Why Flash Fiction is a Scam

It’s the latest trend in all the spec fic magazines.  Flash fiction!  Write a short story that’s anywhere from a hundred words to the upper limit of a thousand words or less.  Check it out!  More stories in one issue!  Isn’t that spectacular?

Except that it isn’t.  It’s really a scam by magazine publishers.  It’s an excuse to pay writers less.  It’s the literary equivalent of part-time split shifts with no benefits.

Let me explain.

I’m actually a great admirer of the art form.  It’s challenging to write a complete story in that few words!  It’s a bit like haiku, really.  You have a set format, and somehow, with as much brevity as possible, you have to tell a story with a plot, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It should somehow be interesting enough that it holds the full attention of the reader, too.  Lois McMaster Bujold finished her outstanding novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, Diplomatic Immunity, with a series of one hundred word flash fiction bits that, in knowing the context, made me weep.

The thing is, I don’t think it’s any less challenging for a writer than a good five thousand word short.  It’s hard work.  And I think it takes about the same amount of time that the five thousand word short did.

Here’s where the problem comes in.  The magazine market — the real market, the one that actually pays more than a token, if you can break into it — pays anywhere from five to seven cents a word.

Do you see the problem?  No?  Okay, let me lay it out.

If I write a five thousand word short and submit it to a magazine that pays five cents a word, I get paid $250.  Not bad for a couple of weeks’ worth of work!

If I write a one thousand word flash fiction piece and submit it to a magazine that pays five cents a word, I get paid $50.

Did the thousand-word story take me less time?  Probably not!  I had to come up with the idea, write it while choosing my words even more carefully than I did the short story, edit it, and send it in, just like I did with the short.

It gets better.  Did you ever hear of any flash fiction story winning a Nebula?  No?  How about a Pulitzer or a Giller?  No?  Hmm, me neither.

No one makes a name in flash fiction!  The only time flash fiction gets you any attention, which increases the value of your writing “brand,” is when it’s by somebody who’s already known, or when it’s for a contest; which you probably had to pay to enter.

All the experts will tell you that the way to break into fiction writing as a full-time career is to write for magazines.  When you’ve got some acclaim behind you, you can market your book to a publisher more effectively.  But they’ll all tell you that it doesn’t make any real money, either.  It’s like an apprenticeship.  You get paid less than you’re worth so that you can move up and become a journeyman and maybe, eventually, a master, and that’s the only way you really make money at writing.

Since flash fiction takes as much time to do as a short story, and carries no weight in building up my brand, tell me why I should waste my time working on it again?

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep writing it if you like it and if you’re good at it.  Why not?  It’s fun, and the truth is that even those of us who want to make a living at this write for fun.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it, and no one would buy it if we did.  As I’ve said, I really admire the art form!

But the problem is that more and more magazines are turning almost exclusively to this form to try to save costs.  Once again, the desire of the company to make a profit is passed on to the worker, and their labour is farmed with little or no benefit to them.

I think we should rebel against this trend.  Readers, if you value the work of writers and want them to keep doing it, you need to make it into a career that pays reasonably.  Support magazines that pay market value for full short stories!

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7 thoughts on “Why Flash Fiction is a Scam

  1. I am going to play Devil’s Advocate but I want to preface by saying that I agree that the quality of art should receive the same level of value as you state. When we relaunch our lit journal next year with a new funding plan the goal is to pay all contributors equally. That being said, the reason I prefer flash fiction to short stories in my lit journal (we are not flash exclusive though) is for reader benefits. I know what you’re thinking, “But readers want more, not less.” As an avid reader I might agree except…I am married to a reluctant reader, I have raised one avid reader and two reluctant readers. Offering my reluctant readers a flash fiction piece engaged them. It gave them enough of my writing style for them to say, “Ok, I want a little more.” And then I can get them to indulge in a short story…and so on. There is a saying about how if someone says they don’t like to read, they just haven’t found the right book. I think, from a readers perspective, flash fiction is a great tool to drawn that reluctant audience in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s all fine, and makes sense from a business perspective . . . as long as you’re paying equally and not by the word. Or as long as that’s not the only part of the magazine and you’re publishing short stories as well. If you’re paying each contributor an equal royalty share, that’s good. I’ve done work for that and that depends on sales. You writes your piece and you takes your chances then. But if you’re paying by the word, and flash fiction is all you do, from a long-term business perspective you’re assuring that only authors whose partners are wealthy enough to support them while they write can write for you on a regular basis. From a reader’s perspective, you might also be depriving your readers of the benefit of good writers who excel in the short story art form. Luring them in is fine, but I think you should give them something else to eat once they’ve taken the bait!

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  2. Testify!

    I write flash/short fiction – New Horizons is a collection of exactly that.
    I can tell you, though, that some of those stories took as long as it does to write something ten or twenty times the length, and the editing is just as painstaking.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly! If you’re publishing for yourself, that’s great! And as an occasional feature or a contest in a magazine – awesome! But many magazines are switching to flash fiction *exclusively* and that’s just a way not to pay us for our labour, and that’s not right.

      Liked by 1 person

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