To Short Story or Not To Short Story

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A quick word to address a question that was raised yesterday: the new MW schedule, as I understand it, is as follows (Misty or whoever, should feel free to correct me as necessary): David on Monday; Misty on Tuesday; Faith on Wed.; Catie alternating Thursday (with various guests?); AJ and Ed alternating Friday; Kalayna on Saturday; Sunday we all rest.

On with the post, then…

As some of you know, I’ve been working with Spotlight Publishing this year as an acquisitions editor, creating and overseeing a line of sf and fantasy books for them. The relationship started when they published my short story collection, The Trouble With Eating Clouds, and now we are about to release the fourth book in the line, a collection of IGMS stories headlined by Peter S. Beagle and the other winners of the 2010 InterGalactic Awards (which is basically IGMS’s annual readers’ poll).

The IGMS InterGalactic Awards Anthology (edited by Orson Scott Card and myself) will be followed by two more anthologies, both edited by Jason Sanford. One of those anthologies presents Jason’s favorite sf and fantasy stories from his eight years running the Million Writers Award, and the other presents his favorite mainstream/non-genre stories from the contest from that same time period. Those two books will come out next year at the beginning of the nominating process for the 2012 Million Writers Award.

As you will surely have noticed, the line-up is heavily laden with collections of short stories (the other two books are single-author collections of stories by Jason Sanford and James Maxey), and I think as much as anything else, what I’m doing here today on MW is not so much trying to teach you anything or make any point, but find out what you think, what your opinion is on the subjection of collections vs novels. One of the biggest reasons I decided to work with Spotlight is because they were so open to publishing anthologies and short stories collections, something the big NY publishers seem to be producing fewer and fewer of. I understand why the big guys do so few collections—they don’t sell nearly as well as novels—but that leaves a lot of deserving books/stories homeless.

So my question for you today is this: As readers, what are your thoughts on the value of anthologies and short story collections? What makes you buy one over another? Or are they simply something you avoid altogether (and if so, why)?

Please help me understand these books better through the eyes of the people who read (or don’t read) these things. Because like it says on the back of the book cover up above, it’s the readers who matter most.

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27 comments to To Short Story or Not To Short Story

  • Morning, Edmund.
    I use anthologies to find novelists I might like. I found four new ones with the last antho I read and have purchased their novels – all on my TBR pile, of course. :)

    Also MW’s Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday post slots are not quite as clear cut as before. David, Misty and I are giving up one week a month for our monthly posters, guest posters, etc. This gives us a break and makes sure we have time for everyone. Misty sent out a batch of schedules last night to the monthlies and I have no idea how she keps it straight!

  • Actually, Thursdays will be Catie/Kalayna. I’ll post the new and improved schedule this coming Saturday. -smile-

  • Hi Ed.

    I’ve been reading and/or listening to more & more short stories over the years. I used to only read novels, but this changed after I started listening to Escapepod, Pseudopod, & Podcastle about four years ago. So I first started getting my doses of short fiction in the ear: Thanks Steve Ealy, & now thanks to Mur Lafferty…

    As I’ve mentioned on other posts here at MW I work at a library. Every day I see ten or twenty books I’d really like to read. I always have about thirty checked out at home, a mixture of fiction & nonfiction. Not including all the books I buy as an insufferable bookworm, bookhound, and writer to boot. How to keep up? I’ve tried reading just “one book at a time”, but to be honest that doesn’t work, so I gave up. I’m always engaged in reading multiple books at once. And this is where the short form has come in to my aid. I’ve always read a lot of essays & articles, but for whatever reason hadn’t read as many short stories. Now though I’m catching up on all that great short fiction, and honing my own skills at writing the same.

    That doesn’t mean I still don’t read a big fat tome. I do. It is harder to get me to committ to a series or trilogy, though I still read those to, it’s just gotta suck me in from the get-go.

    More and more, as I study publishing, and with around 13 years of library experience (11 at the Cincinnati Public) I see literature as an ecology. Of course ecology itself is one of my interests. A healthy ecosystem not only has big trees and canopies, but also a lot of small plants below, and little creatures in the soil. For literature to be healthy there need to be a lot of microorganisms alive and breeding on the printed page. Without the micro the macro cannot exist. However short stories aren’t just a playground for burgeoning novelists. They deserve to be celebrated as a form in and of themselves. Claire Massey wrote a nice piece along these lines on her blog, Gathering Scraps, the post in question at the following link. http://www.clairemassey.co.uk/2011/09/saving-short-stories_19.html

    I guess I better wrap it up as it seems I’ve written a short essay here myself. Bring on the broadsides of ballads, the one story chapbooks and short collections put out by local small presses, the anthologies and collections of bigger small presses, and the five volume epics launched by the big guys in New York. The power of story is the thing, and they should all serve to reenchant this world.

  • Vyton

    Interesting post, Ed. I like the short story format. Justin, I like the ecology analogy.

