The short story is dead. The short story is where aspiring writers hone their craft. Markets for short stories are dwindling. We’re in a golden age of short story creativity and innovation. Print is dead.
And so on and so forth. We’ve been hearing variations on this theme for, well, a long time. The latest is from Adrienne Martini, whose reportage more or less reiterates all of these.
So just how can things be so awful at the same time as being so open to new opportunity? I think part of the answer may be that while the magazine format is struggling, both in print and on-line, there seems to be no shortage of anthologies (for the most recent example, see John O’Neill’s recent report on The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction). While I don’t really know, I’m guessing that the profit margins for yet another Dozois edited collection or the best gosh darn stories from the last 33 1/3 years are better than having to crank out a periodical. And, there is an audience, or otherwise publishers wouldn’t be cranking these anthologies out.
If that’s true (and, again, this is supposition since I haven’t done any substantive analysis), why are magazines seemingly dying? Well, part of the answer is that some of them continue to shoot themselves in the foot by insisting on trying to uphold a heritage no one is much interested in anymore. The 12 year old boys of today are seeking their sense of wonder from gaming and on-line porn, rocket ships to Mars aren’t doing it (obviously we’re talking genre here, as literary magazines mostly supported by universities that don’t pay authors and largely frown upon genre have a much different audience than anything that is publishing with the idea of actually turning a profit). There are just so many entertainment alternatives than in the days when it was an actual event that The Saturday Evening Post arrived in the mail.
Now, as someone who is nominally supposed to be keeping abreast of the short fiction market here on behalf of Black Gate (which is to some extent trying to uphold the tradition I just disparaged, but is also published less frequently than most, which might in part explain its continued financial viability), and is far removed from 12 years of age, I can tell you that, yeah, some of the traditional stuff just doesn’t hold my interest these days. But that isn’t why I’m not reading as many magazines as I used to (I mean, really, I just don’t know how Lois Tilton manages to keep up). It’s that I really don’t have the time. And as magazines pile up, they tend to get ignored. Oh, I missed reading the April issue, and here’s the May issue on the table and I just got the June issue, oh, I’m way behind. But because it’s a periodical, there’s this sense of something temporal, like yesterday’s news, that makes it almost disposable. A book, on the other hand, is much more expensive. There’s more of an investment and wanting to get a return from your investment. And even though catching up with all the books I’ve bought that I haven’t quite gotten around to reading yet (not to mention the ones I haven’t bought that I’d like to add) may be statistically improbable given my life expectancy and the number of hours in a day, there’s still some sense of illusion that I might somehow be able to do so, or at least try.
And if there’s a really good short story I’ve missed, well, I can count on those anthologists whose tastes I share will probably collect it in some future volume, even if it may take me awhile to get around to reading it. So, for me, and who knows what kind of norm I represent, that’s one reason why I’m not taking out any new magazine subscriptions (putting aside the fact that, as a reviewer, I can’t even keep up with the ones I get for free and don’t completely read).
Of course, you can’t anthologize without source material, which is the magazines, but so far that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Because even if they all stopped tomorrow, there would still be a tremendous back catalog to mine. For new material, you could start publishing books that are sort of like magazines, except they only come out a couple of times a year (see No Depression magazine; while it didn’t publish fiction, the model could still apply: it halted printed operations, went on-line and now issues a periodic “bookazine” which is essentially the magazine in book format).
None of this addresses the whole other issue of on-line magazines. Strange Horizons seems to be doing well, while Jim Baen’s Universe is shutting doors. This may have as much to do with their respective business models (see my discussion here) as readership. But, I can tell you one thing, as a guy who grew up on all those great magazines of yesteryear, I just don’t like reading lengthy content on-line.
Of course, that isn’t going to matter to my kid’s generation. I guess what matters is whether they’ll be interested in something that isn’t limited to 144 words or less.