The current state of the short fiction market for science fiction and fantasy
In my editor's remarks for this first issue of Jim Baen's UNIVERSE, I want to discuss the current state of the short fiction market in science fiction and fantasy. I'm sure most people reading this already know that short form fiction has been declining steadily for decades, in our genre. All four of the major paper magazines still in existence—Analog, Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy—have been struggling against declining circulation figures for a long time, with no end in sight. Many smaller magazines have folded altogether. And the one major online F&SF magazine that had been paying the best rates in the industry, the Sci-Fi channel's SciFiction, recently closed down.
The reasons are complex, and I'm not going to get into them here beyond a few brief remarks. What I want to talk about instead is the impact that the decline of short form fiction has on the field as a whole. That's true, regardless of what causes it.
In a nutshell, it's extremely damaging, and for two reasons—one which affects authors directly, the other which affects the readership base of the genre and therefore its future.
The absence of a large and vigorous market for short form fiction hammers authors directly. That's because it makes F&SF authors almost completely dependent on the novel market. And, while the novel market is and always will be intrinsically more lucrative than the short form market, it is also an extremely harsh environment for authors.
Why? Well, simplifying a lot, it's because of the fundamental economics involved. Novels, unlike washing machines and toasters and automobiles, are unique, each and every one of them. Not "unique" in the sense that they don't have generic similarities, but "unique" simply in the obvious fact that each and every story has to be different or nobody is going to want to read it.
When you walk onto the parking lot of an auto dealer, the last thing you want to hear the car dealer tell you is that "this car is unlike any other." Translation: it's a lemon. But when you walk into a bookstore, that's exactly what you want. A story that, at least in one way or another, is different from any other.
What that means, however, is that the book market is incredibly opaque. Even in the largest car dealership, there won't be more than a relative handful of models available to choose from. A dozen, let's say. Two dozen, at the most. Whereas any Barnes and Noble or Borders in the country is likely to have 100,000 different "models" in stock.
How are you supposed to choose between them? Well, you can't, that's all. What happens in the real world is that almost all book-buyers, except a small percentage of unusually adventurous ones, will stick almost all of the time to buying only those authors they are familiar with.
What this creates, willy-nilly, is a hierarchy among authors in the marketplace that is . . .
"Extreme," is the only word I can think of.
Everybody familiar with the publishing industry knows the basic facts of life:
All of a publisher's profits and about half of the operating expenses are covered by the sales of a small number of so-called "lead" writers. And it's a very small number of authors. In the case of Baen, not usually more than half a dozen. And even a big publisher like TOR won't have more than a dozen or so lead writers.
Midlist writers generally do well to make a small profit for the publisher, or at least break even. Sales of their books—all told—cover the other half of operating expenses.
New writers, and first novels, generally lose money for a publisher.
Those are the cold, hard facts. What it means for authors is that developing a career is a very chancy business nowadays—and it was always chancy to begin with. Because what happens is that even after you get a first novel published, you still have to overcome what Mike Resnick calls "the fourth book hurdle."
The hurdle is this: A publisher will generally give a new author an average of three books to demonstrate if they can become lead writers. If they can't, they're out the door and the publisher will try a new writer to see if they might be able to do it.
Yes, it's heartless. But there's an underlying economic reality for that practice, it's not because publishers are being mean for the hell of it. It's simply a fact that, as a purely mathematical exercise in calculating profits, it makes real sense to toss writers overboard—even good ones, selling fairly decently—if doing so might improve your chances of grabbing the lead writer lottery ticket that generates Ye Big Bucks in novel publishing.
Granted, not all publishers are the same, and they don't all follow exactly the same practices. A midlist writer will sometimes find a smaller independent publisher like Baen or DAW a less unforgiving environment than most of the big corporate houses. And there are some big houses that make a genuine effort to cushion midlist writers against the cold realities of the marketplace. Still, for any commercial publisher, the underlying economics of novel publishing remain stark and unforgiving. "Make it big or die on the vine" is still the rule, even if an author can linger on the vine longer at one house than they might be able to at another.
Leaving aside issues of unfairness—and, no, it ain't fair, not even close—this reality has a negative impact on the field as a whole.
First, because it's incredibly wasteful. Not all writers develop their talents at a rapid pace, even leaving aside the fact that there's always a certain amount of pure luck involved. For every Heinlein, there's a Frank Herbert, who needed years to make it big. In today's environment, I'm not at all sure Herbert would have had that time—and we'd be short Dune as a result.
But it's also detrimental the other way around, because it places such pressure on lead writers that they very often react by becoming extremely conservative in what they write. Not all do, to be sure. I don't, and neither do a number of other lead writers. But even relatively adventurous lead writers stick most of the time to the tried and true approaches—and there are a lot of lead writers out there who are scared to death to vary at all from the type of story that enabled them to become lead writers in the first place.