  • That sounds like an awesome schedule plan, Faith. And it must be nice for you guys to all have one week off per month. :)

    Edmund: I like short story collections. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m too busy to get immersed in a whole novel, they give me a chance to read *something* from start to finish. This is my own time management/allotment issue, but it’s true. I especially notice that they’re useful to read when I’m in the middle of rewrites.

  • I love short story anthologies when I’m traveling. That way I have less trouble putting down my book when I need to. I also agree with Faith’s point about finding new authors. It’s an easy way to “test drive” several new authors without the larger time investment of a full novel. I also like single author short story collections, though, because you often get a look at new aspects of a beloved series that way.

    Honestly I’ll read just about any format, as long as the story good!

  • Glad to see so many readers of short fiction, I’m genuinely encouraged. So much is said about the demise of short fiction these days. I love the diversity of reasons I see, too. Justin, I love you ecology analogy. Mind if I use it sometime?

  • Not at all Ed. I’m pleased that you like it. To me great writing is about borrowing -from everything else we read.

  • I vote for Justin’s analogy!

  • Everyone does. I guess we’ll just have to build an anthology around it!

  • I like to read a good short story. I think the difficulty is in finding a magazine that is consistent and has enough content I feel it’s worth my time and money.
    “Writers of the Future” is one I like because even if I run across a writer who may not be my favorite, there are so many stories in the anthology, it’s still worth my time and money. It also gives a taste of what up-and-coming authors might be on the way. I also like IGMS for the same reasons. The quality is good and I feel like it’s worthwhile.
    I’ve been turned off of some magazines and anthologies because it felt like many of the stories were an excuse to include edgy material instead of writing a compelling story that may have edgy elements. I think if consumers had a better idea of what they’d be consistently reading, the sales would go up as people gravitated to the magazines and anthologies with the kind of material they like best. Sometimes it seems easier and more economical to spend my money on an author I’m already familiar with than a magazine or anthology that may have only one story in it that I like.

  • su

    I just started following the blog after meeting David at the SCWW conference and buying the Magical Words books which I love! So with my official first comment I want to say that I love short stories. I have a shelf full of anthologies. Unfortunately, the short story market isn’t what it used to be so I hope more people get on board with anthologies. And I do like when the stories are not part of an ongoing series but rather stand alone though that won’t neccessarily deter me from buying.

  • I love short story collections and anthos — I’ve now been in a couple of anthos myself, and I have to say that I also enjoy writing to a theme. So bring ’em on!

  • I appreciate the kind words about IGMS, Collette. And I know what you mean about not liking edgy material for its own sake; I’ve rejected some submissions from some big name authors that weren’t really stories. Some of them take it better than others.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Ok, to balance this ecology, I’ll put in some thoughts from someone who reads very little short fiction.
    a) I’m cheap and almost always buy paperbacks – anthologies are often more expensive. (sorry)
    b) While I definitely like having something I can read in small bites (I DO have trouble putting down a book I love), I also really like settling in with characters or a world that I love. Often, just a taste is either tantalizing and not enough, or insufficient to get me invested in what’s going on. Common-theme anthologies can sometimes be a remedy for this.
    c) It is so hard to know what sort of quality you’re getting when you buy. I don’t just mean how well are the stories written or crafted, I mean, will more than a handful of the stories really appeal to me? What are the odds that one or more of the stories will deeply offend me? Certainly a novel that starts our appealing can become offensive, but the trends are often easier to pick up on. This can sometimes be remedied by sticking to single-author anthologies by authors you know you like, but there can be poor correlation between great novelists and great short-story writers so lots of really good collections will be missed this way. Also, because short stories (in my experience) are often more experimental or like to deal in twists, I find myself turned off by the dark nature of a lot of short stories that seems to especially crop up in more general collections.

    Partly, I suspect that if there were a wider selection of (relatively inexpensive) anthologies readily available, I would be inclined to read more short fiction. I could focus on anthologies by editors I trust based around subjects I find appealing. It would be easier to go with an instinct that a collection wasn’t for me based on a snippet, because the option at that moment wouldn’t be between questionable or no short stories – I could browse until I found a set I definitely wanted to read. Something that novels can sometimes lack is a really good exercise of one’s imagination. Short stories allow for the wider exploration of ideas and flights of fancy that really is appealing. But I think I might be quite picky when it comes to short stories, so it’s more work to find something I’ll like.

    Sorry if any of that came off as overly negative or closed-minded. I personally just have very few short-story collections that I want to read again.

  • SU — Welcome to the zoo. Glad to hear you enjoyed the conference (and anthologies). Generally themed anthologies do tend to sell a bit better; the logic is that if you enjoy the overall topic (dinosaur wizards or what have you), you’re more likely to enjoy more of the stories.

    David — Apparently we’re doing an antho based on micro-organisms. Feel free to get started any time.

  • Hep — No, I don’t think you sound negative or close-minded. Frankly, you’ve neatly summed up the objections of most people to anthologies in general. I appreciate you taking the time to articulate them so thoroughly. I wish I had equally thorough answers for you.

