Monday, November 17, 2008

Is there a future for genre fiction in print magazines?

Via John Scalzi, a link to this thoughtful article in PBS's MediaShift magazine about the slow decline in readership of the SF/F print magazines and what the future holds for them. This one's a must read, gang.


Jeff said...

I don't know if any strategy will work, because I think it is interest in the short fiction form itself that is shrinking. Even as attention spans shorten, people don't seem interested in reading short fiction. There seem to be far more people writing short fiction than reading it. I don't know if it's true, but I imagine that a good portion of the pulps' subscribers consists of aspiring writers hoping to get published there.

Like me. Only I no longer have subscriptions. I prefer to thumb through a copy at the bookstore and buy ones with stories that interest me, because when I have had subscriptions, I have found that as a general rule of thumb I only enjoyed one story per issue, on average.

Until recently, I edited and published two ezines - Southern Gothic, and Postcards. I published Southern Gothic for five years and had the joy of publishing some very good short fiction, including one story that made the Top Ten in the Million Writers Award. But I stopped recently because it had stopped being fun. Two things killed my enthusiam: the sheer volume of unreadable dreck I received, and the utter lack of feedback from readers. I began to doubt whether anyone was reading the stories. It seemed to me that most of my hits came from writers looking for the submission guidelines. As a writer, I am guilty of this sin as well, so I'm not pointing any fingers, but I think it tends to create an environment in which magazines publish stories to be read by writers hoping to get their stories published, instead of stories to be read by readers. The readers prefer novels, because for their investment they want a deeper relationship with the story and characters than 4,000 words allow.

Ultimately, I don't think any business model can succeed at a pro-rate level. I think short fiction is doomed to become the college football of fiction publishing, in which writers create free content for book publishers in the hope of being spotted by one of the pro scouts and offered a chance at the big leagues.

clayk said...

This makes sense to me ...

I think, as is so often the case, it's the quality of the product that matters most. As a longtime SF fan, and long-ago subscriber to Analog, etc., and now a SF critic, I just don't find short stories that enjoyable. I loved them when I was a teenager, but either I changed or the stories changed.

My guess is that it's the latter, because there just doesn't seem to be an audience for short fiction any more. To me, at least, one reason is the push by writers to be different, to be dark, to confound rather than comfort the reader. There's a place for all of that, granted, but sometimes it's nice to just read a straightforward narrative with an attractive protagonist who succeeds in the end.

Jeff said...

Clayk, I think there is a self-feeding cycle going on. Maybe straightforward short fiction stories are so hard to sell because the dwindling readership consists largely of hardcore subscribers who have seen it all.

The article leaves out probably the biggest killer of short fiction - video games and comic books. I'm not saying this as some crotchety old man who, back in my day, we didn't have video games we stories carved into the walls of our caves. I had plenty of video games and comic books, but the quality of the stories coming out of the video and comic industry is so much better, it feed our need for a narrative. And because these are visual media, rather than print, and video games are also interactive, letting the reader actually be the hero, that is also hurting us. Finally, video games and comics are episodic in nature, like soap operas, with continuing stories, and that seems to be what readers (not writer/readers) want when they read. Which also explains the success of Warcraft - visual, interactive storytelling in a visual community.

Maybe what we're seeing in print is just the reflection of what has already happened in television. Maybe the future of short fiction is to evolve, or devolve, into standalone stories that are connected by place and character. Look at Sherlock Holmes, or Fritz Leiber's Nehwon stories - maybe this is a possible future for short fiction.

Jeff said...

It's hitting online magazines, too. Helix closed shop recently, and last night I received an email from Bridget McKenna that Aeon Speculative Fiction is
no more.