Which Is Easier? Novels or Short Stories

I have 227 pages of novel sitting next to me waiting for review, which makes it the perfect time to write a blog post…

The other day on one of the forums someone made the assertion that it’s far more difficult to succeed at short story writing than it is at novel writing.  Basically, they said that the odds of selling a story to one of the top magazines were much lower than selling a novel to one of the top publishers.

Now, I had some issues with that statement.  First, I hate any absolutist statements like that.  Writers really are special snowflakes.  There is a writer out there who can write absolutely brilliant short stories that will never ever manage to write a novel.  And vice versa.  There’s a writer who can write amazing, complex novels that couldn’t write a short story to save their life.

Shorts stories and novels require different skill sets.  Sure, being able to tell a story will help you with both, but the structures and focus and developments are very different.  You can be great at one and not so great at the other.  And I think most people have a natural disposition in one direction or another.

Now, let’s assume you’re equally disposed to writing either one.  Do you write a novel or write short stories?  Which one is more likely to lead to career success?

Truth?  Both are damned hard.  Both have very low odds of success.  If you succeed at either one, you are in the top 1-2% of writers.  (Remember: We’re talking about “top” magazines or publishers here.)

How many people will sit down to write a short story and finish it?

How many will sit down to write a novel and finish it?

Of those that finish, how many will take the time to edit and revise it to a professional standard?

Of those that do so, how many will continue to write short stories or novels until they’re at a top professional level?  We’re not talking, can get someone somewhere to publish it.  We’re talking, can get the top names in the industry to publish it.

Not the words I’m using here.  Because I think a much higher number of people can write either a short story or a novel and sell it to someone that will pay them than can write a short story or novel and sell it to a top market.

Ugly truth: Most people won’t sell anything they write to anyone for any sort of money.

Of those that do sell their writing, most won’t ever get into the top magazines or publishers in their fields.

(Nothing wrong with that, by the way.  If you’re writing what you love and making money, then that’s success.  But the post I’m referencing was about getting in at the top.)

So, what are the odds of selling to a top market?

I don’t know other markets, I know spec fic.  So, who are the top magazines in spec fic.  Analog?  Asimov’s?  F&SF?  There are others I’d list, but let’s go with those.

According to the Grinder (great free tool for tracking your submissions), here are some stats on those three markets:

Analog has 191 reported submissions in the last twelve months and has accepted 3.14% of those submissions.

Asimov’s has 535 reported submissions in the last twelve months and has accepted 2.24% of those submissions.

F&SF has 549 reported submissions in the last twelve months and has accepted 1.82% of those submissions.

Now, the actual number of submissions is quite likely much higher than that number and the actual percentage acceptance is quite likely much lower.  (People are out there submitting without the first clue about tools like Grinder and most of those people are less  likely to get accepted than the ones who are at least serious enough to be reading forums and discovering tracking tools.  On the flip side, you have folks who’ve been at this so long they don’t need to use a tracking tool and those folks probably get accepted far more often.  I’m betting the newbies who don’t report outweigh the pros who don’t.)

Pretty low odds, right?  2-3%.  Better to write a novel?

Well, not so fast.

First, let’s say you write 5,000 word short stories and 100,000 word novels.  For each novel you write, you could get 20 bites at the apple writing short stories.

But, with such low odds of acceptance at a top market, novels have to be better don’t they?

Uh, no.

To get in with the top 5 you generally need an agent.

So, let’s look at some typical agent statistics:

Nelson Literary Agency publishes year-end stats for how many queries they received and how many new clients they took on.  In 2013, they received 35,000+ queries for representation and they took on 7 new clients.  That’s a .02% “acceptance” rate.  (It was .05% the year before.)

And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee that the book will sell anywhere.  I have friends with agents and the first book that agent took on didn’t sell.  Sometimes the second didn’t either.  Or, if it did, it wasn’t to a top 5 publisher.

Which means that .02% number is generous.

What about open calls by the top 5?  Skip that whole agent vetting process altogether?  Well, supposedly the Harper Voyager open call had about 4,500 submissions and resulted in about 30 book deals.  So, a .7% acceptance rate.

Bottom line?  Both are extremely difficult.  The odds of success are low.  You have to be at the top of your game.  Just because one path is hard, doesn’t mean the other is easy or easier.

My advice?  Go with your strengths and what you can accomplish.

If you have the burning desire to write a novel, then write it.  If you have a great little short story idea, then write that.  The key is to write.  And to keep writing.  And to improve on that writing.

Ultimately, and this post is too long for me to get too detailed about it, I think novels are the better chance for being able to write full-time for most writers.  You can continue to sell your backlist easier (short story writers do this as well to foreign markets or best of anthologies or through self-pub), and, if you have a good relationship with your publisher, you can keep writing for the same market long-term one two-to-three book deal at a time.  Also, the more book sales, the more income for you whereas most short story sales to magazines are for a set amount.  And I think the market for novels is more robust than the market for short stories.  (At least for now…)

So, my two cents.  Which is worth, well, perhaps less than that…


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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