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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Supply, Demand and the Short Story

From time to time the “ain’t it awful” crowd at one of the various writing groups I belong to goes on a tear about the unfairness of what magazines (print and online) pay for short stories. Duotrope lists professional markets as those paying five cents a word or more for short stories. A 2,000-word story under that scale earns at least $100.

Duotrope lists 107 short story markets that at least sometimes pay pro rates. Five of those (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Boy’s Life, Cicada, Cricket and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) accept Mystery/Crime stories. Science Fiction has 31 markets listed. General wins with 68, and a good story that happens to have a mystery involved could score in many of those markets.

Q: Why aren’t there more, and why haven’t rates increased at the same pace as inflation?

A: Supply and Demand.

1. To pay authors money, the print or online magazine must make money, which means people must be willing to pay to read, or advertisers must pay the freight. The internet has done a wonderful job of convincing people that much information in life should be available for free. Why pay for Encyclopedia Britannica when you can have Wikipedia for free? The quality may not be the same, but if all you need is a general answer, Wikipedia works.

To receive your free content, maybe you have to put up with a few advertisements and give up a bit of privacy as providers keep track of your clicks around the web. Surely there is no reason to pay for anything out-of-pocket.

Newspapers took the route of providing free content on the web; many magazines are following this business model. Some, however, like the Wall Street Journal are trying to reclaim paying customers. We’ll see how that goes. My sense is they are trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped to the meadow of clover.

2. The number of authors willing to give their short stories to anyone willing to publish them is astronomical. Some write short stories for pleasure and are delighted if anyone reads them. Others believe that adding writing credits to their résumé will enhance finding an agent for their novel, from which they hope to make the “big” bucks. As far as I can tell, the overall trend of authors willing to sell their work for much less than minimum wage shows no signs of abating.

3. If Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and their peers already get more quality submissions than they can accept, why should they increase what they pay authors? No reason I can see. Only if the supply decreased below the level they need to sustain the quality of their magazine would they need to increase their payments.

So the demand from readers for quality short stories for which they are willing to pay money is low. The supply of short stories, even really good ones, is high. Classic economics says the price paid for short stories should stay low.

Will e-Readers change either supply or demand? They won’t diminish supply, and we are already at such a large surfeit that people are giving their work away, so I don’t expect any major changes from the supply side of the equation.

Perhaps a ray of hope exists for increasing demand. For some time, lots of people have been willing to pay to download songs at $.99 a pop. Perhaps authors can start charging for their stories. At $.25 a pop, you would only need 400 readers to match the $100 pro fee for a 2,000-word story. In the electronic store, potential readers could find your older stories and buy those too. At checkout the store can suggest that if you like this story by (say) Ed Hoch, you might like this other one by (in my dreams) James Montgomery Jackson – and heck, it’s only a quarter; maybe you’ll give it a try. Or maybe not, we’ll see.

For now, unless you are or become famous (and it’s unlikely short stories alone are going to provide that fame) make sure you have well-grounded reasons for writing short stories. For most of us, money won’t make it worthwhile.

~ Jim

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