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Short Fiction: Why Aren’t You Buying It?

There’s a lot of buzz going on in the sf blogosphere right now about short fiction…its purpose, its declining numbers, the reasons for them, its future and why you should support short fiction through subscription drives, etc. (Niall @ Torque Control rounds up the links.)

As a short fiction reader, I like having it around and see it continuing to be around. I certainly understand the desire to drive up numbers, especially by those authors and editors who have a vested interest in it. But the cold, hard fact of short sf (as reiterated by Paul Raven) is that readers aren’t coming and nobody is sure why.

Is it because there’s plenty of free short fiction online? Is it because the magazines offer a low ratio of good stories to bad? Do people just prefer longer length stories?

Tell us why!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

16 Comments on Short Fiction: Why Aren’t You Buying It?

  1. For me reading science fiction is enjoyable as it immerses me in a different world, or at least a differently perceived world. A good story can absolutely achieve this but it will always leave me wanting more. Also I am a picky reader and so short story collections are rarely good value. As such I don’t buy short story collections but do get them out of the library to suss out what new authors I might enjoy reading.

  2. I’ve just started reading short stories. I never really understood the appeal of them until I started listening to them in podcast form. For some reason, something clicked in my head and I’ve been reading lots of anthologies.

    Unfortunately for the magazines, I’ve been reading mostly old stuff. My library has “The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction” annual volumes from the early 1950s thru the 1970s and I’ve been working through those. Most of the modern stuff bores me. :-S

    Another anthology I read recently is the Harry Harrison edited anthology “The Year 2000” which was published in 1970 and contains stories commissioned for the book. All the stories are set in the year 2000 and, wow, were their prediction way, way off. πŸ˜€

  3. Well, I currently buy Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF and Jim Baen’s Universe. And a ton of anthologies.

    But, to be honest, I tend to just read the anthologies. The magazines pile up. Personal time is stressed and fractured and compressed, so I tend to go to the books where the stories have been through two levels of “vetting” in most cases.

    This year has been slow on shorts. But last year I got through several hundred short works. I tend to alternate.

  4. 1) I prefer longer works. Deeper stories, more characterization, blah, blah, blah.

    2) I don’t get a chance to read much of ANY fiction, regardless of length. That’s just the reality of my life. When I do get some time (like listening to audiobooks on a plane or in a car), I will go for something I KNOW I will like, such as a novel by an author that I know is good. If that author has a collection of short stories, I might go for that, but that’s a second choice. A collection of random stories from random authors is just too much of a gamble… not with my money, but with something more valuable: My Time.

    Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I PAID to read a short story. Maybe at some point in the past two years I bought a genre anthology. One. Singular. Subscribe to a magazine? Never happen. I don’t have the time to read it or the money to buy it. When I have either, I go for novels because that’s my preference.

    The internet? I’ve read a lot of short tales on the internet, but that’s mostly been the things that people submit to my website. That’s just a matter of choice, though. I know there are a lot of sites out there offering short fiction, and people who prefer short stories over novels are getting their genre fix that way more often, Good for them. Bad for the dead-tree publishers.

    Regardless of length OR genre, I think the market for fiction is moving online. There is a lot of material out there, and don’t let people tell you that it isn’t good because it hasn’t been through the filter of traditional publishing and editors. That’s what the traditional publishers want you to believe. Not all of the good authors have the patience, personality, connections, bravery, or flat-out luck to make it anywhere NEAR a publishing deal. In the previous generations, you never heard of those people. They and their stories just disappeared. In THIS generation, those people… some of whom are just as talented as your dead-tree favorites (or better!)… are on the internet. Most of them are giving their stories away for free, or very cheap. You don’t have to wade through a river of crap to find them, either. Maybe that used to be true, but now with social media, all you need to do is connect to people with similar tastes and they will TELL you where the good stuff is. Just like how it works in real life, eh?

    What does this mean for the future of the genre in print? Do they even have one? Sure they do. Just not an indefinitely or dazzlingly bright one. Their star is fading. Am I going to subscribe to a genre anthology magazine to keep it afloat? No thanks. In my eyes, THAT ship has a hole in it and it is going down. The only thing to argue about is how FAST its sinking, not whether it is sinking or not. Standing on the deck throwing teacups of water over the side is not going to help.

  5. joshua corning // August 12, 2007 at 12:07 pm //

    I do buy it…but

    Interzone subscriptions are sketchy in the US…you end up getting like half of the issues you pay for (note to Interzone fedEx will not ripoff issues)

    Also I have been getting the years best…just got volume 24.

    Short fiction is great…you can drop a story if you don’t like it, it is cheaper, and it is generally not filled with…well filler, which is found in almost all Sci Fi novels these days.

    The one sci fi novel I recently bought was “The Road” so far a great book. The language is clean and descriptive and not filled with pages of crap.

    Sci fi writers might consider paying for editors…

    But then again they are selling to the same crowd that actually thinks Hyperion is not a lump of crap.

  6. “and it is generally not filled with…well filler, which is found in almost all Sci Fi novels these days.”

