What makes a short story collection attractive to a publisher?



Perhaps you’ve finished your MFA and have finally accumulated a number of polished shorts. Or maybe short form is simply your preferred mode of expression and true love. How do you attract a publisher’s attention for your work?

There’s no easy answer. To be blunt, most agents and editors prefer a first novel to a collection of stories. Novels are simply easier to market and sell. Yet every year short story collections are published and attract attentive readers. Why do some collections fail to impress while others fly through the gates?

good writing matters

The writing matters. Remember: it’s writing first. Every agent or editor I know is a sucker for a great read. So make sure your work is that. Take classes. Hone your work with your writing group. Ask others with professional experience for feedback. Make sure your stories are sharpened to hard, glittering gems.

be ready with the next thing

It can also be about the promise of a future body of work. An agent may take a flyer on an author who shows they’ve got the writing chops for stellar works down the line, whether it’s another collection, a novel, or perhaps even a memoir or narrative nonfiction work. It’s always good to be able to spell out what you’re up to next. What’s book two? Be ready to discuss.

word of mouth and recommendations

Recommendations matter. If you have champions in the literary world, be sure to alert your prospective agent and editor. Almost all big success stories in publishing start with word of mouth. The word on you begins with those who know you and your writing best. Ask that nationally-known teacher or mentor if you can use their praise in a query letter. Or excerpt from the speech for the award that you just received. Praise matters. Just make sure it comes from those who have established themselves as a trusted source. No asking your second grade teacher or your Mom. Dad’s love and admiration may have gotten you where you are, but publishers look for recognized awards and names in the literary landscape.

get published

Finally, publication matters. If someone else has seen fit to publish your work, it’s an added incentive for publishers. And no, I’m not just talking the New Yorker. Publication in nationally recognized literary magazines including Tin House, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, A Public Space, and Kenyon Review similarly impress. Likewise, if your work has been published in online magazines like Blackbird or the Adirondack Review or by journals that supplement their print magazines with online material like Agni Magazine, shout it from the rooftops. If you’ve had a story included in a “best of” anthology or anthology by theme, cite it. Publication elsewhere is a pre-approval stamp. Another respected publisher liked and admired your work. Also, publication means your name is out there already. Readers may be looking for more from your pen.

prove that you’ve been read

Building on this last point, platform and name recognition matter. Maybe you published a story online on reddit. And you got tens of thousands of hits. If you’ve got a following or can show a deep online footprint for your literary work, put the facts in your query letter. Being able to prove that your existing work is read and adored helps bolster your case. As with all types of book proposals, having a pre-existing platform can only help.

ultimately, it’s about the writing itself

Finally, just to reiterate the beginning, make sure your samples are a great read.

Questions? Post in the comments below. And good luck!