Anthologies vs. Novels vs. Magazines

hulk thinkLast week, at the bottom of a post announcing a Kickstarter (which you should totally back if you like sword-and-sorcery and especially if you dig my stories)  a number of us started chatting about the strange problem with short stories vs. novels in today’s market place.

Novels simply sell better. Anthologies, even if they’re all about a popular character from, say, a series of novels (like Harry Dresden) don’t sell as well. I’ve often thought that strange; busy as we are these days, with so many distractions, it seems counterintuitive that people aren’t more interested in sitting down with a short story right before bed.

My old friend Paul McNamee pointed out that people have to do more “heavy lifting” with a series of short stories than a single book, especially in a collection full of different writers and different settings. You sort of do it once for the novel, and then you have the characters and sense of setting. It might change and more characters may be added in (or killed off) but it’s still different than having the ground shift under you every time you start a new tale.

Then we can also look at the way magazine sales have fallen off in the last decades, for further evidence.

And yet I don’t think the short story or novella is QUITE dead. Certainly some are still being sold and published. The TOR novella line, online, seems to be doing well, thank you, and some magazines and e-zines have managed to stay in print. If not exactly thriving, they’re alive and seemingly healthy.

What do all of you think is the explanation? And I speak not just as someone who loves short stories, but as someone who has devoted an awful lot of time to getting a new magazine full of them together for the reading public. What do you think I need to watch out for?

36 Comments on “Anthologies vs. Novels vs. Magazines

  1. One thing I always enjoy are Stephen King collections and sometimes I enjoy them most for his writer notes and introductions. Usually in his introductions, he states he wants short stories to stay alive and viable and that is why he continues using the form.

    I think one thing to watch out for is novelists who don’t understand the short story form. Meaning, I see far too many anthologies of current fantasy writers offerings stories from their bestselling series. I’ll admit to not reading many but when I do I often feel the story is nothing but an advertisement for their series. Or, the story reads more like a lost/removed chapter from something bigger – not really a short story at all.

    That is what King is pointing out – we need to exercise those short story muscles.

    I am glad the TOR novellas seem to be doing well. Ever since ebooks started, I know many of us felt length would no longer an obstacle or a hindrance. But there was not an immediate major resurgence of the short form. It’s been a slow build. Now we have Kickstarter magazines and anthologies. I think the promise of Internet meets digital meets customized markets is finally paying off.

    Then again, maybe that’s just because that’s what I like and keep my eyes open for. I have a ‘Zines Amazon wishlist now. Never would have thought that a few years ago. Granted, a lot of it is ‘new pulp.’

    Time will tell.

    • Paul, that’s a good point about novelists not knowing the form. I’ve seen that time and again. There really are related but different muscle groups involved in telling the two different sorts of stories.

      I, too, hope that we’re about to see a time when the pendulum swings back the other way a little and people are more open to short works once more.

  2. There was a time when all I read was short stories in SF magazines. Now a days, I read more novels, but I still like a good short story.

    Recently, I got an anthology of stories about comic book character Hellboy. It featured among others Laird Barron and Jonathon Maberry (whose story had Hellboy fight the ghost of Aaron Burr.)

    I seem to write entirely in the short story form (and have published exactly one story.) I might wan to try to write a novel.

    • I’m with you — I like ’em both. I do tend to steer clear of doorstop fantasy, for the most part. I’ve been burned too many times.

  3. First, Howard is there a way to subscribe to comments on a post here. If you’ve got one, I’m not seeing it. I would have participated in the conversation had I known it was going on.

    I’ve heard the “I only read novels” line, but the explanation I heard was a little different. It was more about wanting to escape into a world, and I recall there being an emphasis on world building more that characters. Maybe my memory is fading, but I seem to recall the person who said this was emphasizing escape over enjoyable story. To put it another way they were looking more to forget about their life than they were looking to enjoy the well-told tale. Maybe I’m splitting hairs but I see that as a little different not having to reinvest in characters. YMMV.

    Me, I’m the opposite. I’ve gotten where I don’t read many novels and very few long doorstoppers. I simply don’t have the time. I would rather read short fiction because I can usually finish a story in one sitting, two at the most (unless I’m reading in the grocery line or something).

    Part of the preference for longer works may be conditioning by the media. When I was growing up, most television shows were episodic. The story was brought to a conclusion in one episode or on occasion in a two part episode. There were few (if any) major changes to the characters, setting, etc. These days an entire season can be watched without the story elements being brought to a conclusion. And major changes can happen at any time during the season, and with some shows those changes are expected. I wonder if our entertainment preferences are changing in part because the media we consume has changed.

    • Keith, you’ve raised that point before about subscribing. I suppose I’d better dig around and find a way because you’re probably not alone. I’m really not up on how all this works (I’m a writer, not a moon shuttle conductor!) but there’s probably a plug-in or something to deploy.

