mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Thoughts on the End of SCI FICTION and the Status of the Short Fiction Market

By now, most people reading this are aware that the SCI FICTION webpage is coming to an end. Over the weekend, they posted a message on their front page announcing that they would discontinue SCI FICTION by the end of the year. They also posted a farewell message from Ellen Datlow.

A lot of people have expressed their disappointment, frustration, and outrage on the Internet. The fact that SCI FICTION, as far as I can see, has never been a money-making operation, but simply a loss leader to bring people to the Science Fiction Channel's website, seems to pass people by. They look at the high quality of fiction that it has published, and the awards that it has won, and seem to feel that such things should be enough to keep the webpage going.

I wish it were, but it's not. The unfortunate fact is that a short fiction market, one that actually pays money for the right to publish short stories, has to get that money from somewhere. Magazines are usually supported by advertising first, followed by subscriptions second. And if you look at the business model behind the SCI FICTION webpage, you'll see that the only advertiser it has is its owner, the Sci Fi Channel, and that access to the stories was always free, meaning no money from subscriptions.

We may decry the short-sightedness of the business person behind this decision, but on the flip side, I'd like to thank the Sci Fi Channel for giving us five years of excellent prose on their webpage. I'd also encourage the people who are writing to them and posting on their site asking for SCI FICTION to continue to indicate a willingness to pay for access to the site.

That's right. If you feel strongly about the existence of SCI FICTION, you should be willing to show your support in some way other than simply enjoying the stories. Because if those of us who love short fiction don't show our support financially, one day there won't be places for us to read short fiction anymore.


Let me explain.

In the days of the pulps, before television had become such a pervasive medium, the world abounded with markets for short fiction. Some of them even paid enough for writers to live on. But over the course of the twentieth century, the markets dwindled, as fewer people turned to short fiction as a place to spend their entertainment dollars. New magazines would rise up, only to fold just a few months later. In fact, we've just witnessed this phenomenon again, with the umpteenth revival and collapse of Amazing Stories.

(I'm reminded of a old joke that has many variations. You know how to make a small fortune out of publishing short stories? Start with a large fortune.)

Today, who publishes short science fiction? As far as I can tell, there are five places it can be found:

1. The professional print magazines (Analog, Asimov's , F&SF, and a few others).
2. The semi-professional print magazines (such as Absolute Magnitude and Artemis).
3. Professionally published anthologies.
4. Webzines that pay a professional rate, such as Strange Horizons.
5. Webzines that by necessity don't pay a professional rate, such as Reflection's Edge.

(I'm not going to count webpages where people can post their stories for free, because I'm looking here at paying markets.)

Of these four, print magazines have existed for the longest. The main reason, of course, is historical. But they manage to exist today primarily for financial reasons; these magazines are businesses and make money for their owners. Consequently, they are also able to support a staff to put the magazine out.

The semipro magazines also support a staff, but usually a much smaller one, which sometimes leads to erratic publication. But they remain a money-making venture, or else they fade away.

Anthologies also make some amount of money for the people involved; otherwise they wouldn't be published. But for obvious reasons, they're not as regular as the magazines.

As for the webzines, I have yet to hear of a webzine that makes enough money to pay its editor and staff a living wage. (If anyone out there knows of one, please let me know; I'd love to be proven wrong on this.) But the fact is that even zines like Strange Horizons are labors of love, existing because the people running them want to see them out there and are willing to dip into their own pockets to pay writers a professional rate for stories.

The professional print magazines, on the other hand -- as long as they make some sort of profit, the owners will generally keep them around.

And this is the key point. Publishing short science fiction cannot remain a labor of love forever. People who are being paid a (we hope) decent salary to put together a magazine treat it as a job, because it is. They can't go to their readership and say that they had a bad month, and the next issue will be out as soon as they can manage it. Editors who did that would soon find themselves out of a job. (Maybe one day, the editors behind the webzines will be able to live off of their editing talent, and erratic publication schedules will be a thing of the past. But, sadly, I don't see this happening anytime soon.)

In the end, if you really enjoy reading short science fiction and want to see it continue, you ought to subscribe to the magazines that publish it: Analog, Asimov's, F&SF. If you find yourself visiting a webzine regularly, you ought to click the donations button at least once a year, and give them what you would pay for a year's worth of stories.

And this goes for aspiring writers as well as readers. Because if you harbor a hope of one day appearing in those pages, well, the only way those pages are going to exist is if people keep supporting them financially so they stick around.
Tags: science-fiction, supporting-fiction

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