Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: literary marketplace

Caught via Hugo-award winning and NYT bestselling author John Scalzi (and congrats on both counts there), the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Gordon Van Gelder, posts about the fate of short fiction online and asks for comments and feedback from readers regarding it.

His basic premise is the fear that if you start giving stuff away, no one will pay for it. Not just in the case of a specific author but rather in the case of publishing overall; if magazines start allowing readers to read online and for free the stories they print, no one will want to buy stories anymore. Which strikes me as quite a slippery slope of an argument, and I worry he’ll lose control of his toboggan.

I tend to understand his fears, though, I think, because really, it makes a lot of sense. I’ll note that since I started offering Entrekin as a free download, the downloads have shot way up though the sales have remained pretty steady. But it also makes sense in other ways.

I’ve been neglecting my other two blogs lately (writing and prepping for teaching tend to make me laser-focus), but had I been keeping up, I would have pointed to Tor.com, the new website of science fiction/fantasy publisher TOR books. So far, I’m quite stunned by its execution; in range and scope, I think it’s rather amazing, and exactly the sort of things publishers need to be doing more often. Free stories. Free novels, even. Forums for readers. Reading is not just about words on a page; it’s about community and culture, and in one fell swoop, Tor has realized the combination of the two. It’s damned near perfect, and I can only imagine it will get better.

When Tor.com posted Scalzi’s short story, “After the Coup”, the story managed nearly 50,000 hits in two weeks, a number that is, approximately, equal to the number of subscribers to three of the biggest science fiction/fantasy magazines combined. When Van Gelder pointed out that all those subscribers pay, whereas TOR.com readers are getting a freebie, Scalzi apparently responded he was “comparing eyeballs to eyeballs.”

Which puts it pretty well, I think. Because in neither case is either number a certain count of readers. One might hope, I guess, that a subscriber would read an entire magazine, but I don’t think I ever have; every magazine I’ve ever subscribed to, there’s usually one article each issue that’s a stinker.

In fact, Tor.com’s implementation seems like the perfect execution in an online world: a publisher gets behind an author, and gets first-look rights at what that author creates, which it can post on its website for an industry-standard fee. Readers can view it free, authors get paid, and publishers get free marketing (New! Exclusive Junot Diaz story! Only at Riverhead.com!).

Used to be that publication made sense, if solely for purposes of distribution; there was no way to get a lot of books to a lot of people without having the kind of operation only a major publisher could implement. Nowadays, though, sites like this seem to indicate that nearly 1.5 billion people in the world have Internet access, whereas something like 90% of books sell fewer than 1000 copies. Which seems to me to indicate that there’s a giant disconnect between content creation and content distribution, if only because so many Internet users read. Blogs, e-mail, news . . . it’s really just a giant database full of information and content.

I’ve read Seth Godin claim that books are really just souvenirs, and I’m not entirely sure about that one way or the other, but I do think that magazines and newspapers well could be. They are holders of information, but certainly no longer the best method of delivery of that information. I’d say I’m reasonably informed about global news, but I literally cannot remember the last time I actually even saw a newspaper, much less picked one up or read one.

Van Gelder notes:

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

But when was the value of any fiction ever determined by the price people are willing to pay? All of Shakespeare’s work is public domain and available free, online, and what’s more, no one has to pay to produce or perform any of it.

What I think Van Gelder really means, though, is that we may be coming to a point where writers no longer need a short fiction marketplace (and I realize this is another slope of the slippery type, but still). In Japan last year, 5 of the 10 bestselling novels were distributed neither online nor by book but rather to readers’ cell phones. No mistake, the industry as a whole is changing markedly, and I think most professionals within it will learn to adapt to new ways of doing the business of getting good content to interested consumers, which is really basically all publishing actually is, anyway.

Personally, I’m still mainly surprised that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction still only accepts queries by traditional mail. No electronic submissions.

I mean, seriously, what’s up with that?

(though they do accept payment for sample issues through PayPal. Interesting that)

Yesterday’s post caused more of a stir than I’d have expected, and brought some comment:

Will Shetterly commented here.

