How to Make A Living as a Professional Fiction Writer
Larry Correia: Writing Class–Week 1, part 2 of 2
Writing as Business
There is nothing wrong with things being rejected, but traditional publishing has gatekeepers and literary agents have their own standards. The funny thing is that there are bunches of literary agents that would love to be Larry’s agent, that would be a nice income stream for them, but they all rejected him. All a rejection means is that the educated guess of the publisher is that they can’t make any money on the product. There are lots of biases, political, incorrect beliefs, and other stuff go into these decisions. JKRowling, who owns Britain and recently bought Scotland as a guest house, was rejected everywhere. There was not a lot of interest in her stuff from British publishers, but in the USA, she got into the Scholastic flier and then things went completely crazy and she caught on everywhere.
So, don’t worry about rejection, don’t let it discourage you. You are an entertainer and have a target audience for your story, but the publisher may not reach that audience. Publishers get a flood of submissions all the time, and they have to dump as many as possible. Of course, a lot of the submissions are self-selected for rejection – written in crayon on prison toilet paper, for example. Then they can’t be read because they are completely incoherent. You should take a look at the slush pile of a publisher if you get a chance. It will make you feel a lot better about yourself as an writer.
There are two types of publishing: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Both have their pros and cons and Larry has done both.
Traditional publishing is big and it is everywhere. Traditional publishing has great distribution and marketing. There are a lot of downsides and cons it gets you, but you want to get in if you can, but if you can’t, then you can self-publish.
Self-publishing is awesome because you can get your book out into the world, and you don’t have to wait for traditional publisher. If they reject you, unlike in the olden days when you had no option, now, you can easily get it out. Larry did Monster Hunter International as a $25 print on demand paperback. It was a really hard sell, but Larry still made money by marketing to internet gun nuts, God bless them.
Now because of ebooks, which has shaken up everything, anyone can make money writing. That, and Amazon publishing everyone’s ebooks. You can get your book out to 100 million people, but there are 500k people just like you. Traditional publishing is great if you can get it, but is hard to get into. Self-publishing is easy to get into because there is no barrier to entry, but every other person with a book has done the same thing.
Self-publishing gets a bad rap because there are a lot of terrible, make-you-cry awful self-published works. These things are hideously bad, because, since there is no barrier to entry, anyone can do it. These garbage works tar the entire self-publishing industry, with a lot of people saying, “Oh, if it is self-published, it must be crap.” On the other hand, even in self-publishing, the good stuff will make its mark. The good works somehow manage to separate themselves from the rest of the field. There are indie authors who are doing amazing things. In the SF world, you have Marko Kloos (author of the Frontlines series), Hugh Howie (author of the Wool series), Christopher Nuttall (author of the Ark Royal series) all doing incredible stuff. They have self-published and are making mid-six figure incomes as indie authors. In particular, Marko Kloos makes about as much money as Larry does, a New York Times bestselling author, and that is with self-publishing.
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you keep about 70% of the cover price of the book. With traditional publishing, you will keep 8% of the cover price of a paperback, 15-20% of the cover price of a hardback (and new authors don’t get their stuff put out in hardback), and 25-30% of the price of an ebook. So, you may be thinking, “Wow, that sucks, I’ll go for 70% every time,” but the difference is that you are potentially reaching a lot more people with the traditional publishing. Larry can easily sell 50,000 paperbacks because his book is in every B&N in the country, so it is a matter of scale. A self-published author will make more per sale, but is going to sell less than a traditionally published author, unless they can differentiate themselves from the herd through marketing.
A self-published author who wants to get into trapdoor has to follow the same procedure as anyone else. Success as a self-publisher doesn’t necessarily provide an “in” to a traditional publisher. You still have to submit the same way as anyone else. Most publishers have a specific submission procedure they follow, and, as said before, they get lots of submissions. Once you submit the work, if you are lucky, the publisher is going to look at the first sentence, the first paragraph if you are lucky. So, you need to hook them as quickly as possible with your lead.
