Let's talk about money.
I write this the week after Realms of Fantasy shut down without notice to anyone—
I could use up every single word of this column recounting the past half year's dismal statistics. (There's a reason that economics has been called the dismal science.) I suspect by the time you read this, things will have gotten even worse because stimulus money (state, local, or national) will not yet have hit the economy, and as a result, private capital will be afraid to spend as well.
We have a writers lunch once a week. Since September, we've been talking about the future of the publishing markets, the future of books, the future of the magazines. The level of fear at lunch this past week was at an all-time high because of the death of Realms.
So when I said that I believed this is a new golden age for short fiction, everyone looked at me like I'm crazy.
But it is. The amazing thing about Realms of Fantasy is not its sudden demise, but the fact that the magazine lived for seven years after Sovereign Media abruptly shut down Realms's sister publication, Science Fiction Age. (And that shutdown, which was exactly like this one, happened in the good old days of prosperity, when the stock market was up, housing prices were climbing, and we had something like 3% unemployment.)
The reason I say this is a new golden age of short fiction, especially for SF/F writers, is quite simple. There are more markets now than there have been since the brief boom years of the early 1950s. From the podcast markets to on-line markets like Jim Baen's Universe to the tried and true digest magazines, the SF short fiction reader has more places to go than ever before.
And that doesn't count the plethora of Year's Best collections. Yes, the St. Martins Years Best Fantasy and Horror has vanished, but that had nothing to do with the recession and everything to do with internal politics. Ellen Datlow will return next year with a new Year's Best Horror, so her superb editorial voice hasn't been lost at all.
Then there is the original anthology market, which is stronger than ever. Some are themed anthologies, like the Daw anthologies packaged by Tekno books or Gardner Dozois's New Space Opera anthologies (the second one will appear in the summer). Others, like Lou Anders's Fast Forward series coming out of Pyr, are simply SF anthologies, like Orbit used to be, without a theme, just filled with good fiction.
Still, with the barrage of bad news that seems to never end, the fear that Realms is just the first shot in the cannon is a valid one. The loss, which would have been debated, discussed, and dissected in a good economic year, has become emblematic of a dismal future ahead.
Writers and readers alike are terrified that their favorite short fiction venues will vanish. A few will. Most won't. Because people read more during tough economic times. Think of this: A hardcover book costs $20 to $25. An evening at the movies for a family of four costs $20-30 depending on what region of the country you're in, and that doesn't include snacks. The movie gives roughly two hours of pleasure (you hope) for your entertainment dollar.
The book gives days of pleasure, depending on how fast you read. And you can loan it to everyone in the family and all your friends as well. If you don't buy a hardcover, if you've cut back to only buying paperbacks, then you get the same kind of experience for $8, a vast savings over a movie.
People pay for cheap entertainment during tough times. The movie industry took off in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. In this severe economic crisis, Hollywood has just announced the first billion dollar January on record. Amazon.com is the only company I know of to announce sales figures for the fourth quarter of 2008 that were higher than expected. Everyone else in retail announced losses. Libraries in the Greater Los Angeles area, according to the CBS Evening News, had 2 million more visitors in 2008 than they did in 2007 (from 16 million people to 18 million people, a figure projected to rise even more in 2009).
People will read and they will read more than they have before. Quotes throughout trade journals from industry professionals continually state that they plan no cutbacks in output in 2009, because they all know (and repeatedly state) that book sales go up in a recession.
So what about magazines? Well, magazines on the newsstand often suffer, not because of lack of readers, but because distribution costs have become prohibitive. Rather than explain newsstand magazine economics to you (that truly is a dismal science), let me simply state that distribution has been a magazine industry bugaboo for decades. Once the magazines have learned to harness the power of the Internet and use it to their advantage, the whole newsstand distribution mess will be a moot point.
Fiction magazines, by the way, give you the best bang for the buck. The $25 that buys you a two-hour movie experience, or a two-day hardcover reading experience will buy you a year's subscription to Asimov's or Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. For $25, you'll get the equivalent of 8 hardcovers worth of fiction (sometimes more depending on the magazine), which gives you the most entertainment value for your simple $25 investment.
I said all of this and more at our writers lunch, and people were still skeptical. You see, when people are afraid, they see only the worst. A lot of fear comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Individually, we can't change this economic climate. I can't suddenly pour the needed billions of dollars into the system, nor can I make my congresscritters do exactly what I believe the economy needs.
But I can make a difference in small ways—
Buy books. If you can't afford to buy hardcovers, buy paperbacks. If your budget doesn't allow for any book buying right now, frequent your library—
The economics of the fiction magazines are small economics. A hundred new subscriptions in March would make a huge difference to each magazine. The economics of book publishing are only slightly bigger. Buy your favorite author's books the day/week/month that the book appears in the store. Because that's how publishers measure sales. They measure the number of sales and the rate of sale (how fast the book flies off the shelf). You'll be supporting your favorite writer and you'll be ensuring that more books similar to those by your favorite writer will hit the stands in the next few months.
As for all the reading you can do for free on the Internet, enjoy it. But if you have a few extra dollars, donate or subscribe. Internet magazines like IRoSF pay their authors (kind folks that they are) and so do have expenses. Mostly they shoulder the expenses themselves, but really, they shouldn't. You can help. In fact, there's a link on this page that will allow you to donate or subscribe to this magazine at whatever rate you can afford. [Look for the rockets on the left side.--Ed]
IRoSF isn't the only web-based publication that puts its readers on the honor system. A lot of content-driven websites do, including some wonderful podcasting sites.
The bottom line here isn't me hectoring you to pay for content (much as I, a content provider, want you to). Subscribing to magazines, paying for your favorite websites, writing your congresscritter, all those things are ways of conquering fear. You're doing something—
Your $25, given judiciously to your favorite publications, will not only provide you with a year's worth of entertainment, it will also encourage the publishers to continue publishing. Your letters will remind politicians how valuable the free library system is. Your donations to websites like this will keep these magazines alive. You're actually doing something positive in the tough economy.
Of course, there are other things you can do as well. If you have money, donate to food banks and shelters. Don't forget animal shelters. Everyone's hurting for money these days, so if you have a few extra dollars, put them to good use.
If you're one of the unfortunates who have lost your job in the past six months, and this article is making you feel both guilty and impotent, I have a solution for you too. This solution comes from my years of un- and under-employment. The solution is simple: Volunteer. Spend time manning the phones at a crisis center or delivering Meals On Wheels. You'll have something to do with your day besides fret about how many resumes you've sent and how few calls you've received in return.
And here's a secret to volunteerism: it's a blessing—
All of the jobs I got after I started volunteering came directly from my volunteer experience. Often I got hired within the organization I volunteered for. Other times, the experience I gained became a valuable part of my resume.
Now that same experience shows up in my fiction.
It's tough out there for all of us. Folks with jobs are worried about losing them. Folks without jobs have no idea how to pay the rent. It's usually my job, as an entertainment provider, to make you forget your worries.
I didn't quite do that here, but I hope I gave you a way to still some of those little voices, the ones that whisper you're going to lose everything you love, including your favorite entertainment.
You won't. This economy will rebound. It always has. The gloom and doom of the past six months will eventually morph into stories you will tell your grandchildren about surviving hard times.
But while we're in those hard times, let's talk about money, and figure out ways to preserve the things we love.
That's the best—