I received another short story rejection yesterday. That’s two this week, dropping my acceptance percentage down to a staggeringly disappointing 2.9 percent. TWO-POINT-NINE PERCENT!
If I succeeded at my day job only 2.9% of the time, I’d be unemployed. A 2.9% success rate at mountain biking would land me in the hospital, and 2.9% success as a dad would mean, well, lots of counseling for my wife and kids.
The truth of the matter is, 2.9% is an abysmal percentage at which to succeed at something, a rate that would cause most sane, rational people to quit and never, ever think about doing that activity again. But for writing, it’s actually not that far from the average. According to Duotrope’s statistics (as of right now, as I write this), overall acceptance rate for fiction (long and short) is 5.078%, and it’s probably lower for short fiction alone.
Short fiction is really hard to sell. The market is flooded and magazines have unbelievably low acceptance rates. When I look down the list of markets I’m submitting to, I see acceptance rates of 0.14%, 1.79%, 0.16%, 1.12%, and so on. Let’s face it, most normal people don’t even TRY to do things where they have a 0.14% chance of success–our egos just don’t like to take that kind of pounding. Even self-published short fiction doesn’t sell well unless your name is Stephen King, Brad Thor, and so on.
The people who are “making it” at writing keep telling us to treat our writing like a business, not a hobby. It’s a job, they say, so treat it as such. Thus, we should be looking at short fiction like a business would look at a product: cost to produce compared to the likelihood it’ll make us money. Do you think if Apple stood only a 0.14% chance of making money on the iPhone, they’d ever have made them? Or if Ford had sold only 1.79% of the cars they produce, would they still be doing it?
Hell no. It’s just not good business. You have to make business decisions with your head, not with your heart, or you’re bound to fail. Making emotion-based decisions at work is almost as spectacularly disastrous as starting a romance in the office or taking the cinnamon challenge.
And yet, for some reason, I continue to write short fiction. Every time I go on a rejection streak–my record is 52 in a row, by the way–I swear I won’t write short fiction again unless I’m asked to do so and know it will sell. But usually within a week I’m at least kicking a short story idea around in my noggin, and eventually I’ll get back to work on an old one, or (ack!) start a new one.
You see, the “treat it like a business” advice is good to a point, but this isn’t day trading or real estate or automotive production. This is writing, an art form, and art comes as much from the heart as it does from the head. In fact, it’s often the heart in a piece that makes readers enjoy it, that little drop of blood the writer dripped onto each page that resonates in the readers (read: customer’s) mind. If that emotional investment isn’t there, the story will fall flat.
So let’s say a writer has a short story they really want to write. One that’s got their heart all wrapped up in its grubby little palms, squeezing the blood out so they’ll drip it onto the page. And let’s say that writer thinks, “Well, I’m not going to write that because short stories are not profitable. They’re lousy business investments.” So they go and work on a novel instead.
For most writers, that short story is not going to relinquish its hold on their emotions. It’s going to sap all their emotional energy, robbing that novel project of its heat, making it lifeless and flat. Some can overcome it, but I know I can’t. I have to write the story that’s begging to be written.
So, despite the miserable 2.9% chance of selling a short story, and the even lower chance of selling it to a pro-paying market, I still write short stories. I write them because sometimes they demand to be written, and because even though most will never find their way into reader’s brains, I enjoy writing them. Writing short stories is, in my opinion, one of the purest forms of storytelling. It gives you a tale fit for telling around a campfire or at bedtime, something readable in one sitting. I love the act of chiseling and whittling and polishing until it’s lean and efficient, aerodynamic and sleek.
And because I’m obstinate as hell. I REALLY want to break into some of those markets, especially the less-than-one-percent-chance ones, because that’s where the readers are. Sure, they’re also where the money is, but they’re the biggest campfires around which to tell my stories. Out of pure stubbornness, I’ll keep sending stories until either I sell to one of these markets or my fingers fall off.
So yeah, short stories aren’t the best decisions business-wise. The chance they’ll see the light of day is miniscule, but if I keep them all bottled up inside me, I’ll end up hurting the other things I need to write. And besides, failing isn’t something I like to live with, so my stubborn Italian side kicks in and makes me keep trying, even though it just isn’t that profitable.
Sometimes, a bad business decision is a good writing one.