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What is the Future of Science Fiction Short Stories

Warren Ellis made an interesting post recently about the health of the science fiction short story magazines (and as a result of the short story market).

No huge surprises, the magazines are in decline. Actually they haven’t declined nearly as badly this years as in recent years, but that might be because all that’s left is the hardcore audience.

There are some obvious problems with that of course. First off if the magazines aren’t attracting new readers that audience won’t replenish itself which puts them on borrowed time. Secondly these small readership hurts the magazine’s budgets which means they can’t pay very much for the fiction they publish. This of course devalues the short story even further.

Alternatives to Short Story Magazines

So what’s the alternative. Well Ellis points to online fiction zines as being a valid and (in some cases at least) every bit as respectable alternative source of short fiction. He also suggests that they are doing a better job of adapting to the market and providing a wider variety of challenging science fiction of the sort that people want to read.
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On the first point I agree, online fiction should be given more respect and the entrenched belief that just because it gets printed ink on paper it is somehow better is silly.

To the second point I partially agree. I do think they have done a better job at adapting and focusing on some of the many sub-genres within science fiction. One of the problems the print magazines have is that most people have particular styles they like to read so getting a magazine that’s half full of stories the don’t like isn’t very appealing.

Change The Format

But I think we might be missing a bigger issue here. Maybe we shouldn’t just be looking to transplant print media onto the internet. Certainly its a format that has worked successfully for a long time, but are there other formats that could take advantage of the internet’s strengths?

One possibility that we are already seeing a little of is for authors to present more of their fiction on their own websites and use various methods be it advertising, subscription or donation to earn money from them. Related to this is the growth of podcasting; authors presenting audio versions of their novels as a way to build a fanbase and using that to propell themselves into print. Podcast short stories work just as well, check out Escape Pod if you don’t believe me.

Return To Serialization

But the biggest opportunity that I think gets missed when these discussions come up is bringing back serialization. For many years serialized stories (which were later published as novels) were the normal way to produce and read fiction. With the advent of cheap paperback novels that market largely withered and died. The internet is the perfect place to bring it back. Technologies like blogs, email newsletters and RSS feeds make it incredibly easy to send out chapters to interested readers on any chosen schedule.

Serialized stories are really a more effective way to build a fanbase than releasing one book a year (and some authors simply can’t write fast enough to do even that). Serialized stories also give readers a reason to come back, which makes it easier to introduce some new material unrelated to the serial.

And then there’s the format freedom. There are approximate word lengths for short stories, novellettes, novelas etc. But if you’re serializing a story on the internet, it really doesn’t matter. Write it to the length it needs to be and away you go.

So what do you think. Do short story magazines offer something you like to read? What about online fiction? How do we evolve so that the format doesn’t die out completely?

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Eoghann Irving is amongst other things the creator and Editor of Solar Flare. He has a life long interest in all forms of science fiction and fantasy and a pressing need to share this interest with anyone who will listen. Find out more at his personal website

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13 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. I can’t tell you the last time I bought a short story magazine. It used to be that an up and coming writer would build a name for him/herself publishing in the magazines, and then move on to writing a novel. This no longer seems to be the case, which leaves writers like me scrambling to find a new proving ground.

    On-line serialization coupled with podcasting seems to be one of the most promising new outlets. As a matter of fact, Podcastle just produced a short-short story of mine.

    Manxom Vrooms last blog post..Saturday Morning Cartoons: "Deputy Droopy"

  2. Since he was too modest to provide a link, let me do it for him:

    PodCastle Miniature 007: Tooth Fairy

    Never miss an opportunity to promote your work!

  3. In many cases, the entertainment value of the major print magazines seems to have slumped even further than their sales. Many editors publish SF that they feel the readers should be reading rather than stories that a large number readers want to read. They are choosing to be literary rather than commercial and their sales reflect this. There is nothing wrong with choosing to be literary as long as they understand the consequence.

    Online fiction seems to be more willing to be entertaining, but it is too early to tell it’s future.

    Daves last blog post..Algis Budrys "Citadel" and More

  4. I agree with your article. But I would. I’ve been writing serialized online fiction in various forms, off and on, for years now. I’ve currently got a bunch going at a site whose link I am cringing at including (because what’s worse than me promoting myself? Sigh.)

    I absolutely think that we need to look at the internet as an evolutionary step in the delivery of short fiction. Serialized fiction, sure. But you also don’t have to do a once-a-month release of a magazine. You aren’t bound to a printer. You could essentially stream an issue’s worth of content across the length of a month, you know?

  5. There’s nothing wrong with healthy self promotion. Well so long as you don’t try to put links on every post on the site… Besides it’s relevant to the topic.

