Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Traditionally published short story collections

I get a lot of questions about short story collections. How do you write a query letter for a short story collection? Do publishers want them?

Well, it's complicated.

Short story collections do get published, usually by the cream of the crop of the literary fiction world. (Note that I'm not talking about anthologies with multiple authors, which can sometimes be published around a high-concept hook.)

It's rare for a debut short story collection to be published unless:

a) The publisher wants to whet the public's appetite for a debut novel
b) The author has previously been published in All The Places (think: The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Atlantic)
c) Both

Think: Junot Diaz's Drown as a (decade-prior) prelude to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies as a prelude to The Namesake.

Yes, there are authors like Alice Munro, Nathan Englander, and George Saunders, who are primarily known for their short stories. Please see rule b.

So how do you query a short story collection without an accompanying novel? Well, in my opinion, you don't. If you've achieved enough literary success to get a short story collection traditionally published, the agents will come to you.

Art: Der Brief an den Liebsten by Adolf Schmidt


chillcat said...

Of course you are right. I had a story in a Virago anthology once and a London agent came running.. she wanted a novel in the same style with a twist! But what you are saying is rather daunting for someone who loves the form (and receives NYer rejections gracefully): clock up bylines and then wait? Yes, wiser. But will they ever come running? I published my collection traditionally but with a small UK press, nothing huge, and so much promo work, but a springboard maybe. It's very hard to wait and wait and wait. Best, cat

Amy Saia said...

From what I've seen most authors of collections are getting published through small presses with a niche in the short story market. University presses form a large part of this as well. But you're absolutely correct, getting an agent to represent a short story collection is akin to winning the lottery. You really have to plug away submitting to the top markets. Most of all, have fun and love what you write. That's more important than anything else, IMO.

Jan Goldie said...

You might be interested in the process used to create & publish this short story collection: Baby Teeth - Bite Sized Tales of Terror. It's a collection of short horror stories for charity. The writers collaborated on social media, the book costs were crowdfunded, then a small boutique press picked up the project. Read more here:

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

The other possibility might be a book of connected stories. I've read that Amy Tan considered THE JOY LUCK CLUB to be a collection of connected stories, but that her publisher presented it as a novel.

Nowadays, with self-publishing and electronic publishing, and people experimenting with serialization, (and with new formats, and just generally experimenting), I think there may be new opportunities for short stories. Including some opportunities that haven't been discovered yet, but which will probably look obvious in hindsight.

Bryan Russell said...

I got me a collection... what to do with it, what to do with it?

Julie said...

Way to ruin my morning :-( But yes, you are probably right, and this is the chicken and egg problem, because how often are All the Places publishing new authors?

But are you saying that Junot Diaz's publisher already knew 10 years ahead of time that he was going to have a great debut novel?

Are you suggesting to those of us working on a story collection to just shelve them and get to work on a novel before approaching an agent? Or is the better approach to bypass the agents and go straight to the small presses as someone suggested above?

Thanks and good luck to everyone.

Hetal said...

Self publishing?

Anonymous said...

There is one thing I'd like to add to this that seems to be overlooked in most publishing posts. Many authors are finding a readership through publishing their short stories as stand alones (short e-books). Never in the history of publishing as we know it has this been available to authors or readers.

So instead of readers having to pay for the entire collection of short stories they have the choice of just buying one short from authors they choose to read. In most cases, if the author is smart, the short stories are priced from .99 to 1.99.

You mentioned anthologies with a high concept hook, which is interesting. There were many calls for submissions for these anthologies a few years ago in genre fiction. However, I've been told that most authors are now opting to self-publish their short stories alone because they can make more money than they ever could by getting into an anthology and being paid a flat fee of fifty or sixty dollars. As a result, the calls for submission have dwindled vastly.

And, for anyone signing with a publisher that is doing a collection of short stories...or an's important to NOT sign an exclusive so you can self-publish the story alone if you choose to do so in the future. Because when the publisher releases the collection or the anthology as an e-book and they start getting royalties, the author who only got a flat fee will never be compensated again. At least the author has a chance to make it up alone.

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