Supporting Short Fiction Markets as a Reader

In his editorial to the latest issue of Ticonderoga Online, Russell Farr talks about how (in this case Australian) sf short fiction venues and markets need readers to keep them alive and healthy:

Unless they’re hiding it well, pretty much every independent story market right now is struggling. Struggling to find enough stories, struggling to find the right stories, and, importantly, struggling to make their story market pay.

[…]

Show me the money? Show me the readers and I’ll show you the money. I think that what Australia really needs is a whole pile of wonderful people who read fast and have large, disposable incomes. These are the people that we want to see coming along to conventions, with a big shopping bag in one hand and a fat wallet in the other.

This hit a nerve with me, because I’ve been struggling for a while with questions of whether and how I should be supporting short fiction markets and what my responsibilities are to those markets as a reader.

I love short fiction. I read lots of it. Given the choice, I much prefer to read single author short story collections. I sometimes enjoy reading year’s best anthologies as well. I occasionally read themed anthologies, though often find them to be a bit hit and miss (The Faery Reel and Firebirds were excellent, for example, but I found The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time and The Alsiso Project distinctly underwhelming). I have read various short fiction magazines in the past, but don’t get much out of reading them, and eventually always seem to find them stacking up in a corner, unread and sometimes unopened. The reason for these preferences is that I like to be able to trace patterns and trends in the short fiction I read. I find the most interesting and meaningful patterns in single author collections because I can trace how that author’s ideas/themes/writing style/etc. develop through a series of different stories. Year’s bests and themed anthologies let me trace the patterns that led the anthologisers to draw those particular stories together under that banner, with varying degrees of success and interest. I find it much harder to read short fiction in the context of magazines, because I have nothing to ground them in, no references to trace patterns to, and so often don’t get much from reading them in that sort of scattershot form.

Given my personal preferences in terms of how and where I like to read short fiction, what do I need to do, as a reader, to ensure that more publications of the type I want to read come out? The short stories that get anthologised and collected are, in many cases, first published in short fiction magazines. Does that mean that if there weren’t any magazines there wouldn’t be as many anthologies and collections? If so, do I have a responsibility, as a reader of collections and anthologies, to support the short fiction magazines?

I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Traditionally, the short fiction publishing model that’s been used in the science fiction genre is to start off selling stories to the magazines and then work up to anthologies/collections, but I don’t know how predominant that model actually is these days, or how predominant it needs to be. Interestingly, three of the anthologies I mention above (The Faery Reel, Firebirds and The Alsiso Project) are anthologies of original fiction and not reprints. I know alternatives to the traditional publishing model for short fiction have been suggested, but I don’t know how successful they are. Original anthologies and collections of short fiction seem to mostly be published by small presses, and I don’t know how well they do and if that’s sustainable. If the traditional model does still hold, should I consider myself to have a responsibility to support the magazines, even though I mostly don’t want to read them, but because I do want to read some of the products of the magazine market when they’ve been picked up elsewhere? It seems hypocritical to say that I want the short fiction magazines to exist and then say I don’t want to buy or read them. But if I don’t actually want to buy or read them, if the traditional marketing model is only meeting my needs as a reader in a roundabout way, then am I obliged to support it? Would I be better off supporting other marketing models, such as small presses, which produce short fiction in the kind of form I like reading them in, even if I don’t like the actual stories they’re currently publishing (Elastic Press, for example, produce original anthologies and collections of short fiction, but I haven’t actually liked any of the ones I’ve read so far)?

What I’m asking, basically, is: do I have a responsibility to buy short fiction I don’t actually like or want to read from markets that only occasionally produce, or may at some point in the future produce, short fiction I do like and want to read, for the sake of that market?

8 thoughts on “Supporting Short Fiction Markets as a Reader

  1. I started reading the big name magazines in the late 80s when I picked up on Lucius Shepard, and started to collect his works. I think actually it was Ellison’s I, Robot screenplay that started it in Asimov’s. From one of thoise issues I found Shepard, in one of the issues I bought for a Shepard story I came across Judith moffett, in another James Patrick kelly, elsewhere Pat Murphy, and so on.
    So although finances prevented me from reading any of these magazines for a few years I did benefit from reading magazines that also contained a lot of stuff I didnt like.
    The issue now for me is simple, I can only afford a very few things, and the magazines aren’t currently one of them. If economics makes them fold its sad, but its the same economics I have to live by, pay the mortgage by.

  2. What I’m asking, basically, is: do I have a responsibility to buy short fiction I don’t actually like or want to read from markets that only occasionally produce, or may at some point in the future produce, short fiction I do like and want to read, for the sake of that market?

    I have to say no. There are a number of small presses that are putting out fine work and I try to support them (Golden Gryphon, Tachyon Press, etc.) when they put out works I am a fan of. I also talk them up to my friends and on my blog. And that’s what I think the best way to help expand the market base for short fiction – show people where (I think) the good stuff is.

    The idea of supporting a market just to keep it from dying out, well I can see why that’s attractive – no one wants to see an institution fail. But artificially propping something up, I guess I don’t think it is my responsibility to do so.

  3. Are you obligated to support a venue that you do not feel you are getting anything out of or have the time to read? No, of course not. You are under no obligation whatsoever.