In short, the situation is lousy—and the steady collapse of the paperback market is making it even worse. I don't have time here to go into that, although I will try to in a later editorial. Just take my word for it, for the moment. Mass market paperback sales today are probably half what they were a few years ago, and there's no sign I can see that that's going to turn around any time in the foreseeable future.
Midlist writers working at novel length usually live and die on their ability to show they can do well in paperback, so a publisher will give them a shot at a hardcover. That was never easy at any time, and today it's gotten a lot worse.
In decades past, it was the size and health of the magazines that cushioned all of these problems. They allowed midlist writers a place they could keep getting published, gain perhaps slow but steady public recognition, and improve their skills—without being under the "fourth book" guillotine. And, while it was always very hard even in the salad days of the magazines for an author to make a full-time living as a short fiction writer (at least, unless you could sell to The Saturday Evening Post), they could bring in enough of an income to take a day job that allowed them as much freedom to write as possible.
And, on the flip side, the magazines provided lead writers with a place they could stretch their skills if they wanted to, without running the risk of falling off that precious lead writer sales plateau.
Okay, so much for the writers. Now I want to explain how the decline of short form fiction has been hammering the field as a whole.
It's not complicated. It's what's often called the "graying of science fiction." Put crudely and bluntly, the average age of science fiction and fantasy fans keeps rising. Once the quintessential genre of choice of teenagers, it's now a genre that's developed a great big middle-aged potbelly.
What do you expect—when the entry level purchase, nowadays, is likely to be a $25 hardcover? And, to make things worse, you have to drive an average of seven miles to get to a superstore that'll even carry a science fiction title at all? (And that's the national average. In some areas of the country, you have to drive a hundred miles or more.)
That's not how I got introduced to science fiction, as a twelve-year-old, I can tell you that. I got introduced through magazines and cheap Ace Double books on the wire racks of my local drugstore, in a small town in rural California. Which . . .
Don't exist any more. The books and magazines, I mean. The small town is still there, and so is the drug store—but it no longer carries any SF titles.
The problem isn't even the price of a paperback, as such. That hasn't actually risen any, over the past half a century, measured by the only price criterion that matters. To wit, today a paperback novel costs just about the same as a movie ticket. And, fifty years ago . . . it cost just about the same as a movie ticket did then.
No, the problem is availability. When I was a kid, SF magazines and paperbacks could be found all over the place. Today, with a few exceptions—and those, almost invariably, only a small number of top-selling authors—you can only find F&SF titles in bookstores, especially the chain superstores.
There's no magic in the real world, however much there may be in fantasy novels. The vanishing of SF paperbacks and magazines is due to profound changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. (And the rest of the world's industrial countries, to one degree or another.) Put simply, it's just the literary equivalent of the same dynamic that has seen McDonald's and Burger King supplanting thousands of independent little diners and restaurants, and has seen Home Depot and Lowe's replacing thousands of little hardware stores.
You can think whatever you want about this fundamental transformation of modern society. But facts are facts, and they are stubborn things. If you want to try to turn that situation around, with respect to our genre, you have to figure out a new approach.
Which, we think we have. Enter:
(roll of drums)
Jim Baen's UNIVERSE.
We're not sure this is going to work, mind you. A lot of what we'll be doing is taking us into uncharted territory, and we have and will be doing a lot of experimenting. But we think we've got a good crack at it, and the stakes are worth making the effort.
In essence, as a business model, our strategy is to use the free entry and accessibility of the internet to substitute for the ready availability of paper editions of SF magazines in times past. This will be a big challenge, of course, because the electronic fiction market is still small. But, by combining a very aggressive promotional campaign with Baen's longstanding policies with regard to electronic publishing—which you can summarize as WE SELL CHEAP AND UNENCRYPTED STUFF, AND NOTHING ELSE—we think we've got a good shot at pulling it off.
(Side note: I'll be having a lot to say on the issue of electronic publication in general, but I'm handling that in a separate column in the magazine. See "Salvos Against Big Brother.")
As an editorial model, we're doing two things, neither of which are new so much as returning to the practices of the magazines in their salad days.
First, we're paying top rates for stories. The best in the industry, even coming out of the gate. These rates are still not really "pro" rates, to be sure. To start crossing that threshold, and bring pay rates for short fiction back to where they were half a century ago, we'd need to be paying (my estimate, anyway) about twice what we're paying now—which would be a top rate of fifty cents a word instead of the top rate of twenty-five cents that we're starting with.
That is our goal, however, and if the magazine is successful we intend to roll as much income as we can into raising the rates. In the meantime, by starting with these rates we're signaling to all F&SF authors that we're dead serious about trying to turn the situation around—and many of them have already responded very enthusiastically, as you can see by looking at the Authors Directory.
Secondly, we're orienting the magazine from the beginning toward a popular audience. That means doing things like soliciting stories from top-selling authors including writers who usually produce novels, and welcoming stories that are set in existing popular universes of their creation—like the Dune story by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson that will appear in the second issue of the magazine, or Alan Dean Foster's Tran-ky-ky story "Chilling" in this issue. We will also be emphasizing stories that center on adventure and generally have a positive outlook on the future.
