The Short Story’s Shelf Life Comes To An End

Reading & Writing

You Have To Love Something Enough To Kill It

Martin Scorsese said that. It’s how I feel about short fiction, which I love writing. Above are some of the giants who have created complete short story collections. The era of the short story is not quite over – the Sunday Times still offers the biggest short story prize money in the world – but it is coming to an end.

Certainly the time when you could make a living from writing them has gone because fiction magazines have gone, beyond a handful of small specialist independents. When I started writing them in my twenties I was paid £50 a story. That’s the same rate as my most recent sale.

It’s not just money, of course, it’s the readership. Writing up cases for Bryant & May is different. From Sherlock Holmes onward, there have always been short crime stories using established characters, but the market for short genre fiction has moved to small press. As a consequence, I think it’s time to publish a definitive set of short fiction.

My first collection was published in 1986 by Sphere. It gathered together all the tales I had written for various magazines, back when you could be regularly paid for writing stories in the press, who were wealthier than publishing houses. Now only a tiny handful of authors are accorded that privilege.

I didn’t know what I was doing, continuing a hobby from childhood perhaps, and was amazed that anyone was interested. This is not false modesty; I wrote to please myself and still do, and unfortunately it shows in places. They say that the British write as if their mothers are looking over their shoulders and the Americans write as if their tutors are looking over theirs. I think it’s true; we are all stifled in different ways and work without guidance.

I carried on through the years and the stories started to pile up. I did not like taking commissions because I had my fingers burned quite often, so I found a handful of trusted editors and wrote for them. There were hardly any female editors, which was a bad thing because some now feel as if they are carrying the burden of redressing the balance; it should always have been equal.

Ten collections and many other stories were fired at publishers – I quickly lost track of what I wrote. So did technology; formats changed and the only copies of certain stories melted into the ether. So about five years ago I set out to find all of the original stories, track down their rights, buy them all back and put them in print. The result is over thirty years’ worth of short stories, to be produced soon and hopefully made available in one astoundingly huge volume. We’re talking about 2,000 pages here.

The complete collection has a precedent these days – a number of authors, particularly American ones, have produced single volumes of work, or have split them into two parts.

Working with Sally, my delightful assistant, we’ve created an immense single document of all the stories. The only stories missing are tales that don’t stand up on their own. A few are dated now, but looking at them collectively I can see a lot of recurring themes and ideas. There are experimental, macabre, comic, satirical, bleak and fantastical tales, some award-winners, some stories which were filmed or turned into plays. I just hope there’s a market for such a collection. It’s been over thirty years in the making, and has taken five years to sort out. Now 99% of the hard work is done, and I have a title and running order. I’m toying with the idea of running them chronologically backwards, but maybe I should stick with linearity.

Coming sooner than you think – watch this space!

14 comments on “The Short Story’s Shelf Life Comes To An End”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Please tell me it’s not going to be 1,000 pages in *one volume*. While weight lifting is probably a good thing and I would enjoy – probably – reading my way through 30 years of story writing I don’t think combining the two would be all that good an idea.

  2. snowy says:

    I would echo Helen’s point, but lacking her natural tact.

    ZOMG!!!!!!! ELEVENTYBILLION PAGES??????

    Even at Octavo* it would be a monster to read.

    A set of 4 slim volumes in a quad slipcase, would mean one could slip out a pocket/handbag sized collection to enjoy whilst out and about.

    I’ve never seen a book with a set of wheels and a pop up handle, but it would certainly be a talking point.

    [Resolves to go into a real book shop tomorrow and look at some hefty tomes, just see what they are really like.]

    [* Bigger pages but less of them, might seem counter intuitive, but the brain plays funny tricks.]

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Oh lovely, remember you can carry an electronic copy quite easily.

    The problem I have quite a number of your collections and I’m loathe to get rid of them.

    I still get the Best of Horror, but it is finding time to read all the stories. The Weird in you picture was a whopper too, and took a while to read.

    Wayne.

  4. Vivienne says:

    We need longer winters, with no work but someone to keep producing food and stoke the real fire. Hard to get through huge books otherwise.

  5. admin says:

    I have many complete compendia by other writers but don’t read them. However, I think it’s probably a good idea to slipcase them into four, although knowing how tight publishers are I’ll probably end up crowdfunding it myself. No problemo.

    One other thing: I’ll be rewriting them a little.

  6. davem says:

    Looking forward to it

  7. Suzanne says:

    I must admit I do like the short stories format and especially the ones that have a twist at the end even better. However may I ask when will you bring out your last collection Frightening out in paperback, as I can not use Electronic readers for certain reasons and therefore can not catch up on your latest offerings as this seems the only format?????????

  8. Colin says:

    It would be a real shame if this was the end of your short stories. You have written some real gems, my favourite being the Norman Wisdom one. I have many short story collections, none are better than yours Chris, thank you.

  9. Stephen says:

    Hi Chris,I look forward to rereading all your short stories from the beginning again.

  10. snowy says:

    Field Report.

    1000 page mass paperback, hefty* but not completely unmanagable, spine thickness avg. 2.5″-3.5″ depending on weight [thickness] of paper.

    I did spy a nice set of 4 in octodecimo, [4 × 6½], but couldn’t work out the conversion from mass/trade.

    [* about 500g, estimated, you don’t really think I took scales with me?]

  11. Porl says:

    This is brilliant news!
    Massive fan of all the short stories which I tracked down after Id first read Psychoville and Spanky and loved them – they reminded me of the Armada and Fontana Ghost and Horror Stories I’d enjoyed as a kid.
    I’m currently finishing off “Ghosts of Christmas Past” which is a fab anthology, and I tracked down and bought my best friend a copy of Red Gloves for Christmas – she sent a text saying “I don’t have the time or patience for novels at the moment so short stories are my thing at the moment especially to fill the gap between 2 and 4am when I’m wide awake”.

    The time is right!

  12. Chris Lancaster says:

    Very excited about the forthcoming collection.

    One of the issues I have with short stories is that authors seem curiously reluctant to publicise when new stories appear in multi-author collections. For instance, Amazon UK has listed a collection called “Invisible Blood” that has a publication date of 23/07/2019, promises “seventeen new stories of murder and mystery”, and contains a story by none other than one Christopher Fowler! The collection would be guaranteed one more sale if I knew for certain that your story is a new one; as it is, I’m reluctant to spend £12 in case it turns out to be an old one.

    Of course you may not know about the collection, or I may have missed the post in which you’ve mentioned it. However, if it is a new story then please say: I’ll place my order straightaway!

  13. Helen Martin says:

    If it was printed on “bible” paper the weight and thickness would be reduced but that may be a more expensive print job.
    Yes, I expected you to take scales, Snowy, those double pan ones strung on cords that will fold into your pocket. (misplaced modifier)

  14. Jay Mackie says:

    Can’t wait and the logical conclusion to thirty years of great shorter fiction Chris – despite the fact that I think all your fans are a bit sad there’ll be no more – but we go with your decision.

    Sorry if I missed something here, but will this be a physical publication or electronic format – or both?
    And my second question is, will there be any previously unpublished stories, or dare I say anything new to round off the this end of an era?

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again Chris : with the recent renaissance of short story anthologies on film (XX and the like) it’d be a fantastic and logical follow on from your definitive collection for a selection of your short story gems to be made into film for an good old Amicus-like portmanteau…I keep having the unforgettable images from my favourite short story, Last Call For Passenger Paul being one of the shining examples ….

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