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:

Q: Nobody questions the relevance of genre short fiction, but there is some debate about the health of the market itself. From your perspective, is the short fiction market in trouble? If not, why the debate? If so, what is the cause?
David Moles
David Moles was born on the anniversary of the R.101 disaster. He

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.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is currently on the Hugo ballot for her novella, “Recovering Aoollo 8.” She has won Hugos for her short fiction and for her editing. Her latest novel is The Recovery of Man from Roc.

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.

Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and is the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best sf short story of the year. Free sample stories from his new collection are available at http://windupstories.com/pumpsix/.

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.

Neal Asher
Having written for the small presses for many years, Neal Asher was taken on in 2000 by Macmillan who have since published ten of his books. These have gone on for translation in twelve countries across the world. His latest novel, Line War, completes his Cormac Sequence and he is currently working on Orbus, a follow-up to The Voyage of the Sable Keech. Later this year Scorpion Memory (Night Shade Books) and The Gabble and other Stories (Macmillan) should be hitting the shelves. Neal blogs at http://theskinner.blogspot.com

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.

Jeffrey Ford
Jeff Ford has short fiction forthcoming in the anthologies The Del Rey Anthology of Science Fiction, The Starry Rift (Viking), Extraordinary Engines (Solaris), The Living Dead (Nightshade), The Best of Leviathan (Prime), The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #21 (St. Martins), and Year’s Best Fantasy #8 (Tachyon). His most recent novel is The Shadow Year from Morrow/Harper Collins, and there will be a new collection, The Drowned Life from Perrenial/Harper Collins in November, 2008.

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.

Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer who moonlights as a writer. Mrs. Kowal’s short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is a current finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit her website, www.maryrobinettekowal.com for a free fiction sampler.

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.

A.M. Dellamonica
A.M. Dellamonica’s most recent story appearance is called “The Sorrow Fair,” and it can be found at Helix Speculative Fiction. Her work has appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, SciFi.Com’s SciFiction, and Strange Horizons, as well anthologies including the upcoming Passing for Human , edited by Steve Utley and Michael Bishop. Her first novel, Indigo Springs, will be in bookstores in 2008; she has also recently been awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Grant for another work in progress, The Wintergirls. Dellamonica’s web site is at www.alyxdellamonica.com. She teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

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.

Rudy Rucker
Rudy Rucker is a Mathematician, a Computer Scientist and an Author whose first published story appeared in 1962. His novels include White Light, the Ware books (comprised of Software, Wetware [both winners of the Philip K. Dick award], Freeware, and Realware), Frek and the Elixir, Mathematicians in Love, Postsingular and it’s forthcoming sequel, Hylozoic. He also publishes an online fiction magazine called FLURB.

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…

Robert Reed
At last count, Robert Reed has published 170 shorter works of fiction. His novella, “A Billion Eves”, won the Hugo in 2007. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, not far from the center of North America.

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.

Abigail Nussbaum
Abigail Nussbaum works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions, and has reviewed for the Israeli magazines The Tenth Dimension and Chalomot BeAspamia, as well as Strange Horizons, Vector, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Infinity Plus.

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.

Jason Sizemore
Jason Sizemore is the editor-in-chief of Apex Science Fiction & Horror Digest. When not publishing books and a magazine, he writes creepy horror short stories. For more information visit http://www.apexbookcompany.com.

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.

Charles Coleman Finlay
Charles Coleman Finlay‘s collection Wild Things was published by Subterranean in 2005. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Black Gate, and have been reprinted in several Year’s Best collections. He has a series of novels coming out from Del Rey beginning in 2009.

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.

Sarah Langan
Sarah Langan has an M.F.A. from Columbia University, and is pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Toxicology at NYU. Her first novel, The Keeper (HarperCollins, 2006), was a New York Times Editor’s Pick. Her second novel, The Missing (Virus in the UK, HarperCollins, 2007), won the Stoker Award for best novel, received a Starred Publisher’s Weekly review, and made several best-of-the-year lists. Her third novel, Audrey’s Door, is slated for publication in early 2009. She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancée and pet rabbit.

