Doug Cohen:

So I thought to myself, “Hey, what if we did a general subscription drive, to boost the magazines for general purposes? Every subscriber counts.” The difference here is that I’m not talking about any specific magazine in danger of dying. There is no immediate urgency. Nothing right now. But like with oil, one day we’ll wake up and the magazines could very well be gone. We need to do something now, before that happens.

So I’m asking people to do two things. First, spread this post throughout the blogosphere. Get the message out. Second, if you haven’t subscribed to a magazine recently, unless you don’t have the $$$ pick one and subscribe! At least one. Saying you don’t have the time to read the magazine is a lame excuse. How many of us have books we bought years ago that we haven’t read? I do. Add a few magazines to the pile. What’s the harm? And if you just read novels, try short stories. Why have you only been reading novels, especially if you want to be a writer? Do you honestly think there is nothing to be learned from reading shorter works? And don’t tell me you’ve tried all the magazines. New ones are always starting. And when a new editor takes over the helm, in many ways that magazine becomes new.

Paul Raven:

What we are missing are the cold hard facts. Why are subscriptions to short fiction magazines dropping? Subscription drives are an admirable thing, but until the source of the problem is located, it’s like adding more water to a leaking bucket. We need to find the hole and patch it.

Now, for all I know, the magazine publishers may well be hunting for the leak. I certainly hope so. I know some of them are looking at methods of patching the leak, too, if not already rolling out potential patches and strengthening. This is a good thing.

But what worries me is this; subscription drives may cause an unfounded short-term sense of security. If publishers look at the next twelve months and breathe a sigh of relief, they may not think ahead to the next five years.

Jonathan McCalmont:

Like most genre fans these days, I’m not hugely interested in short fiction. I don’t particularly like long books either but I think that any idea worth developing is worth developing in some depth. On a purely shallow level, if short fiction magazines were to be wiped from the Earth, I don’t think my enjoyment of genre would be hugely curtailed. However, I try not to be the shallow type so I think the question one needs to ask oneself when considering Doug and Paul’s advice is, what are short fiction SF magazines actually for if they’re not shop-windows for people who go on to write novels?

Dave Klecha:

Which is why, to me, the fate of science fiction magazines, to me, is somewhat academic. Or, I should say, I don’t have a lot of bias when it comes to them. Not particularly beholden to them, no particular animosity toward them (other than, of course, that cliched sort of frustrated rage at not being able to sell to them–look at me, my fury burns so hot, I’m increasing entropy! Rawr!) And it occurs to me that the move to the web not only seems inevitable, but could actually be constructive.

Like Jason Stoddard, I think the world has already changed away from print magazines and print fiction. Short of an incipient electronic paper revolution (which seems to me to be best poised as that holy grail of effective e-book readers, not the sort of disposable/collectible unique copies that magazines and newspapers are today), I don’t see them surviving in their current form. But, you know, I find the web much more conducive to reading the short stuff.

Jeremy Tolbert:

The gorilla in the room that we rarely acknowledge is that nobody wants to read short fiction. If they did, then there wouldn’t be this mess. I’ve heard and read hand waving about the changes in distribution models, but honestly, I don’t buy it. In this day and age, if you have a burning desire to read science fiction short stories, you can Google up a magazine in less than a second.

Do I think that the public could be marketed towards to encourage the reading of more short fiction? Maybe. A good marketing team can sell just about anything. Do I think anyone has the money to back a large campaign like this? No. SFWA would be the only organization that I could see such an initiative coming from, and they’re a massive joke; an organization dedicated to internal politics and rumormongering more than the decline and collapse of the industry around it.

There is no solution. The public’s interest has moved on. If you’re a writer, go write video games, movies, television, or books, in that order of popularity. That is where the public’s interest is right now, and if you don’t like it, then I’m afraid that you should probably get used to the idea that short fiction is a small, niche hobby of little importance. I’m fine with that. I find that I enjoy writing it, and that’s enough for me. Short fiction for me is a way to learn writing, but I won’t regret leaving it behind if I were to crack another (more popular and better paying) medium, or find some amalgam of several of my own.

(I may come back and add my own comments later. In the meantime, see also most of the comments in that last discussion.)

EDIT: For instance:

But how many people really love to read “speculative novels”? I love to read the novels of — for example, and in no particular order — William Gibson, Maureen McHugh, Geoff Ryman, Connie Willis, and Paul Park, among others. There are other authors whose novels I don’t love to read, but I might be willing to spend eight bucks on them in an airport bookstore for lack of choice. There are some authors I’ve never read that, if I did read read them, would probably fall into one or the other category.

