So I’ve recently begun to submit my short stories again after a long period where, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t. Some quick stats:
- Since October 1st, I’ve put 36 stories in the e-mail to a variety of magazines and anthologies.
- Eight of them have come back as a rejections already. I’m not alarmed; writers need a thick skin.
- Three of those rejections were personalized and had the phrase “well written” somewhere in the text.
- The other five were form letters.
Form letters don’t offend me. A lot of markets have an acceptance rate of far less than 1%. There’s only so much time in everyone’s day.
But I was curious about something, and went back through all of my rejections from the past couple of years. I have received 38 rejections with some variation of the phrase “well written” contained somewhere in them. Hmm.
Wait, half of them also either came right out and said “too long” or hinted at it obliquely.
These two facts together got me thinking. I slipped into Google-fu mode and tried to figure out some numbers. Spread across several dozen references, here’s what I found:
- The recommended range for stories for print markets is 3000-3200 words, with 3500 quoted several times as an absolute maximum. Several sites recommended no more than 2500.
- The average reader spends 7 minutes reading online, 20 minutes off line.
- Average reading speed is 200 wpm.
So… 7 minutes = 1400 words and 20 minutes = 4000 words. Freely translated, for a story to be an easy to digest all at once chunk, if published online should probably be 1500 words or less, and if published in print should be no longer than 4000 words.
Now, based on guidelines, online genre fiction readers are a little more focused than average. After reading more than 100 sets of submission guidelines over the last month or so, it seems like most of them cap out at 5000 words. Even the places who will look at stories longer than that usually have a caveat built in somewhere that if it’s over 5k, it needs to be really, really good (i.e. you probably shouldn’t send it).
Some more stats:
- If I include the Graceland stories, I have exactly 59 stories that ought to be out looking for homes. Yup, 59.
- They range in length from 364 words to 17269, with the average being 4351.
- 19 of them are over 5000.
- 33 are over that 3500 “absolute maximum”.
So I have a whole lot of stories that are probably going to be tough to find homes for.
I firmly believe in letting the story be whatever length it needs to be, but it looks like a lot of the time they find their way over the length that publishers seem to want. What’s a short fiction writer to do?
Answer: figure out what the readers want and find a way to give it to them. Short fiction is on the rise. There are more places to send it than ever before and more ways to get it than ever before. People want to read short fiction. But there are also more people writing it than there have been for a long, long time.
Which means it’s time to put the finishing touches on the first draft of the Three Year Plan. Tune in tomorrow and I’ll talk about that in way too much detail.