Short Fiction, July 2009

Jul 3, 01:10 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Jul 3, 02:38 by Mike Allen
I think the phenomenon you bemoan, the idea that the "audience" for short fiction venues is really comprised of aspiring writers, is, to the degree that it's true, not at all the exclusive province of SF.
Jul 3, 03:00 by Bluejack
In fact (I had a form of this conversation with Lois already in email prior to publication), I think Science Fiction (and fantasy) is the last hold-out for short fiction that is read for entertainment, rather than as a matter of professional interest.

I agree with Lois about the trend, but I don't necessarily bemoan it as the end of the short story. The audience may be shrinking and changing, but it's actually still a very important audience from an author's perspective, and there's a real need for the form to survive from the publisher's perspective. There will always be amateur zines publishing amateur quality, but I suspect there will also be professional (for some sense of the term) publishing top-notch stuff.

Jul 3, 04:41 by susie hawes
"If SF short fiction is dying, the reason lies in the fact that everyone seems to be mourning the loss of the markets, not the places where stories could be read."

amen. If writers want more venues, then they should do more to support their fav. magazines and e zines.
Jul 3, 09:04 by Tracie McBride
"I think we are coming to the point where we will have no readers, only a circle of writers feeding on themselves."

I have long suspected this to be true.
Jul 3, 12:58 by Lois Tilton
As opposed to "professional", whatever that means, I prefer to make the distinction at commercial fiction, in venues that make a profit for their publishers. The NEW YORKER model. A magazine with readers. People pick it up, pay for it, read an article, look at the cartoons, read a story, sigh with satisfaction, wait for the next issue, happy to pay for it, never considering it a market.

Jul 4, 14:43 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
"amen. If writers want more venues, then they should do more to support their fav. magazines and e zines."

How glib. I cannot count how many times I've heard this. While it might be good advice, the problem is so much more complicated that a simple "well subscribe then". Four of the five short fiction magazines I have subscribed to in the last two years have folded, one of them is Talebones. It is entirely possible that I might have a talent for picking losers, but it remains frustrating and upsetting when your subscription remains unfilled. Considering the multiple pressures and difficulties of magazine publishing in today's market (like the rising cost of postage or increasing jobless figures) simple solutions do not work. I cringe whenever I hear someone spout "subscribe" as if it were a miraculous panacea capable of solving the magazine market woes.
Jul 4, 15:32 by Lois Tilton
Subscribing to keep your favorite markets alive is still regarding them as markets.

And it's still recirculating the same few dollars. Say I spend $20/year to subscribe to my favorite 10 markets. Once a year I make a sale to one of these markets and get my $200 back so I can use it for the next year's subscriptions.

Likewise the magazines that barely manage to scrape up the cash to pay the contributors for every issue, plus the other expenses. Where is the profit for the publisher/editor? Quite often, these people end up in the red, earning nothing for their time and effort, in effect subsidizing the contributors out of their own pockets until they burn out or can't afford it anymore.

For the love of the field? That's nice, but it's no way to run a publishing business. It makes the field a place of amateurs, literally.

Jul 4, 17:37 by Matt Bruensteiner
Speaking up as a reader, not a writer, who really prefers short fiction to novels, there does seem to be a fundamental problem with the marketplace (not just "markets") for these stories. The main problem is just that there's not enough readers out there to pay for the whole business.

In the 1920's, F. Scott Fitzgerald could get $10,000 for a single story, equivalent to a six-figure number today.

I'd love to see writers like Stross, Stephenson, and Banks each putting a short story in front of me every month. But I understand why they aren't going to do it for 10 cents a word.

If we readers want the magazines to survive, subscribing is the only thing we can do. It can't just be writers who do it. For every writer who subscribes there had better be 100 or 1000 readers.

Jul 4, 19:07 by Lois Tilton
I am especially peeved at Sovereign Media for axing, first, SFAge and more recently RoF, because these, reportedly, were profit-making commercial publications. The revenue came from ads as well as subscribers, but ads imply readers.
Jul 7, 17:13 by David Bartell
"If SF short fiction is dying, the reason lies in the fact that everyone seems to be mourning the loss of the markets, not the places where stories could be read."

