Is the Original SF and Fantasy Paperback Anthology Series Dead?

Is the Original SF and Fantasy Paperback Anthology Series Dead?

Orbit 9 Damon Knight-smallI miss the era of the original paperback anthologies. It seems to have faded away without anyone really noticing and I’m not sure why.

Well, I guess I do know why, but I’m grumpy about it. Short fiction isn’t really viable in mass market anymore. Ten years of trying — and failing — to publish a fantasy fiction magazine taught me that.

That wasn’t always the case. For decades, SF and fantasy readers supported several prestigious, high-paying paperback markets for short fiction and they attracted the best writers in the field. Damon Knight published 21 Orbit anthologies between 1966 and 1980; Robert Silverberg edited New Dimensions (12 volumes, 1971-81) and star editor Terry Carr helmed 17 volumes of the Universe series (1971-1987), for example.

I’d be hard pressed to tell you which of those three was the best source for original SF and fantasy, and I don’t really feel qualified to anyway, since I didn’t read them all. (Or even most of them — we are talking a combined 50 volumes, just for those three. I read pretty fast, but I’m not Rich Horton.)

In any event, those days are gone. And now that they are, I wonder — was it the sheer editorial talent of Messieurs Knight, Silverberg, and Carr that allowed their respective anthologies to continue for decades?

Or was there simply more of an appetite for short fiction forty years ago? Could an editor with the same talent and drive accomplish what they did today? Or is it futile, like trying to argue football with the Borg?

I think perhaps Australian editor Jonathan Strahan has come closest, with his four-volume Eclipse series (2007-2011, all published by Night Shade Books), which died three years ago.

Even Eclipse, as good as it was, didn’t really compare, as it was published exclusively in trade paperback and never had a mass market edition — and thus never reached the audience that even a low-selling volume of Orbit obtained.

Reach For Infinity Solaris-smallStrahan is trying again, albeit somewhat surreptitiously, with his Infinity series, a mass market paperback original anthology featuring all-new fiction. The first, Engineering Infinity, appeared in 2010; Edge of Infinity two years later; and the third, Reach for Infinity, is scheduled to arrive on May 27, 2014.

All three were published by Solaris. I wasn’t even aware this was a series until the third volume was announced recently (maybe Strahan wasn’t either). Whatever the case, I’m very glad to see it.

While we’re talking about Solaris, I note with interest that the two other recent efforts to resurrect the original genre anthology series — Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising (two volumes so far: Solaris Rising in 2011, and Solaris Rising 2.0 in 2013), which covers science fiction, and its fantasy counterpoint Fearsome, edited by Jonathan Strahan (Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy from 2013 and the upcoming Fearsome Magics) — are also published by Solaris.

Dig a little deeper and we see that Solaris has tried this before, publishing three volumes of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction (2007 – 2009) and one volume of The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (2007), all edited by George Mann.

They even tried their hand at a horror volume, House of Fear, edited by Solaris Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Oliver, back in 2011. Oliver was also behind the current World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Anthology, Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane (November 2012, Solaris).

What’s going on here? Is Solaris really trying to make a go of three mass market original anthology series(es)? Don’t they know that those days are over?

Well, it’s obvious they never got that memo. And if it’s true that the primary ingredient in commercial success is the editor, I think they’ve made solid choices in their two, Ian Whates and Jonathan Strahan.

Fearsome Magics-smallBut the very fact that Solaris is making such a determined attempt — series of attempts, really, since the first volume of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction appeared in 2007 — tells me that I overlooked another essential ingredient: a publisher willing to take risks and one clearly willing to experiment, to find the right way to sell short fiction in paperback format to a modern audience. Solaris looks like exactly that publisher.

I think it may be too early to congratulate Solaris on their success — the second volume of the Fearsome series isn’t even out yet. But I think they’re overdue for a commendation for their dedication and I’d like to do that now.

