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The Future of Short Stories, Part 3: Conclusions

August 13, 2007

If you haven’t already, you might want to read part 1 and part 2 of this series, although it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Other than to say that they are shrinking, I haven’t really talked about where short story markets are at right now, which is something you sort of need to know if you want to talk about where they are going. So what is it like out there, in short story land?

Basically, there are two large, well established types of markets. The first is magazines, genre ones include Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. These are on the decline, seeing shrinking subscription numbers, bookstore sales and placement. Nonetheless, they are still the backbone of the short fiction market (and some would argue the entire publishing industry). They pay anywhere from contributor’s copies to pro rates (which, in genre, is anything over $.05/word). The other type of market is short story anthologies, which are collections of short stories in book form. I don’t have the numbers on anthologies, but I would be surprised if they were on the same level as the magazines.

In addition to print magazines and anthologies, there are several newer mediums for short stories. The first is the online magazine. Although some magazines have added an online component to their offerings, this isn’t what I’m referring to. I’m talking about magazines like Strange Horizons, where the primary (if not only) component is online. The reason that I separate them is that due to a totally different business model, they really are not the same thing as their print counterparts. The second is Amazon Shorts, where you basically pay $.49 per story and get a copy to download. Instead of an upfront amount like you get with the already mentioned markets, the author gets a cut of every sale that Amazon makes. I have mixed feelings about this, as I do believe that if the author gives up first publication rights to their work (or any other rights for that matter), they should get some sort of compensation up front, although with the royalties model, I don’t think that it needs to be as much as if they had sold it to a traditional magazine. Finally, there are podcasts like Escape Pod, which is a paying market for short stories. It doesn’t pay professional rates, but its also free to listen to, so I think that its fair (especially since it doesn’t count as print publication, so the rights usually work out pretty well for the author).

Finally, there are the markets that have all but disappeared, and what I’m talking about here are short stories in traditional (nonfiction) magazines. In one of the comments on the piece that kicked this series off, Why Short Stories Are Still Important, a reader said that they missed the days when you could find short stories in the back of just about any magazine. Unfortunately, as the cost of materials increases, it will become harder and harder for magazines to justify keeping fiction, as it was considered more of a bonus than a feature, and thus, expendable (as far as I can tell, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

That about covers where we’re at.  Now to discuss what’s going to happen to all of these places. First of all, anthologies are pretty stable, and will reflect the general short story environment (as short stories gain in popularity, so will anthologies, and the same relationship applies to falling popularity, as well). As for print magazines, they will probably continue to shrink, for a while at least, but will probably reach an equilibrium point where they continue to do well, but on a smaller scale. This has very little to do with the magazines themselves, though, and I don’t regard it as a bad thing. Basically, when they were at their peak, magazines were it, if you wanted short fiction, that was where you went. Now, as more and more alternatives appear (digital and audio, for example), the market as a whole increases, but the magazines shrink as people diversify how they get their fiction. The reason behind this is that for someone who really loves the fiction, but would rather get it in a different format, they will read magazines until their preferred format appears, and then they will switch to the new format.

Although TV and movies have eaten some of the demand for written fiction, it is by no means gone, and I would argue that good narrative creates demand for more narrative, not less, which means that we will see continued growth in fiction, including short fiction.  Online magazines are definitely going to play a large part in this, as they can afford to publish a greater diversity and more fiction than their print counterparts while still paying well due to the decreased cost of digital publishing. Podcasts are also going to take a large chunk of the new growth. People spend appalling amounts of their time commuting, and much of it is not amenable to reading fiction, so there is a massive, untapped demand for short audio fiction.

That leaves the Amazon Shorts business model. As I mentioned above, I think that it could be better, namely by paying the author a bit up front, but it isn’t an inherently bad deal. Unfortunately, Amazon isn’t doing such a great job with it so far.  For example, I haven’t noticed much effort on Amazon’s part to promote this service. I am a good representative of their target audience, yet the only way I even heard about it was reading other authors’ responses to the press release. I haven’t seen any integration with the rest of Amazon’s offerings (go to amazon.com and try to find shorts on their homepage, if it is there, it is very well hidden), and I really don’t see any direction here. I do see potential, however. It offers a nice way for authors to sell their short stories through their websites without having to do all of the technical shopping stuff, but what would really change it would be something like the iTunes music store but for short fiction (and without the DRM, of course). I don’t see why Amazon hasn’t done this already. If I’m looking at a book, but can’t make up my mind, there should be a link right there to the authors short fiction, because although I might not be willing to pay for a book and wait to have it shipped to see if I like it, I’ll gladly pay $.49 to read a short story by the author right then and there.  What I’m saying is that if Amazon fixed their implementation of the program, it could really do well.

To sum up all of these myriad thoughts, the future of short fiction is not about technology or content, as we already have those, the future is about convenience. Instead of putting up roadblocks like DRM, publishers need to make reading short fiction as intuitive as picking up a magazine at a gas station used to be (back when people still filled you car for you). Some people say that electronic books won’t catch on because people just don’t want to read things off of a screen, but the problem here is that its a pain to get things onto that screen. The iTunes Music Store is successful not because it offers a better price or product (it doesn’t, not in a world where you can download free, uncrippled music from a plethora of sources), but because it does what its supposed to do, it leverages technology to make paying for music easier than stealing it. This can be read as saying that people are inherently lazy, but isn’t what I’m saying here. What I’m saying is that people have a certain indignation to jumping through hoops, and rightly so. The only future that makes sense is a hoop-free future, and I hope to see and read you there.

P.S. – Finally, I’ve only been talking about paying markets, and I realize that quite a bit of fiction falls outside of that classification.  Right now I’m working out what I would need to do to create a directory or network of free fiction, and when I have a better idea of what it will look like, I’ll post it here.

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