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Short Fiction is Dead – Long Live Short Fiction

Published May 27, 2016 in Fantasy , Science Fiction , Silver Empire - 0 Comments
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short-storyBack in the day (say, pre-1965), anybody who wanted to become a writer had a fairly clear place to start. Write short fiction and submit it to the magazines. If it didn’t get accepted, write some more. You’d hone your skill, get practice, maybe entertain your friends, and have a nice collection of stuff that could eventually get published once someone finally recognized your talents. Short fiction is a lot easier to write than novels, and a lot faster. So if something didn’t get published, hey, no worries. At least you hadn’t wasted a lot of time with it. Even better, in those days you could actually make a living by writing short fiction. Maybe not the greatest living ever, but you could do it.

In 2016, the market for short fiction is dead.

OK, maybe it’s only mostly dead. You can still go through its pockets looking for loose change and sell the occasional short story on Amazon for $0.99. But for the most part, they don’t sell very well – and Amazon royalties on $0.99 e-books are crap, too. There are a handful of folks who have made series of short stories work. John Hartness seems to have done well with the Bubba the Monster Hunter series (which are excellent, by the way). And you can do OK with anthologies, as we’ve done at Silver Empire.

But the old school path that really made money – the magazines – has been dead for some time. They pay has sucked for decades. Until a few years ago, if you could manage get published in one of the magazines, the pay scale (three to five cents per word) hadn’t changed since the 1960s. There’s been an awful lot of inflation since then. If you could get published. That was getting dramatically harder, too. For one thing, more people were trying – the competition got steeper. But the bigger problem is that the magazines were all going out of business. Today they’re pretty much all gone. Locus still hangs around, and one or two others. But all of them are struggling.

Magazines are dead, and they’re not coming back.

This isn’t a problem unique to the short fiction market. Magazines in general are dying, of every kind. When I was a teenager, Time and Newsweek pretty much ruled the news magazine market. Time only survives today because of the massive corporation that owns it, and Newsweek has been barely kept alive by mega-rich owners who want it as a vanity project. The readership that used to support their advertising model is gone. They’ve all moved online.

Online magazines aren’t doing much better – and they’ll probably die off soon, too.

Simply moving the business model of magazines into an online space hasn’t worked – and it never will. There’s too much competition out there, and too much of it is simply free. There are a handful of “online magazines” of various kinds that are working – but all of them are struggling, too. Politico just killed its last paywalled section. Expect to see more trouble from them soon. The New York Times has struggled since it went with a paywall model. Only magazines such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg which offer specific information that helps their readers actually make money have really thrived.

In the fiction world, things haven’t been much better. I couldn’t name a single online science fiction or fantasy “magazine” that has any kind of clout or significant readership. There are some¬†respectable ones out there, such as Sci-Phi Journal, but they continue to struggle just to exist.

And today this rolled across my feed. I stumbled across the link from Twitter:

Well, this is getting absurd. First Cirsova magazine closed for submissions till 2017, now Pulp Literature just closed for submissions. Obviously, there is a serious dearth of high quality adventure fantasy publications for fantasy short stories. One can probably count those now accepting stories on one hand, and maybe have fingers left over: Hfq Ezine, BCS (which wants a very specific style), Grimdark (which wants a very specific vibe)…?

It’s a real problem, and not just for aspiring authors. There’s nowhere solid left for up and coming authors to really practice their craft – and the readers lose out just as badly. How much more wonderful sff stories would we have if that one author you’ve never heard of had been able to publish that one story and just hadn’t given up? But there’s nowhere left for him to start. So maybe he’s doing something else.

But Mr. Szeles’s solution is no solution at all:

Could I get the support needed now (professional and financial through Kickstarter) to edit and publish such an anthology, pay pro rates, put in the time, work, and love needed to create something magnificent?

The answer? He could probably raise enough through Kickstarter to get the project off the ground. And in a year or three it would probably die a slow lingering death, just like every other online magazine. The problem isn’t the magazines themselves. The problem is that the business model is outdated – and it’s never coming back.

But all is not doom and gloom. At Silver Empire, we believe we’ve found a solution. We’ve come up with an innovative new business model that we think is more in tune with the times. Or, more accurately, we’ve borrowed a business model that’s already working in other fields and we’re going to apply it to the short fiction market. And that’s why we’re creating Lyonesse – we want to Make Short Fiction Great Again.

Will it work? I can’t promise it – all business contains risk. But I believe strongly that it will work, and that it will work well in the modern age. I believe that we’ll be able to pay authors rates that are at least comparable to the rates the magazines were paying before they died – and I think that we might actually be able to pay far better than that.

To that end, we’re looking for lots of science fiction and fantasy short stories – and I really mean LOTS. We’ve already gotten a fair number of submissions. I haven’t been able to comb through all of them yet, but some of them are pretty darn good. But we’re still looking for more. My answer to Mr. Szeles is, send them over. We are accepting submissions. Details on submission requirements are available here. And if you’ve already submitted and haven’t heard back from me yet, don’t fret – I’ve got a bit of a backlog right now because we just finished up Between the Wall and the Fire (speaking of short fiction, check that one out – some of the stories in it are damn good).

We’re not ready to share the details yet, but we’re hoping to have the whole thing up and running by late fall. So stay tuned. It’s going to be quite a ride!

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