And in case it isn’t obvious, all this reflection on the difficulties of selling quality short fiction has made one more thing clear to me: success takes more than a determined publisher and a gifted editor. It takes a fan base willing to help get the word out and to open their wallets when the volumes hit the shelves.

So if you care about quality short fiction — and if you’re a Black Gate reader, I expect you do — then I hope you’ll join me in doing exactly that.

We’ve tried to do our part over the last few years. James McGlothlin reviewed the first volume of Fearsome Journeys for us back in August and I very much hope to cover future volumes as they arrive. But it takes more than reviews — it takes sales.

It’s too early to buy Fearsome Magics. But it’s not too early to buy Fearsome Journeys — or either of the Solaris Rising or Engineering volumes. I hope you’ll take a minute to check out the links on this page and see if you might be interested. And if you are, I hope you’ll take a chance on one or more.

Because Solaris is certainly taking a chance on us. Let’s help prove we’re worth it.

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Aonghus Fallon

Well I bought ‘Fearsome Journeys’ (the kindle version) on the basis of this site’s recommendation.

Most of the SF anthologies I read as a teenager were made up of stories that had appeared in magazines thirty years previously. I always assumed a natural filtration system was at work and that only the better stories had withstood the test of time. This might be why I tend to be wary of ‘The Year’s Best…’ as what is popular any given year isn’t the same thing as ‘good’. By extension, it’s interesting to note that ‘Weird Tales’ never made much money for the people who published it – if any – and that its sales in comparison to other pulp magazines of the day were mediocre at best.


I’m a big reader. 250-300 books a year. The deeper I read into the various SF/F/H publishers, the more I’ve found Solaris to be one of the best. I’ve come to think of the publisher as the Prestigious Solaris. It’s a very rare thing to find a poor Solaris book. Solaris easily trumps the higher profile houses such as Orbit, Pyr, Tor, etc. in terms of consistent quality. I’m also quite impressed with their anthologies you’ve mentioned, especially the 3 fantasy volumes. No other publisher is printing all new fantasy collections in mass market. I love the prestigious Solaris Publishing.

Derek Kunsken

I’m not sure what’s up with the short fiction market. I think it is definitely not as in vogue as it was half a century ago. I don’t know how many people read short fiction anymore. At a convention I help run in Ottawa, Canada, I try to expose congoers to short fiction through some of the programming, but sometimes it’s a tough sell. People are just used to novels. I’m certain access is a problem (in the 90s, magazines survived on subscriptions and newsstand sales), but online publishing (Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, BCS, Black Gate) may change that. Original short fiction continues to be published in trade formats – maybe it’s simply that, knowing that a small number of people will buy the anthologies, publishers look for the format with the best profit? And perhaps because there’s no money in short fiction (I’ve managed to make a mortgage payment with some of my better sales, but those are exceptions), many writers focus on novels. This is also a challenge for magazine and anthology editors – I had one note to me that short fiction was often only a stepping stone to novels for many writers. Derek

Wild Ape

I’m speaking as an outsider to the publishing industry but I would guess that paperbacks are a big investment with a lot of risk attached to it. I think the publishing houses are still trying to work the old paradigm that has worked for ages up until the age of electronic publishing. I’m with Derek. I don’t know how much Lightspeed, or Nightmare sell in the way of their emagazines but I read their fiction. The model for these magazines is that they bring good stories for a low price vice the publishers who sell their electronic copies at almost the same book price. I think Lightspeed and Nightmare have found a good market equilibrium to bring that good profit margin and price to their consumers. What remains is that they bring more loyal buyers to their fiction. I think the electronic industry may surprise you in the future John.

What I would like to know is how many editors does a magazine need? I imagine those managing the slush piles must have a mammoth task.

I also think that there is a big future in short stories because readers the kids I see reading these days have a short attention span. A short story fits their short attention span. I bet there will be a resurgence.