      As to reading preferences, you’re a regular enough site visitor to know that I’ve been steering towards those old Gold Medal books precisely because they were precise and sharp and short. I’m tired of padding and navel gazing, which seems to be quite common.

      I also think you’re right about the difference in the kind of media we’re consuming. I DO like overaching arcs in modern TV drama, but I like it better if it’s mostly a self-contained episode but that the characters build and arcs develop over the course of a season. That’s kind of the best of both worlds.

      I realize, too, that I bring preferences established in me from my first exposure to short adventure stories. Both the tales from Leiber’s Swords Against Death AND Harold Lamb’s Cossack saga were extremely important to me, and among the first heroic adventure I ever read. And both are serial adventure stories that occur chronologically and build, one upon the other. They can be read separately for enjoyment, but are lovely to read in sequence (this is even more true of Lamb than Leiber).

      • I don’t know what platform you’re using for your blog, but WordPress has a feature that let’s you subscribe. I think it’s in the settings, but it’s been so long, I’m not sure.

        I’m like you in that my early reading experiences went a long way to determining my preferences. I grew up reading novels that were around 180-220 pages because most of the ones available were that length, both new and used, so that’s my preferred length for novels. Gold Medal are the perfect length, IMO. I also read a large number of short stories in 7th grade because the school library stocked a lot of anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg. That had multiple consequences, such as I could usually read one or two throughout the day after I finished my work in class. I also got in the habit of trying out a new author through short stories before I invested my limited funds in a novel.

        I agree with you about the episodes being self-contained but fit into an overall arc.

  4. My experience as a small publisher has been interesting. While my own collection of short stories has not sold well, my anthologies with various writers are my best selling books. It may be because I focus on niche markets and an undeserved demographic.

    • It’s a pleasure to hear of a project where the anthologies are selling well! I wish the same was true for the short story collections.

  5. I think readers get invested in characters and worlds.

    Just imagine if all we had of Westeros were the Dunk and Egg stories.

    • Investment is indeed one of the big problems with stand alone short stories. I’ve read a couple of anthologies, but the only thing I feel I actually got out of them was reading samples of longer series that I had not known about. Those that are just one shot and done just don’t leave any impact.

  6. To me it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I happen to be very universal in what I read: fantasy, science fiction, mystery. I don’t read much non-genre fiction (which is itself a genre) unless it’s a proven classic: Austen, Dostoevsky, Dickens.

    Length isn’t an issue except when there is too much padding which does happen a lot in modern novels. When I was young I read the Lankhmar stories after I read the Lord of the Rings.

    • I’m with you on the mood — sometimes I feel like reading short stories, sometimes a novel. I’ve been reading more and more outside the genre lately, so much so that I’m having to make myself come back to it.

      I don’t have a problem with length so long as the story doesn’t feel padded to me.

      • I went through a long period where I read mostly mystery/crime fiction after reading mostly SF/Fantasy. After awhile I burned out on that and with great joy went back to SF.

  7. I have always preferred big, fat juicy series. I only read shorter books and novellas by favorite authors and then mostly to get additional background on characters that didn’t fit into the books. The Oberon novellas to go with the Iron Druid books by Kevin Hearne. The Sir John novellas to go with the Outlander books. The extra short story books that go with the Honor Harrington universe. The exception is Charles de Lint. I’d read his grocery list, just in case there was a pixie clinging to it.

    • So you’re okay reading short stories from the same setting? I guess that makes sense.

      Why do you think you’ve always preferred the big fat juicy series? Do they ever feel padded to you, and if so, do you skip those parts, or just read the sections you don’t care for anyway?

      • Not Diane, but her view point sounds similar to mine. I’m a fairly quick reader once I’ve started reading but usually the biggest time cost when reading a new book is actually starting. Starting a new book means that I’ll read less, and less often, finding time when I can to read a bit more. Once I’m in about 100 pages/a quarter of the way through and get absorbed I’ll no longer need to find time to read, I’ll make time, even if it means staying up til 3am.

        This starting stage can take significantly longer than reading the rest of the book. A book that I could finish in an afternoon could take me a week to read if it takes a while to get into it. For me this means that I rarely read short stories or novellas, with the exception being only for authors and series I really like. Even if I’d really enjoy them, being absorbed in a book for as long as I can is the bigger draw than a concise, well-put together short story.

        Note: I rarely find myself bothered by ‘padding’ at the time, which might play a part in this preference. The draw onwards to the end overrides some of the analysis which I’ll only notice after finishing reading a book. I may note afterwards that padding and other reasons may be why I did/didn’t like a book (or a section thereof) but this identification only comes with analysis retrospectively.

