Making a Living Writing Short Stories?

“I am an aspiring author who wants to make it big in this industry.  My passion is for writing and I would love to pursue it as a career. I have written many short stories and poems.  I’d appreciate any information you can give me.”


I receive questions like this every now and then, and I always struggle with how to answer them.  Realistically, it’s not possible to make a living writing short stories and poetry.  That’s the short answer.  Even so, you can still see those acts of creativity as worthwhile.  You can still see them published.   


But if you want to make it big – or even just make a living from your writing – then you need to do something a lot of creative people don’t like doing, and that’s think about your market.  Who is going to read your work and pay for the privilege?


How many short stories collections have you purchased in the last year?  The last ten years?  How many poetry chapbooks?  As compared to how many novels, nonfiction books, magazines?  I can tell you I haven’t read a collection of short stories since my dear friend Mary O’Connell published Living with Saints in 2001.  But I have easily bought eight hundred novels since then (hey, I read a lot).  I haven’t purchased a poetry chapbook since I was in graduate school, longer ago than we need to get into here, but I read several hours of nonfiction (books, blogs, websites) every day.


That is to say, I’m a lot like everyone else in the universe (okay, not everyone else in the universe reads *quite* as much as I do).  I read novels and I read practical nonfiction. 


When was the last time you opened a women’s magazine (for example) and read a short story?  Never?  They used to publish them.  I remember reading each issue’s short story in Redbook when I was a kid.  But Redbook has been dead a long time.  So where do you see short stories published now?  In literary magazines and their associated websites, which operate on shoestring budgets and are put out by volunteer (or really badly paid) editors.


There’s just not a lot of opportunity for paying the bills there.  But if you open that same women’s magazine and look at what is being published, you’ll see everything from short round-ups to in-depth reported pieces to personal essays.


If you write those, or are willing to write them, then you have a shot at making some money with your words and turning your talent into a career.


I’m not saying you should.  I’m just saying you could.


If you want to focus on short stories and poetry, then your best bet is to get a teaching position.  So, invest your energy into getting published in those literary magazines and earning your MFA, then start hunting down a sinecure at a college or university.  Of course, these are somewhat harder to find than dragon’s tears, but it’s possible you’ll be able to land one of these positions with the right publications and the right credentials.  But being a teacher and writing on the side isn’t a lot different from being a fill-in-the-blank and writing on the side, and you could save yourself a lot of frustration and annoyance (academia is not for the faint of heart) by sticking with your current fill-in-the-blank job and writing on the side.


Here’s the thing, which I can’t emphasize strongly enough: making a living from your writing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  You don’t get to spend your time writing only what you want to write.  You have to care about the market.  You have to care about being a business.  You have to care about sales and platform and building an audience.  You have to care about a lot of things that, frankly, most creative people don’t want to care about. 


Still want to give it a try?  Then you need to get your stuff out there in the world.  Query publishers about your collection of poetry.  Send your short stories off to those literary magazines.  But you have to go beyond that.  Look at what is being published in markets that pay.  If they’re not publishing short stories, maybe you can use the craft you learned writing short stories to write essays, which are more marketable.  Maybe you can write about writing poetry, or looking at the world through a poet’s eyes.  Open up and see what the possibilities are, instead of thinking there’s only one way to be successful as a writer, or only one way you want to make a living as a writer.

1 comment

  1. Good thoughts, Jennifer. I completely agree. The last poetry collection I purchased was Robert Frost’s collection of poems. I’m not sure if I’ve ever purchased poetry collections from modern poets though. I just had to get Frost’s collection. He’s been my long-time favorite poet. In college, I was fortunate enough to take a creative writing class under a professor who had studied under Stephen Dunn, who in turn had studied under Robert Frost.

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