[Talking point] Is short science fiction in crisis? A market review

Earlier this year I read short stories nominated for this year’s and the 2014 Hugo Awards, and some that missed out due to the Puppy kerfuffle. And I wondered: Were they the best that science fiction had to offer? And, if so, is short fiction – often seen as the core of the genre – in crisis?

That’s not an idle question. In a 2012 review of  Richard Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Los Angeles Review of Books, British science fiction critic Paul Kincaid wrote:

“The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.”

A related claim was made by author Nina Allan in her 2014 essay on genre short fiction in The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium. She described a key attribute of the British short science fiction as “hesitancy” with writers “reluctant to express anger at the current state of our political culture or to interrogate contemporary realities”:

“There is a fear of gut reaction, of urgency. Much of what we are offered instead is a dilute solution of generic archetypes and undirected ruminations written in a sub-Carver “show not tell” aesthetic—stories that reflect reality as a backdrop rather than integrating it as a subject matter and without any readily identifiable sense of personal mission.”

Short genre fiction is undoubtedly thriving – in publication numbers, at least. When Andrew Hook and Gary Couzens began publishing short stories in the 1990s, they were in something of a golden age for small-press magazines. Cheap desktop publishing and the rise of the internet meant, according to Gary, “There were a lot of them around, some coming and going quite quickly, others lasting a while and with a good reputation.”

While many of these magazines ceased to exist, Andrew – who has published more than 120 short stories since 1994 – says there’s still a vibrant market. He says, “Currently it feels to me that the print short story market is healthy, supported by webzines.”

Much of today’s boom is down to the internet. According to Lynda E. Rucker, who began submitting short fiction in 1994, “I think the internet has been a boon for short fiction, has maybe saved genre short fiction. I still love print mags, but it’s wonderful that sites like Tor, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, Nightmare and quite a few others can pay rates of 5-20 US cents per word and showcase some really fine fiction.”

As well as reducing print costs for novellas and online magazines, the internet has opened up a wider range of publications to writers, with most taking electronic submissions. As Gary says, it’s far easier to submit to markets in other countries, and of course markets in other countries publishing in other languages.” That said, he recommends that new writers stick to short stories, rather than novellas, as it’s easier to score that crucial first sale.

Anthologies also seem to be thriving with Lynda saying the market is “kind-of flooded.” But they are increasingly from small presses, rather than major publishers who – according to Gary, “find them a hard sell  and I understand tend to put pressure on editors to include big names to put on the cover (who are often novelists and may not be the best short-fiction writers).”  

Some authors are turning to Patreon – the creative crowdfunding platform – to connect with fans and provide a stable source of income. According to Hugo-winning author Kameron Hurley’s Patreon page, What this Patreon lets me do is justify the time I need to spend to write shorter fiction without worrying about the market for it – and connect with you all while I’m doing it.”

Advantages of Patreon include simplifying the tax issues around micro-payments. Indie author M.C.A. Hogarth, in an SFWA Marketing Podcast, said she adopted the platform as an alternative to a tip jar (about 29 minutes in):

Readers would tip her $1, $3, $2.50 – which she’d painstakingly record in a spreadsheet for the US Internal Revenue Service. With Patreon, she gets a lump sum at the end of the month and her readers can make a regular contribution with their credit card.

Yet the disadvantages of Patreon remain myriad. Authors need a solid fanbase and to regularly deliver high-quality content. Indie genre author Luna Lovewell, who makes more than $700 a month via Patreon says, “I have found that it is difficult to get fans interested in Patreon. I think that part of it is that it is a bigger commitment than a one-time donation, and readers aren’t interested in that unless you’re doing an ongoing story.”

According to  Alex Willging, who has just started using the platform to fund short science and fantasy fiction, “I don’t know for sure if Patreon will supplant spec fic magazines altogether, but I can see it becoming a more attractive option for amateur writers.”

Trouble is, despite the mass of publications and funding models, short fiction isn’t a ‘commercial’ genre. The fastest writer I interviewed consistently wrote 1,000 words in 7-10 hours (some writers may be faster). At a pay of 7-12 cents per word for The Magazine for Fantasy & Science Fiction, a professional market, selling every story and writing every day including Christmas, that’s $43,800 before tax. The average American made $44,600 in 2014. Even superstar short fiction writers like Harlan Ellison also rely on script writing and journalism for income.

According to Deborah Walker, who sold 169 short stories and poems in 2014, “I don’t know any writers making a living from short stories only, and I know a few who make a living indie publishing novels. The pay, even at professional rate, for shorts is too low for most writers to make a living wage. Last year, I spoke to one of my favourite short story writers, who’s very prolific and publishes in the top journals and he agreed. Some superstar short story writers might be making a living with short stories only… but I haven’t heard of any.”