I don't quite understand this, since mourning doesn't cause dying - it's the other way around. And the market *is* the place where stories are read - it's just the other side of the same coin. I guess the point is that it's the writers who are mourning, and there are no readers at the funeral. Of course not - the reason for the market drying up is specifically the lack of readers. So it should be no surprise that the sobs come from the writers.

The larger market for pulp genre fiction has moved to movies and games. Print genre fiction has grown up, but the market for literary genre fiction hasn't grown or found much mainstream appeal.
Jul 7, 18:36 by Tristan Davenport
"Science Fiction (and fantasy) is the last hold-out for short fiction that is read for entertainment, rather than as a matter of professional interest."

I actually think the last hold-out is the single-author collection, not the fiction magazine, regardless of genre. Plenty of regular readers picked up "Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link, just as plenty of regular readers picked up "Close Range" by E. Annie Proulx. What regular readers do not pick up are the fiction magazines like F&SF and Ploughshares in which those stories first appeared.

So I think another aspect of the problem lies in Matt's comment a few posts up: "I'd love to see writers like Stross, Stephenson, and Banks each putting a short story in front of me every month." Stories by famous writers are known quantities, but fiction magazines present a different grab-bag every month. To me, that's the appeal, but it's something very few readers are interested in.
Jul 7, 20:04 by Lois Tilton
"I guess the point is that it's the writers who are mourning, and there are no readers at the funeral."

Yes, that's the point. Mourning, after all, is a sign that there has been a death. And when you watch the funeral cortege go by, it makes the point forcefully. I was quite struck by the absence of readers in mourning, at least, that I saw.
Jul 9, 15:27 by Bluejack
I think David's point is spot on.

If more readers were in mourning that would mean there were more readers out there, and thus, the magazines wouldn't need to be closing up shop. It a tautology!

As someone who tries to embrace change as inevitable and find the opportunity in the transition, I have to say I don't mourn the loss of readers (they're still out there, they're just getting their entertainment elsewhere); and I don't mourn the loss of a few markets (there are still more markets out there today than there ever have been, although most of them are marginal and even the top can't offer a living wage); the transition of the short story from mass entertainment to career stepping stone may be a moment for nostalgia, but then again...

Lois: this is one of the reasons short fiction reviews are so popular! You are not guiding readers to find stories they like! When have short fiction readers ever read reviews to find stories? Ever? You are providing professional feedback to writers on the success or failure of their stories. In public.

You are one among several voices in the world that helps form the opinion as to which author is succeeding in this career, which author is treading water, and which aint ready to swim in the deep end just yet.

Writers pay attention. So do agents, editors, and publishers.

Short fiction may be an obsolete and slowly fading form of entertainment, but it is taking its place alongside the other genres as an indispensable and important training ground, and I, for one, am very proud to have Lois' honest, acerbic, and discriminating voice as one of the drill sergeants.

(And to the few readers: aint it great to get an inside peek at the people who are going to be writing tomorrow's big novels, series', films, tv shows, etc. etc.? Isn't it great to 'discover' an author years before they hit the big time? Isn't it wonderful to have this secret trove of wonderful stories?)
Jul 10, 05:09 by Blue Tyson
Magazines only interested in print publishing? Will never see them, so doesn't matter.
Jul 10, 14:44 by Lois Tilton
It may well be that writers are primarily the persons reading this column, but it is not writers that I am addressing. My comments on the stories are meant for readers, and I am pleased to see that a few still exist, commenting in this thread and in email.
Jul 10, 15:13 by Dario Ciriello
Excellent points, Lois, and thanks for making them!

But I'm not convinced that it's short fiction that's dying and starved of readership as much as the magazines themselves. I believe that Year's Best anthologies and other collections in book form are holding up quite well. I think the problem the magazines suffer is that near non-existent distribution and shelving in bookstores means that you can't browse and impulse-buy the way you can with books... or the NEW YORKER for that matter.

