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?
“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 eoghann.com..