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Chance writes:
What I Believe About SF But Can't Prove

That the ongoing collapse of the short story markets has little to do with distribution problems or any of that crap that is often cited. Rather, it is because most SF writers have no love for the short forms of fiction, and mostly view it as a stepping stone to novels, a diversion, the means to an end, not the end itself. And because of this most writers churn out mediocre story after mediocre story, not willing or unable to invest the time and skill to make something wonderful.
Some not particularly ordered thoughts:

This doesn't sound completely implausible. There's also a chunky group of writers who seem to view short stories as, essentially, adverts for novels. Mr Baxter has certainly been guilty of this in the past, though he's by no means the worst offender.

But is it the whole story? Certainly the Big Three are, as far as I know, still shedding readers, but how many people are the 'zines/small press/online venues reaching, and are they reaching people who wouldn't read the Big Three?

In addition, why are writers like, say, Kelly Link--who certainly takes the time to make her stories work--not being published in the major (genre) magazines? If the answer is 'because they're not submitting to the major magazines', again, why is that?

Further, is it anything new? I was reading the first section of Hell's Cartographers last night. This is a collection of autobiographical essays by sf writers, published in 1975. The first section is by Robert Silverberg, and one of the things that really struck me was that in the first part of his career, in the late fifties and early sixties, he made a decent chunk of his living from short fiction. He was doing other kinds of writing as well, but the the short fiction seems to have provided the bulk of his income for a few years at least, and it did so not because he was crafting a few highly-paid jewels but because he was simply churning out an insane amount of words on a daily basis.

It's also a truism these days that you can't make your living from short fiction (though maybe if you had Silverberg's output you could?), and I suspect that may be a big reason why writers focus on novels.

And lastly, and I suppose most importantly: if this is a reason for collapsing short fiction markets, can anything be done about it, and if so what?

EDIT: On a similar theme, this (not entirely serious) post by Alan DeNiro:
Short Stories, 2015

In light of what science fiction writers are “supposed” to do–be predictive, prophetic, whatever–and with a lot of paradigms floating around lately in terms of perscriptive notions of how to fix genre writing, let’s take some potshots at the future. Short story readership is in decline…I think we can all agree on this? So where does it go? What’s the event horizon? And secondly, how does this change–if at all–the creative processes at work?
Make sure to read the comments.

SON OF EDIT: via sartorias, who points at Gregory Feeley's blog, who quotes from the introduction to a collection by Robert Sheckley:
"Despite the efforts of NESFA Press and others, almost everybody is looking at novels as the measure of a writer's true quality. If this goes on without challenge, everone from Damon Knight to Harlan Ellison, from Lucius Shepard to Ted Chiang will end up as second rank, and not worthy of Grand Master awards no matter how fine their stories. And to put it bluntly, there are a disproportionate number of excellent short story writers in the SF tradition, but not a lot of first class novelists."

-- David Hartwell
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chance has it exactly backward: it's that readers have no love of the short form, so they won't pay what it costs to write a good one. It is possible to write a short story for the price readers are willing to pay, but only if you spend far less effort and care on the product than is necessary to ensure the quality.

Hell, you can barely persuade the buggers to buy a novel that isn't three inches thick in paperback.
Two more swallows of coffee and a reread of what you wrote convinces me that my comment is more redundant than I thought. I was quibbling with Chance, but I see you were already doing that.
it's that readers have no love of the short form, so they won't pay what it costs to write a good one.

I couldn't disagree more with this statement - readers do not even think about what the writers are being paid for the story. What they care about is how much they are paying for how much enjoyment they get out of it.

I almost never buy any of the genre magazines because I got sick and tired of liking maybe one story in an issue. On the other hand, I've bought three single author collections in the last month alone: Magic for Beginners, Mothers and Other Monsters and The Shell Collector. Not because I want the authors to make money (though it makes me happy if they do), but because I know they will be good reads - worth the money I spent on them.
And lastly, and I suppose most importantly: if this is a reason for collapsing short fiction markets, can anything be done about it, and if so what?

If it is a reason for collapsing short fiction markets (and I think it is) why would you want to do anything about it? Other than speed the process that is.

David Pringle used to boast that Interzone was the only remaining monthly short fiction magazine published in the UK. As he found out there was neither the supply or demand to sustain this. Give up on the short fiction markets and the idea of apprenticeships subsidised by fans and move to the mainstream model.
David Pringle used to boast that Interzone was the only remaining monthly short fiction magazine published in the UK. As he found out there was neither the supply or demand to sustain this.