Cat Rambo mentions it here. (I made some comments in the discussion, but they haven’t yet shown up)

James Nicoll mentions it here.

In both that first link and the final, Nick Mamatas shows up to offer some thoughts of his own.

Finally, John Fox, one of the editors in question (and again: a terrific writer, and my former classmate), discusses it here, with Howard Junker, editor of Zyzzyva showing up in the comments.

I’d like to note a few things, the first of which is that I respect and admire both Mamatas and Fox. I mentioned both Mamatas’ Stoker nominations (and win!) and Fox’s status as my classmate to demonstrate such. Their offenses, as such (reprinting query letters), are more dubious than egregious. Mamatas, in Nicoll’s LJ, notes the long history of “Tales from a Slushpile,” including from editors as renowned as Ellen Datlow.

While I’m surprised Wolff still has a job at Fence, I continue to expect great things from both Fox and Mamatas (I’m betting their respective theses are awesome, judging from what work of theirs I’ve seen).

My main point yesterday was one of courtesy and confidentiality. Perhaps my reaction comes from my own time as an editor, which occurred in a somewhat different industry than Fox and Mamatas function in; I edited a clinical psychiatric nursing journal, which was a trade publication, as opposed to a commercial publication. Commercial publishing, which includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and pretty much everything consumers buy, is actually a small percentage of the publishing industry, which includes textbooks, manuals, and the sorts of publications that are published by specialty presses for particular audiences. I worked for SLACK Incorporated, which is one of the largest publishers of medical literature in the world; unless you’re involved, somehow, in the medical industry, however, you’ve probably never seen the journal.

Perhaps that context is important; it’s obviously not an endeavour that lends itself to a side-blog, nor one in which publishing the letters of people with bipolar disorder would really amuse its audience in any way.

Fox makes the interesting note that writers who are good at their jobs won’t show up in such correspondence; the vast majority of slush is merely mediocre, and not horrific enough to “amuse.”

And perhaps again, I’m just not really the audience for this. I’ve said before I think the literary marketplace for short-form writing is basically broken, at this point, especially with blogs and Lulu. I’ve always wondered how many people who aren’t trying to break into print actually read these magazines; Mamatas has disparaged MFA programs as the barely published teaching the barely literate, and the short-form literary marketplace has always struck me as catered specifically to a readership that hopes to get published in it.

One final note: Mamatas has quickly picked up (and on) the fact that I am, in his words, a “lulu.com author.” I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that; while technically accurate, I’d much rather clarify that to just being a guy who made some stories available to anyone who’d like to read them. In Shetterly’s blog, Mamatas seems to indicate he feels that distribution is the clear reason writers need editors; without the latter, the former can’t get onto bookstore shelves, etc, and asks how many lulu.com I’ve seen in a bookstore. As I mentioned yesterday, I haven’t a clue, because that’s just not something I, as a reader, pay attention to–I pay attention to the writing and the stories, not who published them. No, you can’t find my collection in libraries (and I’m not sure you ever will), but you can download it free, and I think that’s kinda cool.

Also, I’d like to point out that my debut is a collection of short writing–poetry, essays, and fiction (most of you regular readers know this. Those who don’t: it’s free! What’re you waiting for?! Give it a try! Nothing to lose besides ten minutes [you’ll know by then whether you’ll like it, and why continue if you don’t?]!). I used Lulu to publish it because I had several stories and essays I’d workshopped in my writing program (and indeed, a couple that got me into it in the first place), but nowhere to go with them, nowhere they seemed to fit. So rather than wait months for possible acceptances and probably meager paychecks, I just put them together.

I’d not do the same thing with my novel. The marketplace for long fiction seems, to me, more diverse, decidedly better, and less marketed to those who just want to get published in it in the first place (well. When it’s marketed at all, but that’s another post entirely). In addition, it seems more a business than the short-form market, which seems a bit more akin, to these eyes, to a network.

Then again, as Shetterly noted in his blog, I’m still very much learning my craft and the marketplace, so obviously all this must be taken with a handful of salt.