Rewards of short-story writers

Inquiries among editors made by a Philadelphia Public Ledger reporter showed that there are eight American writers who can get $1,000 for a short story—Robert W. Chambers, Richard Harding Davis, Jack London, O. Henry, Booth Tarkington, John Fox, Jr., Owen Wister, and Mrs. Burnett. Moreover, a literary agent told the reporter that there is nothing phenomenal in the payment of $1,000 for a 5,000-word story.

“I know of two stories,” said the literary agent, “that brought their authors $5,000. The Scribners paid Rudyard Kipling $5,000 for ‘They,’ and Collier’s paid the same amount, so Robert Collier himself told me, to Conan Doyle for the last of the Sherlock Holmes series.”

Chambers’s income from books and short stories is said to average about $70,000 a year.

John O’Hara Cosgrove, editor of Everybody’s Magazine, estimates the average output of most of our good short-story writers at twelve to fourteen stories a year.

“There is no doubt about it,” said Editor Cosgrove. “Conditions have changed. The writer of popular short stories can command prices to-day that were undreamed-of ten or fifteen years ago. Why, I remember Owen Wister sending me a story, a capital story, and asking four cents a word. The story was returned because the publishers did not want to pay the price—the rate was thought exorbitant. That was only nine years ago, and Wister had already won his spurs as a writer. Now we are very glad to get a story of his at the rate of fifteen cents a word.

“And here is another thing that has changed: in former times an author would have to produce his finished work before realizing anything on it. We have the old Grub street anecdotes of men—even those for whose work there was a popular demand—going hungry while they ground out their novels or poems. Nowadays any author for whose works there is a demand can realize cash on his ideas. If a man has given an editor a number of good stories, he can come in and say: ‘Here, I’m about to begin work on a story with such and such a plot. Meanwhile, I’d like to realize a little cash on it.’ If the editor likes the plot and knows the man’s work, he will make an advance payment. It’s lending money on an idea in another man’s head. Sometimes these advances run as high as a thousand dollars.”

Responding to the suggestion that some editors set an undue value on “big names,” Mr. Cosgrove said:—

“Why do we pay big prices for big names? The answer is simple. You see, accepting a manuscript and buying it are two distinct operations. As I have said, a manuscript is considered in the editorial rooms entirely on its merit, and accepted or rejected accordingly. When it comes to buying the accepted manuscript, the operation is a business one, and business reasons raise or lower the price. It is now that the name of the author must be considered.

“Let us suppose that the manuscript bears the name of Jack London. Now Jack London, by consistently turning out stories of a certain flavor, has won for himself a distinct following that wants to read everything of his that is printed. Now, if our table of contents contains the name of Jack London, the Jack London following buys our magazine. So you see that, over and above the fact that he has given us a good story, he has increased the number of readers of the magazine. This is worth money to us, and we pay for it accordingly.

“Now let us take the story of an unknown writer. As a story it may stand on the same level as one for which we have paid $1,000. But the unknown receives $100 or $150. The positions are now reversed. The inclusion of his own name in our table of contents wins us no new readers. But because we have built up the reputation of giving good, live fiction each month, our readers are willing to accept this new man on faith. Thus we bring readers to this new writer and give him the opportunity to build up a personal following, which means a growing cash value to his future work.”

Reprinted from The Writer, Vol. XXII. January, 1910. No. 1.

Then, published monthly by The Writer Publishing Company, 89 Broad street, Room 416, Boston, Massachusetts. William Henry Hills, Editor. Today, The Writer is published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., Waukesha, Wisconsin.

5 Replies to “Rewards of short-story writers”

  1. Thank you for the inspiration, Robin! I hope we can reclaim that 1910 enthusiasm for short stories. As a teacher, I think short stories are great for the classroom. I also believe that short story writing can help new writers learn their craft. Over the winter break, I reread “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather for a rereading project we’re doing with our students. The short story is a terrific form of expression. Thanks for this reminder! – JMO

  2. JMO, maybe you could encourage some of them to submit their stories to literary magazines. There are quite a few directed at teenage readers/writers. They might enjoy publishing a ‘zine of their own too. Can I offer any other suggestions to add to your workload? (laughing)

  3. To be honest, some of what you say in your blog finds its way into my classroom. I do want my serious writers to know the serious business of professional writing. So thank you, truly, for sharing real insight into the nearly impossible yet sometimes possible euphoria of the writing business. A ‘zine may just be the right project sometime soon. These days, I don’t mind any extra work. Right? :) Congratulations on your niece’s wedding and I hope you continue to have a happy New Year!

  4. Your article was quite motivational. I believe i have some innate writing talents in me. I am specifically interested in writing short stories. Please could you give some web addresses of organizations or bodies which could be interested in publishing the work of unknown authors. I will be very pleased with assistance i receive from you. I will also like to mention that i am thinking of earning a living through the art of writing high quality stories. I eagerly await your response.

  5. The article is a reprint. It was originally published in 1910 in a magazine called The Writer, which still exists. The magazine would be helpful to you in your pursuit of a writing career.

    Many writers begin establishing their reputations by submitting stories to literary magazines. I’ve compiled a list of English-language magazines that publish creative writing. You’ll find the list on Delicious. Most of the magazines on the list don’t pay contributors anything.

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