The Big Three
Yesterday Warren Ellis posted monthly subscription and newsstand numbers for the “Big Three” science fiction magazines in 2006 (and threw in the circulation numbers of Interzone as loose change); he got them from Gardner Dozois via the last Year’s Best Science Fiction compilation. The numbers are not spectacular: 15,117 for Asimov’s (no newsstand numbers reported), 23,732 for Analog (plus 4,587 newsstand sales), and 14,575 for Fantasy & Science Fiction, which itself had 3,691 newsstand sales. Interzone apparently stated its monthly circ as between two and three thousand.
Add it all up, and tossing Interzone overboard for the moment, the “Big Three” short fiction markets have a circulation of 61,702, plus whatever Asimov‘s monthly newsstand sales are: Let’s round to 65,000. So that’s 65K, total. Not a lot. And all of the Big Three suffered circulation drops from 2005, some double digit percentages, too. What we don’t know from these numbers are the demographics of the readership, but I’m going to make a guess that the average readership age for these magazines is in the older than I am by a more than fair margin (I’m 38). The circulation pool is very likely to be the same circulation pool it has been for the last 30 years; if so, it’s no surprise it’s shrinking, because one end of the pool is drying up when the subscribers die, and what’s coming in on the other end is a trickle. Which is to say, right now, the SF magazine circulation pool is Lake Lanier and the magazines are Atlanta.
Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow is wringing his hands about what needs to be done to save the Big Three, but between you and me and the rest of the whole bloody Internet, I have to wonder, as Ellis apparently does, if it’s worth the time. I seriously question whether the “Big Three” think they need saving, and therefore I question whether they want to save themselves. And if they don’t, I’m not entirely sure why it would be incumbent on anyone else to try to save them.
The big three can still be relevant, mind you; I suspect Asimov’s was essential in bootstrapping Charles Stross into being the decade’s pre-eminent SF writer when it published the short stories that would eventually become the Hugo-nominated novel Accelerando. Likewise, Tim Pratt’s Hugo win this year is going to do great things for him moving forward. That said, I can think of more prominent SF writers published since 2000 who have gotten along without the benefit of exposure in the “Big Three” than who have been helped by them.
For examples of this, one need only look the Campbell Award winners from this century. I did a little research this evening, and unless I’ve flubbed bibliographies greatly, I’ve come up on an interesting tidbit, which is that of the last seven Campbell winners — Naomi Novik, me, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Wen Spencer, Jo Walton and Kristine Smith — precisely one of us was published in the “Big Three” prior to winning our award: Elizabeth Bear, who published a poem in F&SF in ’03. So, a single appearance from just one of us.
Now, to be sure, this can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the “Big Three.” I explained here before that I’ve never submitted to any of the “Big Three,” primarily because they take paper submissions only, and I don’t have a printer, and can’t be bothered to get one. Anyway, my short fiction work so far is pretty sparse. Naomi Novik’s is even more sparse than my own. On the other hand, it seems indicative of something that it took Bear until this year to make it into Asimov’s, where she had submitting stories since Isaac himself was at the helm. Did it really take until 2007 for Bear, who has won the Campbell and Locus awards, published eight novels in three years and sold dozens of short stories (not to mention a story collection), to write something worthy of Asimov’s?
Well, maybe so. But in the meantime she developed a hell of an audience without that magazine, and without the other two members of the “Big Three.” That audience learned to look for her — and for Jay Lake (who also didn’t get published in Asimov’s until after his Campbell win) — and for other new writers in the genre in other places. Now, I don’t doubt it was very cool for Bear to get published in Asimov’s. But was it necessary or relevant for her career? I won’t hazard Bear’s opinion on this, but I think it clearly wasn’t.
Nice but not relevant is not where the “Big Three” want to be, but this is where they are. I am admittedly a weirdo when it comes to my science fiction career, but look: it says something that I can’t be bothered to print out a single goddamned story to submit it to Asimov’s, or Analog, or F&SF. It says something that I’m not writing more short fiction to try to get into their pages. They’re just not that important to my career; certainly not as important as, say, this place. Look: yesterday, the Whatever got 37,558 unique visitors, which means that I get about the same number of people visiting on a Monday as Asimov’s and F&SF combined roll up in a month. Is it smarter for me to spend time writing fiction for any of these magazines than it is for me to write here?
And if I do write short fiction, does it make sense for me to send it to publications that are hard for my fans to find and buy? Subterranean Online or Strange Horizons or Jim Baen’s Universe will pay me the same or more for a story; in all these cases I can easily link my readers here to the story, and they can either read the entire story or read a substantial portion online before they buy. Yes, I know the “Big Three” have electronic editions for sale via Fictionwise; I prefer something more user-friendly. The “Big Three” are my second-tier markets for short fiction for these reasons, and if it gets to that point, I’m likely just to paste the work up here. It’s worked for me before.
Again: I’m not the normal case. I have a larger online readership than most. But there are other SF writers online who get hundreds and even thousands of visitors a day, who cultivate their own fandom online, who have friends who are happy to help them pimp their work and funnel readers to their writing. I suspect it’s not that hard to raise consciousness of new work online to the level you’ll find in the pages of the “Big Three,” given their current circulation numbers. That gives emerging writers a way to build careers outside those magazines, and it means the “Big Three” run a further risk of isolating themselves, both from where science fiction literature is going, and from the audiences building around these new writers.
Now, if I saw concrete ways the “Big Three” were working to rebuild circulation and make their magazines easier to find in my local bookstore, or if they had more intriguing online presences, or I felt they were more engaged in the current generation of writers and interested in cultivating the next, rather than waiting for them to make it on their own, or even if they just took electronic submissions, maybe I would be more enthusiastic about submitting; maybe I’d be more concerned about their slow exsanguination (I am concerned to the extent that I know the people who work there; I am fond of many of them on a personal level. I’d like for them to have jobs going forward). But I’m not going to spend a lot of time agonizing about theses magazines’ extended death scenes when I don’t see them doing these things to help themselves. Maybe they are doing these things and I just don’t know. But to be egotistical about it, if I don’t know, isn’t that kind of a bad thing? I’m not exactly hiding here. I’m generally pretty well-informed.
Let me be clear about this: I think it would be better if the “Big Three” not only survived but thrived; they’re the memory trees of the genre, and they can still bear fruit. I want to feel excited about the idea of being published in their pages, and in a way more than fond affectation. I’d like being published there to mean something. I want it to be nice, but more than that I want it to be relevant. They have a ways to go for that.