The Question Not Asked
Posted on April 16, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 35 Comments
SFSignal asks various science fiction and fantasy authors the question: Is the short fiction market in trouble?
Personally, I would have asked: Does a market that generally pays its authors so little deserve to live? Because I think that’s a more interesting question, really.
Having just read a bunch of Hugo-nominated short stories and novellas, it would be a shame if the SF short fiction market went the way of the dinosaur. I think that already happened to the mystery short fiction market.
I also tend to agree with Mary Robinette Kowal’s point that the problem with the short fiction market is marketing-related. It’s darned hard to find the print magazines, and if you do find them they don’t exactly jump out and say “buy me.”
Where were you a week ago when I needed a question? :)
Yes, but its such a simple answer.
I enjoy well-done short stories. I have read many good ones based on ideas that just couldn’t be extended to novel length (well, maybe by Robert Jordan). So I would hate to see the genre die.
I don’t know anything about it to know why the pay is so low, so I am not really qualified to comment on that.
I love the SF short-story sub-genre. “Slow Sculpture” by Ted Sturgeon is quite possibly my favorite love story and on my top 10 for best short stories.[Though he might also be held up as the poster boy of the inconsistency of the sub-genre as well.] I’d guess that 2 of the other 10 were also held by SF writers.
I’ve always thought that the premises of SF as a genre lend themselves well to the short story format. While ‘twould be a shame for the SF short to pass, I agree that you can’t eat off it anymore. I think it was a classic boom & bust that unfortunately was exacerbated by a bust of the overall periodical bust. I still try to read (and buy) a couple of collections a year, but wading through the mediocrity that is the SF short story market (where volume is more economic than crafting) is more than I care to undertake.
Apparently I have busts on my mind.
Please read: I think it was a classic boom & bust that unfortunately was exacerbated by a bust of the overall periodical bust.
As: I think it was a classic boom & bust that unfortunately was exacerbated by a bust of the overall periodical business.
Hmm, methinks the low-pay is more a symptom of the dying market. If the market were larger, people were reading more short-fiction, shelling out more money for F&SF, Weird Tales, Asimov’s, etc., then the pay would be higher, and more (and better) authors would be concentrating on short works.
That’s how I figure it, at least.
Then again, there’s a trillion-and-one authors trying to break into the realm of having “writing credits” and possibly an ego-boosting SFWA membership by deluging the poor editors at these magazines with work – most of which is dross, but some of which is brilliant. The problem, it seems to me, isn’t people wanting to write short-fiction, it’s people wanting to purchase short-fiction. And with video-games and TVs, who the heck wants to do that?
Short Stories are still one of the primary ways for undiscovered writers to get their names out there in front of the public. Obscurity is worse than marginal pay for those of us who have yet to land a book deal.
For me, I could care less about the crappy pay, all I want is eyeballs and name recognition. I agree with you John that for a writer such as yourself, it is not worth the time or the money for the effort. But for us undiscovered and up and coming folk, the “market’ is still needed.
I think anthologies are the future of print short stories. I don’t see printed short story markets lasting much longer.
Whether or not the market is in trouble is orthogonal to whether or not it deserves to live.
I love the short form, and I will do what I can to help the market evolve.
I think there’s a future for the short fiction market but it doesn’t look much like what it is now. It needs to involve electronic versions of stories, both in and out of edited compilations, and a good way for people to discover short stories they will like, both in print and online. It may involve print-on-demand and it could involve post-consumption donation or payment, rather like some of the online magazines are doing, only including avenues for money to go more directly into the hands of the authors (and publications) for the specific stories that people love, not merely the publication as a whole. For some people will be lead to the story not through the publication’s portal but through direct links or mirror sites, or widgets that let them read things on mobile devices.
Yet it still needs to involve editors, to shape and choose stories, and proofreaders to keep them smoothly legible, so it’s not simply a “let everyone e-publish their own short work” solution.
