When I first started writing fiction back in the mid-1990s, I was trying to publish in the SF short story market. This was in the early days of the Web, and magazines weren’t online yet. Submissions all had to be mailed (delivered by dinosaurs), and editors were generally looking for stories in the range of 5,000-7,500 words.
While the SFWA still has the same rules for word counts (see the Nebula Awards site), editors have been looking for shorter and shorter submissions. I find it rare to come across a market that will look at anything over 5,000 words. There are dozens (at least) of markets completely devoted to flash fiction, and an even shorter form known as nanofiction. Not to mention the fact that people are telling entire stories in 140 characters or less now.
But why? I think it’s the convergence of several trends. Since almost all commercial (and most mainstream literary) short fiction is published online these days, fiction is battling all the other shiny online things for our attention. And as screens grow smaller, markets want to serve up fiction that people can actually finish before their fingers cramp up from scrolling too much.
Since I’ve focused on writing novels the past few years, I haven’t worried too much about this trend. But then a member of my writing group gave me a heads-up about Bloomsbury Spark, a new imprint that’s accepting direct submissions for YA and new adult e-books. And the word count? Between 25,000 and 60,000 words, which is the traditional territory for middle grade readers. And the upper end — 60K — is usually considered to be about as short as you would want for YA.
The only conclusion I can draw is that it’s not only our short fiction that’s getting shorter, but also our novels. Time to start cutting.