Ah yes, which is why Interzone went under. No, wait ...

Give up on the short fiction markets and the idea of apprenticeships subsidised by fans and move to the mainstream model

What do you mean by 'the mainstream model'? And do you not think short fiction magazines are a thing worth preserving in themselves, regardless of their relation to the rest of the genre or to the experience of the writers involved? I think I do.
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It's reader resistance IMHO. I used to read short SF as a kid, and then I grew very resistant to short stories in general, to the extent that I almost didn't join 'shortform' when you set it up. I had developed the impression that short stories were either plot-centric (and hence glib, due to size constraints) or dull writing-exercises (what you called slice of life I think). This impression, prejudice I suppose, was so strong that it was hard for me to start reading short stories by unfamiliar writers. But how wrong I was. And looking back how many of my most memorable reading experiences are short stories, from the Heat Death of the Universe to the Colour out of Space. Why, then, did I become so resistant? Why have we all?
Hooray for shortform! :)

Why, then, did I become so resistant? Why have we all?

I suspect a lot of people would go with the reasoning elsethread, that in a busy world people want somewhere they can escape to for a nontrivial amount of time. It's surprising to me that that's true, but it's even more surprising in the specific case of sf, which has such a strong tradition of important short fiction.
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I don't have a subscription to any of the short fiction magazines. This is because looking through copies of Asimov's and Interzone and TTA that I've been lent, I can't justify paying out for a magazine where I'll get the odd gem of a story, some pretty good ones, and quite a lot of uninteresting filler. I don't find they consistently provide what I want to read enough to make it worth subbing to them, so I read the freebies from SH and SciFiction, and save my money to buy short fiction anthologies.

I'm not sure whether the fact that I don't love most of the short fiction published is because I've got specific tastes and high standards for short fiction, or because the writers are churning out mediocre stories. I suspect it's both.
I can't justify paying out for a magazine where I'll get the odd gem of a story, some pretty good ones, and quite a lot of uninteresting filler.

Provocative calculation: count how many good stories you'd get in an average year of Asimov's. Count how many good stories you'd get in the two original anthologies you could buy instead of the subscription. I suspect Asimov's would have a lower hit rate, but a higher absolute rate, simply because it's going to publish more stories.

But you know I'm doing the same thing; or at least, I'm gradually letting all my subs lapse (mostly because I can't afford to renew) and then my strategy will be to pick up individual issues based on the authors in them. I'll buy anything with a new Baxter story, or a new Ian McDonald story, or whatever. Of course, this gets a lot harder when the magazines don't get good newstand distribution and I don't live particularly near a Borders.
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I was asked 2 days ago if I'd run a workshop on writing short stories - not much prep time, but this discussion has given me much to think about. I had been thinking "OMG, why I am I bothering?" after reading much of the above, but I do read a lot of short stories myself. Although I do sometimes wonder what the editor might have been on when they chose a particular story, or how bad the ones they rejected must have been, there are those you want to read again and again, they're so good. You might argue the merits of a novel over a short story, but how often have I been stuck on the bus falling asleep, reading a really bad novel? Loads! At least with magazines / anthologies you can always pick another story.
It is a sad fact though, that the highest paid short story writer in the UK is Della Galton. I'm not dissing the woman, but you know what she writes? 1000 word twist-in-the-tale stuff for women's weeklies. That's what Jo Public wants over here. In the mainstream, the more highbrow publishers are aware that their pages are useful showcases for up and coming talent. It's a privilege to be published by them, and they don't expect to pay for what they use.
It's also a truism these days that you can't make your living from short fiction (though maybe if you had Silverberg's output you could?)

No. That's precisely the point. Authors could work just as frenetically as Silverberg did and still not make a living out of it these days because of the crucial fact that the markets to which Silverberg was selling his vast output just aren't there any more. The reason that no one can make a living out of short fiction is because of a lack of demand, not a shortfall in supply.
Agreed. One can sell dozens of short stories in a year and still not make much money. I offer Jay Lake as an example, a very prolific writer who is in no danger of quitting his day job due to the writer's paychecks. The only (primarily) short fiction author I can think of who subsists entirely on his writing paychecks is Howard Waldrop.

