Strategies For Self Publishing Short Stories

I’ve been preparing the past month to self publish a novelette of roughly 14,000 words. I’m nervous because the last time I published a novelette of about that length (Maladaptive Bind was originally only about 16,000 words), someone suggested that this story could in fact be developed into a larger work with more details and ultimately a more satisfying conclusion. While I took up the challenge of turning Maladaptive Bind into a novel, my goals the past four months have centered on creating satisfying shorter works with the hopes that eventually I will be able to sell some of those stories to speculative fiction magazines. I’ve viewed this strategy as a nice way to put a feather in my cap, so to speak, or to build a more professional publishing track record without the stress of getting a larger work through a publisher.

My sweet spot for writing stories seems to be in the awkward 10k-words to 60k-words length, which often makes them too long for what many magazines are willing to finance and too short for the production economics of traditional publishers. As a self-published author, however, novellas can be a fantastic niche market that allows greater flexibility while still offering stories to readers at a reasonable price.

In the process of polishing and formatting my novelette, I’ve been researching the publishing strategies of other self-published authors. These include colleagues I know well, as well as anyone I can find on places like Amazon and Smashwords. There seem to be two main sets of strategies: publishing a series of shorter works that ultimately culminate into a larger work (where the short installments are sold individually via ebook and the collection may be sold all together in one print book if in print at all), and publishing stand-alone short stories that may or may not be associated with other essentially stand-alone short stories in a particular universe. A number of the self-published authors I know have suggested and implemented the former strategy of creating novella series, where the first installment is free or very cheap and subsequent installments become increasingly more expensive up to a certain price bracket (Usually $2.99 or $3.99 in US dollars). I made a point of looking closely at reviews of three stars or below (based on Amazon’s rating system) to see what the true critics liked and disliked about these novellas.

My fear in particular is that people will buy my story and feel ripped off simply because it’s short. Regardless of the quality of my writing–that even if they feel my writing is good, they’ll simply wish there had been much much more of it for their enjoyment. Or that they’ll wish the story had been extremely cheap or free for that length. If I can’t give people a novel, they may at least want a whole series of novellas with this incremental pricing set-up so they can see if they like my writing or this universe I’ve created, and then decide if it’s worth it to them to buy the rest of the installments in the series.

I personally don’t want to offer my work for free anymore. And I wasn’t planning on writing a sequel to this particular story. Although, I could possibly do more stories within this universe if people really like it and want to see more of my orcs. And I feel like writing more about that universe.

Anyway, what I actually discovered, regardless of whether the critics felt the quality of writing was good or bad, was whether they felt like they were getting a complete story. A number of three-, two-, and one-star reviews, who varied quite a bit in whether they liked a story and the quality of writing, consistently complained that they felt ripped-off by the incremental series because they weren’t getting a complete story with a beginning, middle, and ending for the money they were spending. They didn’t like being sold “one chapter at a time.” (Regardless of whether the novella had multiple chapters, many still called such installments a single “chapter”). The readers didn’t like the feeling of endless cliffhangers that could ultimately end up with them spending ten or even more dollars collecting these ebooks (significantly more than they might spend on a compiled novel-length edition ebook of the same series with all the installments included) only to reach an ending to the series that they may or may not like.

Short stories of various lengths that managed to deliver a compelling beginning, middle, and ending tended to garner reviews related to whether people liked the story, the ending, or the quality of writing without any mention of feeling “ripped off” for the money they spent simply because the stories were shorter. Some reviewers even praised these stories for feeling like they were complete–even if the reviewers didn’t like what they read.

I have to say that this discovery blew me away, yet it made a lot of sense. In a series of novel-length works, the strategy for creating a trilogy, for example, is often to create the first book so it can stand alone in case there isn’t enough interest to continue the series (this particular strategy is especially good if you want to go through a traditional publisher). Book two is often structured to be a cliffhanger to pull people along to book three, which should wrap up all the loose ends of the series as nicely as possible.

Novel-length works also have a lot more going on. There’s a lot more room for developing characters, setting, and plot, as well as room for multiple and varied subplots. If a novel ends on a cliffhanger, hopefully some of the subplotting will still wrap up by the end. We’ve been immersed in the world and characters enough to care about the next installment and forgive the disruption. We may even welcome the break if the novel is particularly long, intricate, or intense! In short stories, there is a limited cast of characters, limited interaction with the world, and the plots are limited to one or two major conflicts that must be resolved succinctly and in a way that packs a punch.

While I thought the economics of selling stories favored the number of words people were getting for their dollar, I think ultimately it favors whether they’re getting a story with complete structuring for their dollar (at least when it comes to ebooks and self-publishing). I feel much more at ease putting out my stand-alone novelette of 14,000 words after making these observations. But I will be keeping my eye out for reviews on this and future stories, whatever their length, to make sure my reading customers feel like they’re getting a complete and satisfying experience for their money.

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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