Industry tradition tells us that short stories don’t sell. You want to make money from your short fiction? Good luck, friend! Publishers won’t publish it, and nobody would buy it even if they did. (Oh, and PS: the internet is killing off print media, so have fun competing for a slot in the few remaining literary magazines.) And yet, in 2013, The New York Times declared that the short story was experiencing a resurgence, citing the success of a handful of recent collections and the emergence of Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, designed specifically for the purpose of delivering short, easily consumable pieces at just a dollar or so a pop. Less than a week later, Salon announced that this supposed upswing was totally “bogus,” an overzealous response to the successful marketing of work by already established authors.
The publishing industry has undergone a huge amount of change in a very short period of time—don’t forget, Amazon released the first Kindle only eight years ago. Technology has changed the way many of us read, and a lot of ideas are now being thrown around about what we’re reading and why. Maybe we’re reading more novels because smartphones and ereaders have allowed us to carry books around in our pockets and engage with them whenever we like, or maybe we want shorter works because they’re easier to read on smaller screens. Maybe the trend of binge-watching on streaming platforms like Netflix indicates a craving for more involved narratives, or maybe there’s so much media available everywhere that we just don’t have time to read long-form works anymore. Maybe we think short story collections are too disjointed and we like novels because they engage us more, or maybe the internet has turned our collective brains to mush, and now the only things we consume are Buzzfeed listicles and thirty-second clips on YouTube. Perhaps it’s all a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy—publishers who don’t put resources into promoting short story collections that “don’t sell” are unsurprised when the collections go on to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s just easier for everyone to get excited about a new novel, which carries a certain kind of gravitas within our literary landscape that isn’t currently assigned to short fiction.
But perhaps the answer really lies somewhere in-between. By some counts, short fiction may in fact be gaining in popularity. Recent figures show a growth in the print sales of short stories (even as overall sales of adult fiction decline), so maybe The New York Times was on to something after all. Several collections have been well received in the last few years—though many of these are books by established authors with established fan bases, and there are, of course, still plenty of short story collections that are not being read. So why don’t short stories sell well? The answer seems to be that they do, sometimes, under some circumstances. The exciting thing about being in publishing right now is that the whole industry is currently in the process of figuring out what those circumstances might be. And as Ooligan itself gears up to release Kait Heacock’s Siblings: Stories next year, you can bet we’ll be keeping an eye on the humble short story, too.