MIND MELD: Is the Short Fiction Market in Trouble?
One of the many perennial arguments in the science fiction blogosphere centers on the health of the short fiction market, so we turned the Mind Meld microphone to people in the field and asked them:
has lived in six time zones on three continents, and hopes some day to collect the whole set. He was a finalist for the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; his novelette, “Finisterra”, is a finalist for the 2008 Hugo Award. He currently lives in Switzerland.
The SF short fiction market is toast. And if you’ve ever stayed at a London bed and breakfast, you’ll know the sort of toast I mean: toast that’s been out of the toaster and cooling on a toast rack till the only reason you can spread butter on it is that it’s acquired the consistency and tensile strength of a silicone rubber trivet. If you want to know what short SF’s future looks like, look at poetry’s present. Then subtract all the teaching jobs and grant money.
The traditional SF magazines are in hospice care waiting to die, and there hasn’t been a successful attempt at starting a new print SF magazine in decades. The online markets are loss leaders or labors of love.
And even if they weren’t, even if there were actual commercial SF magazines with workable long-term business plans, from an author’s point of view the so-called “professional” rates — that only a handful of markets can afford to pay — are a joke everyone’s heard so often it’s not worth groaning at. The penny a word John W. Campbell paid his authors in 1937 would be worth nearly fifteen cents now — three times more than what most of the “pro” markets are paying. Even Hugo Gernsback’s 1926 quarter-cent — three cents a word in 2008 — would put him at the top of the semi-pro pack today.
At a nickel a word you could fill every slot in every pro market every month and still not make enough to make the median mortgage payment in Chicago or Baltimore. Nobody’s making a living off selling SF short fiction to traditional markets, except maybe Howard Waldrop. There just isn’t enough money in the SF short fiction business to pay writers a living wage; there hasn’t been since prime-time TV went color, and there never will be again.
Which is not to say the SF short story is dead. There are more places to read short stories, more places to get an SF short story published, than there have ever been. Do good work and you’ll get critical acclaim, the respect of your peers, and the right to munch cold cuts in the SFWA suite at Worldcon. You won’t make enough money to quit your day job, but then, SF novelists generally don’t make enough money to quit their day jobs these days, either.
Meanwhile, if you insist on wanting to know how to make money writing short fiction, talk to Nick Mamatas. But you won’t hear much about genre markets.
According to Locus, about 3000 new short stories were published last year in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Someone wrote that we’re in the new golden age of sf short fiction, and I agree. So in the number of stories published, no, the market isn’t in trouble. It’s doing well.
The paying markets are having their issues. And no one quite understands how to make the internet markets pay. Baen’s Universe is doing a tremendous job, but I’m not sure how their financial books look.
I’m sure the digest magazines are in trouble. Their subscriptions are astoundingly low. F&SF is selling 1/3 what it sold when I edited. That’s not a knock on quality. The distribution system changed after I left — for all the digests — and they’ve been struggling to be visible. I think the Dell Magazines have a good website, which is important for new subscribers. I think F&SF’s is confusing and hard to find. Just like the digests are on the magazine shelves. Someone has got to figure out how to get these magazines in the hands of readers. I have ideas, but I’m not on the editing/publishing side of the desk any more, so am not in the position to make any changes.
There are some wonderful, wonderful original anthologies these days. From the Tekno anthologies — always knocked for quality in the literary side of the field (although I wonder how you can complain about the quality of something if you never read it) — to editors like Lou Anders, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, and Gardner Dozois, the short story is a live and kicking in our genre.
I’m happy to see it, since I like short stories more than anything.
I think the short fiction market is definitely suffering, the falling readership numbers for the major magazines indicate an increasingly niche audience.
My personal sense is that the magazines aren’t sufficiently cynical about their product. Most of them are trying to create a product with a variety of stories, styles, and ideas, and that means they can only effectively target the eclectic reader. But most readers don’t go after an eclectic experience and you see it in the bookstore; they like a consistent experience which is why people return to the same world by a given author book after book. Even I don’t really like to open the “box of chocolates” that a magazine represents, because I don’t know with each story if I’m going to be amused or horrified, or provoked, etc. That uncertainty of not knowing what I’m going to bite into means that it’s harder to engage with the magazine as a product. For me, at least, it makes a magazine a vaguely threatening product, rather than an inviting one.