Why yes, John, I am working on a system to support such a thing. Thank you for asking. :P
It’s called Storybridge, and I hope to have it well under way by Fall. Want to help? Join the discussion just starting at Storybridge.net
I had an FS&F subscription for a while, but when it got to the point that I had three issues I hadn’t bothered to read because I just couldn’t get up enough care to crack the cover, I stopped subscribing. These days, I still love reading short fiction… but I buy it in compilations from authors I already enjoy. I will cheerfully shell out for a nice book of Neil Gaiman or Elizabeth Bear short stories, but there’s no way I’m buying a pricey magazine on cheap paper on the off chance that I’ll agree with the editor’s taste in short stories.
I’ll also read short stories that authors post for free online; after all, if I like them, I’ll know to go buy their book compilation of the stories when it comes out. (Or buy that author’s novels, as there are certainly authors who put short stories online but don’t have print compilations available.) I’m willing to pay for short fiction, but not as potluck chosen by someone else’s tastes.
My perception is that genre fiction publishing, in general, is in a world of hurt. Short fiction stands out more because the price per word tends to be very low but novel publishing isn’t much better off.
However, neither short story or novel markets will ever truly die. Both short and long forms are going to evolve and will continue to be both dead-tree and electronic hosted. Ms. Murphey, in her earlier post, covers several aspects of future expansion in publishing that I also expect to occur and am, in fact, pursuing simultaneously.
In a free market, opportunities drive innovation. The opportunities in short fiction seem to be distribution, financing, and content. If the mainstream print periodicals are having troubles, it’s got to be because they’re not meeting the needs of their potential readership. Since they’re missing the mark, entrepreneurs either have or will arise to fill a perceived need.
Starting May 30th, I’ll be rolling the dice to see if the actions I’ve taken on my perceptions and conclusions are correct — or even indicative. Given the plethora of listings that come and go on Ralan’s, I’m certainly not alone.
And you just know that one of them is going to hit.
The short fiction market pays very little unless you’re able to get into the big mainstream magazines. 8 cents per word is “big”, whereas mainstream goes anywhere from 50 cents to $1 or more per word. And a lot of online places will pay something like 3 cents per word and call *that* good.
(Ah, Clarkesworld, you pay more than the print mags.)
But the market and the form are entirely different creatures. Just because the market is dying doesn’t mean the form itself necessarily is so (or at least, the form is dying at a different rate from the market).
Is getting a short story into an anthology a better idea, ROI-wise in the long term, than one in a magazine issue that eventually pulps and dies?
And I do recall someone asking if even the big mags, like Fantasy & Science Fiction, are actually padding with filler these days.
I do want to write short stories, but I figure I’ll try to work up to serial works instead as a not-really-a-compromise.
I don’t think the market’s shrinking by any means. If anything, the market is growing — it’s just not dominated by the Big 3 anymore.
And the market is changing. Steve Eley says Escape Pod (SF Podcast) has more subscribers than Asimov’s and F&SF. They run on donations only and pay flat rates for short fiction (not 5-10 cents a word, but they are on the higher end of the market). And there are online magazines out there like Clarkesworld that do pay 10 cents a word. Strange Horizons. Heliotrope. And then there’s an unbelievable amount of good semi-pro ‘zines out there — more than ever before, I’ve heard. So I don’t think the market is getting smaller, it’s just diversifying.
It certainly doesn’t pay as well as it once did. I don’t know if it ever will. I do wish I could write short stories and get paid more for them. But they do help get my fiction out in front of people, and the poor pay rate is the only thing I’ve ever known.
Compared to the mystery short story market, the SF&F short story market is booming–the pay still sucks, though.
It’ll probably continue to limp along like it has for the last 40 years, catering to true believers. Pay won’t get better; in fact, with inflation it’ll probably get worse.
I’ve often figured that the writers strongest in the short story form probably moved to TV where the pay is good.
Fade @ 11 has it exactly right. The editor is crucial.
I had a subscription to Asimov’s for years, and thoroughly enjoyed it. During that time it contained the original versions of Enemy Mine and Ender’s Game, as well as a few series of stories, and a lot of good one-shots. Then they switched editors. The new editor apparently chose stories by emotional content rather than plot or quality of writing, and also dropped all the continuing series. When my subscription came up for renewal, I didn’t. I still buy magazines now and then, but am far less interested in any long-term commitment.