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!

21 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Is the Short Fiction Market in Trouble?”

  1. Pity you couldn’t get more answers from people in a position to actually know the finances involved (as in, editors and publishers). As a writer, of course, I always want to make more than they’re paying and have more people read my stuff. But as an editor and publisher, I paid as much as I could and did what I could to circulate my magazines. The readers I had were incredibly loyal, dedicated, and appreciative of the magazines they were reading. The big problem, as someone mentioned, was always distribution. Now that the internet is maturing, a whole slew of online magazines have cropped up, some publishing dreck, some publishing good stuff. It would have been great to have actual numbers on the readership they’re seeing.

  2. I’m not a regular short fiction writer (though it is how I started my career) but I did just sell my first short fiction in over 13 years.

    There are interesting changes happening and they really center around the issues of cost of distribution and means of production. Nearly anyone (as Rudy illustrates with FLURB) now has the ability to create new venues for short fiction with little start-up costs and (thank goodness) little environmental impact. What isn’t clear is the economic models for turning these venues into commercial ventures.

    However, this has always been the case, even before the web. Markets come and go, wane and wax. There has always been these continuums of widely distributed to poorly distributed, non-paying to high-paying, “high” to “low” culture, with economic models that ranged from patronage to advertising to loss-leader to no-advertising.

    And it is so now. My new story was sold to a new (not yet appearing), web-based venue for money comparable Datlow’s Sci-Fiction. There are thousands of writers pubbing stuff in non-paying markets. And then there’s in between. There’s drm’ed e-fiction sold online in short form and people give it away, too, especially during awards season. There’s people who think of it as drivers for their novel careers and people who don’t write anything but short fiction.

    Yes things are changing, and at a faster rate than before, but it has always been so.

  3. Kristine: “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.”

    As someone on the editing/publishing side of things, I’d love to hear any and all ideas! Some of them we may be able to pull off…

    Paolo: “Another problem might have to do with how a magazine replaces readership”

    As a literary/genre magazine, GUD‘s ideal target audience is those literati just entering, or still in (even never leaving) college/university. So far those numbers are well and beyond our circulation, so we’ll keep trying to get their attention. :)

    Rudy: “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.”

    I’m sorry that that’s the vibe you’ve gotten. GUD, as a semi-pro, really strives to be good to its contributors. Maybe we should collect testimonials to that effect? I hadn’t realized it was that pervasive an issue!

    Robert: “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.”

    I personally feel that this is a matter of education–people don’t seem to know that short fiction exists, or that it’s “okay” for “regular” people to read it. Or if they do read it, they don’t realize that what they’re reading is short fiction and that there are ever and always many venues for it. They’ll read it next to the articles of whatever journal they’re reading, or in the paper, or even online, but it never occurs to them that if they like it they can go seek out more.

    Abigail: “not everyone is reading the same stories at the same time”

    This is an odd problem, and one GUD is trying to juggle/brainstorm. The thing about people reading things at the same time is it sparks more conversation/discussion, more interaction, and through that more notice and more personal investment. But of course we’d hate for there to be so little output that there were only some things to read. That’s where diversification spawns from, to an extent–but then you have to grow your niche into something that has people talking about it. Still working on that…

    Thanks for all the discussion!

  4. I can find more new short stories than I have time to read. I can even find more new free great short stories than I have time to read. And the annual best of anthology market seems to expand every year. So from a reader’s perspective, there seems to be a boom in short fiction.

    It does bother me greatly that the magazines I’ve grown up with like F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog are losing readers and might fold in the future. F&SF started just before I was born and I hope it lasts at least till just after I die – and I want a long life.

    I’ve actually wondered if there were fewer markets if things wouldn’t be better for short story writers. If the top three magazines got all the readers so they could sell more issues and pay more for stories, would that be a better world? It would suck for people wanting to start new magazines, but would it help?