And then there’s the vast majority of authors, whose novels I either am indifferent to, or actively dislike.

I’m probably a little pickier than average, but I would be surprised if most fans tastes don’t follow a similar sort of distribution. How much crossover is there between John Ringo readers and Ellen Kushner readers?

Admittedly, few magazines are as broad as all of SF, but the more major they are the broader they are, and they’re pretty much all a lot broader than my tastes — which, you will note, are not easily categorized by subgenre. If I pick up any SF magazine, there might or might not be a story in there that I like, but I can count on there being stories in there that I hate.


17 Responses to “Tracking”

  1. Rose Fox Says:

    A more pro-story perspective here, if you’re collecting those as well.

  2. Hannah Says:

    I said my piece (mostly in response to McKitterick post’s, but vaguely connected to musings on short fic in general) over on the SFWA LJ:

    I guess my question here is, is it really true that people aren’t interested in reading short fiction. Or is it truer that people (in the sense of masses, inasmuch as there are masses of genre readers; there are of course individual people who love the short form) _who identify as readers of science fiction and fantasy_ aren’t very interested in reading short fiction, but that the form is doing just fine outside of the genre?

    Which is to say, the New Yorker still publishes short stories. Atlantic may have lumped their short fiction into a separate issue, but they haven’t done away with it altogether. I see new single-author collections on the library shelf all the time. I don’t actually know that any of this means that the form is thriving on the literary side of things, but I do know that “short does” doesn’t necessarily equal “science fiction short story,” and that “the genre” =! “the world.”

  3. Hannah Says:

    (In other news, I do wish that more writers would take their novel ideas and compress them into short stories instead of taking their short story ideas and thinking, “This would make a great novel!”)

  4. MattD Says:

    Do we know for a fact that fewer people are a) reading and b) buying short fiction? That is, how much of the “problem” is due to fewer people buying the large generalist genre magazines and instead buying smaller zines that are more closely tuned to the sort of fiction these readers like? (Are LCWR and EV losing readers?) Then there are all the single-author collections and the anthologies being published, both the myriad “best of” volumes and original themed anthologies — it certainly seems like there are more of both than ever, what do their aggregate sales say about the short fiction market? (In chicken-or-egg fashion, are these anthologies cannibalizing their sources, or are they a sign of the source’s lack of viability?) And of course there are online publications, free and paid-for, and stories posted online directly by authors — if we add up the hits to all these things, what picture emerges regarding reader interest in short fiction?

    There may be data for all this that people are referencing, but if there is I haven’t seen it mentioned. Thus I’d be careful about what we infer. There are three separate things being talked about as if they were equal: reader interest in short fiction; the (overall) market for short fiction; and certain specific markets for short fiction.

  5. Abigail Says:

    Then there are all the single-author collections and the anthologies being published, both the myriad “best of” volumes and original themed anthologies — it certainly seems like there are more of both than ever, what do their aggregate sales say about the short fiction market?

    I think this is a very important point. One the reasons I’ve been reluctant to shell out money for a magazine subscription is the certain knowledge that I’ll have to wade through a lot of uninteresting work for the occasional gem. It’s a lot easier to let best-of editors separate out the worthy stories for me, or to wait for an author to achieve sufficient acclaim that they warrant a single-author anthology.

  6. Niall Says:

    Rose: thanks for the links. The ones I quoted in the post were really just the first ones I’d seen.

    Abigail: the counterargument to that, of course, is that if everyone followed that logic (or too many people followed it) the stories would never get published in the first place, and everyone would lose.

  7. DJK Says:

    At least some of the decline in short fiction magazines lies in their declining newstand distribution, their very low profile. I just talked to a 24 year old SF reader (not a wannabe writer), who was very surprised to learn that Asimov’s mag still exists. He read it as a teen and thought it’d ceased to exist.

    Wading through a bunch of uninteresting short stories to find the few appealing ones is a lot cheaper than buying a bunch of interesting looking novels to find the few that are actually to one’s specific taste. I know that I discovered many of my favorite authors through their short fiction which led me to their novels, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Kathi Koja, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Kage Baker etc. Short stories were the place for the “early adapters” to help get interesting careers going. Without that path, one wonders whether as much quality SF will get through and survive in the intensely commercial book publishing market.

    Many authors whose novels we love might not have made it out of the crowd without a core of short fiction fans to help them boost the initial sales of their novels. Often a good writer’s work takes on greater richness if you’ve been watching her development in the magazines.

