[This is not meant to be a definitive opinion. It is exclusively my own and based upon my experience.]
I have decided to compile my first anthology of short works that I have written, most of which have not found homes elsewhere.
"But why?" One may ask. "If you haven't found a publisher for them, doesn't that mean they aren't good enough for the public."
Um... no. That is both incorrect and insulting to the countless amazing authors out there without a venue to share their work.
Let me explain.
Short-form writing has a long tradition of exceptional value in our culture
To understand short-form publishing, one has to view the industry from the inside.
Short-form writing has a long tradition of exceptional value in our culture, but the available channels to reach readers is a series of narrow tributaries, as opposed to the vast rivers novels, plays, and screenplays enjoy (although they each have their challenges). Short-form publishing consists of magazines, online "magazines", anthologies, and contests. Readers of these are few and far between (compared to long-forms, at least), but passionate about their fandoms.
About Story Collection
Publishers of short story collections, whether magazines that publish regularly or special anthologies, have their challenges to select the right stories. Among those challenges are time, resources, and funding; and that's not even including personal tastes.
Any tiny detail that strikes the reader the wrong early on can reject the whole story.
There are only so many hours in the day and an virtually unlimited number of stories in the "slush pile" to wade through. To manage that, publishers do not read every word of every story that crosses their desk. They break reading down into batches. They intend to only read 1-2 pages of each story, but really they are looking for any reason to stop reading as quickly as possible. That could be poor spelling or bad grammar or a lack of voice or anything at all in the content that reminds them of something they didn't like. And if there one red flag this early in reading, there must be more.
And no matter how minor it would be to correct such an early mistake, no reader has the time to explain the problem to the author and suggest a revision. They only ask for corrections to works that got through those first pages and are otherwise perfect. Why? Because, frankly, most authors with red flags are not good enough to revise them satisfactorily. So, pubs consistently refuse any story to be resubmitted with corrections. Ever.
All of my self-published stories have been refined many times after rejection to make them great, but are ineligible for resubmission.
An additional oddity is that a pub could immediately reject a story if it resembles something they DO like and HAVE published, but don't want to repeat themselves. So, great stories can be rejected for no reason beside bad timing.
Furthermore, this is all based on subjective snap-judgements readers may even regret later, but time is a taskmaster and they are only its servants.
Some publications have access to more staff (e.g., editors, assistants, interns, and volunteers). While that may appear to allow them to read stories more carefully, but the reality is that publications that large just attract moire stories to overwhelm whomever they have. And it's not even close to a reasonable ratio. A pub with only one reader may need have a slush pile of 10 stories. A pub with 5 readers might have 1,000. 10 readers might have 10,000.
And they divide the pile up so that each reader takes a portion — meaning each reader uses their own unique subjective process. The same story that appeals to one reader might repulse another. And a story could be outright rejected by the one and only one reader out of the entire staff who don't like it - and the rest will never even know it exists. (I'm told there are some pubs that cross-pollinate stories to prevent this kind of prejudice, but there are others that don't).
And what do we get when a group of people become responsible for their share of a whole project? That's right, ladies and gentlemen.
Politics. But I don't need to talk about that.
The lack of consumers for short-fiction means there is very little money to be made by the publisher. That affects more than just the amount of hours they can work in a day or staff they can hire. It also affects the size of their publication.
Paper-published editions cost money to print and shelve and store if not sold. And every word an author writes has to be paid for. There is a balance to be had between the pages printed per story and sales. The market demands that a 200 page edition of a magazine with 10 stories must have cover price as a 300 page edition of the same magazine with only 5 stories. 300 pages costs a lot more to produce, but more importantly, short-fiction consumers calculate "value" for their money, and often prefer more stories that are shorter than fewer stories that are longer. To balance it, a pub may buy 5-10 times as many shorts (1,000-5,000 words) as novellas (10,000-25,000). And many pubs won't buy novellas at all.
I have several novellas that I was unable to sell, but when I say that they were rejected by every pro-paying Sci-Fi magazine that publishes novellas, realizes that means only 5. 5 people rejected it. And there's no telling why.
About Short-form Curation
Curating stories is the process of selecting which stories of good enough quality will be printed.
Those within the short-form publishing industry are passionate about short-form fiction. And this begets a cycle of issues that may be perpetual.