    I think the same problem exists in the literary world. Every university with a writing program puts out a fiction journal, so the average sales is 200 copies. Wouldn’t it be better if there were five great journals that everyone competed to get into and all the literary fans bought to read?

    It makes me wonder if Andrew Keen isn’t right when he said the Internet is killing off culture. The Internet and cheap printing makes for too many publishers.

    Jim

  5. Maybe so, Robert Reed, but when my eyes fail me and I can’t read any more, I’ll still remember “Roxie”, when all the 800-page novels are forgotten.

  6. Well, I run an online venue for short fiction, where our budget is $2k per month. It’s a loss leader to get folks to the website to buy books. We’re also going to be putting up some tales — a new “Kirinyaga” universe story by Mike Resnick — for which we’re paying rates that equal or exceed what SciFiction was paying. Those novellas will later be published as limited edition hardcovers.

    It’s been an interesting =experiment. I can’t say for certain that the online fiction sells books, but I can say that our business has never been better.

    Bill Schafer

    Subterranean Press

  7. Lots of interesting comments and good food for thought here.

    I have plenty of responses, but time only for the most important one:

    Do y’all know what the two highest-paying magazines in the genre are?

    As far as I know, they’re Baen’s Universe (6-25c/word, depending on length and various other factors) and Clarkesworld (10c/word, though only takes stories up to 4k words).

    Both are online magazines.

    Before those, of course, the highest-paying magazine in the field was the late lamented Sci Fiction, also an online magazine.

    So for most of the past eight years, the highest-paying magazines in sf have been online.

    Obviously this doesn’t contradict most of the points people have made here. Most online magazines (like most print magazines) pay 5c/word or less. Most writers can’t make a living selling short fiction. And so on.

    But it’s long past time to retire the notion that the pro print magazines pay more than even the highest-paying online venues.

    …While I’m here, a couple of other thoughts (about electronic publishing, ’cause I’m fixated on that today and I have a vested interest in it):

    1. There are some interesting electronic reprint venues, particularly Fictionwise and Escape Pod (the latter of which doesn’t distinguish between originals and reprints; pays roughly semipro rates for both). You’re probably not gonna make a living selling reprints, either; just saying that a story’s first sale is not necessarily the only time it’ll generate income for the writer.

    2. While I agree with a lot of what David M said, I want to go off on a sidetrack to expand on the notion that online publications are mostly either loss leaders or labors of love. While that’s certainly true, it’s an argument that I often hear used to dismiss online venues. (That’s not what David was doing; I’m just commenting on the way that this description is usually used.) I just don’t think that a venue being a loss leader or a labor of love (descriptions that also apply to plenty of print magazines) is relevant to most discussions. It doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of the material published; it doesn’t necessarily affect the amount that authors and editors get paid. There’s this widespread notion in sf that if a magazine’s goal isn’t to make a profit, it’s somehow a less valuable or less worthwhile venue than if the goal is to make a profit. I don’t buy that argument.

    Or, to come at this from a different angle: most people who read, write, edit, and publish short sf do so for the love of it. Some get more money than others, but it seems to me it’s all a labor of love. And that’s why I think good short sf will continue to be written and published and read, even if the number of people involved is smaller than it once was, and even if the business models keep anyone from making much money at it.

  8. We’ve been publishing short (600 words or less) Science Fiction stories direct to web at 365tomorrows.com since August of 2005, initially from staff writers and starting in the second year supplementing the staff writing with submissions. In a few days we’ll post our 1000th story, which means we’ve been fortunate enough to select 1000 different pieces of Science Fiction from a wide variety of amateur authors totaling over 500,000 words. That’s not counting the stories we’ve rejected.

    We’re making a very small amount of revenue from advertising which we use to advertise elsewhere, and we’re not in a position to pay the writers whose stories we do accept. None of us are going to quit our day job, but we’re attracting on average 20,000 page views a day/story, so I’d say there’s a healthy demand for short SciFi.