People are far less likely to subscribe than to impulse-buy a magazine (especially in hard times), and I think THAT'S the key problem. I know plenty of people who never sub to magazines but still buy plenty of print anthos.

What would the NEW YORKER, or WIRED, or COSMOPOLITAN'S circulation figures be if they were only available by subscription? Somebody really needs to crack the distribution and shelving problem, and I can't believe that the field has gone so many years without someone finding a solution. I know REALMS and some of the other standard-format mags do have (spotty) distribution, but can anyone say conclusively that the problem is primarily one of small readership rather than poor availability? I wonder how many copies the magazines would sell if they were very widely available at brick-and-mortar stores.

I've tried quite hard in the past to evangelize for magazine subscription, but it's a lost cause. Unless they can get distribution, I think we're bound to see continuing declines and closures.
Jul 10, 15:27 by Lois Tilton
Excellent point, Dario.

I remember quite well the days when the digests were prominently displayed on the racks in the drugstore, where I went every month to pick up AMAZING or FANTASTIC. Those were the days when there were always lots of SF paperbacks displayed on the racks, too. This was where everyone went to buy stuff to read.

Then It Changed.
Jul 13, 14:33 by Nader Elhefnawy
Nothing of my own to add to this discussion-but I did think it worthwhile to share a link to a recent article in Strange Horizons which does attempt to discuss at least the book market (anthologies and collections) statistically:

Jul 18, 21:19 by Michael Turner
I think there may be some observer effect skewing this whole writers/readers issue. Writers are just paying a little more attention, have a little more invested and are so more likely to vent. Readers get a cancellation notice and say (to themselves) "That sucks" and move on. Writers, who are almost universally readers as well, who have invested a bit more time with the magazines, having submitted, puzzled over rejections and celebrated acceptances, pondered which magazine should see which of their children in which order, have so much more of a relationship with even (or especially) a little magazine like Talebones it seems only natural theirs would be the voices most heard at the funeral.
No one wakes up one morning and says "I think I'll start writing short stories, I wonder if there is anybody still printing them?" Magazines and e-zines are usually important parts of life to those of us who go on to be writers. I still do a majority of my reading for pleasure, even when scoping out a place I may want to send a story too. Likewise I read short fiction reviews with an eye not for feedback of my own work, though I have made use of that especially when Lois has reviewed my work, but with a view to what I might want to seek out, where I should think about putting my alas ever shrinking reading budget. Today even the most dedicated of genre readers hasn't the time to go through everything, or even everything available for free on the internet. reviews are a nice place to start.
Jul 19, 00:35 by Lois Tilton
I always like to think that there are readers reading the reviews.

I'm sure you're right about the self-selection, and also that I tend to read where writers post. My observation was quite subjective - yet I do think it reveals a real phenomenon.
Jul 21, 18:33 by Dario Ciriello
Lois, I think the phenomenon *is* real. Outside the very, very few pro magazines, three (I think) of whose readerships are in the low five digits, there are probably more writers than readers for every single one of the magazines. I believe several of the better semi-pro mags have readerships that are just in the *low* hundreds, and I'd bet there are more than a couple of hundred writers who regularly submit to these kind of markets. I confess I no longer subscribe to any of the semi-pro markets, though I submit to them. Why? To be honest, I want to read pro-level material, though I'm just approaching that level as a writer.

I used to subscribe to two of the digests, but no longer do. I feel bad about that, but at least I'm being honest. And the reasons I don't subscribe are twofold: (i) I rarely find that even half the stories in an issue of the mags hold my attention these days; and (ii) I have serious issues with the digest format itself, which I find not just unattractive but downright embarrassing at times to be seen with in public. The simple aesthetics of the boom era of the pulps don't cut it today, at least not for a visually oriented person. I understand the cost issues involved, but I'm more likely to spend $6+ on something with the graphics and cover quality of, say, WIRED, than I am $4 for something that doesn't look like something an educated grown-up would be reading. Others in the SF community may be fine with the stuck-in-time look of the digests, but I submit that few who've not been brought up with them are likely to be attracted by the current formats and graphic styles. So (beyond the distribution issues mentioned in my post above) what is going to attract no new readers? A magazine needs to *look* good and feel good to get picked up.