The ensure consistent income, publishers cultivate a select group of die-hard fans willing to pay for their preferred content regularly. That content has to be consistent enough to satisfy the base consumer, but unique enough to "stay fresh". But that limits growth. It is rare for publication to focus on a niche product that suddenly becomes popular outside of its core audience. And, as EVERYONE knows from EVERY entertainment industry, as soon as a product becomes popular, the original core audience tends to rebel. Furthermore, when something becomes popular, it begets competition within that market, which leads to division into sub-markets and, once again, the producers of those sub-markets are reduced in size.
Across the landscape of short-form Sci-Fi publishing, it appears that only the Hard Sci-Fi sub-genre has dedicated markets in both short- and long-form fiction. There are numerous Pro-Paying Magazines and Contests dedicated to Hard Sci-Fi, while softer sci-fi short-form fiction seems relegated to Anthologies. This isn't because Soft Sci-Fi isn't popular. Just the opposite. Soft-SciFi is Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Farscape... pretty much every single Sci-Fi novel and movie ever made. Even the classics of the Golden Age of Science Fiction would be classified as Soft Sci-Fi today. But there is virtually no well paying market for Soft Sci-Fi, certainly not enough for all the great works being written for it. Why is that? Why do the most popular sub-genres of Sci-Fi (not Hard), have the fewest short-form markets? In a word, it's because the passionate people running these publications prefer Hard Sci-Fi, as if their right. Or are passionate about specific details that define their anthology or contest.
Someone may have very well written the next Star Wars or Doctor Who franchise and they have never been published. Or maybe they have self-published but not reached enough readers yet (because marketing is expensive).
Someone may have very well written the next Star Wars or Doctor Who franchise and they have never been published.
More Genre Problems
Another proof of the fickleness of publishers is the bizarre case of Urban Fantasy.
Urban Fantasy is one of the most popular and best-selling genres in all of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Harry Potter, Dresden Files, Supernatural, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, pretty much every superhero comic book ever written, and billions more. The indie-market for Urban Fantasy is rabid and keeps on growing. Urban Fantasy fans read a series a month or faster. They can't get enough of it. And yet, most traditional publishers have blacklisted the genre and its authors for one reason and one reason only: The editors are tired of reading it.
That's it. It has nothing to do with it's marketability or it's sales. Editors are just tired of reading Urban Fantasy the same way they are tired of reading Vampire and Zombie stories (which ALSO haven't slowed down in their popularity). According to one of my insider sources (and editor of a publishing company), some editorial staff are actually upset at the popularity of Urban Fantasy (and Vampires and Zombies) over their personal preference, that they are actively conspiring to undermine the genre. They want it to disappear for personal reasons, not because the works aren't good enough.
Again, these people went into the publishing industry because they were passionate. But that doesn't mean they passion about all books equally. Agents and editors have their personal faves, and another driving factor for them is to find "their favorite book" and convince the rest of the world that they're preference is right. Which is counter-intuitive to the more common business practice of "Give the customers what they want." This model is fine when publishers keep feeding a frenzied fan-base. But recently, 2 of the biggest publishers in the world took the stand at a government hearing and claimed that most books they published sold an average of 12 copies.
Both short and long-form publishers refuse to sell the genres readers want
and then complain they don't sell well enough.
Both short and long-form publishers refuse to sell the genres readers want and then complain they don't sell well enough.
I should add that there are publishers of both long and short form Urban Fantasy out there, but they are all small publishers and have additional difficulties for that reason. For instance, I've surveyed and spied on several Urban Fantasy groups, and one common lament is the lack of EPIC Urban Fantasy stories on the market (meaning both longer and wider in scope and theme). Having written one, I learned that even the Urban Fantasy publishers who love it cannot afford to print it. A 400-page novel costs twice as much to produce as a 200-page novel and takes twice as much space on a shelf (not to mention takes 2X as long to write). That means the novel needs to sell for at least 4X the price, which readers just won't pay for. So, no matter how much a small publisher loves something — certain books are just not financially feasible to traditionally publish.
But what about you, Lazarus?
I write most sub-genres of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and even some Horror. But I write stories from a screen-writer's perspective, which has a popular voice. I love stories about people — not object or events. That means no Hard Sci-Fi for me. I love exploring the possibilities of magic and technology, so Urban Fantasy is a personal fave. I also write with theme and humor and often innuendo.
More than one of my sci-fi stories were specifically rejected, I've been told by the editors, for including even the mildest sexuality. (One of them was just a joke about "licking".) But I suspect many others to have been secretly rejected for the same reasons.
So, I am self-publishing a collection of my character-focused short-stories that include Soft Sci-Fi, Urban Fantasy, and some mildly adult language.
And they are great stories.