Larry had one of the greatest opening lines ever for Monster Hunter International:
On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.
He still couldn’t sell the book and had to self-publish. So, even if you submit, it is probably going to wind up in the slush pile. In the past, it was originally a giant pile that held bunches of submitted manuscripts, but now it is mostly electronic documents on someone’s computer. They used to have “slush parties” where everyone in the company would read the manuscripts in the slush pile, give each one maybe thirty seconds, and if it interested them, they would put it in the “read more” pile to have someone else look at it further. Otherwise, it would go into the fire.
So, the secret to getting in at a traditional publisher is to bypass the slush pile and get the manuscript in front of someone who actually has the ability to make a decision one way or the other on the manuscript. Either an actual editor or the publisher in person.
This is where marketing and networking come into play.You want to have met actual human beings who can put a face to your name. This is why you want to be going to conventions and schmoozing with people. This is the best way to reach the decision makers.
There is no one right way to break into publishing. Everyone’s story is different, in fact, once one person has found a way in, they have probably ruined that method for anyone else.
Larry started out self-publishing. He had run businesses, he was an accountant, he understood marketing, he knew he had a product, not art, but a product, that he could sell to a specific target audience.
He got his book out in front of that audience, and there was a guy on an internet gun forum that had worked at a huge bookstore in the midwest. He asked for an advance copy of Monster Hunter International, and he loved it. He took it to his old boss, the owner of Uncle Hugo’s, this ginormous bookstore. The boss didn’t think that he would like it, but he agreed to look at it, just because he trusted his former employee’s judgement. He is one of the biggest independent book buyers in the country. He had an electronic version of the book, and he started reading it at work.
He liked it so much that he printed it out on his printer at work, took it home and finished it that night. He came into work the next morning and sent an email to Toni Weisskopf at Baen saying, “You need to buy this book from this self-publishing dude because it is a perfect fit for you.” He knew Baen, he knew the people at Baen, and he knew Baen’s readership, and he knew they were a great fit. Meantime, based just on the marketing and buzz on the internet, Monster Hunter International sold enough copies fast enough to make it to the New York Times Bestseller list.
Toni Weisskopf read it and liked it, so they bought the rights to the book. So, Larry was able to cut through the slush pile and get the book in the hands of Ms. Weisskopf, who had the power to make a decision on the book.
Marketing, Networking and Conventions
Although publishing has a 99.99% failure rate for new authors, the vast majority of these don’t do any marketing, and don’t even submit much. They submit a few times, they get rejected, then they give up. Larry actually submitted to Baen, the whole nine yards, manuscript in an envelope, and he never heard back. He assumed he had been rejected.
When Baen moved their headquarters, they tore things apart to see if they could find Larry’s Monster Hunter International. They couldn’t find it, so there is a reasonable chance that the post office lost it.
Lots of sales as an indie author may or may not carry any weight with a traditional editor. Many of them aren’t far-sighted enough to take account of the indie market, and just shrug their shoulders when told about massive indie sales.
Larry introduced an author friend of his to an editor, because he knew the author wrote the kind of book that the editor’s readers were buying. The editor asked Larry if he would write a blurb for the cover. Larry agreed. Then he asked Larry if he would “book-bomb” (more on that, later) it. When Larry agreed, then the editor sat down with her.
Now, this woman was already making some money on self-publishing, so she had already done step one – get good enough that people will give you money, so she had laid the groundwork for her success.
Marketing self-published works boil down to one thing: Know your target audience, then figure out how to separate yourself from the crowd of other people trying to market to that audience. In Larry’s case, he was writing “combination gun nut/monster movie” fiction. He didn’t have any idea how to reach the monster movie guys, but he knew all about internet gun nuts, because he had been online in the gun forums for years and he had worked in the firearm industry. They knew him and there were thousands of them.
He “gun-nutted” up his book. Many people complained that his excess amount of gun porn made their eyes glaze over. Larry said, “I don’t care about you, you’re not my target audience, you probably wouldn’t buy the book anyway.”