I've said the above before, rather more delicately, because this is a small community and I've no wish to offend editors I may submit to ;-) But I feel the need to speak up and be honest because I *love* SF and I want to see SF magazines thrive.

Returning to your theme, it's my personal belief that short SF & F fiction is not particularly in trouble in book form; but though I fought the notion for a long time, I do believe the magazine market is in deep, deep trouble and starving of readers. The only salvation I see are electronic format sales, or someone with deep pockets who loves the genre funding a visually exciting and literarily fresh magazine. I believe the IRS allows you to claim expenses on a loss-making venture for 5 years. ;-)
Jul 21, 19:21 by Michael Turner
Well, a magazine with a better look and feel might get picked up, but I think accessibility of the fiction inside is what will make the difference in the long run.

Back in the days when there were readers in the tens of thousands for many of the magazines that ran fiction, there was a definite hierarchy of what sort of story each magazine offered. Campbell's Astounding offered the highest quality Science Fiction, but other magazines like Planet Stories and Startling Stories offered less cerebral, more action-packed tales. They weren't better or worse than Astounding, they were different, with a different audience.

None of the print magazines getting distribution to the general public are really geared for attracting a less sophisticated readership. Everyone is aiming for the "best" SF and no one is trying to be the "most fun" magazine.Everyone today is "Astounding" and nobody is "Planet Stories".

But "Planet Stories" readers grew up and moved on to better, more sophisticated tales. No one is feeding that pipeline anymore, no one has for a long time. The same images that sell millions of video games(and game tie-in fiction as well), images that rightly belong to our field, are absent from our offerings. Exploding Spaceships and Alien invaders are not tired cliches to a new readership, they're bread and butter subjects. Subjects short fiction editors have had their fill of, perhaps. Subjects that might not entice me, a thirty-five year reader of SF mags, but which might bring in a newer (and much younger) audience.
Jul 21, 19:58 by Lois Tilton
I have indeed seen complaints from readers [they do exist!] that they don't like the sophisticated literary stuff and want the old pulpy stuff.

I know some people are trying to revive the old pulpy fantasy stuff, the S&S, but it remains to be seen how much of a readership they capture. As opposed to a writership.
Jul 21, 20:59 by Dario Ciriello
LOL Lois :)

Michael makes solid points, and I think there's probably a good deal of territory between the accessible and the outright pulpy. I happen to really like, uh, Sophisticated? Dense? work of the Charles Stross variety, but it's true that many of us habitues have rarefied tastes. That said, New Space Opera has IMO lately broken into territory that can only be described as downright rococo, to the point where it seems to be written primarily with other writers as the intended audience, a sort of cliquey one-upmanship.

To me, 'accessible' SF is precisely the sort of work that KKR and Jack McDevitt write, and which KKR has actively agitated for in more than one public forum. Though I find some of this material, especially McDevitt's, a little mundane, it's both well-written and *exactly* the kind of fiction which will attract new readers to the field. Need I cite the success of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises? But I do believe that if you get new readers reading in teh field, and especially if you could get new readers reading a short fiction magazine, they would start exploring as their tastes matured. Hell, we were all raised on ERB, Rober E. Howard, and Jules Verne, weren't we?

This is an especially tough nut for the existing magazines: do you go out for new readership or focus on the old ones? Will trying to do both please no-one?

I still think it's at least half a question of aesthetic and presentation: you have to get readers to want to pick the mag up and at least look inside. I suspect though that the digests, already under pressure as they are and without bookstore distribution, are loath to risk doing anything so dangerous as changing their look, in case they alienate their established readers.

Bit of a bind.

Jul 21, 21:54 by Lois Tilton
When I reviewed the Interzone Mundane SF issue [last year?] I was positively struck by the accessibility and non-boringness of the stories, which were for the most part colorful, lively and entertaining - the stuff readers ought to be enjoying.


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