This past Christmas, I asked for and received a subscription to both Realms of Fantasy and F&SF. My experience with short fiction in this genre was limited outside of anthologies, and I thought it’d be neat to see what people were doing– particularly as I had some idea of writing short stories myself.
So far, I’m enjoying both publications, but the cost of the yearly subscriptions might be a deal killer on my budget. A friend of mine who was looking over the magazines was shocked that F&SF cost so much when it was so small and looked rather downmarket with its black and white newsprint. He’s got a point.
And I agree that the pay rate is discouraging for new writers. .05/word? Ow. I don’t hope to make a living off short fiction and its just as well.
I subscribed to Asimov’s once, back in the late 1990s. I think that was the last time I actually bought short fiction of any kind.
Of course, I haven’t bought any real SF to speak of (other than Scalzi’s stuff and a Halo novelization) in many a moon. Not sure why, really. Fantasy, I still occasionally pick up…but straight SF has just fallen off of my radar.
I really don’t know why that should be.
“..it would be a shame if the SF short fiction market went the way of the dinosaur.”
You mean evolve into something that flies?
How would that be a shame?
ScottE @ 19 – I rather meant the “extinct” part of dinosaurs. Next time I’ll use Dodo birds.
To be fair, the reason that I suspect that the short fiction market still exists is mostly to kick off the careers of novelists. Many of the people that I know trying to write a book are also trying to get some publishing credits in the short fiction market.
Now, if you could make money doing short genre fiction, that would be awesome too, and I can’t think of a business plan that might work at the moment.
We need to keep the market alive. So I can publish 3 short stories in a mag and get my SFWA membership. Then I could run for President of the SFWA because I am Teh Awesome.
JJS @ 16 – Enders Game was serialized in Analog, not Asimovs.
My father subscribed to Analog from the early 60s, before I was born, until recently, and Asimovs’ when it came out, but doesn’t think much of the current ones. I haven’t subscribed regularly. But I buy on newsstand from time to time. Even though I don’t like a lot of what’s published, it’s worth it because those magazine editors are aggregating a lot of potential talent and I see new authors that way.
(Is GeorgeWilliamHerbert who taugh the DeCAL class on Spaceship design at Cal 16 or 17 years ago?)
I love short fiction, but I can’t remember the last time I bought an F&SF or Analog.
Pathetic Earthling @24 – Yes, that’s me. Wow. That takes me back. Were you in one of the classes? Small world…
This is why I self-published my debut collection. I mean, my question is: what market? There isn’t one anymore. You’ve got The New Yorker and The Atlantic, which publish the stories without any real plots but at least have some exposure; or the genre magazines that publish stories in which something actually happens but that have no exposure (come on, who reads them?). Other than that, there’s, like, frickin’ Glimmer Train and Zyzzyva, but you know who reads them?
Writers who want to get published in them.
It’s always odd to me that the genre that should be so ahead of its times (scifi) is the one that’s so backward; does Van Gelder even except e-submissions yet? And don’t even get me started on the idea that getting published on some online zine managed in his sparetime and from his mom’s basement by some dude between bouts of coding and long sessions of World of Warcraft confers any degree of credibility via a publishing credit.
Nowadays, anyone can publish anything they want, which means it ain’t about how.
It’s about what.
I actually have a variation on this theme…
One of the points of the original article was that you can’t make money doing short fiction. While I don’t currently try to publish my fiction, I did at one time sell roleplaying game stuff, and sold a bunch of magazine articles when I was doing it actively. I also know that publishers were paying similar rates to the people writing game books and scenarios and supplements and so forth.
I looked at the numbers on those, and I was making far more as an entry level IT person 17 years ago than I could if I wrote gaming stuff 40 hours a week.
Magazine and other short fiction venues for speculative fiction seem to have the same problem. There isn’t enough money in it – the magazines have never been rich, and are doing worse now than they were at their heights 10 or 20 years ago. The game companies paid salaries to the internal employees, who got paid small fractions of what I was making in IT, but at least got salaries. External author rates were “doing this as a hobby” rate. The company I wrote articles for (GDW) eventually went broke.