If you are writing a romance book, find out what works for romance authors. In particular, find writers who are marketing to your audience and see what they are doing. Find the most successful authors and try and discover what they are doing to reach their readers. Who do they know? What cons do they attend?
Lynn Kurland (author of the Macleod series) makes huge amounts of money writing Scottish time-travel paranormal romances. As a matter of fact, she is Mrs. Correia’s favorite author. Mrs. Correia appears not to be a Mr. Correia novel fan.
Obviously, the skill of the marketing is going to vary by author, because marketing and networking is very hard. Writers have a wide range of personalities, and a number of them are, shall we say, less than skillful in social situations. That may be one of the reasons they are writers.
Larry, for example, can be eloquent, brilliant, and concise behind a keyboard. When he has to talk, he screws it up and it all goes banana-shaped. There is no magic bullet, no one trick to success in your marketing.
Most self-published books only sell a couple of hundred copies. That being about the number of friends and family that an author has. If the book manages to create a buzz, it might get as much as a couple of thousand copies, if the author markets it. A really break-out book is going to do much better than that, but it is rare. The break-out books have to have something that gets them in front of influential people like reviewers or other people who have a lot of fans or followers.
For example, many people try to get Larry to do a “book-bomb” for them. When Larry does a book-bomb, he promotes a book on his website, and tries to get as many people as possible to buy the book on the same day at Amazon. They will sell several hundred copies of the book, and that many sales in a short period is enough to push the book to the top of sales rank in its genre. Once it gets to the top, then it gets in front of a lot more eyes, and that leads to more sales, and it can start an upward spiral for the book.
A critical component of marketing is networking, since the publishing business is such a small community. Your contacts can literally make or break you. One of the best ways to network, as we said above, is to go to conventions. Larry recommends Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE), which is held in Provo every February. It is primarily a science fiction/fantasy convention, but it is all writing, all the time. There are editors and publishers there, lots of excellent panels, and it is a great place to learn new things and meet people.
For those who are not science-fiction/fantasy types, there are hundreds of writers’ conventions every year. Find the ones that are related to your area of interest and attend. Just be sure and do your research before you spend money to travel and buy a pass. However, just going to the conventions is not enough, since lots of other authors are going to be doing the same thing.
Even though we have spoken about marketing for self-published authors, marketing is still important for newbie traditionally published authors, too. The thing is, you have no control over what the publisher is going to do for marketing, so if you want to make sure that you sell lots of books, you need to market yourself as if the publisher isn’t there at all, since in many cases that may effectively be the truth.
When Monster Hunter International first came out, Larry knew that Baen wasn’t going to spend much money on marketing his books, since they only expected to sell a few thousand copies. So, he got together with two other authors, John Brown (author of the Servant of a Dark God series) and Dave Overton (pen name Dave Farland, author of the Runelords series), and they put themselves on a book tour. They would fly to a city, rent a car, and then go to various bookstores in the area and hold signings. They would call some bookstores in the area ahead of time and inquire about book signings. Since Dave Overton is a famous New York times bestselling author, they stores were usually overjoyed to have him come down. Then he would mention that he would have Larry Correia and John Brown with him. The stores would be like “Larry Who? and John Whatsis?” but Dave would tell them to order some of their books for the sale.
One time, in Phoenix, AZ, they were going to do a signing at The Poison Pen, a huge bookstore in Scottsdale. Dave got sick before the signing and had to cancel. John calls and tells the bookstore that Dave can’t make it. Since the thing was already on the calendar, they tell Larry and John to go ahead and come in.
Now, marketing comes into play. Scottsdale is a huge gun center, and there were a bunch of people at the Scottsdale Gun Club that knew Larry, including a number of folks who bought the original, self-published Monster Hunter International. So, Larry went shooting at the club before the book signing, and got the word out to his friends at the gun club and in the area that he was going to be there.
