Friday, October 2, 2015

Response to Neil Clarke

Neil Clarke recently posted an interesting and provocative piece on the state of the overall short SF/F market. His arguments are definitely worth considering, though I imagine there will be some push back (as there always is when it comes to interesting and provocative arguments).

I'm not going to argue for or against here, but rather add two linked observations about the short fiction market that, I think, help explain the situation Neil observes:

1. The rise in demand isn't for more fiction, but for more fiction markets

I don't have any figures to cite, so caveats about this being an unscientific observation apply. But it strikes me that nearly all the people I can think of who read short fiction magazines are either writers or aspiring writers. The rest are reviewers. Though this is, in part, a function of who I know (and I know a relatively large number of writers, aspiring writers and reviewers), it sharply contrasts with the social profile of long-form readers--few of whom have similar aspirations.

One conclusion to draw is that many people contributing to Kickstarters and buying subscriptions aren't just doing so in order to have more good stuff to read, but to increase the supply of markets that might buy their stuff, and so help them climb what Jonathan McCalmont has called "the vast aspirational ladder" of genre fiction. (And McCalmont also suggests that these new outlets are, by and large, marketing directly to this demographic.)

This is not sustainable.

2. The problem isn't that new pro-paying genre magazines are publishing lower-quality fare, but that there aren't enough of them willing to stake out new territory beyond what established magazines already do (and do well). 

As I've argued before, the pro-paying market is converging on a specific style of story--self-consciously "literary" stories where science fictional or fantastic elements function as literalized metaphors. A lot of stuff written in this style is good--and well represented in various "best of" collections and award shortlists. But it's also quite different from what sells best and is most widely read in the (much larger) long-form market.

You do see more "popular" or "commercial" short SF/F in anthologies (e.g. Rogues, which Tia is reviewing story-by-story). But anthologies like Rogues are generally populated by the already-famous. It's the magazines, by contrast, that are most open to new writers. And so you get this weird dynamic where new writers need to write certain kinds of stories to get into pro-paying magazines who depend on sales to the same writers to keep them afloat financially.  

What the Market Needs

Neil argues that the market would be healthier if there were fewer subpar markets competing for the relatively finite share of quality stories (and readers) that exist. Granted, but, equally, I'd argue that the market also needs more high-quality (and pro-paying) outlets that aren't seeking the same exact kinds of stories that everyone else seems to be. Some are doing just that--Book Smugglers Publishing, for one. But we need more--proportionately more, I think.

Among other things, the short fiction market could really use more outlets for what might variously be called "popular" or "commercial" genre fiction. Note: this isn't some reactionary, anti-elitist missive about the whatevers who are "ruining our science fiction." My tastes run toward the literary, frankly. But I don't see the overall fiction market as healthy--as is, it seems to lock out a lot of approaches to writing that are well-represented in the overall, long-form-dominated market for SF/F, while--as a consequence--restricting readership of short fiction to a relatively small segment of the overall SF/F-reading public.

New outlets that focus on the "popular" side of the market (while still publishing high-quality fare) would be a great way to bring new readers in to short fiction, and would offer something different from what Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, BCS and so forth already do very well. In that sense, they wouldn't dilute the market as much as expand it.