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[Comments] (2) : In my non-expert opinion a good story has two parts: a thought experiment, and the psychology of people who live the thought experiment. I have all kinds of meta-thought-experiments on this topic that I'll spare you, such as what makes a New Yorker story boring and how your standards would change if a story you thought was real turned out to be made up. Further I hold that science fiction and fantasy are popular genres and that they're gradually bleeding into mainstream fiction because they're the genres where you can do really amazing counterfactuals.

The short form is the natural experimental form for science fiction, and I think it's the one where you can really advance the state of the art. But one of the less controversial things you can say in this troubled world is that the market for short-form science fiction is pretty bad. Subscription numbers to the big three print fiction magazines are in decline. So are the pay rates: a story published in 1930 might have netted you the 1930 equivalent of $1000; today the same story might fetch you $300. Etc. etc. etc.

I'm going to talk generally about money in a bit but tonight I want to focus on what's the deal with short stories. You can't blame piracy because nobody even bothers to make unauthorized copies of short stories. The audience is just gone.

At VP I heard things to the effect of: the short story is the farm team, the garage music of science fiction. It's a mechanism for editors, writers, and fans to keep abreast of developments in the field. There's your problem: that's a really small audience! I've been an SF/F fan since before I could read on my own, and I like the short form, but I only started reading the magazines when I became serious about getting my own stuff published; ie. took the field itself as an object of study. For these purposes the market is drastically oversupplied.

The short form is ideal for evaluating new writers: you have to concisely demonstrate the quality of your counterfactuals and psychological treatment. But the market is based on the outdated premise that their core audience wants a certain thrill every month and that a print magazine is the best way to deliver it.

I've said before that the vectors of change are online magazines like Strange Horizons, but after VP I see why. It's not just generic "online is awesome", though that's part of it: the people who want the thrill that SF provides (inc. me) are starting to want it online. The other part is that online magazines are making it possible to regard modern short SF/F as an indexed body of work, the fictional equivalent of a field of science: the study of thought experiments. (Remember that the web was originally designed, if I may quote myself, "to schlep project notes around a physics lab.") As a bonus, for those interested in short SF/F solely as entertainment, it's easy and permanent access to the entertainment.

This is why I keep linking to the old science fiction that shows up in Project Gutenberg: it fills in the enormous gaps in the indexed body of work. This is why it's so bad that the Sci Fi Channel claims they've taken down their archive of new and classic stories (it looks like they haven't actually done it yet): it brings into the online world a taste of the impermanence that is completely standard in the print world.

Lying in wait like an unwelcome subtext to this discussion is the topic of my own humble contributions to the field. Post-VP I've been editing my stories for submission to the big-name print magazines; but really, why am I doing this? Well, there is the blood oath I took on Friday. But what do I want out of it? At any time I could short-circuit the whole boring process by publishing my stories online. The money's really bad either way, and my online readership over time would approach the basically-one-time print readership.

Really what I want out of it is recognition from my would-be peers. Right now that comes by voluntarily going through an established gatekeeper instead of self-publishing. This is important because the traditional career trajectory for a science fiction writer (insofar as such a thing can be considered a career, which as I'll claim later is not very far at all) starts out with you building a name for yourself in this increasingly misaligned short story market. I don't particularly want a trajectory right now, but I would like to have something of a name in the field, so I press onward.

When I asked Patrick Nielsen Hayden what new career trajectories he saw taking shape, he said "If I knew that, I'd be rich." Well, nothing's going to make you rich in this field, but if he knew this it'd be a lot easier for him to find people he should sign for novels. I'm coming up with alternate schemes for advancing the state of the art, schemes based more around peer review, but they tend to reduce to starting my own online magazine.

In semi-related news, someone at VP wrote a constrained story based on the premise that teleology was a real science. I didn't read this story but I'd really like to.

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Posted by Mark Teppo at Fri Oct 12 2007 00:30

I think you're on the cusp of things. Yes, the critical thinking is that the world is moving online, but the part of the field that recognizes you as a successful writer is still tied to the print magazines (look at the criteria for becoming a SFWA member). That is changing, surely, but that beast doesn't move quickly.

Frankly, F & SF has a turnaround time on fiction of about 14 days. The pay rate is good, it's a qualifying market, and it still has weight on your CV, so why aren't you sending it there first? Sure, that online market may keep up your story in "print" forever and will probably pay you less, but if it takes three months to hear back, what's the harm in letting F & SF see it first?

(This argument fails with any of the other traditional venues that take longer and, yes, with them, I agree with you. Why bother?)

Posted by Yeff (Jeff Soesbe) at Wed Oct 24 2007 21:48

Yup, F&SF should be the first place to submit anything you think they might publish. They respond quickly, usually generically (my experience so far), but quickly.

Jon Prescott-Roy was the person who wrote the "teleology as a real science" story, along with fake articles from fake academic journals. I'm sure you could contact him and he'd be happy to send it to you. I have neither email nor blog for him, but I think he's on the VP Yahoo group list.

- yeff


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