Another problem might have to do with how a magazine replaces readership. For many magazines, they’re always looking for a new pool of readers to graduate into their circulation. An example at the trashiest level: boys get old enough to appreciate Maxim, and then also outgrow it — but Maxim never changes. It’s perpetually between the ages of 18-21. The SF magazines, though, I think, have grown with their readership, constantly building on what came before, this means that they kept their core readership and matured as an artform, but maybe also that they never found a way to speak to new generations — this is directly in contrast to, say, graphic novels, or media properties generally, which are always seeking to speak to that valued 18-25 demographic. SF has matured, which I think is great, but maybe it’s also failed to speak to the generations who should be its inheritors.
I know that when I was throwing out my short stories in the 80s and 90s there were numerous small press magazines about, but to see any of them survive longer than ten or twenty issues was unusual. As for those publishing anthologies, there seem to be more now, but that just might be a matter of accessibility. In the 80s I only found out about other short story markets in the advertising sections of each magazine. I think I started with Interzone (I don’t know how I got hold of a copy of that), found out about the likes of Back Brain Recluse and others in its pages, and proceeded from there. Now most short story writers can google ‘short story markets’ and find them all across the world. Also we have the rise of online magazines, which maybe means that those would-be publishers who couldn’t sustain a paper magazine can now survive for longer. To sum up, I don’t think the market is in any more trouble than it has been over the last quarter century but, for writers, finding magazines or anthologies to target is much much easier. Also, if the publishers concerned are prepared to accept email submissions, easier still – my first short story publication involved real cutting-and-pasting, photocopying and then postage. I still have international reply coupons sitting in my draw. Must try to get my money back on them.
The short fiction market? You mean like money? From this writer’s point of view, and that’s the only point of view I can legitimately speak for on this topic, it seems to me like the pay pretty roundly blows. I suppose, if you really hustled, you could make a living at it, but even then you’d be shitting a slim turd. Most writers who write solely short fiction as opposed to novels and stories, either have a day job or supplement with non-fiction writing. The magazines are paying about the same as they were paying ten years ago when I started publishing in them, anywhere from 10 dollars a story for some of the smaller publications to 8 or 9 cents a word for the bigger ones. There are a lot of pubs now that pay like 1 or 2 cents a word. Considering the amount of time it takes to write a story in general, that pay’s not great. When I say this, you have to understand, I’m not knocking the magazines. It’s an expensive proposition putting out a magazine, even online, and so they pay what they can. Back when Ellen [Datlow] was running Sci Fiction, paying 20 cents a word, you could make some sizeable cash for a piece – a couple thousand dollars. I became a writer of novelettes then. Hey, some’s good, more’s better.
It seems to me, and I could be wrong about this, that most people who are into writing short fiction don’t have the money angle as their main focus. The only writer I know who works contrary to this is Lucius Shepard, and he turns out a ton of fiction each year, although he also publishes non-fiction and does film work. Funny thing is, as far as quality goes, he’s one of the best story writers in SF. Go figure. Still, it’s nice to be paid one way or the other, and there’s the added bonus of getting your fiction out there in front of a reading public.
As for the magazines, I have no idea how healthy or unhealthy they are. There seem to be a lot of them out there both on-line and printed. There also seems to be no end to the production of content for them. Some of it is really top-notch stuff, in the larger and smaller magazines as well as those on-line. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of short story publication has moved to anthologies. Many of the anthologies will pay at least 10 cents a word and often more. These appear to be going pretty strongly, both themed and unthemed anthologies. There are also quite a few independent presses publishing short story collections, like Golden Gryphon, Tachyon, Subterranean, Small Beer, etc. The major publishers have started bringing out more collections by “genre” writers than I’ve seen before. Having kids and a mortgage and a full time job, sometimes I wish there was more money in it, but, in the long run, I just like writing short stories.
What this comes down to, I guess, is that the deciding factor as to the health of the short fiction market all depends on whether there are readers out there who want to read short stories badly enough to pay for them. So far, so good. Perhaps their numbers have been diminishing of late, but who knows, maybe they’ll increase later, down the road. No sense in getting bent about it one way or the other. Why do people get bent about it? Why not? As a writer, what can you do but keep writing, keep trying to write better, more interesting stories. You never know, maybe someone out there, obviously smarter than me about “markets” has a way to make the whole thing a monetary success for everyone involved. If so, I want to go on record as heartily endorsing monetary success.
Well, I think that magazines and other traditional venues for short fiction are in a decline, however, I don’t think this is because the public has less of an appetite for short fiction than in the past. Rather I think it is because fashions change and we, as a genre, aren’t keeping up with the times. Have you taken a real look at any of the top three print markets lately? Most of them look the way they did when I was in high school — twenty years ago. Look at them. Do you see anything that will make a teenager want to own it? Heck, even want to be seen carrying it?