    That being said, my own personal choice – and it is a choice not an obligation – is to subscribe to one short fiction magazine. As an editor with an enormous slush pile of manuscripts, I don’t have time to read it, so I don’t allow myself to subscribe to more than one, but I keep one subscription running and I tend to rotate. Currently I am subscribed to Interzone, previously it was Asimov’s. I will probably subscribe to F&SF next when Interzone runs out.

    Outside genre I am subscribed to McSweeney’s, though this is for the cool design of the issues. I haven’t had time to read it in over a year.

  4. There are two responses to this, for me. What I think, and what I do.

    This hit a nerve with me, because I’ve been struggling for a while with questions of whether and how I should be supporting short fiction markets and what my responsibilities are to those markets as a reader.

    Whether and how. That’s the key isn’t it?

    Part of me wants to say that you’re asking what your responsibility is to those markets as a reader, but the market should be asking what their responsibility to you as a reader is. I don’t think either of those questions is really applicable until you subscribe or read content from a market. At that point, I’d see my responsibility as reader to discuss and/or give feedback, and their reposnsibility to meet my demands as reader.

    But I understand your point: that you feel you are enjoying the fruits of a vibrant sf short fiction market, without supporting the coalface that creates them.

    What I’m asking, basically, is: do I have a responsibility to buy short fiction I don’t actually like or want to read from markets that only occasionally produce, or may at some point in the future produce, short fiction I do like and want to read, for the sake of that market?

    No. You buy and support the things that you personally want to read, as a reader. However, not supporting markets may mean the decline and failure of those markets. If they don’t provide what readers want … well, that’s not your responsibility.

    And the reasons why you aren’t getting what out of those markets is clear to you: it would be like buying an album for one fantastic track, or possibly buying three albums for one fantastic track – the payoff is low for the amount of expenditure of effort (or money).

    Having said that, my actions go counter to my feelings on the matter. I buy the Australian mags to support the market, and I have at various times subscribed to Asimovs, F&SF, Interzone, NFG, The Third Alternative, and Analog. None of them held my interest, sad to say. I feel, like you do, guilty sometimes for not supporting them, but they aren’t my kind of magazine, and I have no other reason for investment in what they offer (which I do for the Australian community).

  5. This is an interesting question and also similar to one that has been raised for some time in teh comics industry.

    Graphic Novels are great, but wouldn’t exist unless people bought the comics.
    Should I buy Graphic Novels or should I buy Comics, so graphic novels dont stop.

    My answear to this is simple.
    Buy what you will enjoy.

    The market will find its own level, but I am sure that there will still be short stories, regardless of how badly a picture is painted.

    Also I note the discussion is about ‘independent short story publishers’ so what about the others. The not independent ones, would that mean large publishing houses?

    They dont have a problem then?

    James

  6. I haven’t made a study of this, James, but my impression is that large publishing houses don’t tend to publish short story collections by unknown authors. They wait until an author has gained some fame through their novels before risking a collection. This leaves unknown authors, and authors who do their best work in short fiction, out in the cold. In the last five years, small and independent presses have been publishing outstanding collections by authors who probably wouldn’t have found a home with big publishers, but those authors usually have their first breaks in magazines.

  7. You don’t have an obligation to buy anything, of course, but there is a case for broadening your horizons.

    I’m a compulsive subscriber. I try to subscribe to every UK produced sf magazine (the lists getting quite long now, with some recent new start-ups, Interzone, The Third Alternative, PostScripts, Farthing, Jupiter SF, Forgotten Worlds, SciFantastic, Midnight Street, Scheherezade, Whispers of Wickedness, Here & Now, Fusing Horizons, Premonitions and Ireland’s Albedo One – did I get them all?) – plus a number of overseas mags (Andromeda Spaceways…, Paradox, New Genre, and other stuff) and I pick up individual copies of the US “big three” if they contain a writer I’m interested in or someone recommends a particular story.

    Now that sounds like a huge amount, but when you consider that many of these magazines do well if they publish once or twice a year, it isn’t as many as it looks. Nor do I read every story all the way through, like a slushpile editor if it doesn’t grab me within the first thousand words or so, it’s probably history, unless I’m stuck on the train. I almost never read the non-fiction.

    But still, why do I get so many magazines?

    1. I love magazines – apart from SF magazines I subscribe to dozens of others. Perhaps its my hopelessly short attention span, but the magazine offers information in doses I can absorb.

    2. I love short science fiction. Though I read plenty of novels, I believe the short form is sf’s strongest arena.

    3. When I write – which is infrequently – I write short sf, so I like to know what editors like, but I also like to support the magazine market (I’m not a professional – as anyone whose seen my stuff will testify – so it doesn’t bother me that I spend more than I’ll ever earn as a writer)

    4. (and the clincher) I like to be surprised. I recently finished reading the latest New Genre which contained two stories I absolutely loved by writers I had never heard of. If you stick with the safe stuff – the big circulation magazines (or don’t dip your toe in at all) you’ll never have those moments of serendipity. Of course the general standard of writing in the professional mags is better and you’ll find your familiar names there. And there’s some bad stuff is printed in the small press mags but occasionally you’ll find something great – a diamond amongst the coal – and there’s a sense that it’s yours because you worked for it. Yes I kiss a lot of frogs – but it’s great when I find the princess.

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