrome likes to sneak back in every time I try to change the game.
Because let’s take a moment to acknowledge what’s really going on here: you have, after many years of writing and not writing, feeling like you don’t belong and trying anyway, facing resistance and sometimes letting it overcome you, taking classes, getting advice, revising and receiving feedback, reaching out for mentorship and guidance with your heart in your mouth because who are you to ask?…. after all that, you have written a book.
You. Have. Written. A. Book.
I hope you have printed the whole thing out and admired the heft of it, the weight of that mighty stack of papers filled with your words.
Your. Words. A book-length work that you wrote. And wrote again. And revised and wrote and re-wrote and revised and wrote again.
If it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of this, it’s because I am. It’s been a hell of a lot of work and heart and soul that has gone into this. And now you’re ready to expose this precious baby to the world; it’s no wonder you’re having some nerves and are overthinking.
So, let’s get to your questions.
First, there is no minimum number of stories you must publish before you can publish a book. You can make a whole career out of individual stories and never publish a book. You can publish zero short stories and publish a book. That said, having some good publishing credits on in your bio can be helpful in that when a publisher or literary agent (or their assistant) goes through the slush pile, they’ll see evidence of your literary citizenship. They’ll see that you’ve been writing a certain quality of work for a while and didn’t, for example, decide to approach a literary agent on a random whim. This gives them some assurance that your work is not the literary equivalent of a bison-and-mule puke medley with soupçon of yak vomit.
Fifteen stories sounds like a good number for a collection, but more importantly, how long is the collection all-together? Admittedly, I’m somewhat less familiar with short story collection lengths, but a good word count for a first novel in the literary genre is about 80,000 or so. A short story collection can go shorter: a brief review of the internet says as little as 40,000 is okay, but you could likely go up to a first-novel length. (If I were really dedicated, I would count the words on one page of a published short story collection, and then use that to estimate the length, and do that for a bunch of collections and take the average, but who has that kind of time?)
In general, though, you want to show that you understand the conventions of your genre by hitting an appropriate length, thus demonstrating that you aren’t some weirdo who wrote 10,000 words of freshly coughed-up cat hairballs and thinks an agent would love your ‘novel’.
This isn’t gatekeeping per se. It’s the weird intersection of Art and Capitalism. Your collection may be perfect at 30,000 words. That is the art part of it. It may be difficult to sell by conventional methods at that length: this is the capitalism side. One does not determine the other: many beautifully written and artful books sell poorly and many terrible books sell like hotcakes (Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you.) Don’t judge the Art by the Capitalism of it all. It’s hard not to take it all personally, I know, but the ‘clueless idiots in marketing’ trope doesn’t entirely come out of no where. They don’t always know.
As for who to query—agents or independent publishers—that depends a little bit on where you live and what kind of book you have.
Here in Canada, having a literary agent is much less necessary than it is in the USA. It is still entirely viable to publish book length works with reputable small-press publishers without using a literary agent, and in fact, many Canadian small-press publishers put out books that win major awards and sell incredibly well.
Note that there are still reputable small press publishers in the USA that accept unagented submissions; they are not as significant a part of the American publishing marketplace as Canadian small press in Canada, but what can I say, we are a strange country.
(This is different than what is now being called indie or independent publishing, a.k.a., self-publishing. This is still traditional/trad publishing.)
Don’t ask me about the UK, because I truly have no idea. Really don’t ask me about Australia because I have even less idea, and seeing as I am monolingual, I know nothing about other language markets. If anyone reading this has some info, drop it in the comments, I’d love to learn more.
That said, literary agents are becoming a bigger deal in Canada, and yes, they also represent authors to small-press publishers. Since (unlike the USA) there’s probably less than ten agents in Canada who would be a fit for you, it’s not a huge investment in time to look at them.
(If you really want to be confused, remember that nothing stops you from being represented by a US agent, so that’s a whole other Pandora’s box of things.)
In general: if you have a book that is suitable for the Big Five publishers—Hachette, Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, MacMillan—you need an agent. Periodt. (That’s not a typo, I saw it on Drag Race and assume the kids do this now.)
