Some people believe that unpaid effort is not for them. This is a perfectly reasonable point of view, and the notion of giving something for nothing is not one which many people in our society view with much sympathy. However, if this is a guiding principle in deciding how time should be spent, writing short fiction is probably an activity better avoided. People can and do make money out of short stories. Most of what money there is tends to be in the field of women’s magazines, and writers who are particularly gifted in this area can make something like a living. Editors are sufficiently on the look out for talent to be prepared to make an effort with people who show promise. But making money tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The print magazines, which unfortunately seem to be dying away slowly and painfully, are working to tight margins and rely almost entirely on subscriptions; even then, some work at a loss. E-zines will usually say that they do not make payments at the moment, though they hope to do so in the future. One notable exception, to some extent, is ‘erotica’ – see Genre Fiction – which many aspiring writers would not see as their favoured specialism.
It is characteristic of writing generally that the number of people who do make significant amounts of money out of it is a small percentage of the total who are attempting to get into print, even if the entire journalistic profession is included. This becomes even more the case in relation to fiction. It is true that a tiny minority of authors do make a great deal of money, but tiny minority is very much the operative phrase. However, those people who believe that any unpaid activity must, of necessity, be a little amateurish and slapdash would need to think again in relation to short fiction. Almost all fiction publications, whether print or e-zine, are inundated with submissions more or less from the moment they set up and ask for them. Listing sites such as Duotrope and First Writer ensure that details of publications all over the world can be made freely available, and most magazines publish less than 5% of the material sent to them. The exceptions are the few gigantic sites who publish virtually everything they receive and the membership-charging sites which allow paying members to publish whatever they like on their own pages. However much satisfaction this may give to those who are unable to publish elsewhere, these sites are largely ignored by agents and publishers and the only person reading each piece on the site is likely to be the contributor who wrote it.
In this context, a lack of pay does not correspond to a lack of quality. It isn’t easy to get published anywhere, and whatever stories are accepted will have been accepted in the teeth of a good deal of opposition, and been through a process which can involve whole groups of examining readers. In comparison with other activities, this amount of attention to detail is not as bizarre as it might seem. The British tend to be competitive people, and many other areas of art, horticulture, animal care, food making etc. are characterised by competitions, festivals and shows with little or nothing in the way of cash prizes, but for which entries are prepared or cultivated with meticulous care and honours intensely contested. Similarly, publication in even the newer or less subscribed magazines can be regarded as something of an achievement, and success in competitions with rather less than life changing amounts of cash chalked up as a triumph against hundreds of other entrants.
The financial advantages of short fiction writing are mostly about outlay more than income. Money may not be earned, but neither does it need to be spent. The gym-goer, golfer, gardener, baker, grower, breeder, potter etc. are all in need of raw materials and various other items of equipment and resource in order to stand any chance of success; the writer simply needs some form of writing material or PC. Fiction competitions do charge entry fees, but they rarely amount to more than a few pounds, and if anything more substantial is demanded, they are probably better avoided in any case (see sections on U.K. short fiction competitions). People can and do begin their writing careers with short stories and go on to much greater success – Joanne Harris is one such modern example, and there are many more, dating back to Charles Dickens and beyond. Most people, however, will achieve relatively little in the way of monetary reward, but their twin consolations may be a considerable sense of fulfilment and satisfaction and the fact that they have not financially lost any more than they’ve gained.