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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.

Comments

I wonder if it would be economically feasible to set up a Web site that works as follows:
  1. Members can post stories to be read and/or rate stories that are already posted there.
  2. Every N months, the stories with the highest median ratings get compiled into a nicely formatted PDF book, which is then shipped off to a print-on-demand publishing house.
  3. Profits from the book sales, after deducting the cost of Web hosting, are remitted to the authors appearing in the book.

The most obvious weakness here is that POD publishing might not be cheap enough to sell the books with enough markup to give authors any decent royalties. I haven't done any research on this.

The second most obvious weakness is that trolls could give their friends' stories high ratings, even if the stories sucked, and so the stories auto-selected for publication would suck. This, I think, could be ameliorated by the following measures:

  1. If the selection algorithm uses the median rather than the mean, and if it also uses statistical measurements of the confidence of the mean, then any story that passes would have to have a large number of positive ratings and very few negative ratings.
  2. If the site didn't provide instant feedback on the scores that a story was receiving, then there wouldn't be so much reinforcement for trollish behavior.
  3. The ultimate reward, for the people posting to the site, would be money, and getting the money depends on people actually buying the published books. If the published books are full of crap, then nobody will buy them, and so nobody would make money. So if you're an author, you have some incentive to keep the system honest. (Unless, of course, you can figure out a way to get your own crappy story into a volume of genuinely good stories.)
This seems rather complicated...
I'm planning to open a paying webzine soon. Some people have tried to offer me advice about the business model, emphasizing that a zine "can't operate at a loss forever." They make-a me laugh. This is, as you say, a labor of love. I'm going to fund this thing out of my own pocket, and I should be able to do that indefinitely. Maybe the zine will receive donations, and maybe folks will buy t-shirts, but I sure as heck am not counting on it.
Good luck with the website!

A zine can certainly operate at a loss forever if the owner is willing. Remember Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane?


You're right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last year; I expect to lose a million dollars this year; I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in - sixty years.
"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"

I agree. I figured Scifi.com would pull out sooner or later because it was only promotional material for them. Moreover, inadvertently, because of scifi and its high quality (high writer-pay) at no cost to the reader, a number of readers quit subscribing to print journals. I thought this a shame (not shameful, for who could blame them if finances were tight?). Let's hope Datlow gets a new job, and the print subscriptions go back up.
You know, you brought up something I hadn't even considered -- that the existence of SCI FICTION might have cut into the subscription rates of the print magazines. I wonder if that's true.

It would be nice to see Ellen Datlow put back in charge of a print magazine again. Maybe all the SCI FICTION readers would pay for subscriptions...
I heard readers say as much anyway (why pay for these magazines when my favorite is scifi.com?).

It would not cost SciFiC much more to add a few stories to their glossy SF mag. Subscriptions would almost certainly go up--maybe not much, but enough to compensate for the addition, I'm sure.
But would they do it?

The other question is, who would select the stories? I think Scott Edelman is the editor of their print magazine, and he's been a fiction editor in his own right (editing the late, lamented Science Fiction Age). I doubt that the Sci Fi Channel would hire Ellen Datlow to choose and edit the stories when Scott Edelman is already editing the magazine.
I loved SF Age--I bought the first issue that hit the stands and subscribed--so I'd have no problem with that, either. Hell, give them both jobs! Datlow's Dark SF. Edelman's Edifying SF. We could start a new Golden Age.

Waiting for the new publishing model

Business models are constantly changing. Keep in mind that the idea of paying people to carry content was scoffed at -- but that is how commercial radio got built.

Getting people to pay for television and radio when they can get it for free seemed crazy. Now approx. 90% of television households subscribe to pay television of some kind (about 85% cable and 15% DBS) and satellite radio continues to grow.

The question is: what is the value proposition, and what is the cost.

I do not subscribe to any magazines that publish SF or F short stories because I have little time to read and, in the avergae issue of Analog or similar zine, I usually find one story I sort of like. If that. Not a good value proposition.

An online service that made recommendations based on my known preferences might be a service I would pay for. And access to a website that consistently had high quality fiction might be another. But, like many users today, I am much to busy to accept a bundle of content I usually don't like to find the nugget I like.

The downside is I miss finding things I might like. But I am prepared to take that risk and rely on trusted sources (friends or critics) who have made recommendations in the past that I enjoy.

The internet presents a good way to get around publication bottlenecks, especially for short fiction. Some writers, like Cory Doctorow, are doing useful experiments in new distribution and marketing. We'll see what the future holds.

All of which is to say, I feel no reason to support the current business model when it doesn't suit my needs. Perhaps my optimism that a new model will emerge is unfounded, but I don't think so.

Re: Waiting for the new publishing model

If you don't get anything out of the current SF magazines, of course you shouldn't feel obliged to support them.

The problem is that short fiction is becoming less and less supported, while at the same time, there is still a large number of people trying to get their short stories bought and published. Furthermore, when you say, "The downside is I miss finding things I might like. But I am prepared to take that risk and rely on trusted sources (friends or critics) who have made recommendations in the past that I enjoy," you also need to acknowledge the risk that the magazines will fold, and then there won't even be the opportunity to read stories recommended by friends.

It is entirely possible that we are moving in a direction where short fiction will disappear entirely from print magazines and appear solely on the Internet, with editors putting together zines as a labor of love. But I suspect if that happens, then the quality of the fiction will go down. After all, one of the reasons SCI FICTION was so acclaimed was that they published high quality stories -- and the main reason they were able to do so was because they paid more money than any other market.

Re: Waiting for the new publishing model

This was the most thoughtful analysis I've read so far about the market. Thanks for your comments about the VanderMeer interview. It's hard to tell what comes next, especially for the people at the very beginnings of their careers right now. It's scary.

I think that the Long Tail philosophy might work for publishing too. Maybe the answer is for each writer to find a niche audience within speculative fiction and work with them for their whole career...

Cheers,
Jason

Telling SciFi you'd be willing to pay for the site

For my own part, already done.
Well said. I think especially in the internet age, when so much fiction is available for free, we forget that the good stuff will disappear if we don't finance it.
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