  8. The SNAFU collections from Cohesion Press sell very well. Military horror is an odd sub genre, but there seems to be a lot of interest. They do have a heroic fantasy anthology coming out soon and I’ll be interested in seeing how it does. I like a book in the 200-300 page range. Anything longer and I tend to wander off.

  9. I get the “losing one’ self” in a thick book attitude, but I rarely encounter any of those tomes that merits being longer than an old Ma Bell phone book. One epic fantasy quartet I read (which clocks in at over 3,000 pages) constantly moved from the main story to a side story to a distant story. I actually reached the end, but the padding and distractions made me furious. Too many readers and authors seem to believe reams of detail equals worldbuilding and characterization.

    In doing my magazine reviews, I encounter novelists with a seeming unfamiliarity with short story writing quite often. They write stories that feel ripped from a larger work, and removed from that greater context seem adrift and I find them generally unsatisfying. Others seem unable to write to the size, used to as they are to novel-length storytelling. One of my favorite fantasy novelist’s short stories suffer from trying to pack far too much into far too small a space.

    I wish I knew the reason short stories have been so eclipsed in popularity (and sales) by novels. Everyone’s reasons make sense, but I don’t really know why. Efforts like Magician’s Skull give me hope there’s a decent enough market for writers like you to keep stoking the furnaces of short story creation.

    • Fletcher, it sounds like your experience mirrors my own. I really don’t have patience for many long series of doorstop novels because almost every one I’ve read feels as though it could have been cut down. Now I DID enjoy every one of the Harry Dresden books that I read, but those weren’t big fat fantasy. I liked some more than others, of course.

    • I believe the word count of all the Conan stories combined is actually no longer than the average fantasy novel today. Not a full story, but just a single volume. You can get a lot of content on a relatively small number of pages if you discard bloating filler.

  10. I enjoy both sizes, though I think I’m going to agree with the comments about how we are products of how our reading originated. I never got many short stories growing up at all; magazines were pretty much nonfiction, I don’t remember any anthologies as a kid, and I read about a dozen comics before high school. Outside the required short stories read in school, I grew up reading novels by Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Louis L’Amour. Followed by more novels from JRRT, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, etc. When I finally discovered fiction magazines, I used them as testing grounds before buying larger works from unknown authors.

    And when I started trying to write, I swung for novels. Wasn’t till my mid-30’s I found and became enamored with heroic anthologies. Then I started writing toward them, then editing, then selecting, then publishing them.

    But I don’t have any answer Howard. I still enjoy shorts, but I love a great 15-pound doorstopper. Perhaps it’s like friends: I have many I enjoy spending time with, hanging out with, gaming with…but I have a few I’d rather spend a long evening around a fire sharing a few drinks, laughs, tears, exclamations with…time most those others wouldn’t be content with.

    • I didn’t realize that you didn’t read short stories while you were growing up. You seemed to have a natural inclination towards them.

      What do you like about the doorstoppers? You’re a fan of the same kind of short novels that I am — hell, we’re both Ben Haas fans. So how do you get through the secondary story arcs where it just feels like the author is marking time? Or do you only read writers who don’t do that? And if so, which authors are those? I mean, the first larger fantasy I ever read was LoTR. Hardly BFF by today’s fantasy standards, but I still got bored and annoyed every time the narrative switched back over to Sam and Frodo wandering through Mordor and whining about it.

  11. I may have said it in a comment to a previous post, but I see the golden solution to publishing Sword & Sorcery in an episodic format. TV shows with 80-120 episodes of 45 minutes each got us a lot of great storytelling back in the 90s.
    This should work just as well with full novel sized books containing four episodes of about 50-100 pages each. You get the length that has always worked so well for S&S (and around which the conventions of the style evolved) while at the same time being able to give the readers a decently sized body of work about the same characters in the same world that you have in epic fantasy.
    They were not originally released that way, but when you buy a Conan or Fafhrd & Gray Mouser book today, this is exactly the kind of book that you get and read.

    • I’m right there with you on that one. That sounds like it’s absolutely up my alley, I want to read collections like that, and I want to write collections like that. Interconnected tales, one building on the next but each standing alone, all full of high adventure.

      • I agree with you, this would probably be the best format for S&S moving forward (William king’s first Kormak novel was like this and I greatly enjoyed it).
        As far as anthologies and collections go, it is hard to find one that isn’t uneven, and contains stories that have compelling characters, plots and ideas (a point, really); most stories are gimicky, lacking in one way or the other. And even competent stories often don’t feel “enough,” as if there isn’t anything else that could happen in the stories world/characters. For example, even though Conan’s stories are _Conan’s_ stories, and the Hyborian Age is _Conan’s_ world, it’s not hard to imagine many more interesting thing’s happening there. (Same with Moorcock’s Multiverse, Lamb’s east, etc.)
        I think people prefer novels because–if you look at it this way–a mediocre novel of 300 pages would have 150-200 decent ones; a 300-page anthology of equal quality would probably have less pages worth reading; and the bad stories would leave a bad taste (depending on how bad they are). I don’t know if I made any sense, and sorry for the huge comment ; )

  12. My pre- and post-parenting reading habits are vastly different. Pre I was all about mainstream fiction, both novels and short stories, lots of heavy thinking with a good measure of horror (Joyce Carol Oates’ and Stephen King’s styles of horror) thrown in. Post-parenting is all fantasy, and I don’t have the time to get to know characters and worlds unless they’re going to stick around through multiple books. I want fat tomes in fat series that I can listen to in the car and pick up the physical book when I can carve out some reading time before bed. Now I’m in it for long-term relationships in other worlds.

