Short stories occupy a bit of an awkward niche in self-publishing. It can be hard to generate revenue for a single short story published on its own, but not many authors have so many short story ideas that they could publish a collection. The upside? Short stories can be a tremendous marketing asset, and in this post we’ll explain how to use a short story to sell more books. Use the links below to skip portions of the post if they don’t apply to you.
What is a short story?
There are plenty of definitions floating around, but one of our favorites is: “A short story is a work of prose fiction that can be read in one sitting—usually between 20 minutes to an hour.” – blurb.com.
There is no set maximum length, but most short stories will come in under 10,000 words.
Generally, short stories will avoid complex plots that are difficult to wrap up in the short form. They also tend to have fewer characters for the same reason.
How to write a short story
One valuable use of the short story for authors is to test out new writing styles or experiment with different literary devices.
You might be interested in writing from a different point of view, but are not sure if you want to commit to an entire novel. A short story is a great opportunity to test, learn, and still have a finished product at the end.
Short stories also offer a chance to try out a different tone, story structure, or genre.
There are no hard rules about how to write a short story, but here are some steps to help you get started. If you have your own process you prefer, of course stick with what works for you.
Decide on your idea
Whether it’s an old memory, an imagined scenario, or a writing prompt, come up with the central tension of the story. Many short stories will start with a character already in the midst of conflict, and then work to resolve the conflict over the course of the story. If you have ever had a story idea, but haven’t been sure if there’s enough in it for a whole novel, a short story gives you the opportunity to use it. Now is also a good time to decide if you want to focus on a particular literary device.
Write out the plot
Create your characters
Write your short story
Start thinking of your short story as a marketing asset
Plug your other work in your short story back matter
Use your short story as a lead magnet
Set up your lead magnet
The last thing you want to do is manually send off an email with a .pdf every time someone signs up for your mailing list, so let’s look at ways to automate this process.
Email systems like MailChimp know how valuable lead magnets are, so many provide easy ways to set them up. MailChimp has instructions here.
Look into your email provider’s options. Chances are there’s a way you can set up a lead magnet system without paying any additional fees.
Keep in mind you want the experience to be as easy as possible for the reader. By giving away your short story for free, you are building goodwill with your readers. Don’t squander this by making them work too hard for the reward. Once you have your magnet set up, test it out yourself and evaluate if it is a good experience for your readers.
One of the smoother options out there, BookFunnel is not a free service, but it can enhance the experience for your readers by giving them more options for the download, so they can easily put the short story on their e-reader.
Using BookFunnel likely makes the most sense for authors that will use other features of the platform or have a higher volume of signups. But their offerings are worth checking out if you want the most seamless experience for your readers.
Promote your lead magnet
Just get it down without worrying about grammar, names or specifics. Details may come to you as you work out the plot, so keep them in mind, but don’t get too bogged down.
This can easily be swapped with number two if you prefer. Come up with profiles of the characters in your story. Since your final product will be short, you likely won’t have too many detailed characters. And those that you have may be challenging to fully develop in so few words. This brevity makes it all the more important that you have a well-defined character set. With fewer words, a character’s every action and thought becomes even more important.
Get to writing! You’ve done your prep work, so it’s time to actually write the story. Since this will be a shorter piece of work, you can also ask others for help editing and proofreading without putting too much work on their shoulders.
Those are the basics on how to write a short story. For a detailed breakdown, I recommend this post from Jerry Jenkins.
How to use a short story to get more readers
Ok, let’s get to why short stories can be so valuable for authors. If you already have a short story, here are some ideas on how you can use it. If you’re considering writing one, here’s why you should.
Compared to fully formed books, short stories can take much less time to write, edit and format. They can also easily be read in .pdf format as they won’t take so much time to read that readers will abandon them (I, for one, am not interested in reading an entire book on my computer screen, but I will happily spend a couple hours reading a short story or articles online). Just being able to store the story as a .pdf can be a big win. There is no need to format the story for distribution on big retailers unless you want to.
