Scalzi on short sf markets…

John Scalzi ponders whether Heinlein would have written short fiction for the kind of money you can earn today.  You should read what he says, but basically he asks can you attract writers to write short SF for a quarter what Heinlein got in 1939, does that affect the quality of fiction you get, and puts forward the proposition that the “classic” science fiction story — and the classic science fiction short story market — is dying because in 2007 it doesn’t pay well enough to keep it alive.

I’m pondering this and am a long way from sure of my own views on it. I think the overall quality of short SF published today is high, but i can see merit in his proposition. If writers are writing for something other than money – and they definitely are – then how does that affect the field? I also wonder whether short fiction is becoming more or less relevant to the SF field right now.

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9 Comments

  1. I think there is an outstanding amount of quality short fiction at the moment. Finding it is hard, especially in print form, worse still round here (you can get Analog and Asimov’s in the larger stores in New Zealand and that’s about it). But there’s plenty of great short fiction out there. I think we’re due for a short fiction renaissance – it’s a great medium to consume when you’re short on time.

    There are definitely distribution and marketing problems, particularly for the print markets. But fiction in podcast form, such as Escape Pod is a great way to create reading time you wouldn’t normally have, for example while driving to work. And if the next version of the iPod/iPhone had a decent e-reader on it, wouldn’t short fiction be perfect for that? I already buy PDF copies of some magazines, but getting the latest edition through an iTunes subscription? Apple must be thinking about it.

    Personally, I like the idea of writing short fiction as a way to learn at the start of a career. Just like music, some people go straight to stadium tours, but most start at small venues and let their audience build as the band improves.

    Cause it’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  2. Well, I’m not so sure the erosion of mercurial gain affects writing quality. Mainly because Psychology has long — *long* — asserted the benefits of intrinsic reward over external reward. That is, satisfaction or enjoyment is a strong motivator for human endeavour. This is exemplified every time someone tries to turn a hobby into a job. Eg. the golfer that turns pro, the reader that turns reviewer.

    Money doesn’t motivate as well as love.

    That said, I could do with some money…

  3. Writers are paid if their stories appear in anthologies. Given the proliferation of all the Year’s Best one could write a story that appears in two or three.

    Let’s move on to production. How many novels can one have published in a year? Well if one say is the number then the writer could have spare time. So one could write short stories in order to generate additional income.

  4. It’s possible to earn almost nothing for a short story. Year’s bests pay very poorly. Even if you get in three of them, you’ll still not make much money.

    The notion that interested me in Scalzi’s piece was that lack of payment might impact on the type of story written, rather than the quality. I could definitely see someone saying money is not a consideration, so I might as well write what I want.

  5. Are e-books a potential remedy to poor pay for SF authors? I personally have no idea how e-book profits are distributed, but the e-book format seems the perfect way to make SF writing profitable, since the overhead of printing and distribution costs “should” be negligible. In the 35 years or so I’ve been reading SF, mass market paperback prices have risen from $.75-$.95 to $7.99-$8.99 per volume. However, the near-print prices of most e-books, especially new releases, drives me to purchase the print versions, which I assume are less profitable for everyone. I enjoy reading books on my cell phone (I’m finishing the “Dread Empire’s Fall” series this week) but I resent paying paperback-plus prices.

  6. “I could definitely see someone saying money is not a consideration, so I might as well write what I want.”

    “Still there’s an editor there who may resist writing what one may want.”

    Perhaps. But maybe that’s how we get the really good, home run stories. Writing what you want doesn’t mean producing something sloppy. The stories I’ve written just for the joy of writing them have been more successful than ones I’ve written with a particular market in mind.

  7. Good writers write good works.

    As to eBooks, it’s difficult for publishers who are invested along with physical retailers in maintaining print.

  8. Okay, I’ve always been far more comfortable writing short fiction. I could easily match the advance earned on my small press novel with 3-4 short stories in the professional field, 10 stories in the semi-pro market. That’s not a positive for small press novelists.

    As an editor, the small press anthologies pay I have worked with have paid poorly but that is because of their estimated print run.

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