    I remember when I was in school, Asimov and Analog were everywhere, which made them easy to find, buy and read. I have to go out of my way now to find the one or maybe two copies these days that select bookstores bring in, and even then they’re never with the SciFi books, which is where the SciFi readers hang out, you have to ask someone or go digging in with the Archie comics or through the magazine racks. You can’t fault people for not buying what isn’t readily available for sale.

    I think if these publications were marketed the same way that Wired or Pop Science were marketed, they’d be healthy enough to sustain not only themselves, but some of the quality writers that are out there looking for a means to publish their work. If the bookstores would put them at the cash registers, or in with the SciFi books, and carry enough of them that they were regularly around for people to see, I think the readership would take a marked upturn.

    I refuse to believe that there’s no money in short fiction journals; the demographic that reads them has disposable income, and a want to spend it. I think someone with some imagination and drive needs to light a fire under the marketing teams responsible for them and make an effort to get them back out in clear sight.

    If a devoted marketing team was able to resurrect ‘Black Label’ beer from its garage beer grave and turn it into an über hip brand, even if only for a short while, I can’t imagine a similarly devoted team not being able to nurse something of substance like the SciFi monthlies back into mainstream health.

  9. This discussion is interesting—thanks for putting it together, SFSignal. I’m sorry I haven’t had time to participate in it.

    One reason I haven’t had time is because I’ve been trying to deal with rogue subscription agents—people who send out magazine subscription solicitations that look like renewal notices. (See http://nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/378/7069.html?1208106799.) I mention it for two reasons: one is just to educate people about this practice, and the other is to say that I consider these rogue agents a bigger threat to F&SF’s existence than any of the gloomy points made in this whole thread.

    And for your amusement, here’s a little tidbit about that great genre magazine, NEW WORLDS:

    “When Mike Moorcock went on a month-long trip to the United States in the spring of 1969, I did what I had been avoiding for the past two years. I did the numbers.

    “I began with the best imaginable scenario. Suppose we could somehow sell _every single copy of New Worlds_ that we printed. To this revenue I added the money we received from 500 subscriptions, the few ads that we carried, and the Arts Council Grant (all pro-rated on a monthly basis). Then I subtracted the cost of printing each issue of the magazine and paying the staff and contributors.

    “The result was negative. In other words, even in a utopian situation which was utterly unattainable, the magazine would lose money.”

    —Charles Platt, “Marginal Trasncendence,” THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #236, April 2008

  10. Gordon said:

    “I began with the best imaginable scenario. Suppose we could somehow sell _every single copy of New Worlds_ that we printed. To this revenue I added the money we received from 500 subscriptions, the few ads that we carried, and the Arts Council Grant (all pro-rated on a monthly basis). Then I subtracted the cost of printing each issue of the magazine and paying the staff and contributors. The result was negative. In other words, even in a utopian situation which was utterly unattainable, the magazine would lose money.”

    You’d hope that like any business, the numbers would get done first, and the price increased and payouts decreased until the publication was sustainable. I’d also think you’d want to keep grant money out of the business plan, as you’d hate to have a successful business model screwed by the sudden withdrawal of a stream of free money that it was dependent on. As much as everyone bemoans a price increase, if paying an extra dollar or two at the newsstand means the difference between there being a next month or not, people will spend it. Consider cups of coffee at $2 a pop now that the target demographic of these magazines downs several times a day without blinking, and I don’t think charging more for a monthly is going to present a problem.

    I can buy CD’s in Starbucks that I can’t listen to until I leave the store, why isn’t someone setting up a deal so I can I buy Fiction mags that I can read while I’m sitting drinking my coffee? Maybe I’d drink more coffee if there was something to keep me there.

    While we consider the negative impact that giving away fiction on the internet poses to print publications, if I think of all the places I look on the internet, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an ad for any of the publications we’re talking about here. Surely amongst all the free fiction and fan sites there could be found some donated or reciprocal advertising arrangement that would at least get the publication names in front of the people who are inclined to buy them, and remind them that these print publications do in fact still exist.

  11. I agree with Charles Coleman Finlay’s comment that “This is the Golden Age of the short story in science fiction” and the only reason there’s a debate on whether SF short fiction is dying is “because people are fixated on the old paradigm.”