When Larry and John got to The Poison Pen, in the area for books signings, there was a chair for Larry, a chair for John, and four chairs for people coming to the signing, because that was the bookstores estimation of how many people would be showing up. But people showed up and they had to put out more chairs, then more people showed up and they had to put out more chairs, until finally all the chairs were out and they had people standing in the aisles. The folks at The Poison Pen were so impressed, they invited Larry back whenever he wanted to come.
Most book signings in America sell just a dozen or so copies. If you sell more than twenty, you are doing good. Over one hundred is great, and two hundred is spectacular.
Larry had a funny experience a few years ago at a big literary con. He had just started doing really well, and he met a hotshot literary agent at the con, one of the guys that knows everyone and is famous. The guy sees Larry’s name tag, and he says, “Oh my gosh, Larry Correia! Wow, you just came out of nowhere and just are doing so great. Who’s your agent?”
“Well, I don’t have an agent.”
“Really, wow, how did that happen?”
“Well, you rejected me.”
“Yeah, hey it was nice to meet you, I got to go.”
If you are interested in traditional publishing, a literary agent might be something to think about. Many of the traditional publishers will not accept unsolicited submissions, which means that they will only look at something that comes to them through a literary agent. As discussed above, the literary agent is the first line of defense, the gatekeepers to keep out the riff-raff, i.e. you and me.
So, in order to even get looked at by some publishers, you have to have the literary agent. Now, there are a lot of people out there trying to prey on hopeful authors. A legitimate literary agent will never charge you money for anything. They represent you and then receive a percentage of your earnings, typically 15%. They don’t get paid until you get paid. They sell your stuff to the publisher. If you get a $10,000 advance, your agent will keep $1500 of it.
If someone is saying, “I am a literary agent, and I will represent you for $500,” they are a thief and a scammer. Stay away from people like that. Do you really need a literary agent?
The main purpose of a literary agent is to skip that slush pile and get your work in front of people who can make a decision about it. Their job is to represent you. Their value is that they know people. Obviously, this is much more important for traditional publishing than it is for self-publishing. In fact, probably just about every successful traditional publishing author has a literary agent. As part of representing you, they take care of contracts, they explain the legalese, they handle ancillary rights, which we will discuss later. The literary agent is your go-to person for all that stuff, and the more of your work they sell, the more money they make. They are supposed to be your best friend in the publishing business, but they are your friend because they are getting 15% of everything you make.
Do you need a literary agent to be successful? Not necessarily. Larry doesn’t have one. Of course, Baen Books has a reputation as a straight-arrow publisher who doesn’t play games with checks and royalties, unlike some other publishers. Since Baen is an honest broker, Larry doesn’t really feel the need to have an agent to check on them. He is also trained as an accountant and did contract work for the government for years, so he is happy to poke around contracts.
As mentioned before, for some publishing houses, you must have an agent even to get in the door. An agent can walk in and drop your manuscript on the editor’s desk. Whatever you decide about an agent, if you plan on using one, be sure and research them beforehand. Many agents only handle very specific stuff. So, find out the agents that represent authors who do the same sort of fiction that you are writing, and contact them. It is also important to check on the submission guidelines for each agent, since, as stated before, they are trying to eliminate things from consideration as quickly as possible, so don’t make any mistakes in your submission that will prompt them to dump your work.
Larry has, through Baen’s in-house literary agent, has gotten into seven languages and audio books. He currently makes about one-third his income from Audible, so he really likes the audio books side of things. So, this is another job of a literary agent, to get you into markets you would otherwise not have access to. Larry makes a couple thousand dollars a month from the Czech Republic, which is basically free money for him, because it is all stuff that he has already written, and he didn’t have to do anything to get it. He also has people who have optioned Monster Hunter International for television.