I should add that we're going to be publishing more new authors in each issue than any magazine has done in a long time, if ever. That's also a way to generate interest and excitement.
There'll be some differences, of course, which simply reflect changes in popular taste over the years. ASF in mid-century, for instance, very rarely if ever carried any fantasy stories, while we will be carrying a lot. In that sense, Baen's UNIVERSE is a very big tent, and we're not fussy at all about the content of the stories we buy. All we ask is that they be stories, of whatever of F&SF's many sub-genres, that at least most readers find fun to read.
Let me put it this way. The guiding editorial philosophy of Baen's UNIVERSE is the well-known remark—usually attributed to Robert Heinlein but actually said by Poul Anderson—to several other SF authors. I can't remember the exact words, but the gist was:
"Face it, guys. We're competing for our customer's beer money."
Indeed so. UNIVERSE is what you might call a beer drinkers' magazine.
Well . . . No, that's not quite right. Most people are neither low-brows nor high-brows, they go back and forth depending on the situation. And they do not drink beer exclusively. On occasion, they'll put on a tux and drink expensive champagne and cognac, and eat caviar. But, most of the time, they just want to have a couple of beers after work on a Friday night, to relax.
That is our audience. People relaxing on a Friday night over a couple of literary beers. The deadly words, for me as an editor, is for someone to finish a story and say: "Well, that was a real bummer. I wish I'd bought a beer instead."
That said, people have different tastes in beer. So I'm quite willing to provide a range of them in the magazine, ranging from lagers and pilsners to dark stouts.
The dichotomy between "popular stories" and "literary stories" is usually posed incorrectly, in my opinion, as if they were aimed at two completely different markets in the sense of two completely different sets of people.
But that's not really the case. At best, it only captures the fringe of the phenomenon.
Yes, it's true that there are some people who can be called Joe Six-Packs. But, typically, they read very little to begin with. They spend their time watching television, and if they read at all it's usually a newspaper or a non-fiction "self-help" type of book.
On the flip side, yes, it's true that there are also some people who read nothing but the great classics of western literature. But not many. In my experience, even very intellectually-inclined people are far more likely, on any given Tuesday, to read some kind of popular genre fiction than something like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.
The reason is not hard to figure out. For most people, most of the time, reading is first and foremost a form of relaxation and entertainment. It's the literary equivalent of having a beer after work.
Our magazine is not so much aimed at Person A as opposed to Person B, it's aimed at both people when they're in Mindset X. "Relaxation mode," so to speak, where they mainly just want to have fun.
That's the reason I bend the stick very heavily in the direction of stories that, however dark the content might be at times, are basically positive, in emotional terms. They aren't necessarily what you'd call "happy stories"—some of them can be pretty grim—but they don't leave the reader feeling down in the dumps at the end.
And it's one of the main reasons that I reject most of the stories that get past the editorial board and get sent up to me for a final decision. The editorial board doesn't send me any turkeys. I've gotten quite a few stories that are perfectly fine stories otherwise. But I reject them because the emotional impact is just wrong. For this magazine, at least.
I should add that there is no presupposition here, on my part, that this kind of story is "better" than that kind of story. I think that's just silly. People read different kinds of stories at different times, for different reasons.
I have no quarrel with literary stories, as such. Not at all. I've read most of Faulkner's writings, and his best novels more than once. I've read Joyce's Ulysses three times, the same for Melville's Moby Dick, and I've been a fan of Dostoyevsky's writings since I was a teenager. But the fact remains that, on any given Tuesday, I'm far more likely to be reading something by Robert Heinlein, or a mystery novel by Robert Parker, or a western by Luke Short or Louis L'Amour, than I am to be re-reading Anna Karenina so I can watch the heroine throw herself under the train again.
That's not a criticism of Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is a great novel. I just don't want to read something with that emotional impact all that often. Just don't. Most people don't, all that often.
The problem with the science fiction magazines as a whole, in my opinion—there are some exceptions—is that I think they've drifted too far away from that center of gravity. The presupposition for any kind of challenging literature is the existence of a huge market for popular fiction, which is big enough to allow more specialized forms of literature to carve out a big enough niche that they can prosper financially.
But if you lose too much of the popular market, the room for the niches starts vanishing. It just does. That's the literary equivalent of the well-known phenomenon of major climatic changes producing a wave of extinctions. The species that suffer the worst are usually the ones with a specialized ecological niche.
None of my remarks above should be construed as a swipe at any of the existing magazines. I'm glad those magazine are there. In fact, I'd like to see them improve their circulation and I'd like to see new magazines come into existence. And if Jim Baen's UNIVERSE can help reinvigorate the short fiction market in fantasy and science fiction, they will. The bigger and more prosperous the market gets for short form fiction, the better it will be for all F&SF magazines, and all F&SF authors—and our readers.