The year of the short story

The year of the short story

In 2021, Fly on the Wall Press set out to celebrate the short story form. We published three short story collections and seven limited-edition short story pamphlets, marketed and sold both separately and as part of a political season subscription with cohesive and colourful cover art. We also embarked on our first collection audiobook.

As a form, short story collections are often seen by the publishing industry as notoriously hard to sell; a form which agents baulk at. But 2021 was also the year of the subscription service, with online sales rising and bookshop opening hours unreliable due to the pandemic. Despite warnings around saleability, I felt there was a market for a more personal reading experience, and I wanted to offer a season of six story pamphlets on memorable and political themes. Each story came with a signed postcard from the author and subscriber letters were sent in each package. The subscription amassed a loyal following. Interestingly, while we sold more short pamphlets individually than subscriptions, we did see these season subscribers become "super fans", keeping actively engaged in our events throughout the year and purchasing other titles.

Two of our short story collection authors, Ruth Brandt and Dr David Hartley, also featured in our short season subscription with their titles Hassan’s Zoo and A Village in Winter (Brandt) and Pigskin (Hartley). One idea behind the short pamphlets was to introduce readers to new writers, providing a sampling of their work. Indeed, Brandt’s and Hartley’s shorts became a taster for their full collections and there weren’t many of our customers this year who purchased a copy of Fauna (Hartley) or No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall (Brandt) who had not previously read their shorts pamphlet—or the other way around!

Our last short story wager was to produce an audiobook of The House with Two Letter-Boxes by Janet H Swinney, complete with a North-East accented narration. This was released on 3rd December, so we are yet to determine its full success, however this was an exciting step for us as a small press to be able to publish books in accessible forms, thanks to Arts Council England funding.

When we analyse "success" in publishing, we often think about sales in a detached manner. We don’t often talk about relationships, and whether those sales will amount to returning, loyal customers. Particularly in relation to smaller publishers, we often talk about "scaling up" and adopting the marketing strategies of huge publishing houses which have been going for hundreds of years. However, if this year of short stories has taught me anything, it is that reader connections are everything. Ninety per cent of the customers that purchased from the Fly on the Wall Press website this year were new to us, and in 2022 we want to focus on deepening those connections. For a small press, success is that which creates a loyal following: we have no need to scale up or compare ourselves to mass-market publishing houses, we only need the "super fans" we have had the pleasure of chatting to this year to continue to engage in our publishing endeavours. Success is when these subscribers feel valued and when they recognise the quality in our work and continue to recommend us to friends and family.

So what did we learn from our year of the short story? Well, we decided to shift our limited-edition series of individual pamphlets into one anthology in 2022 (Of Myths and Mothers, 25th March 2022). This is because if we combined the sales of the pamphlets, one central anthology would have a strong chance of rating highly on online retailer ratings, attracting bookshop attention. We learned that readers show loyalty to new favourite authors and having more than one product on offer by an author encouraged further sales. We will, above all, foster our relationships with our existing customers, who chose to invest in us this year as opposed to going to the nearest chain bookshop or popular online retailer. (Also, we have learnt that a beautifully produced collection of limited-edition stories will fly at any book fair! Our bundles are certainly here to stay.) If we judge the quality of our work by a loyal following of super fans and their feedback, we can certainly mark the year of short stories a success.

Isabelle Kenyon is the managing director of Fly on the Wall Press, a publisher with a conscience, and the author of Growing Pains (Indigo Dreams Publishing, poetry), among others. She is currently under commission to write her debut novel.