    Why are so many novels so darned long these days? Writers used to be able to tell a solid story in 300 pages (or much less). Now it takes 500-600 at a minimum. Not to take anything away from John Scalzi’s writing but I’m convinced one of the reasons for his popularity is that it doesn’t take a month to read his books.

  7. joshua corning // August 12, 2007 at 2:55 pm //

    Not to take anything away from John Scalzi’s writing but I’m convinced one of the reasons for his popularity is that it doesn’t take a month to read his books.

    I agree with what you said and in fact i think Scalzi is the exception that proves the rule. He is a professional writer by trade not just sci fi. My take is not only does he have developed internal editing skills but he will listen and heed what his editor tells him…i also suspect that he shopped for his editor…actively looked for someone who knew how to use a red pen and was not afraid of hurt feelings or more importantly bruised egos.

  8. Personally, I buy short story collections on a regular basis.

    Don’t read magazines though. There seem to be too few good stories in most of the magazines I got back in the days (many years ago) when I was subscribing to them.

    Besides, I just don’t buy magazines of ANY kind, as a general rule. These days I go to the internet for the sorts of things I might have bought a magazine to read about.

  9. I buy anthologies on occasion, but I’m not impressed with the content that’s in most sci-fi magazines anymore. Now that I’m more honest with myself, I no longer consider it a tragedy that some of these science fiction magazines went out of business a decade or two ago.

  10. Every once in a while, I’ll buy a short fiction magazine…but not very often. It seems like the “good” fiction magazines come in two flavors: literature and genre. “Good” literature bores my pants off, for the most part. “Good” genre work is sometimes good but more often just pretentious and demanding. It’s not FUN!

    Online fiction may come in every stripe imaginable, but it’s such a pain to wade through the piles of junk to find the gems that I have a hard time actually wanting to do it for pleasure’s sake.

    So why isn’t short SF not fun to read anymore? I think it’s because 1) pay rates are so low that it’s hard to attract professional, full-time writers to do it, except for “experimental” pieces that, if they are fun to read, get turned into novels at the drop of the hat so the writers can get back some $$ for their investment.

    2) Sci-Fi no longer describes what people want, for the most part, for entertainment. When you do see SF in the entertainment media, it’s an adventure with SF clothes on. The magazines–print and online–do SF with a sprinkle of adventure, like a spritzer of olive oil on a low-cal salad. Could you sell most SF novels to Hollywood? Possibly…but how many short stories could you sell? SF without adventure isn’t fun. It’s interesting. Fun sells better than interesting.

    3) Where are the serials? Where are the cliffhangers? Where are the reasons, other than the rare big-name writer whose novel you read and liked, to pick up the magazine? What pulls you from one issue to the next but name-dropping?

    So here’s what I want to see…

    A magazine that isn’t about SF per se, but about inquiry, curiosity, and possibility, all of which are bound together by adventure. It will have good art. It will direct readers toward good, solid, online SF that moves with the same spirit, and will, in fact, have an online presence with discussion boards, free fiction, and a blog about things both adventurous and scientific. It will pay well: one story should support a writer for a month in relative comfort. (Go on…laugh. But didn’t they used to? There’s more money to be made for time spent writing SEO these days.) It will, with complete lack of shame, beg for work from big-name writers that the hoi-polloi like to read (because they’re FUN). Stephen King. Terry Pratchett. Neil Gaiman. Janet Evanovich, if she’ll do it. And it will have part of a serialized novel — maybe even two or three — in each issue. It won’t try to win awards: it will try to sell issues. It will advertise on websites. It will advertise websites. It will have a podcast. It might even be an old-time-radio-show podcast. It will do movie “prequels” and “sequels” and part of it could be a graphic novel.

    It will be fun, not pretentious, not narrowly-defined. And it will be all in my head πŸ™‚

  11. I don’t buy much of it, because I get the impression that most of it is not what I want to read. And, as I started to go into on my own blog, I think one of the biggest reasons is that no one talks about it, and no one talks about it because the appeal of it is evidently narrow. The question is, when was the last time you read a short sf (or fantasy) story you would feel comfortable reccing to a casual or non-genre fan?

    As I also said elsewhere, short fiction is losing to everything else on the internet, and that’s basically because the people who are reading it either don’t think it has enough appeal to recommend it, or they’re just plain not impressed enough to recommend it. There’s at least four people in my blogroll/friendslist who regularly report on the books they read and make recommendations. No one recs short stuff with any frequency whatsoever.

  12. I’m still reading short SF through anthologies and my subscription to On Spec (Canada’s SF mag). That being said, when it comes to anthologies, I’ve always been pretty choosy about which ones I buy – they’ve gotta have themed that interests me or I have to see enough familiar, quality authors in the contents list to make the purchases worth while (anthologies are great to get introduced to new talent, but you need the older, stable authors to provide an anchor).

    Admittedly, this is probably what keeps me from buying more than one or two anthologies per year.

    That being said, I’m more than willing to introduce people to SF through anthologies because you’re more likely to score a hit with their individual tastes by offering a large sampler platter of stories than with a single serving by one author in novel form.

