A friend of mine asked me recently if I’d written a blog post on the subject of getting a short story collection published. I don’t think I have, at least not one with much detail, so it seemed like a good subject for Tips for Writers.
Let’s assume that you’ve got a collection finished. Let’s also assume that you’d like the book published in the most prestigious place, with the most exposure and the most money for you. That would be one of the major trade publishers like Simon & Schuster or Random House. The major publishers do take on short story collections from time to time if they think they can sell them to the public—the author is a big name, the house is also publishing that writer’s novel, there is some other buzz about the book or the author. But these publishers are of the opinion that the reading public doesn’t buy story collections, and they may be right about that. So this ambition is a long shot, and your chances of succeeding are enhanced if you’ve also got a novel to sell. In any event, the first step on this road is finding an agent, because major publishers won’t deal with anyone but agents, who have become the gatekeepers for the industry.
Getting an agent is a whole story unto itself, and it isn’t easy. I did manage to get an agent for a story collection. She thought the book was just distinct enough (I call it a novel in stories) that a publisher might take an interest; she loved it and thought they would, too. But they didn’t, or didn’t love it enough to publish it. After two years of trying—all the major publishers and most of the next tier—she basically gave up.
So if you can’t get an agent or if your agent can’t sell the book to the big publishers, you’re left with independent, university, and small presses. And there are lots and lots of these presses. Finding one to publish your book is very similar to the agent search. You send out queries, sometimes with samples, sometimes without, and then you wait. You hope that someone will request a full manuscript, and then you wait some more. Someone makes an offer (you hope), and then you let the other publishers know about it and see if someone will make a better offer.
Until those other offers come in, though, you can also submit the manuscript to contests. There are a lot of these contests, such as the Iowa Short Fiction Contest and the Flannery O’Connor, but the competition is very tough because there are a lot of writers with story collection manuscripts.
But then, if you’re persistent and your book is good, you will eventually find a small press to take your collection.
This is essentially the path I followed—twice. With my first collection, In an Uncharted Country, I didn’t try very hard to get an agent because I knew that my book was unlikely to be attractive to bigger publishers. It’s a pretty quiet book and my publication credits (11 of the 12 stories had been published in magazines) were rather obscure. So, after a few rejections from agents (many of whom said, “Do you have a novel?”), I started submitting to small presses. It didn’t take long for Press 53 to ask for the book, and because they are committed to publishing short story collections I was very happy with them. The second book, my novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, I thought had a chance with bigger publishers because (a) I called it a novel in stories and (b) the stories were better. And, in fact, the big houses took it seriously, but most of our rejections mentioned the fact that story collections were a tough sell, as if I didn’t know that already. In the end, though, I submitted to contests and small presses, and once again Press 53 was enthusiastic about the book. So it’s coming out from them in September 2012. I’m happy about that, and now I can turn my attention to the next book.
If you don’t find a publisher, you still have the option of self-publishing, which is getting easier to do all the time, and if you choose to make it an eBook instead of a print book, the costs of this approach are few. I don’t recommend this route if you want to have a career as a fiction writer, however. Keep looking for a traditional publisher, even a very small one.