Another job of a literary agent is to advise you on contracts. If you go traditional publishing, you need to read your contract. Of course, the agent is going to read it, too, but you need to be sure that you understand everything in the contract before you sign it, so read it yourself, just to make sure. If you have any questions, it may be worthwhile to hire someone to go over the contract with you. The quality of different publishing houses ranges from almost totally honest to downright evil. Some of these publishing houses are not actually doing human experimentation, but that is only because it is completely against the law. If they could get away with it, they would. So, read your contracts.
There are going to be a number of things in a publishing contract. There is your advance. This is money that the publisher gives you up-front for signing with them. You will not receive any royalties from sales of your book until you have “earned back” your advance money. Once you sell enough books to cover that advance, you start collecting royalties.
Your contract will specify your royalty rate. It will specify the amount of your advance and how it’s given to you. It covers the rights that the publisher is purchasing. In most cases, the publisher will be purchasing the English language version of the book, possibly in a geographically limited area (US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, and so on). It is possible that there are other rights specified in the contract. You have to decide which rights you are going to give your publishing house and what you want to keep for yourself. There are dramatic rights (movies, TV, audio books), comic book rights, video game rights, board game rights, role-playing game rights. You should give away as few rights as you can get away with, because each right you keep is a possible revenue stream. Foreign language and country rights are really important. As was discussed earlier, Dan Wells is huge in Germany, and since he kept those rights for himself and his agent sold them to a German publisher, he is making bank on his German stuff. All of these things are specified in your contract.
Things to watch out for in a contract. “Right of first refusal,” is where a publisher gives you (usually) a one-book deal, then they have the right to look at anything you write subsequently and make you an offer before anyone else. That sounds great in theory, but you need to read the clause very carefully, because there are some publishing houses that word it so that they basically own you after your first book. They can take as long as they like to get back to you with an offer, so they can “camp” on it and keep it out of circulation indefinitely before you can try and sell it to anyone else.
Unfortunately, there are some small publishing houses in Utah that are legends around the world for their abuse of this tactic. Larry was having dinner with some British publishers at a convention and he said he lived in Utah, and they said, “You are not with any of those publishers, are you?” and he quickly assured them that he was not, and everyone was greatly relieved.
One Utah author, Robison Wells (brother of Dan Wells), had a clause in his contract with one of these small Utah publishers that had the provision that he couldn’t write anything in the same genre as what he was doing for that publisher, because he would be “competing with himself.” Crazy stuff, that doesn’t even make sense. But, you have to watch out for these things, so read your contracts carefully and know what’s in them before you sign them.
Authors love advances, and big advances are great. A lot of money up front is really good, but not just because it is a lot of money up front.The thing about a big advance is that a publisher believes that the author is going to be a big earner for them, so they are putting out a lot of money up-front, and thus, it is likely that they are going to spend a lot of money marketing the author, since they are taking more of a financial risk with the big advance. The bad part about a big advance is that you have to earn that advance back, and if you fail, the publisher will see you as unprofitable, and will essentially trashcan you.
There are a number of publishing houses that have the reputation “throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.” They give an author a book deal, pay them a hefty advance, $50,000 or so, and then don’t really do much on the marketing side, just hoping that something that they have out there will do well without any real work on their part. Enough of the stuff they put out is successful to keep the publisher in business, but for the people who don’t earn out, they are loser writers and the publisher basically just abandons them.
This may not actually be the fault of the work or the author, either. If the publisher doesn’t do anything to get the word out, even a good book can wither and die on the vine. Then, the book doesn’t earn back the advance, the publisher sees the author as a loser, and they don’t buy anything else from him. So, a small advance almost guarantees that you are going to earn it out and be seen by the publisher as an asset to the company, ensuring a continuing relationship with the publisher. Still, a small advance is a small advance, and as they told Larry in Accounting School, “more zeros is better.”