  8. Paul Thackeray Says:

    How do people come across SF magazines anyway? I find it hard to imagine any other route than through looking for SF on the internet or reading Best Of anthologies. That was how I found them, and when I finally managed to hunt down a copy of Asimov’s in a newsagent, I immediately had two negative reactions:

    First I thought “Wow! Is this actually a current edition, or is it something from the 1950’s that’s somehow strayed over from a second hand area?”. Actually it was a strangely deja vu like experience – reminding me of when I first visited the FSF and Asimov’s websites and thought “Wow! Is this actually a current website, or have I accidentally browsed to an edition from the early 90’s?”.

    The second reaction was thinking “Okay, here I am, a middle aged man, standing in front of rows of comics and fan magazines for Charmed and the X-Files… Would anyone notice if I shuffled across, and perused this in front of the literary magazines (have to hide the cover though)…”

    I’m actually not sure exactly what should be concluded from this, but one question it raises in my mind is – who are these magazines actually aimed at? A lot of the discussion of SF on the internet seems to be conducted by, erm, ‘older’ people, who occasionally mention how great it was to discover such-and-such and author or magazine when they were teenagers.

    If the magazines now are aimed at teenagers – and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with that – then they should at least try to look like something produced this century. Interzone scores points there, although I’m not sure about the way it’s contents are presented though. I didn’t actually look at the contents of the fan magazines for Charmed and the like but, hey, someone is actually managing to successfully market a fan magazine for Charmed! How do they do that?

    On the other hand, if SF is ‘growing up’ (in a good way, of course), then it would also suggest that magazines haven’t really caught on to what that might imply. I have to admit though, I’m not sure what it would imply either.

  9. Martin Says:

    I don’t actually know that any of this means that the form is thriving on the literary side of things, but I do know that “short does” doesn’t necessarily equal “science fiction short story,” and that “the genre” =! “the world.”

    I think what we’ve had is a unique situation where there has been a disproportionate market for SF stories for a long time and this is now correcting. So hopefully what will emerge is something more like the mainstream model.

  10. Miggy Says:

    What’s clear is that there are a number of best of the year anthologies now available, mostly brought out by small presses (St. Martin’s isn’t that far ahead of Prime, Tachyon, or Night Shade); many single author story collections without enough financial cache to interest the larger presses; and several surviving sf magazines all with declining sales. If you want to support short work in our field you’re going to have to get involved with something like the magazine drive and you’re going to have to support the better small presses. If all you read are the best of the year anthologies, eventually even they will dry up without consistent sources of good material.

  11. Amy Sterling Casil Says:

    I said this. It’s probably a lot snarkier than what I really think.

    If anybody would like to point me in the right direction for podcasting, I have a few things that I think would be easy for a trained voice actor to read and that people might like. This isn’t about money. It’s about how I’ve been asked to give THREE readings my entire life, each of which were well-received, and I’ve always written with the “sound of things” in mind. People say what I write is easy to read silently also.

    From a personal perspective, it is frustrating to have worked as hard as I have for many years to learn to write good short fiction, and read some of the reviews from the one or two people who I’ve since learned are perennial slush denizens — “i.e. competitors” —

    You just don’t get a lot of feedback, in addition to very little money.

  12. Niall Says:

    Hi Amy —

    You just don’t get a lot of feedback, in addition to very little money.

    I’ve said this before, but I do think the field would benefit from a couple more good, regular short fiction review columns.

  13. Amy Sterling Casil Says:

    I’ve said this before, but I do think the field would benefit from a couple more good, regular short fiction review columns.

    Niall – thanks for all the things you do! I think this is a good idea too. Unfortunately over the years, it seems to have been a difficult thing to accomplish.

  14. Welcome to my world… » Blog Archive » On the death of cyberspace: some rambling thoughts on Vinge and Gibson Says:

    […] gloomy blogging about whether there’s any point in short fiction (a primer on that discussion is here) that took place while I, failing to notice the form’s untimely demise, have just finished […]

  15. David Moles Says:

    “Saying you don’t have the time to read the magazine is a lame excuse. How many of us have books we bought years ago that we haven’t read? I do. Add a few magazines to the pile. What’s the harm?”

    The harm, Mr. Cohen, is that I now have a couple of shelves full of magazines full of bad stories. Don’t think I haven’t tried it.

  16. David Moles Says:

    Oy. How did I end up thinking this was the current lead article?

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