I’m not saying that all SF needs to appeal to teenagers, but markets need to recognize that what their target demographic finds appealing changes as new generations grow into that demographic range. If we don’t reach out to the next generation of readers, the market is destined to shrink.
This ranges from visual appeal to the technology through which a story is delivered. People are reading more online. They listen to more audio fiction now. How many times have you heard someone say that people won’t read a novel online? And yet people will spend hours surfing the net, reading. Tapping into that market requires understanding how the next generation uses the internet. I mean, take a look at the online short fiction magazines. Which of them have RSS feeds for their fiction? If we want to grow the market for online, perhaps we can start by making it as easy as possible for people to find the fiction in the first place.
So, do I think the traditional markets for short fiction are in trouble? Yes. But if we keep up with what the audience wants, if we can anticipate it, I think the market for short fiction can be reinvented.
I don’t feel as though the short story market as a whole is in trouble, though I’m always sorry to see individual magazines struggle and even disappear. Over the past ten years, I’ve sold more and more of my stories online. The electronic markets come and go… but then, so did–and do–the print magazines. E-publishing is still in its infancy, but there are a lot of talented editors out there trying to figure out how to make online SF magazines work, and I like to think they’ll survive.
Obviously I wish there were more story markets, that they paid astronomically high rates for our work and that millions of people read every word. But nothing has yet convinced me that it’s not worthwhile to write short fiction, and I’m not sure anything ever will.
I write stories when I’m between novels; I see them mainly as a way to keep my name out there, not as a real source of income. I dislike sending stories to very low-paying markets like small magazines and webzines. My experience is that the less a market pays you, the worse the editors treat you…probably because they themselves aren’t being paid enough to spend much time on you. So that I can, from time to time, write non-mainstream stories I can be sure of publishing without having to suffer the ignominy of rejection by tiny barely-paying zines — I started my own non-paying webzine, FLURB, at www.flurb.net. Let a thousand webzines bloom…
I would question the relevance of short fiction in SF. There is interest from some quarters, and stories enjoy their devoted and well-informed fans. For as long as I can remember, people have claimed that the novella is the natural length for the best science fiction, but I don’t think there is a harder property to sell as a 20,000 word mini-novel. From a publisher’s perspective, stories are at most a novelty, or they don’t exist at all. The demographics are illuminating and distressing. A modestly successful fantasy series is going to command a larger audience that is willing to shell out far more money than all of the short-story specialists in the world, writing hard for a few dozen professional magazines, on-line markets and semi-prozines. The money is at best so-so, at worst, lousy. On a per-word basis, I get more dollars for a 150,000 word novel than the equivalent output of shorter works–and my novels aren’t big sellers, as a rule. Knowing that I’m a writer and little else, people will ask me, “So when’s your next book coming out?” Few people think about short fiction. For whatever reason, brief but intense glimpses into other worlds and other lives are not popular. If I was to make a guess, I’d propose that reading a 5,000 word story is quite a bit different from reading a large and frequently sloppy chain of words that get put inside a book cover and dubbed: A Novel. Every word counts in the best stories, while in the big series, on the whole, no single word counts for much.
To answer the main question: The market is in trouble. And it’s the kind of trouble that most people–and most of the dollars–won’t notice until that day when those same people go looking for Analog on the magazine rack, and it isn’t there anymore.
From where I’m sitting, the short fiction market isn’t so much in trouble as it is changing and diversifying. For several decades, that market has been the short fiction magazines–the big three and others which surfaced and went under at regular intervals–and anthologies, usually of the best-of-year variety. (Single-author collections, the most readily available delivery method for short stories in the mainstream market, are usually a secondary delivery method within genre–they incorporate mostly reprints, and usually appear after an author has gained a reputation by being published in magazines and anthologies.) The magazines’ owners and editors will know far better than I do how viable their platform is, but in the latter category the last decade has seen a veritable blossoming. Best-of-year anthology series are cropping up left, right, and center, and the fact that most of them have survived into their second, third, and even tenth volume is surely an indication that the market for them hasn’t been saturated.
Alongside these new anthology series, the last few years have seen a resurgence of what was nearly a lost form–the original, unthemed anthology. With new series like Fast Forward, Eclipse, and The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction popping up all over the place and spawning second volumes, and with themed anthologies like The New Space Opera or Feeling Very Strange (to name but two examples out of many) continuing to appear as well, I don’t think there’s any reasonable criteria by which the short fiction market can be called endangered. And that’s not even to mention the online short fiction magazines.