Rates for short fiction have improved since 1975 when it seems they might have been 2 cents a word. The SFWA rates for a ‘pro’ publication rose to 6 cents per word in 2014 from 5 cents per word – the rate set in 2004. Yet this is still insufficient to pay a full-time American author a living wage and has largely not kept pace with inflation. Two cents a word in 1975 is equivalent to nine cents today. Not all pro markets pay those rates. Analog does. Strange Horizons doesn’t.

The main reasons to write short stories, according to pulp fantasy author Larry Correia, are to trial new settings with readers, practice writing technique and for marketing novels. There’s a real question over the purpose and quality of short fiction in this world. Or, as Nina Allan wrote about the copious output of small press anthologies,

Given that most writers would rather be paid than not, it is safe to assume that those with the skills and tenacity to make a significant contribution will gravitate away from the small presses and towards paid markets as soon as their work begins to attract wider attention.

There’s an open question whether low pay for short science fiction partially explains the ‘exhaustion’ or ‘hesitancy’ of the genre. This can’t be a full explanation, however. Jonathan McCalmont’s 2012 essay Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future, mainly talks about books.

And it’s unclear there ‘is’ a crisis in the whole genre, rather than in the formal processes for promoting and awarding work. Greg Hullender and Rocket Stack Rank found – for major publications in 2015 – that 12% of recommended stories were hard SF. And the stories they rate as good cover a wide range of topics.

The issue remains, for me, that some of the stories Rocket Stack Rank recommend – such as Edited in Interzone #259 – write on small-scale, personalised canvases. They’re literary vignettes that mainly address individual experience, rather than wider ethical, social or political issues, such as – for example – the relationship between citizen and state.

Any combination of factors could be responsible. From growing cultural sensitivity, as perhaps demonstrated by the controversy over Jonathan Ross at Loncon 3 or Elizabeth Moon’s uninvitation from WisCon leading to – possibly – writers steering away from controversial topics. To science fiction entering the literary mainstream, while – speculating wildly – short genre hasn’t the prestige to attract or keep experimental writers.

And then there’s pessimism about the future. As Nina Allan wrote about British science fiction:

In post-Blair, Coalition Britain, the sense of optimism and widening opportunity that characterised the 1960s—in the workplace, in social relations, in gender equality—has largely been replaced with an atmosphere of constraint, of increasing social conservatism and dangerous levels of political apathy.

Today’s western science fiction authors must contend with narrowing horizons and darkening political skies. The rise of European nationalism and regionalism, fears of a Third World War, climate change, terrorism, rising income inequality in many developed countries, and the crisis in the US presidential system (with the risk of a government shutdown and coup).

Perhaps these contemporary realities are why many science fiction authors focus on the personal, the particular and – often – the nostalgic, and are hesitant about tackling big ideas. Especially at 6 cents a word.

Again, thanks to everyone who took the time to chat to me. I really appreciate it.


  • I don’t think focus on social issues is the problem; I think the problem is “lazy dystopias,” in which the world has gone to hell for reasons unexplained and where no one is really trying to fix it.

    In particular, I wish we could see a moratorium on the following cardboard villains:

    1) Evil government suppresses fun/thought/everything out of pure meanness.
    2) Evil corporations destroy the environment/new technologies/everything out of pure meanness.
    3) Evil technology eliminates all jobs and everyone starves except a few rich people, who mock the losers out of pure meanness.

    David Brin has written that lazy writers like dystopias because they create conflict (which all stories need) without requiring much thought or effort on the part of the writer. You’d think it would at least take effort to explain how today’s liberal democracies fell into such a state, but no one bothers. Or that the story would involve some effort to fix things. Or even acknowledge that such things would be tremendously unstable. Nope. Lazy is as lazy does.

    Writing about a functional society that has strengths and weaknesses would be a lot more work, and NO ONE DOES IT. I can’t think of a single story in 2015 that showed a near-future Earth (Say, within 100 years of today) that was better off than the one we live in today. Not a single one.

    So if you want real evidence for decline in SF, I’d suggest you look at lazy dystopias.

    • I’ve noticed the “lazy dystopias” in film and novels, especially YA. I’ve noticed it less in short stories.

      The major problem I’ve noticed, when I subscribed to Interzone (and reading recent Hugo nominees) is a lot of Raymond Carver-style stories that presented a vignette where a character’s life changed slightly but movingly. In Carver, this change is due to – for example – unemployment, family or an encounter with a new person. In Carver-esque short SF, the change is usually a tech that is integral to the story itself but which doesn’t seem to have changed the wider culture or society.

      So, in Edited, I wondered how those teens could meet at a basketball game in a society where the rich could edit themselves. The social inequalities would be yawning, vast and unbridgeable. Even if the changes are slight, they would create a permanent aristocracy. In a world where you can be Edited, the poor are not “but for the grace of God go I.” They are an underclass.

      In short, this is almost the world of Gattaca. Yet Wyatt’s Editing plays the same role in the story as any other deliberate ‘growing up’ experience – counselling, CBT, hypnosis, a gap year in Goa. The story still works if the science fiction element is replaced by something mundane.

