Why is it so hard to make a career as a short story writer?

Canadian author Alice Munro speaks to the media as she receives her Man Booker International award at Trinity College Dublin, in Dublin, Ireland, on June 25, 2009.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature today.

It's a surprise every year, but perhaps a bit moreso this year because Munro's a short story writer.

Short stories haven't gotten a lot of love from the Nobel Committee in the past, mainly because they don't get a lot of love from publishers.

Sam Stoloff, vice president and a senior agent at the Frances Goldin literary agency says if you're a writer, thinking of shopping a collection of short stories to launch your career, you should brace yourself for a plot twist.

“When an author comes to me with a book of short stories, my response is always ...Oh dear," Stoloff says. He says there’s more than one reason new writers, when approaching agents and publishers, often feel like they’re hitting a wall.

 “Aren’t you working on a novel?" he typically asks. "Because short stories are very hard to sell.”

Writers often work up to a novel by crafting short stories. But Stoloff says what fiction readers want, and therefore publishers too, is an immersive experience. And short stories don’t give you much time to settle in. But just like a complex character, the publishing industry feels conflicted -- about the short story.

Sarah Weinman, news editor with Publisher’s Marketplace, notes that writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders and Karen Russell have had spectacular success with shorter works.

“For every example that shows that short stories can’t sell, you have another example that shows that they can,” she notes. But despite the success stories, it can still be very difficult to build a career as a short story writer. In Alice Munro’s case, Weinman says she published her first book in the '60s when the publishing industry was less corporate -- sleepier and friendlier than today.

“What it really comes down to for Alice Munro is her stories are incredible. The range of emotions contained in her stories are just stupifyingly good,” she says.

“Good writing is good writing,” notes Patricia Bostelman, V.P. of marketing for Barnes & Noble, “in whichever format it appears.”

She references the quote, by who else, Alice Munro, which compares a short story to a house.

“Whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns or sparsely or opulently furnished, you can go back again and again and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”

Incredible writing gets incredible distribution. Munro’s work has appeared in landmark publications like the Atlantic, the New Yorker and the Paris Review. It’s that kind of exposure that convinces publishers its worth taking a risk on a collection. And that’s what a career writing short stories is all about.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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