And didn't he have to live in a refitted septic tank for a while to make it happen?
Short Stories can be harder to write (consider diarrhea-pen Tad Williams, for example)...

and perhaps most importantly, novels are the bread & butter that keeps authors alive and writing. Say what one will of the market and the infrastructure and how that may unduly influence the outcome, but people buy novels, people don't buy nearly as many short stories or anthologies.
Short Stories can be harder to write...

Oh definitely. One of the most liberating things about writing a novel is the amount of words and lines one has at one's disposal while depicting a character or a mood. It feels positively decadent if you are used to writing short stories.
Isn't this part of a wider phenomenon vis-a-vis short stories? Because I'm sure I've heard the 'short stories don't sell' plaint about litfic as well. Perhaps because there are no longer the markets - accessible magazines that published 'good' short fiction - that there used to be, which, possibly, acted as a training ground for readers getting a taste for short stories, and eventually being willing to shell out for collected volumes of same? Though in litfic I think some of the short story writing has gone into those novels which consist really of a set of shorter pieces linked by being e.g. the same character in different circumstances, stages of the life course, etc.
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I meant to post this to Shortform ages ago but I think I might have forgotten:

http://www.saveourshortstory.org.uk/
That's a point, I mean, how well does Granta sell, even compared with SF mags, by comparison?
Personally, I think we should be looking at the editors as well as the authors for that collapse. We're looking at the situation where far too many editors are wannabe writers who want to see their stuff published at the small press end (mostly the ones who think that some grand conspiracy is keeping their Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfic from getting published), so they're not particularly choosy, and just try to get someone to plunk down $5 on the same marginal writers polluting the same marginal zines. As for the rest, they're either incredibly dedicated to the genre and therefore defensive of justifiable criticisms about the childishness of SF short fiction, or they're former writers who confirm the Peter Principle. Sorry to be so cynical, but it's a classic case of Riddell's Law: any sufficiently developed incompetence is indistinguishable from conspiracy.
Did you see this?

http://gregoryfeeley.blogspot.com/2005/07/trade-publishers-to-short-fiction-drop.html
No--thanks for the link. talvalin was making a similar comment elsethread.
unfortunately, i have no linkage to back this up, but -- at Clarion someone told us that Michael Swanwick had tried one year to "make a living" off of short stories and see what happened -- Michael Swanwick, who writes a lot and can sell just about anywhere -- and he made a whopping $8,000.

And from all of my Clarion gleanings, common wisdom/ truth is that you can only make a living from writing if 1. you write novels quickly or 2. the movies are somehow involved. or the TV. Videogames (they have writers!)

And from all of my Clarion gleanings, common wisdom/ truth is that you can only make a living from writing if 1. you write novels quickly or 2. the movies are somehow involved. or the TV. Videogames (they have writers!)

Wholeheartedly agree - for example, an author told us she got approximately 30k for novel she was working on. 25K after agent cut. Unfortunately it took her over 2 years to write the novel, so we were back down to something like 12k for he writings per year. Not very livable even before you start taking out taxes. (And of course she didn't live on it.)

But the 30k sounded mighty fine until you really started thinking about it.
I'd Write More Short Stories If...

-...if it paid better. (Or at all. Got two stories printed in Chinese magazines this year, but not a red cent.)

-...if I knew the stories which made up a single magazine issue were ALL so good that the prospective reader wouldn't feel cheated. ("Hey, I only liked half the stories in this issue!")

-...if I didn't suspect, deep down, that there's been a paradigm shift in the media market which works against short-fiction magazines: When there are SO many mediums and media niches competing for the consumer's attention -- so much specific choice for any conceivable taste -- then a short-fiction mag just isn't *niche enough* for today's picky readers.

Let me elaborate that last point. Today, as a consumer, thanks to the "infinite bookstore" of Amazon.com, you can pick and choose books after your heart's content. But when you buy a magazine, you HAVE to buy also the stories you'll find out you weren't in your taste. So you'll stop reading magazines altogether.

The solution? MAKE MAGAZINES CUSTOMIZABLE.
Let the individual reader choose the general "theme" of the magazine's content, issue by issue, for the *specific copy* he/she buys. Instead of every reader getting the exact same cover and content, they can "customize" them.

EXAMPLE:
Reader A wants reprints of older stories in Issue 10. That's what he gets. Reader B wants less nudity on the cover. That's what she gets -- also in issue 10.
Reader C wants more stories involving aliens in issue 10. And she gets more of that.
All readers are happy, and all readers get a different version of the same issue.

Sounds impossible? 20 years ago, it wouldn't be. It is now.
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