On Making a Living Writing Short Stories (Part 1)


I remember the day I decided to become a professional short story writer, and by that, I mean, I decided that I could produce short stories at a frequent enough basis that I’d make a profitable living. This was a half-decade ago, and my main source of understanding for the short story underground was Harlan Ellison’s many works, and the non-fictional, part-of-the-job, here’s-the-business-of-it-all, sections that bridged one Ellison story to the next.
Harlan Ellison is credited with writing over 1,700 short stories, novelettes, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, moonside tattoo flash fictions, etc. At the time (1960’s-1970’s) the going rate for short fiction was a penny a word. Of course, now, the SFWA classifies 6 cents a word to be the bare minimum a “professional” publication can pay their writer’s.
I got to thinking: what exactly would it take to make a living as a short story writer?

Gotta love the old mags


Let’s say that the average piece of short fiction is 5,000 words. At a penny a word like ol’ Harlan was getting paid, that makes $50 a story.
1,700 (Harlan’s total publications) x $50 = $85,000 (over the course of a very long and winding career.)
That’s not spectacular in today’s economic, fiscal perspective, but at the time it was a living. Though a groveling one. By no means was he a rich man, however this is not taking into consideration the payment he got from television writing in the 70’s and 80’s for the work he did on shows like Babylon 5, and The Twilight Zone.


Now let’s break this down. Thanks to the handy resources over at Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I compiled a spreadsheet of the Harlan Ellison’s 12 published pieces of short fiction in 1959*, to extrapolate exactly how much money he made to live on (considering only his income on short stories), and how that would translate to the modern market.
Check it out.

Ellison Graph_0001
That’s not enough money to support yourself, let alone if you’re married or have kids. It wasn’t enough for Harlan back in 1959, either. So, the real question is, why do we write short fiction at all?
Passion. Of course, you already knew that. You’re a struggling writer yourself who’s faced the same pitfalls I have, and drawn the same conclusions I have. You, on the other hand, didn’t put the time into making such a beautiful spreadsheet to prove your point to the world! (unless you did, and if you did, my apologies.)


To use the figure given in the spreadsheet, the average single person, minimum wage income is $15,080 a year. Let’s say you are only published in SFWA approved publications that pay at the minimum 6c a word. Let’s do some more math.
15,080 x 100 = 1,508,000 pennies a year
1,508,000 / 6 (your minimum per word price) = 251,500 (rounded up from 251,333.333)
To achieve the average minimum wage salary, you must sell 251,500 words worth of short fiction. This means, essentially you must sell the equivalent amount of short fiction as James Joyce’s Ulysses (261,222 words approximately) a year, just to make a minimum wage living.
251,500 / 5,000 (average short story length) = 51 (rounded up from 50.3)
51 short stories a year to professionally selling markets. That’s over 4 stories a month. That means at any given month, your name will be on Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Interzone, and the Magazine of S&SF.
The point is, the odds are highly against you.
Of course, professional writers who have the inclination towards short fiction supplement their income with other things, such as novels, short story collections, self-published pieces, articles, and of course, a day job (that’s a classic).
If, even after an eight-hour day frying burgers at Checker’s, you’re still coming home and writing your daily 2,500 word requirement, if you submit in spite of dozens of rejection e-mails, if you have the courage to accept constructive criticism and make your fiction writing as sharp as it can be, then you have that one thing, the thing that will give you a successful career as a short story writer.


The book that made me want to be a (short story) writer.



So, if you want to make a minimum wage living publishing short stories, you gotta’ sell 51stories to professionally paying markets per year. There are other ways, of course. I’m currently experimenting with them, and when I have enough content to update you on my pursuit, I’ll post the second part of this post.
Until then, write on!

*This is, almost, what Harlan Ellison made from his writing that year. The only other published work he had during 1959 was a double-sided ace paperback. The Man with Nine Lives/ A Touch of Infinity. If you look back at the spreadsheet, you’ll find a novella published in the October ’59 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories called Sound of the Scythe, which would later be published as The Man with Nine Lives and makes up half of the ace double. The other half, A Touch of Infinity, contains** five short stories and one novelette.
**Blind Lightning, Back to the Drawing Boards, Life Hutch, The Sky is Burning, Final Trophy, and the novelette Run for the stars. A Touch of Infinity also included an introductory essay by Harlan Ellison.


One thought on “On Making a Living Writing Short Stories (Part 1)

  1. Great info. I’m just getting my feet wet in the short fiction world and have no idea where to even start (besides Chicken Soup for the Soul, which I’ve been published in twice), but it would sure be nice to make money at it rather than just getting accolades. 🙂 I’m going to follow along to see if your other experimentations bring results. Glad I ran across you! Dawn


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