  • I love anthologies. I think Writers of The Future was one of the earliest I found, back in the 80s. Personally, however, I prefer themed anthologies over the randomness of the WOTF collections. I like knowing the flavor of the mind-candy; there’s less chance I’ll bite into something with coconut-cream (not my favorite) that way.

    As a writer, though: is the microorganism anthology going to be invite-only, or open-call? 😉

  • I say this micro-organism themed anthology should be an invite/open hybrid, open but only for MW writers.

  • Razziecat

    I love short stories. From the perspective of a writer, a well-written short story is like a classroom in miniature. Larry Niven said, “writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed,” and I find this to be true, at least for me. As a reader, I enjoy glimpses into a fictional world, and sometimes it makes me want to explore further. I haven’t read an anthology for a long time, though. Overall, they seem to be hard to find, though it could be argued that I haven’t been looking in the right place–like here :)

  • I read very few short stories, but I’m having more and more fun writing them. :) But then, I don’t read nearly enough in general anymore. *flings self in a pit*

  • I just had one of those “ooh! oooh! pick me, teacher!” moments. I’d love to read/contribute to a themed anthology on micro-organisms. (Yes, I know. I’m a suck up. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.)

    I used to read a lot more anthologies than I do now. As a teen and 20 something I devoured anything Ellen Datlow had edited as well as collections by authors I knew. My ambition was to get published some day in the MZB anthology of babes in chainmail. My only criteria for choosing an anthology was that the book had to be either cheap (on sale, used) or free (library.) I had almost no disposable income in those days. Then I went to grad school and had no money and no time.

    Lately I’ve been open to buying anthologies, but I still don’t have much disposable income and very, very little time. This makes me leary of buying indiscriminately because I don’t know where to get good ones. I bought a small press anthology which shall remain nameless at ConCarolinas a few years back and it had 2 really good solid stories and the rest were so badly written I was offended at the editor. On the other hand I have a Neil Gaiman anthology on my TBR pile that I’m saving like a piece of rare chocolate for a moment when I can really enjoy it. I’m not adverse to short stories or anthologies, but I’d like better leads on what I’m buying before I shell out the money. I’d like to buy books with wild abandon, but I can’t afford it right now.

    Oh, and I still want a book to be available in hard copy. I haven’t bought an e-reader and my phone is too small to read stories on.

    PS – Faith – I was too swamped to get back at the time, but I went back and checked your comments on my intro. I absolutely see what you mean about flow and confusion over where Harvey is in the kitchen. Thank you so much for the help!

  • Rhonda

    I do buy anthologies sometimes. Generally only those that are in paperback (either mass market or trade) format, however. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a hardback with unknown authors in it, novel or anthology. (SFBC editions excepted, they were cheap enough.)

    What I look for in an anthology is a theme that catches my attention, plus either an editor whose collections work I respect (Silverberg!) or at least a few authors I like listed on the cover. That way I know I’ll like at least part of it. Also, interesting covers and titles. Covers catch my eye and make me pick it up; the first chapter (for a novel) or the opening of a couple of the early stories (for anthologies) determines if I buy it.

    Anthologies are great for bedtime reading. It’s a lot harder to stop at the end of a chapter when bedtime-reading a novel; much easier to stop at the end of a short story.

    The cover displayed here is one I’m not sure I’d pick up or not if I saw it in a store with no other context. There is no information on the cover as to what ties the stories together other than having been printed in the same magazine in the past. Not knowing anything about the theme of the magazine (if it has one) because I’ve never read it, I see no compelling draw for me, based on how I choose books to buy.

  • Julia

    I used to read a lot of anthologies, but I’ve found myself somewhat out of the habit these days. Ironically, I think I’m reading less short fiction because I’m so busy and so often reading for my academic research or teaching work. I like to have a novel that will really draw me in, where I can become absorbed in a different world, and I seem to need the larger arc of a novel or series.

    That said, I do love short fiction stories — and I would like to read more! Good luck with the project, Edmund.

  • I didn’t get into short stories until grad school, when I was so busy that reading novels was difficult (in the long gaps between reads, I’d forget what was going on). Although I’m back to novels now, I still appreciate short stories, and I’ve learned to like them for themselves and not just as a replacement for longer pieces. And like Rhonda said above, anthologies are great for reading just one story before bed.

    I used to buy the Datlow and Windling Year’s Best every year, and I pick up other anthologies sometimes if they have a theme that interests me. I also buy anthologies from magazines that I like. I don’t read single-author collections very often, since one of the things I like about anthologies is the variety in style and voice.

  • I enjoy writing short stories because I get to the good bits quickly, but I’m not much for reading them because I get to the good bits too quickly. If you see what I mean.
    When I have read short stories I’ve enjoyed them, but to fork over dosh for them doesn’t seem as worthwhile as buying a nice fat epic novel. I often buy books by the pound you see.

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