As for why the debate, the most obvious reason I can see is that this diversification means that not everyone is reading the same stories at the same time–which would have been more likely to be the case when short fiction venues were fewer. This creates the impression that the market is weaker when in fact it’s simply been fragmented. The more interesting question is why the market has fragmented. What’s changed in the short fiction market and its readers that suddenly makes themed and unthemed original anthologies a viable strategy for SF publishers? If I had to guess, I’d say that we’re seeing the effect of a generation of readers for whom a magazine subscription isn’t an automatic, or even reasonable, choice. People who want more bang for their buck are more likely to plop 12-15$ for an anthology published by a recognizable name, and featuring at least three or four authors they know and like, than they are to pay 50$ for a year’s subscription that essentially boils down to a monthly gamble. That’s just one possible cause, though, and others may shoot it down or think of angles I haven’t considered. What is certain is that it’s going to be very interesting to watch the short fiction market over the next decade. I have no doubt it’ll still be going strong in ten years’ time, but it’s anyone’s guess what shape it’ll take.
People love depressing endings, so you have all these doomsayers going on about how the short fiction market is in trouble. Perhaps the traditional business model for the short fiction market is circling the drain, with the advances of technology and the Internet making e-reading a near-future possibility. Change scares people, particularly those businesses successful with the traditional business model, and the fans of those business share the apprehension, so you get the swirls of fear invaded the genre’s zeitgeist.
I say to authors to keep writing short stories, there will always be people ready to publish and ready to read your work.
This is the Golden Age of the short story in science fiction. There have never been so many gifted, dedicated writers publishing so many good and great stories than there are right now. I don’t have Rich Horton’s yearly summary at my fingertips, but there were at least a couple thousand pieces of genre short fiction published last year. More than I have time to read. If you want to talk about quality, if you want to talk about the range or diversity of voices, if you want to talk about experimentation or the willingness to try new things, then the market for genre short fiction has never been healthier.
When people claim that the market isn’t healthy, they’re really saying two things. First, they’re saying that the incomes of short story writers aren’t healthy. Howard Waldrop or Robert Reed aside, there’s nobody who actively tries to make their living out of writing genre short fiction any more. Sixty years ago this wasn’t the case. But I think that market sixty years ago needs to be looked at as anomaly, a brief blip in the fiction writers’ landscape, rather than the norm or ideal. The entire amount of recorded history during which short story writers made a living wage amounts to a couple decades. It needs an asterisk beside it in the record books, just like the steroid era in Major League Baseball. Anyone waiting for that age to return is trying to mate with dinosaurs.
The second thing people are pointing at when they say the market isn’t healthy is the declining readerships of genre print magazines. Just like the groundhogs, it seems that every February someone looks at the circulation numbers in Locus, sees a shadow, and declares more winter coming. But readers aren’t leaving genre stories, they’re just finding them elsewhere. Millions of people look for genre short fiction every week: it’s called series television. Millions more get their genre fiction from movies, video games, comics and graphic novels. Meanwhile, online markets are finding ways to publish the short stories that used to appear in print. Many of them are paying rates comparable to the print magazines, but there’s no comparable way to compare circulation. And I haven’t even touched on webcast experiments like Amanda Tapping’s “Sanctuary” or collective fiction projects like “Shadow Unit,” which are variations on the genre short fiction series.
The only reason there’s a debate is because people are fixated on the old paradigm. But there are writers, big name and new, who understand and are adapting to these different ways to reach their audience. Neil Gaiman writes short fiction, but he also does novels, movies, and comics. Maureen McHugh has switched from short stories to doing cool, innovative online fiction that she doesn’t get credit for but still finds enormously satisfying. Patrick Weekes graduated from Clarion and went to work for the company that makes Mass Effect. All of this is still story-telling, and all of it is part of the bigger market for genre fiction. Writers of short fiction may have to find other ways to support themselves, but there have never been more genre-related writing opportunities to do so.
It may not be an easy market for individual writers – and I’m speaking from experience when I say that – but just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy. Enjoy this period while it lasts. The print magazines are with us for a while longer at least, the online magazines are inventing a variety of sustainable models, and traditional anthologies and collections still include great original stories. If that doesn’t feed your genre habit, you have all these other places to turn to get your fix.
It’s true the Atlantic Monthly cut shorts from its magazine, and collections never sell as well as novels, but online, short stories are thriving. Places like Chiaroscuro and Clarkesworld are publishing some amazing fiction, and paying far better than college literary magazines. So, I think short fiction is doing fine, and in the future will do even better when print-on-demand becomes a viable option for consumers who might want a taste of an author’s work, without having to download or pay for an entire opus. Unlike long fiction, shorts have the potential to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily read. Bad news for me, since I like long fiction. But there you go!
Filed under: Mind Meld
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