One of the problems with traditional publishing is it is big and it is slow. Obviously, since Baen bought the rights to Monster Hunter International, they couldn’t have Larry selling it, so he had to discontinue the self-published version. So, the print run had to be scheduled way ahead of time, so it was another year before Baen had their version out. In that year, the guys that bought the self-published version had talked the book up among their internet gun nut friends, in particular taunting them about the fact that the book was no longer available, so there was a pent-up demand for the book when it finally came out. Baen figured that since Larry had already sold several thousand copies of the book, he had near saturated the market. So, they ordered a really small print run for the initial print run. It sold out in like three days. The next print run was larger, but it took another couple of months to schedule that one. So people still had to wait. Larry believes that the fact that the book was mostly unavailable for over a year right when the buzz was at its height was one of the major reasons that the book did so well.
The average mid-list novel in America will sell, over its lifetime, about 15,000 copies. This is for a book that is not a bestseller. If you go into Barnes & Noble and pick up a random book off the shelf, it will sell 15,000 copies. This is not enough to live on. If you are getting a royalty rate of 8% on a paperback, and the book sells for $10, then you make 80¢ on each sale, so that 15,000 copies works out to about $12,000 total income for you. If it takes you six months to write a book, then you get an income of about $24,000 a year. That is not enough to live on, at least very well. Most authors don’t quit their day jobs until they have something like five books out with more under contract. The reason is because the more books you have out, the bigger your back list, when people discover you, they buy more books, and you get paid more.
Very few authors write one book then quit their day job. That is an unfortunate side effect of the economics here. The Guardian, which is a UK yellow newspaper that is about the most unreliable rag on the planet, so take this with a grain of salt, said that the average mid-list author in the US makes about $30,000 a year. Only the top 1% makes over $100,000 a year. Larry is firmly in that 1%. Most people don’t get there. However, don’t be too depressed. Remember, this the average, so there are authors who get a book out and then sell to friends and family, and those guys are dragging these numbers down.
A “midlist author” is an author, not a bestseller, whose books are on the shelves at a bookstore, whose books will be reordered when all the store copies are sold. They are not bestsellers, but their books are in stores and the books are reordered as they are sold out.
A bestseller, on the other hand, sells more books. But the problem is that bestseller lists are crap, for a couple of reasons. One is that they don’t cover all outlets, only “selected” retail locations. Second is that they are based on the rate of sales, not the totals. If someone sells 10,000 books in one week, then never another copy, they are a bestseller. Total sales: 10,000 copies. If someone sells 1,000 books a week for a year, not a bestseller. Total sales: 52,000 copies. The people who are bestsellers say it on the cover and on their resume, because it sounds cool.
Celebrity books come out and sell a bunch of books in the first week or two, then the rest of them are “remaindered,” which is the process of tearing the cover off the book and then shipping it back to the publisher for a partial refund. These celebrity books are the most remaindered books.
Ebooks are different. First of all, bestseller lists don’t look at ebook sales at all. Second, since there is no physical inventory, they sit out there in print forever. They are one of the greatest innovations for authors on the back end for making money since the books are always out there for people to buy.
For normal books, as an example, Larry is dependent on bookstores reordering copies when they run out. If he doesn’t sell fast enough or well enough for that bookstore, they are not going to reorder the book, because shelf space is limited and every inch is precious. If Larry’s books are taking up too much space and not selling well, the store is going to rip the covers off, send them back for a refund, then not order any more. Then the shelf space is going to go to someone else, probably Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) or Glen Cook (Black Company and The Garret Files).
But, ebooks represent an infinite, never-depleting inventory of stock of an author’s works. Someone who buys one of your books as an ebook can instantly purchase all of your books at once, because they are all there, waiting to be bought. So, now when someone buys a Larry Correia book, he doesn’t get one sale, he gets thirteen.
So, the numbers sound scary, but there are a lot of things weighting them down. Still, it is not easy. You must treat it as a job in order to make money.
A lot of authors are “critically acclaimed authors.” That means that critics like their work, and they have sold 60 copies of their book. They are “important,” but they don’t actually make any money off of their work. This class is not for someone who wants to be critically acclaimed, it is for someone who is going to put in the time to make it a career.