A short story has unique value in building your reader base. Here are our 4 tips on how authors can use their short stories to get more readers.
Let’s start by acknowledging that short stories can be some of the best works of fiction out there. If you have written a short story, congratulations! Just because it’s shorter than a full-length novel, doesn’t mean it can’t be as important to you as a longer work.
That said, it is more difficult to sell a short story directly. Romance authors have had success selling short stories on Amazon, but other genres can be more challenging. If you want to put your short work on Amazon and sell it, go for it! And if it works, that’s fantastic.
If you don’t want to put in the effort of officially publishing the story, or if you’ve tried selling it but haven’t had great success, don’t despair. It’s simply time to shift how you look at your short story.
Like a blog post, a social media image, or author website, your short story is now a marketing asset. It is a tool to get more readers to buy your other books.
This goes for all of your work, but don’t neglect a short story just because it’s a little different than your full-length books. Make sure to include links to your author website, Facebook page, and even your other books in the back matter.
If a reader finishes your short story, that’s a good sign that they may want more of your work. Make it easy for them to find.
A reader mailing list is one of the most important marketing tools available to authors. Once you have a reader’s email, you have a direct line of contact with them. If your short story can help add readers to your email list, it will help you sell more books over the long-term.
Luckily, a tried and true way to get people to sign up for an email list is to give them something in return. This is called using a Lead Magnet.
Lead magnets are so effective because they give a reader a concrete reason to complete an action.
If you promise a reader that a free short story will be emailed to them after signup, the reader knows exactly what they will get, what they will pay (nothing, aside from entering their email), and when they will get it.
Compare this to simply asking a reader to sign up for your mailing list. Yes, they might sign up, but there is more uncertainty for the reader on what the value there is to them in signing up.
This uncertainty is a psychological hurdle that makes it much less likely that someone will sign up. By offering the reader a concrete reward, you’re removing uncertainty, and giving them something for free. This is a great way to get more signups and build good-will.
Lead magnets are everywhere in online marketing, and there’s a reason: they work.
How to use your short story as a lead magnet
The handy thing about building a lead magnet is there are PLENTY of examples out there. Mark Dawson does a great job using a lead magnet to get email signups on his website.
Here, he devotes the entire homepage to getting email signups, and makes it clear that when a reader signs up, they will be getting a “starter library” and will be joining the mailing list.
After the reader signs up, the confirmation page makes it clear exactly what they should expect, and how they will get access to the lead magnet (in this case, his “starter library”).
So you’ve got your lead magnet set up, but in order for the magnet to pull readers in, they have to know about it. Here are a few ways to promote your lead magnet, but keep an open mind and try out any other ideas you might have. What works for one author might not work for another. If something sounds good to you, test it out!
The great thing about a lead magnet is that the value proposition is very clear: It is free. “Free” is one of the most powerful words in your marketing arsenal. You now have a way to deploy it.
“Sign up for this email list, and get a free short story.”
It’s simple and has no monetary cost to the reader. With such an appealing offer, you just need to get in front of readers.
Like Mark Dawson, putting a lead magnet on your website is a no brainer. If someone visits your site, they are already interested in your work, and if you can get their email address, you can let them know each time you have a sale or a new release.
Try putting your free short story offer on your homepage.
Another great place to promote your offer is through Tweets, posts on Facebook and Instagram. As we mentioned earlier, you already have a compelling offer to readers with a free short story, so the posts almost write themselves.
Other back matter
Just as you should promote your full-length work in your short story’s back matter, you should promote your lead magnet in your other works.
If someone finishes one of your books, they might not be on your mailing list, and they’re likely to be interested in reading more of your work. Offer them a free short story – they could be likely to take you up on the offer, or at very least have another reason to visit your website.
Thanks for reading! Do you have a short story you can use to get more readers? Do you have ideas about how to use it as a lead magnet? Let us know in the comments below.