  13. I read, and buy, short stories in magazines/anthologies/etc. But not a lot, certainly much less than I do novels.

    Some ideas don’t necessarily require a whole novel to cover, and short stories are great for those.

    They are also a very good way to get an impression of a new (unfamiliar) writer without committing to a novel. Wastes less time, and is cheaper, in case I don’t like the writing.

    But they do have the disadvantage of being over rather quickly. So if the story was good and interesting, there’s often a sense of missing out on something. With short fiction you just barely have enough time to get into the story and its universe, and then it’s over and done with. The only cases this doesn’t mar the experience is when the story isn’t good, but, well, bad and mediocre fiction has other obvious faults.

    There is also the issue of overall quality, when it’s not a collection of a single author’s stories (something there as well, but it’s not much different than buying a novel in those cases). Some stories in a collection will be good, some less good, and the style and quality level can vary a lot. It’s less appealing to buy a collection where I know I’ll probably only like some of the content. Safer to go for a novel where if I’ll like it I’ll probably like all of it, in general.

    Oh, and the main problem of using short fiction to get an impression of new writers? Often they publish short fiction before they have even a single novel out, so I read the story, decide that I really like the author, and then discover I can’t read anything else by them. Sounds whiny, but it happened to me several times, and it’s as annoying as hell.

    So I like short fiction, I read short fiction, but if I had to choose between short stories and novels (Not a realistic scenario), the short stories would lose.

  14. As a sporadic subscriber/newsstand purchaser (probably the type of buyer that short SF publishers lost first – and with the greatest degree of financial harm), I can cite the following (more or less obvious) reasons:

    1) The internet – readers read but there are still only 24 hrs in the day – every minute I am reading a free blog on any of a range of topics, I am not reading SF for which I’ve paid.

    Fix – no happy solutions but a rear guard action *might* be fought by going to a quarterly/semi-annual/annual publication schedule – I have much less SF reading time post-internet but I still like to read SF – make it easier for me by publishing less, higher quality SF on a reduced schedule. Authors will scream but I don’t see any better solution. I may not want 12 unread issues piling up pointlessly, costing me money (see #2 below) but I might go along for 1 to 4 issues per year – it still is better to read hardcopy rather than off-screen.

    2) Utilize the hell out of the internet. It is killing the SF short fiction market so publishers better use every possible aspect of it they can – tightly integrate as many SF databases, author websites, association websites, etc. thay you humanly can. In theory at least, the internet should tremendously facilitate repeat and ancillary purchases – I don’t think the short SF marketplace has been able to succeed at this yet.

    Licensing issues aside (which is a bit like saying, money aside…) why not have thematically or otherwise-linked short SF (new and backlist) available for sale/download/mailing (purchaser composed hardcopy anthologies as it were) available.

    I have never seen the last item for example – although there are rights and some tech issues involved, there is no absolute technical reason why a low-grade (hell, even a Kinko’s spiral bound) edition of purchaser customized anthologies could not be put out. Purchaser goes to site, scans story abstracts, selects choices, pays, stories assembled and mailed.

    Just my two cents (but it is, after all, my cents that the industry wants…)

  15. I subscribe to Analog and Asimov, and I read them pretty much as soon as they arrive. I am considering a subscription to Interzone, though I’m reluctant after hearing tales of sporadic delivery. I find it difficult to read short fiction online, so I usually don’t.

  16. Well, as an unpublished writer I appreciate the overwhelming opinion that short story fiction is not as salable and popular as the novel.

    I also recognize the trouble in finding good fiction. As an example,I am no longer much of a Sci-Fi fan, but I am aware that it is a huge industry and in great demand. The cycle feeds upon itself and grows; a monster in direct proportion to it’s own appetite. Eventually, the original beauty of the thing is lost within its own burgeoning corpulence. It expands consuming not just the best intended for its nourishment, but anything that even resembles food.

    “Warning!” If it moves, Will Smith, kill and eat!”

    It no longer discriminates. Sci becomes a product of the good and also bad investment to the extreme, now driving away the reader with little time or $ to spend in sifting through all those folds and layers. The die-hard fan is driven by the knowledge that somewhere within this outwardly ugly beast lies a heart that is beating strong. A vital place where truth and hope abound, and they, at least, will not give up. After all, a fan is often defined by his or her taste; it is who we are. Then there is also the problem of ‘nothing new under the sun’. Many writers are often just rehashing the same ideas that made it a great genre.

    And finally, there is issue of over-familiarity with anything. After a time, we look elsewhere for our fix. I believe that these things apply to all genres to one degree or another. For the fan, there is safety in a familiar name. There are those who write well most of the time and it is these who will get our dollars and time. This is an unfortunate resolve by the reading masses because it tends to hamstring the new and upcoming writer. But no matter, because like the cave dwellers who painted awkward creatures on sooty walls without the hope of fame beyond the portal, a writer writes because he must!

    I for one will continue to search for the well written short stories wherever I can find them, and I will pay to do it because their economy, and power are often inspiring.

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