Short Fiction v. Long Fiction (Stories v. Novels)
If you want to make a living as a fiction author, you have to sell novels. You cannot make a living off of short stories because the pay is crap. They are still paying short story rates of 7¢ to 10¢ a word, which is the same rate they were paying when Robert A. Heinlein was writing stories, 70 years ago. If you write and sell a 1000 word story a day, you are going to make only $100 a day. That is impossible to live on. It is also probably impossible to do.
First, writing a short story is a different skill set than writing a novel. Second, even though they are short, you still have to do all the setup, characterization, and plot development, all of which takes time. Larry has sold 24 short stories and has written about 50 more. He writes them for fun, he writes them for marketing, he writes them so he can get in an anthology, but he hardly ever writes them for the money. The few times he has made money on a short story, it is because he has gotten the rights back after a bit of time, and he sold them three or four times, so he was getting paid for work he had already done.
Another use for a short story is to explore a concept for a new setting or writing style. Larry has a new epic fantasy coming out in October, called Son of the Black Sword. Larry wrote a short story called “Keeper of Names” for a military fantasy anthology called Shattered Shields (published by Baen, edited by Jennifer Brozak and Bryan Thomas Schmidt). “Keeper of Names” is a chapter of Son of the Black Sword, and Larry used the story as a proof of concept for the world, the style, and pieces of the storyline. “Keeper of Names” is an origin story for one of the supporting characters in Son of the Black Sword, and the fan response to the story was such that Larry knew he had a winner in his new series. Also, people who read the anthology are more likely to buy Son of the Black Sword, since they have some familiarity with the setting and the story.
Larry also recently got to write a short story for a Hammer’s Slammers anthology by David Drake, and he was thrilled, because he would have done that for free. He first read Hammer’s Slammers in 1985, when he was 10 years old, and it was really exciting for him to get to play in David Drake’s universe.
So a short story can work well as a test case for a larger world. As an example, say you think you want to write a book in a new science fiction setting you have come up with. Before you decide to spend six months [only if you are fast. Some of us take closer to eighteen months to finish a novel – Ed.] of your life working on this novel, see if you can break off a small piece of the world and write a short story about it. Then put that out and see how it does. See how the audience reacts to it, see if you enjoyed writing it, see if it clicked for you. If so, then you are going to have fun with the novel.
Writing short stories is also good training for writing in general. A short story forces you to get characters and plot and a story fast. You don’t have time to screw around in a short story. You can’t be “languid” in your development of the short story, there isn’t room. All of these factors make them a great learning tool.
So, write short stories. They are great practice, they work great as proofs of concept, they can provide excellent marketing opportunities, but you are not going to make a living as a short story writer, so you are going to have to put your energy into novels.
One new development in the area of short fiction is audio books. There is a market for shorter audio fiction. Larry has done several novella sized stories for Audible (one of the leading vendors of audio books), and they translate into about a movie-sized audio book, between ninety minutes and two and a half hours, in other words. This makes it cheaper than a standard audio book, but it is still a nice story that is about the length of a movie, which people seem to be fond of. These works also bring in a lot more money than your average short story. Larry loves audio books. He makes about one-third his income from audio work.
The characterization of short fiction is a bit archaic. A short story is usually a work up to about 10,000 words. A novella is a long short story, or a short novel, depending on how you look at it, and is up to about 30,000 words. Then a novel, at least theoretically, starts out at 50,000 words, although people expect larger novels these days, so the actual size is 70,000 or greater, depending on the genre. YA novels are the shortest, but epic fantasy is usually at least 130,000 words, can go up to 200,000 or so, and some people, like Robert Jordan (author of the Wheel of Time series) had novels that were more than 300,000 words.
The actual length of the short fiction you are writing is usually determined by your contract. An anthology, for example, is going to have limits on the size of the submissions. In the same way, magazines like Analog and Asimov’s have limits on the size of what they will accept. If you are going to submit to these markets, make sure that you follow their submission guidelines.