    I should probably do a post on blooks, collaborative fiction and other interesting internet fiction experiements.

  6. I should probably ask N. E. Lilly for his opinion on this one. What with him editing a fiction website and all. From the look of the RSS feed I’d guess that he’s updating every 1 to 2 weeks.

  7. I don’t see anything wrong with self-promotion. I’ve been considering posting a serialized story on my blog for a while now as a promotional tool.

    I haven’t bought a short story magazine in quite a long time simply because I’m not finding very many stories that appeal to me as a reader and I’m not finding a place where it seems my own writing fits in. I think Dave hit on something fundamental with his literary vs. commercial point.

  8. This discussion is bringing up some interesting issues. Is it a decision or focus on literary works or is it a case of editors (who are drawing from a pretty narrow part of the fan base lets be honest) picking the works they like and those tastes just don’t match the larger audience.

    I think there’s another article in this.

  9. I like the idea of serialising. I have just recently started writing SF short stories and publishing them on my site. A series would bring visitors back again and again. Might also encourage bookmarking. Great idea!

    Peter Grants last blog post..Faith

  10. Even more important than visitors and bookmarking, Peter…serials are a lot of fun. Maybe it’s just me, but speaking as someone who came up with comic books and old school pulp serials, I’ve got ‘em built right in. You can do things in serials you can’t (well, I can’t) do in novels, or in one-off short stories.

    Serials are a blast to write.

  11. There’s an interesting link in N. E. Lilly’s next Internet News column that relates to this (along with other interesting news). It will be published here on Monday so keep an eye out for it.

    I’m also working on a couple of follow on articles that will explore some of these areas in more depth.

    E-zines, serialized fiction, podcasts, e-book releases, print on demand. I really think it’s time for a complete shift in how fiction is published and I hope companies wake up to that.

  12. Pete: Care to elaborate on the particular strengths of serializing? I’d love to hear more on that.

    Lisas last blog post..I’ve been hacked!

  13. Lawd, now I’m on the spot and I have to say something intelligent (or intelligible, anyway). :)

    First, it’s worth pointing out that serials are something that’s just wired into my head. I write comfortably with serials. I do novels okay, but that was a learned skill. Short stories, I do fine, but serials, those are my ticket. So I may be biased.

    Second, it’s worth pointing out that I don’t put serials as superior to novels, or short stories, or comics, or what have you. It’s just another mode of storytelling.

    That said: One big strength for me is the way the rhythm of each episode allows me to keep writing at a much higher speed. Because, say I’m doing ten page episodes. Well, every ten pages, I’ve finished something. Finishing is the best thing in the world for a writer, it gives you a boost of speed and confidence. Moreover, and similarly, if you’re finishing episodes regularly and putting them (for example) online. Or out as comics. Or in a magazine. You’ve got a constant audience reading it. Even if that doesn’t result in feedback, you aren’t working in a vacuum. In many ways, you’re working in the public eye (and that’s a particular delight for me, it energizes me no end).

    It’s different than what can sometimes be depressing, writing a novel and then trying to sell it. It’s worthwhile, but if it takes years…no one’s hear the story you want to tell for all that time.

    Another strength, by me, is the ability to really go on at length. For example: I’ve got one serial that I’m working on very slowly, called “God in the Machine.” I know enough of the story to know that each episode is 10,000 - 15,000 words long. And I’m guessing there are a hundred episodes (and I’m usually pretty accurate in my guesses). Now…that’s a LOT of words. And that’s a particular strength of internet serials: I can write a serial that’s massive and nearly neverending. The internet isn’t going to run out of paper to print me.

    I think this is the biggest one: the ability to go on at length and to meander. Star Trek: The Next Generation would have made a lousy novel. It might have made an okay SERIES of novels, but it worked best giving you an hour’s story once a week. And a serial is like that. You don’t have to expand to novel length. You don’t necessarily have to make each episode stand alone.

    I say that the difference between a novel and a serial is this: A novel is a story told in one long piece of music. A serial is a concept album. If you see what I mean.

    I guess all the best examples of well-working serials I can think of, off the top of my head, come from comic books. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, after all, was 76 issues. That’s serialized. And it worked brilliantly. A lot of people have only read them in graphic novel format, all at once…but the wait between installments is important, because it lets things ferment and grow and interact in your mind. And then the next installment comes along and interacts with the things in your head.

    I’m not sure I’m being entirely clear. The truth is, until you asked, I had never quantified or elaborated on what I think of serials. They work for me, they can do good things (and they do things which, in capable hands, can be done in novels just fine, true). But it’s like asking a runner which muscles in his legs flex, and when, and why. And that might be a crummy metaphor too… :)

    – Pete

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