Speculative fiction authors doing short stories can’t reasonably make money at doing it, from casual inspection of the market.
I encourage alternate economic model exploration.
Functionally, it seems like it might be best to think of the magazines as supporting their editors and editorial staff – as readersm we’re paying for them to be there, selecting carefully and then editing appropriately. As someone who thinks of trying to publish my fiction some day, I would consider being picked up by a magazine to be good PR within the community. I don’t need particularly much to get paid for it if I’m getting PR and an increased chance that one of my novel concepts might get bought. As a reader, I don’t want authors to pay editors for being selected – that is a conflict of interest with the editor selecting the best works. But I could see situations where authors weren’t paid, just published for wider recognition. That’s what you get for free if you self-publish on the web, for example, but the audience that you get depends on something pulling them to you as opposed to the editorial selection and locked in audience of subscribers for the magazines, so it’s not as effective.
Ads on an online site could help support the editor(s), if there’s enough readership. One could put stories up with editor rankings or selections, and then have “shareware” buttons to Amazon or PayPal pay the authors if you felt like it.
Or just hope that a PNH stumbles across you and likes what they see, and not bother with the shareware aspect.
As a reader rather than a writer, I concur. For the past several years I’ve passed by short story books in the racks and thought “Feh! Who wants to read a short story?”
Of course, just this month I picked up two short story anthologies and began reading, and re-realized that I LOVE short form sci-fi. I’m ripping through the stories each evening and my smile gets broader with each one. I don’t know how I would market this to myself, much less to others, but I’m back on the short form bandwagon for now.
Indeed I was! Good times.
It’s weird, I consider myself an sf fan but I hadn’t heard of any of those authors. I guess I should pick up the pace.
What Georgewilliamherbert @ 26 suggests is pretty much what we do at Every Day Fiction. We’re not at Scalzi levels in terms of blog readership, but we pull in some decent numbers and have over 1K RSS subscribers. We’re supported through some banner ads and donations.
Of course, we don’t pay well, and that does suck, but we’re a little wary of going the way of Michael Knost. If our profit model works, our rates will increase.
You can publish your stuff for free on your own blog if you have more than 1K readers, or you can publish it with us for a buck and we link to your site (of course you have to make it through the slush, first ;) )
I’m inclined to agree with CC Finlay’s answer. not dead. Also not something you can make a consistent living at unless you’re something special.
Lots of people I know have a variety of gigs, including writing short fiction. And short fiction, unlike novels, gets resold from time to time. Ive’ got a number of anthologies and magazines that have reprints. It’s not unlimited, but a short story, sold once to a magazine, is not a fully used up resource.
Is there more that could be done to increase short story readership? Now that’s an interesting question to me.
I think there is something that could be done to increase short story readership. And it has to do with breaking down the barriers for people to get stories when they want them. There are literally hundreds of short fiction markets right now, which is a bewildering array for the reader.
In the meantime, the younger generations are shifting to digital and getting short attention spans. The market for short fiction, especially illustrated or graphic novel forms, or podcasts, is going to be huge.
Of course it deserves to live! I love short stories. Admittedly I usually read them in anthologies and collections, but if it weren’t for the magazines there would be nothing to collect! I agree with the people in the link who say it’s not about money. Very few people get into any of the arts for the cash, and short stories are just not in anyone’s picture of fortune.
I love short SF, but the stuff I like is getting harder to find. I had a subscription to JBU which I let lapse when I realized I hadn’t read the first issue all the way through (that means attempting, not necessarily completing) all the stories.
I tried an experiment in early 07, got e-subscriptions to Asimovs, F&SF, and Analog. Analog’s the only one that’s getting a renewal. It’s a real pity because I started with Asimovs with the 3rd issue, but I just don’t find it readable any more.
I would love for the form to continue, but at this rate I’m really not sure. The pay’s too low and most markets aren’t publishing to my tastes.
I may try an e-subscription to Interzone though. They deserve a fair shake.