    Just because people aren’t buying short fiction magazines the way they did 30 years ago doesn’t mean there is no interest in short fiction. After all, people don’t buy record albums or CDs the way they did even a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t listening to music anymore. Instead, people are finding new ways to listen to music such as through iPods, iTunes, and other digital delivery systems. The same goes for short fiction. As I finish compiling the notable story selections for this year’s Million Writers Award for best online short story, I’m constantly amazed at how many top-notch online magazines there are. While the professional SF magazines may have had larger circulations a few decades ago, there were no where near as many people writing, editing, and promoting short fiction as there are these days.

  12. >> Before those, of course, the highest-paying magazine in the field was the late lamented Sci Fiction, also an online magazine.

    Well, no, Jed. The highest paying genre magazine was and is OMNI, which paid up to $3500 per story.

  13. I think Jed was referring to magazines in the last eight years: “So for most of the past eight years, the highest-paying magazines in sf have been online.” 2000 marked the launch of many online magazines, so it’s safe to say that is a good starting point. Omni Online lasted until 1998, so it probably falls outside the purview of this.

  14. As an aspiring writer being told to get short fiction credits it’s interesting to see what the pros think of the market. As a bookseller… sometimes getting stores to market the magazines properly can help. We moved our SF magazines out of the magazine section and into the SF section and saw sales go up a lot. I can’t remember who commented on it, but moving the mags to a place where the right customers can find them definitely helps. Wish more stores would figure that out.

  15. We moved our SF magazines out of the magazine section and into the SF section and saw sales go up a lot. I can’t remember who commented on it, but moving the mags to a place where the right customers can find them definitely helps. Wish more stores would figure that out.

    Exactly. I wish more stores would figure that out too.

  16. Great discussion.

    I’m chipping in as a reader of old…I cut my teeth on science fiction, and probably have the first ever issue of Asimov’s lying around somewhere, maybe even the first issue of Omni. I don’t subscribe to the print mags any more. I do read a lot of online stuff.

    Here’s why.

    1. The print mags now tend to publish stuff that doesn’t interest me. I started reading SF as idea fiction, but there’s now much less of that. Twist endings are out of vogue, but many of the memorable stories of yesteryear were simple stories driving toward a surprise: Think “Nine Billion Names…” Most of what is printed today is literary, complex, and sometimes beautiful – and requires more effort for less payoff than I want to put into a short.

    2. They feel antique and sexist. The names on the covers are mostly male, and I’m not. That worked when women didn’t write as much, and some used male names. It doesn’t work any more. I want more of a female sensibility in the stories I read. Not saying, either, that men can’t write such stories, only that they’re seldom in print.

    3. They don’t feel … unusual. Many stories feel like non-genre stories with a genre wrap. This is great if it’s done well, but frankly, it works better on video. Print doesn’t do special effects nearly as well.

    4. The box of chocolates thing. I buy print mags when someone I know’s been published in one of them and I want to read his (or occasionally, her) story. When I do, I mght find one or two other stories of interest. It’s unusual to find the whole issue readable.

    5. They’re often dismal. Maybe this is realistic, but it’s also boring. The real world offers enough dystopias at the touch of a button. I read genre for entertainment. What’s the opposite of “feel-good” literature? “Feel-bad” literature?

    I read a number of online mags – and I agree with the person who said there’s a lot of material out there. I think they tend to be more innovative, perhaps because running costs are maybe a tenth of those for a print magazine. I find stories that do have that element of amazement or wonder or the fantastic that the print stories seem to have lost. And there are even whole magazines of optimistic fiction.

  17. :) hi now me getting to a so it goes stage of life – publishing & distributing magazines with minor distribution is difficult but it must continue thru subscription on decent paper like what SFEYE was published – i tried my best to keep pushing Interzone & i assumt FOUNDATION is still healthy – now anyone out there want to buy any om excess copies of the ahove mentioned magazines then let me know thru the source yu may have

    yurs unlimted dream & dave on

    in it

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