    • That’s interesting. Once my kids were little I gravitated more and more to short stories, because I just barely had time to down a little tale before bed.

      What do you think it would take to get you interested in shorter tales? Or is the allure not even there? What if they were all about a character (or characters) that you liked, in sequence, sort of like episodic television?

  13. The serial idea is an interesting one (with fine historical antecedents!). I see that K.J. Parker has been doing something along those lines, and I’ve also subscribed to Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine from Serial Box.

    Having said which, I find that even for serialized work, I prefer not to read the individual episodes as they’re being released; I’d much rather wait until I can read the whole thing straight through — going through a story a chapter at a time like that seems like it would be … challenging to keep everything straight.

    (Although it might be a different situation if the stories were truly standalone as opposed to linked parts of a larger story.)

    My own reading covers the gamut from short stories to (this year) the latest Tad Williams Osten Ard novel and Stephen King’s IT. I generally prefer novels to short stories, although I’m happy to salt in the occasional anthology or single-author collection; and these days I generally lean towards shorter novels, all other things being equal.

    • I think I’m with you — if they were part of some longer story, so that they felt more like parts of a novel, I’d like to read them in one setting. If they merely built upon each other, with the same characters but (mostly) different issues each tale, like a good weekly tv show, I might want to savor it more and spread it out.

      My own preferred reading styles and lengths vary considerably, although as I’ve mentioned above I have been leaning towards short novels lately myself.

  14. I’m really torn here. On one hand I read mostly novels, not short stories. I steer away from big mega-novels in general, and love the lean, terse thrillers of the hardboiled era.
    But I don’t hate a long book, I hate a long book that is trying to be long. For me, far too many modern genre novels lose pacing, plot cohesion and even their basic integrity as stories in their attempt to be Epic, to cram in sub-plots and characters and scenes that pad the length with little effect on the story. Life is too short.

    On the other hand, while I read mostly novels, I love short stories. I like to break up my reading time by working my way through anthologies and collections.
    A good short story is like a good song. It stands up to experiencing again and again. It shows its craft more clearly than a longer work usually does and, as each sentence in a short work carries weight, often rewards close reading. I’ve read any number of short stories that displayed more craft, power and emotional heft than entire novels.

    How anyone can be totally devoted to one form over the other is beyond me. It’s like choosing to just eat or just drink—either way you’re missing something vital.

    • “But I don’t hate a long book, I hate a long book that is trying to be long. For me, far too many modern genre novels lose pacing, plot cohesion and even their basic integrity as stories in their attempt to be Epic, to cram in sub-plots and characters and scenes that pad the length with little effect on the story. Life is too short.”

      Yes, this. And especially that clarification in the first sentence. I LOVE a long book where everything works, where the story HAS to be that long in order for it all to be told. More time spent with cool characters and setting = greatness. So I don’t hate long books in principal, I just dislike that they’re so often long for the sake of being long. How long does it need to be to tell the story?

      I also like your analogy to song.

  15. I sometimes wonder if the trend toward fantasy doorstop novels was a side effect of the expense of print and price points: “If I’m paying $10 for a book, then it better be a big book” kind of thing.

    I remember growing up buying and reading second-hand Ace paperbacks (how I fondly remember the intentionally yellowed edges of the pages), and I truly miss the days when 150-200 pages was considered a complete novel. With electronic publishing, I would like to see a return to the short novel/novella and short story as the primary formats for fantasy and SF.

    I also rely on magazines like Black Gate (where I first encountered your writing, Howard, and that of James Enge) and short story collections to introduce me to new writers!

  16. Hey Steven!

    Sounds like you read short story magazines for the same reason I do. Not just for love of short stories, but to check out writers. And boy, do I miss the days when shorter works were in vogue., Not just to read, but to write! I DO wonder if the “super size me” mentality has something to do with it, but it may also be that everyone, still, is trying to do a “Tolkien” and it just got out of hand. Trilogy, large size, larger size.

    I say this, but then I’m working on a trilogy, and I deliberately plotted them to be longer than anything else I’ve yet written. Hopefully I’ve managed it by making each arc vital and each viewpoint character interesting. Time will tell…

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