      To me, that’s the problem. I was fascinated by Wyatt’s world, but the canvas and scope of the story was simply too small. I’ve had the same problem with several other stories, including Rachel Swirsky’s novelette “Eros, Philia, Agape.” I wanted to know more about the wider social consequences of being able to create your own perfect partner. Would people stop forming real relationships? Would there be lots of disaffected singletons? How might that same technology be moulded for ill will (e.g. for scamming). The actual story is simply a relationship breaking down between two narcissistic people, one of whom wants to find themselves.

      When I started the interviews, I thought there were hardly any paying outlets for short fiction and no one wanted to write it. I soon realised I was wrong, which is one of the beauties of interviewing people – when the facts change, you have to change your mind!

      • As far as “Edited” goes, I think it was fairly clear that Wyatt made friends with the narrator and the other guy as a way of spiting his parents. As I suggested in my review of it, we’re left with the strong feeling that Wyatt would have dumped them eventually anyway.

        I think there’s a big place for stories about how technology affects real people. Yes, a world where the rich can edit themselves to be superior is going to have inequality problems beyond our wildest dreams. Not only that, this is a case where the underclass will actually know that they’re inferior–it won’t just be irrational. But you’d still expect differences; editing a genius ought to produce a super genius, so a really bright poor kid could probably borrow the money for it. There’s lots of material someone could work with.

        But they don’t have to do it. I think there’s lots of room for many different kinds of stories. Except lazy dystopias. I was tired of those after reading the first one.

        • I don’t know… The story felt “slight” somehow. As you say, Wyatt’d probably have dumped them anyway. So why focus on the science fiction elements of the relationship with the narrator – even if Wyatt hadn’t been edited, the rejection and betrayal would have felt the same.

          Wyatt said he begged his parents to go away for the weekend, but I didn’t gut feel it. If he had been spiting them and then tried to go away, they’d either have to be very permissive… or they’d put up more of a fight.

          The story feels it would have been far more interesting from Wyatt’s POV. He’s the person, presumably, grappling with the neurological changes from being edited. He didn’t agree with his parents on some things. So there’s potentially an element of cohesion and a failure of consent. The legal/ethical issues around abuse in a world where you can tweak someone’s personality are mind-blowing! Again, no attempt to explore.

          I had the same issue with Dixon’s Road in The Mag of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/Aug. The character with most stake in the story was the man returning from relativistic space travel to the house where his lover lived, years after she died. The narrator was – effectively – an uninvolved bystander.

          It almost felt like – in both stories – the author couldn’t grapple with the complexities of human emotion unleashed by the scenarios they’d created. They felt they had to write introspectively and backed off somewhere emotionally easier.

          I agree that there are many types of story, but there’s a definite ‘style’ of short science fiction story that seems to be getting recognition at the moment. It’s what I’d call ‘program fiction’ – after a style taught on MFA programs. It isn’t good for tackling big speculative ideas.

          I’ve written a story based on that template; Berlin Sting is linked from this website. It has all the ‘program fiction’ features. The main event (killing the girl/the deal with the CIA) happened in the past and the protagonist is dealing with the aftermath, most of the action occurs in his head, and the climax is a moment of forgettable pathos. That said, it also reads like “Tom Clancy-wannabe does an MFA”, which is why I’ve never really tried writing short science fiction. I saw enough program fiction in places like Interzone to think anything I wrote would be unpublishable.

          As an aside, I haven’t seen much lazy dystopia in short fiction. Maybe I’ve been mistaking the dystopias for grotty secondary worlds. Or, more likely, I simply haven’t read enough. I’ll have a look through your 1* reviews and see whether I can spot any of it 🙂

          • Well, 1-star means “slush pile refugee.” They’re things I think ought never have been printed. Try “The Hunger Tower” for a really extreme example.

            2-star means either a) there’s no plot b) there’s no ending c) there are too many “disbelief busters”. Stories where black holes suck in unwary spaceships end up here. Most of these shouldn’t have even been printed either, but at least they don’t look like stuff from a critique group.

            3-star stories range from endurable to enjoyable. There’s nothing grossly wrong with them, but nothing special either. Generally these are simple, linear stories. That also tend to have lots of “loose ends” (e.g. guns unfired, or unexpected guns.)

            4-star stories are thought-provoking. They often have many different pieces that magically come together at the end. They tend to be “soulless,” though. You don’t get a big emotional charge from them.

            5-star stories are 4-star stories that make you feel. It’s very tempting to give 5 stars to a 3-star story that makes you cry, but that’s a mistake. Emotion (for me) is the icing on the cake. It’s hard to read another story immediately after a 5-star story. It makes you keep thinking about it.

            A lot of the things you seem to care about aren’t on my radar at all. E.g. does the story reflect on society? A good story could do that, and so could a bad one. But a great story need not make a social statement at all. Consider Asimov’s “Nightfall.” When the stars come out, we suddenly understand everything, and the effect is chilling. But if there’s a social statement there, I can’t see it.

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