Short Story Collections – Under-rated

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Browsing in a very large bookstore recently, I searched for the short story section. There wasn’t one. I had just read a collection of short stories, “Fabulous”, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this clever collection where well-known the author has retold the stories of mythical characters but in a modern garb. I was ready for another such collection and to find a new author. Despite countless shelves of fiction, I could find only seven different titles for short story collections. There were more titles for knitting.

On Amazon, both .co.uk and .com, a search for literary short stories brings up over 50,000 titles, but these include many for foreign language learners. Local libraries rarely have a separate section for short stories, and there are few listed in their catalogues. You might expect a greater appetite for short stories than for poetry, but you can usually find a shelf-full of poems. It seems logical that short fiction would sell better than long when our tastes are for the quick bite: we text in condensed format, tweet in 140 characters, TV dramas change character and scene rapidly to retain audience attention. But there’s little evidence of eagerness for short stories. Most magazines dropped their short story features long ago and big fat Harry Potter novels are the best sellers. How few Amazon reviews there are for even the most respected short story writers in comparison with minor and short-lived genre fiction titles.

Even so, there are numerous competitions for short stories. If at least the top ten entries are publishable, that should mean hundreds of stories printed every year, but no. Perhaps it’s because there are so many sites where short stories can be read free? Typically, winning stories are available online. Leaving aside those sites where new writers are trying out their stories for online criticism and encouragement, such as Inkitt and Wattpad, free reads of past works are offered by Project Gutenberg.

The covers of short story collections are often bland and devoid of visual information. It’s unlikely they’ll catch the eye and win a serenditipous sale. Yet, such collections have likely some sort of theme. If none is suggested by the author, such as revenge or love or conflict, there is always the culture, time or place of the story settings. Isn’t it worth the designer encapsulating some relevant image to attract book browsers? 

Here’s a sample of fairly recent short stories well worth sampling. The Best American Short Stories 2023 ed Min Jin Lee (brilliant author herself); Christmas is Murder: A chilling collection Val McDermid; Old Babes in the Wood, Margaret Attwood (for which volume I enjoyed attending her promo in Bath). The Best Short Stories 2023, Ed. Lauren Goff;

And of course, I hope you would consider reading my own paired collection: Me-Time Tales and Curious Men.


Genre? Striking a new note.

 

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What genre?

Writers are always advised to be clear about their book’s genre and to concentrate upon a target group for it. Fantasy stories, for readers of fantasies, sci fi for sci fi readers, and so on. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to please an audience of one genre with your book in a totally different one? That would be a real achievement. I suspect that multiply-awarded Wolf Hall has not managed this. However, it can happen.

Let’s take music as an example. I’ve never liked jazz, despite the fact that my eldest is a musician playing both classical and jazz. It irritates me, the extemporisation on a theme. Simple soul, I want the theme, please. But then one day the Hot Sardines came on the radio and converted me. For those non-jazz lovers, this is a band that has put on wild live shows all around New York City – and now much further in the world.

I was chatting to a young teenager who had only ever read Harry Potter for his leisure reading and was forced to read ’The Scarlet Pimpernel ‘ as curriculum work. Reluctantly, and after much grumbling, he ‘worked through’ the book and came out a convert to historical fiction. ‘I really reckoned the French Revolution and the scheming. Cool. I’m into it now.’ Mightn’t he have been easier to motivate if the cover hadn’t been the one shown below right?

The fact that this series had a very wide appeal is demonstrated by the very different covers, presumably targeting contrasting reader groups. Here are just a few. On a bookshop table, each would likely attract very different shoppers. Scarlpimp Scarlpimp2 Scarlpimp3 136116

It makes you think, if you’re a writer yourself, doesn’t it? It is pretty easy to change a cover and re-upload your title, or to have several covers showing for sale. A number of long-standing successful novels have two or more different covers.

Here’s one of John Wyndham’s, again likely to appeal to different audiences:

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Of course you need a title that doesn’t confine you; ‘Lolita’ or ‘War and Peace’, for instance.

Otherwise, one advantage of being an Indie author is that you have control over your own covers. Almost worth avoiding mainstream publishing for that fact alone?