The market for short science fiction is as healthy as it's ever been — but it's going electronic, and that means short fiction will be Twitterlated, Facebooked and Bloggered. At least, that's what I'm gleaning from a panel of super-editors and an interview with urban fantasy author Cathrynne M. Valente.
Clarkesworld Magazine polled some of the best short fiction editors in the field about the state of the market, and they had some pretty interesting things to say. There seems to be some consensus that everything's going electronic. Mike Resnick puts it most simply:
[T]here are currently 17 science fiction magazines paying what SFWA considers pro rates, and 14 of them are electronic, so I don't think the short story is in as much trouble as it appeared to be a decade ago.
Weird Tales editor (and past io9 contributor) Ann VanderMeer expands on that point:
One of the main changes is the delivery system and how we communicate with each other. Technology has motivated us to change the way we do business. Right now it is more difficult to sustain a hard-copy magazine as the audience is getting more and more of their reading done online or on other virtual devices. Online magazines are getting more sophisticated and garnering more and more readers....
But on the downside, we've become so fragmented. And we seem to have no patience. Many short fiction venues out there are looking for shorter and shorter pieces, perhaps for space considerations, but I also think for the shorter attention spans of the current readership. And that's a shame.
While there are a number of markets — and I find myself in a situation where the demand for my short fiction is often greater than for longer pieces; where I literally cannot keep up with the demand — I question whether actual readership of short fiction has increased in any significant way. Single author short story collections are still extremely limited in sales and appeal, and I do not see the same excitement about author A's newest short story as their newest novel, unless author A publishes only rarely. Short stories do not seem to get the discussion or the critical attention at the fan level, though in the world of writers being read by other writers they are certainly quite the currency — it is still the conventional wisdom that one ought to make a name in short fiction before publishing a novel.
I think, for one thing, the short story will get a whole lot shorter. Twitter is teaching us all to prune our prepositions, and as the unit of information gets smaller, so will fiction. I think there are a number of creative directions short fiction can take — tradable stories like cards, ARGs [Alternate Reality Games], text message fiction. The world will always want to tell stories, and our generation will always try to access information at faster and faster rates. Short fiction would seem to fill the niche perfectly — and yet, I think part of the reason short stories are not more popular is simply that very, very many of them, even in the prestige publications, are not very good.
I would certainly say the Internet is the future of short fiction. Print magazines will last awhile longer; print anthologies are still a going concern. But the real sharpshooters are publishing online, and as media, more and more, is perceived by the audience as something that ought to be free, online fiction will be the bulk of short fiction reading soon, if it is not already.
But actually, the most interesting comment from the Clarkesworld forum doesn't directly relate to how electronic markets are ruling, and changing, short fiction. (Although it probably does relate indirectly.) It comes from Tor's Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
I think the biggest change in SF's overall readership is that it's become much less dominated by hardcore SF buffs whose reading consists largely of SF. Compared to a generation ago, a lot more of our readers are just plain middlebrow readers-people who read a little SF along with a little of a lot of other things, and who don't necessarily regard the SF as alien to the rest of literature, or below the salt, or any of that stuff.
[Today's readers] are probably not connected to the SF social scene, they don't assess their SF and fantasy reading against a huge backdrop of inside-baseball industry lore, they may not have read all of the classics, but they're pretty good at making sense of fairly sophisticated SF storytelling because, guess what, in 2009, hundreds of millions of people are good at making sense of sophisticated SF storytelling. The problem for SF writers and publishers today isn't that there's not a mass audience for high-end SF storytelling; it's that there are immense numbers of other diversions on offer for those hundreds of millions of people.