If there is a tiny chance that you might want to go the agent route, it’s best to do that first. Agents have their own relationships with various publishers, and they have a better chance of making the sale happen if they can present the book to them first.
That an agent rejects a book doesn’t mean that a publisher will—agents make money off your sales, and how well they believe a book will sell is part of their selection criteria. It’s not so much “Is this a good book?” and more “Is this a good book that I can sell right now?” And there are many stories out there about agents who were wrong, who rejected a book that went on to sell millions of copies. No one is an authority on what people want to read.
This is why you need to believe in your book, and trust in your voice, and admire the heft of pages that form your draft, and remember that no matter what happens, you have accomplished something big. Go get yourself a gold star and slap it on your shirt. I’ll wait.
Got it? Okay, let’s continue.
It’s entirely a myth that agents don’t represent short story collections, or that the Big Five doesn’t publish them. Go look up new releases from these publishers and you will find short story collections. You will find debut short story collections. They exist.
It’s true that you will find more novels, because it’s a more broadly-read form, but short story collections are out there.
Some agents, or some publishers, may want to represent your collection so that they get a crack at your future novel because they see potential in your work and want to get in early on your career. Not that you have to write a novel. That your agent wants to sell your novel doesn’t mean you have to listen to them—this is still your body of work, and you decide what you want to write.
In any case, the book you have is a short story collection. Your role is to steward that book out into the world in a way that best honours that book.
The Big Five isn’t the best way to go for every book, or even every writer. It’s great for ‘book club’ fiction—things that are easier to read, will sell well, might get a movie deal, etc. If you have a beautifully weird artistic jewel—it’s probably going to be in better hands at a small press.
At a small press, you are not one of a huge stable of authors putting out books this year, but one of a very tiny group. Consequently, you are more likely to be lavished with time and attention. That said, the small press is very often a labour of love, so you will not be lavished with as much money. There may also be practical issues, e.g., you may have a harder time getting physical books into stores, you may not have the same kinds of foreign rights sales, etc. Obviously, it will vary from press to press, especially as editors change, but while the Big Five is generally good at getting a lot of books out in the world, small presses are much more variable.
This is where it’s talking to your literary community is very helpful. What have their experiences been with different small presses? What have their experiences been with different agents? (Also, if they can refer you to their agent, all the better, since it will allow you to skip the slush pile.) Do they have publishers or agents that they suggest for you? What do they know about different places or people you are considering? Everyone’s experiences are individual, but sometimes trends emerge.
Above all, trust your gut. There’s no wrong answer here.
If you still aren’t sure where your book belongs, do some research. I mean, do it anyway, but be more thorough if you genuinely don’t know. Go through recent releases from various publishers and see, are there books that are similar to yours? Do you see your book among these recent releases?
You don’t have to have read all of them, or even any of them. Start with the descriptions. If you’ve written a collection of warm, cozy family stories and everything they’ve published sounds like gritty political thriller, clearly this will not be a good fit. Similarly, if everything they publish is arty and experimental and poetic, and your book is a straightforward fun time, this is not a good fit. Don’t overthink it, at least not for a first pass through.
If there is something that is the same genre and thematically or tonally similar, make a note of it—not only could it indicate a good fit, it may be a good comp for your query letter. Also you’ll probably enjoy reading it.
This sounds like a lot of work, I know. And it is. But it’s far less work than writing the book in the first place. You’ve done the hard part. You’ve written the book. Remember what I said about what an enormous accomplishment that is? Go look at your giant stack of pages for a second. Now, remember, all of this is research for you to figure out how to best represent the book on its journey into the world.
Take a few hours over a few evenings and go through agents and small presses and the Big Five, and make a lot of notes. (Try not to get distracted by all the books you can buy; make a separate list of those.) Who seems to be a good fit? What seems like a good comp? Who represents writers that you know?
Put together a plan for yourself about what other questions to ask people in your writing community, which agents and publishers seem like a good fit, and who to approach and in what order. Publishing is slow, things change over time, so periodically review the plan as you go, and remember to trust your gut.