Great post John. I’d love to hear your insight on what goes on from a publisher’s and editor’s point of view.

Bill Ward

I really think short attention spans mean just the opposite — fewer people able to focus on a short story. A short is dense, you need to pay attention to every word, not just skim it, or put it down three times before coming back to it. Short attention spans are one of the things killing short fiction, aside from maybe flash. Much easier for most readers to keep coming back to the same characters and plot stretching over a novel’s length for half an hour a day for a week or two than it is to start something completely new every time they sit down to read. In general, shorts demand a higher reading skill.

And I have to wonder if there is actually any ‘profit margin’ in those online short fiction mags, I’m amazed (but very happy) that they survive. I suspect most of them are operating at a loss, or are essentially subsidized by the publishers, but perhaps I’m wrong (I’d love more data on this).

I suspect one of the more significant factors that should encourage short fiction is self-publishing — no effort is wasted when you know you can publish a short story that doesn’t make it into the perhaps only one or two markets that would even be interested in it. Before, it was a real gamble to spend time on a spec story for a theme anthology, for example, because if it didn’t make the cut, it might not fit anywhere else. Now, it can always go to flesh out an author’s next collection. Since publishers aren’t too interested in collections from most authors anymore, being able to put it up yourself is the difference between an author continuing to hone the craft of short fiction versus just abandoning it as unprofitable and futile, as I think many have.


weird…I tried to post a comment and I think it got ate by gremlins…

But what I think hurts short fiction to the “mass market” is that at some point it morphed into pretentiousness from the quick fun reads I remember of ages past. I remember reading Pournelle’s War World, Aspirin’s Thieves World, Drake/Fawcett’s Fleet series. As it morphed, us proles stopped bothering with anthologies that might have a couple of stories (out of a dozen or more) we might enjoy and settled into buying from authors that we knew we would enjoy.

James McGlothlin

Here’s another interesting perspective to this anthology discussion:

In a recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan and Ellen Datlow (both star SF&F editors) both agreed that un-themed anthologies rarely sell well, which they said is frustrating because lots of people seem to clamor for them. They said that the sales never seem to be there. (Strahan admits that for all of their critical acclaim, the Eclipse books never sold that well.)

However, I did get the impression from both Strahan and Datlow that themed anthologies do sell fairly well. I’m not exactly clear on what counts as a themed vs. an un-themed anthology, but I’m assuming that the older anthologies you list in this post John are un-themed.

[…] Sunday I was busy complaining about the apparent death of the original SF and fantasy paperback anthology series (as one does), when it occurred to me […]


Several of the online publishers do collections in print, and a lot of stuff is archived online. The good thing is that the reprint market IS good, and contracts usually only specify exclusivity for a year or so, so a lot of these stories are popping up elsewhere.

And, for what it’s worth, John Joseph Adams did “Suits”, for Baen, a while back, in mass market. No idea about numbers.

On a trade paperback level, I’ve done, consulted on, or contributed to multiple Kickstarted anthologies that have not only funded, but exceeded their funding requests. The market isn’t dead, but it was severely hurt by the endless reprint anthologies. Now it’s slowly starting to come back, and that makes me ever so happy.

(I’m actually working on a Spirit of Place (genius loci) anthology now, and just sent a military sf anthology to Apex. Both are almost entirely original fiction. War Stories had two reprints–because Joe Haldeman doesn’t do new stories much, and what’s military SF without Joe?)

[…] Is the Original SF and Fantasy Paperback Anthology Series Dead? […]

[…] Back in March, we saluted Solaris and their rapidly expanding line of anthologies — a rare thing in today’s market — in a post titled “Is the Original SF and Fantasy Paperback Anthology Series Dead?” […]

[…] while back I praised Solaris Books for their impressive line of top-notch original anthologies, including Ian […]

[…] Books continues to single-handedly fuel a renaissance in paperback anthologies, including two top notch science fiction anthology series: Ian […]

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