Should authors seek agents for their book-length collections of short stories?

I’ll bet you thought there could be a yes or no answer to this question. Reality is much more complicated and ever changing.

It’s possible, but rare, for a creative writer to be so talented that, even though his or her first book is a collection of short stories, an agent would find it logical and worthwhile to begin working with the person in anticipation of future, more commercially viable, creative output. By “commercially viable,” I mean desired by big trade book publishers. In almost six years of agenting, I’ve encountered only one such writer, and I asked the person to get back in touch with me when a novel-in-progress is completed. However, there are quite a few literary agents in the U.S. who happily take bigger risks than I do. Every agency is different, as a look at each of our websites will reveal.

Almost every time I receive a query from a short-story writer looking for an agent, the letter I’ve copied and pasted below is the basic form of my response. Of course, my form reply doesn’t cover everything I’m looking for in a client, which is what the guidelines on my website are intended to convey to writers.

My form response is designed to encourage novice writers of short stories to begin learning about the business aspects of a professional writer’s career. Some eventually will decide that they don’t want their writing to be more than a hobby, because turning it into work isn’t pleasurable for them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except when hobbyists are unfortunately misguided into believing they’re entitled to demand that literary agents invest time and money to assist them as a courtesy, pro bono. Most writers are smart enough to catch on to business realities very quickly. There are many terrific publishing options for hobbyists.

My agency’s form reply to queries from short-story writers

It’s nice of you to contact me about representation. Please note that detailed query guidelines are posted on my website.

For an author of short fiction, accumulated writing credits are an important part of a query. Major book publishers in the U.S. typically prefer to acquire book-length collections of short stories only if the authors already have had a considerable number of the stories published in reputable literary magazines or anthologies. If you’re not sure which literary journals are the most prestigious, then you can find out where some prizewinning short stories first appeared by taking a look at these books, which should be available at your local library:

Pushcart Prize

Best American Short Stories & Best American Nonrequired Reading

The O. Henry Prize Stories

More of these types of anthologies are listed at:

Treated & Released

You can learn about submitting your work to literary journals and magazines by reading:

Poets & Writers

The Writer‘s Guide to Publishing in Literary Magazines and Entering Contests
by Ayelet Tsabari

The Review Review

I wish you the best of luck with your writing career.

isolated pen
© Geotrac | Dreamstime Stock Photos

For writers who have succeeded at having short stories published individually, a few agencies actively call for submissions of book-length collections of short stories. As of October 2014, two of them are the Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency and the Waverly Place Literary Agency. An agent’s submission guidelines are subject to change at any time, so please alert me if I fail to notice when the current information about these agencies becomes obsolete. If I see it’s no longer true, I’ll cross it out.

There is hope that ebook publishing will permit a short-story renaissance. In all honesty, it’s more likely that the ease of self-publishing ebooks and POD books, coupled with the increased numbers of free online literary journals, will make many more short stories available to readers at little or no cost, and then the supply will outpace the demand from readers. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that more online literary journals are paying their contributors a modest amount, perhaps to attract better stories to publish, because they have lots of competition for submissions these days.

Dynamic, isn’t it?

Please feel free to share in the comments section the links to or names of any literary agents asking to see short-story collections. I hope this information is helpful.

4 Replies to “Should authors seek agents for their book-length collections of short stories?”

  1. Has this view changed at all? It seems to me that given the number of highly regarded collections in recent years (which must translate into sale) it is a bit short-sighted to simply send out a form letter. A collection that is good is surely now a much easier sell, given the NBAs and the NYTimes bestsellers lists. Just wondered – the times they are a changing. I am a short story writer in the UK (it’s worse there) I am not practising for novel.

  2. My perspective on queries concerning short-story collections hasn’t changed in the past year. As I explained in this post, an exceptionally talented writer with publication credits will get my attention. I never “simply send out a form letter” (without considering what the writer has to offer, I should add)—and I reply to questions on my blog.

    You might learn a great deal by conducting a little research into the writing backgrounds of the award-winning authors of short-story collections.

    Most of the writers of short stories who send me queries regarding representation haven’t yet begun submitting their work to literary journals, magazines, or online publications—or haven’t yet had more than one or two stories accepted for publication. They have no way of knowing whether their work merits my interest. They’ve begun with an unrealistic anticipation of the level of competition they face. The form letter I send to those writers is a wake-up call. I hope.

  3. Good evening Robin,

    And thank you for that information. Just a few queries. Apart from going the route of agents, is there a greater chance of having a collection of short stories published through smaller indie publishers? How do you view such publications? Secondly, is there any harm in having too many stories already published in lit mags by the time one submits to publisher (via an agent) or a small press? I’m only at 6 pub credits, a mere fledgling, granted, but I’m wondering when is the time to start searching for potential publishers. Would it be harmful, for example, to have 80% of pieces already published in lit mags?

    Thanks for your time,
    Kind regards,
    Hamish

  4. Greetings, Hamish:

    More publication credits will be better, but only if the publications in which your stories appear are either popular or highly regarded. There are several thousand literary publications, and naturally some will publish almost anything while others are more exclusive.

    (If anyone other than Hamish is reading this, please don’t confuse a collection with an anthology.)

    Any literary agent willing to work on a short-story collection will prefer for the author to be a successful novelist. If that isn’t the case, then the agent might want to be sure the writer has a novel in progress. Short-story collections are not perceived as hot commodities. They’re seen as unprofitable.

    Nonprofit literary presses sometimes limit their scope to the kinds of books major publishers don’t find profitable: story and poetry collections, translations, novellas, works by underrepresented communities of writers, titles of only regional interest, etc. Some or all of a nonprofit’s funding might be contingent on those strict limitations. They or a boutique publisher’s personal generosity can give you a much better shot at having a short-story collection published.

    Don’t overlook reputable contests with book publication as the prize. You can wait for years to receive a response to some of your small-press submissions, but contests usually specify award dates after which you’ll no longer be kept in suspense. Part or all of the cost of the winning collection’s publication might be covered by the entry fees, in which case the submitting authors are supporting the publication of one of their own.

    John Fox posted a decent list of relevant publishers and contests, which you might have seen. Poets & Writers is another resource that can help you identify contests and publishers that will consider short-story collections. It goes without saying that you’ll need to exercise due diligence before choosing where to submit your collection.

    Your publisher will expect you to help market your book, so demonstrating that ability can give you an advantage over other writers.

    Good luck!

    PS – Here’s a good example of what it takes to be published by Graywolf Press.

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