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Neil Clarke on The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Reviews

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Clarkesworld 108-smallNeil Clarke, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the award winning Clarkesworld magazine, has some pretty harsh words on the utility of short fiction reviews in our industry.

The sad truth about short fiction reviews is that the overwhelming majority of them have little-to-no impact on readership. After monitoring the incoming traffic for the online version of this magazine for nine years, I can say that the typical review has a statistically insignificant impact on the readership of a story or issue. The only notable exception to this has been reviews on high traffic sites, like io9 or Tor.com, that focus specifically on a single story. As the number of stories in a review increases, there’s a dramatic drop-off in story readership.

“Oh, but that’s not the purpose of a review.” Yes, reviews have many purposes and sometimes their impact on readership can be secondary. For example, a good review in Locus may indicate good chances at being on their recommended reading list. That might have an influence on other award nominations as well. If a story happens to make one of those ballots, it definitely has an impact, but that’s a very small percentage of the stories reviewed in a year.

Shouldn’t reviews of good stories have the effect of encouraging people to read the story?

With all due respect, I think Neil is missing the essential point of short fiction reviews. I bought and published short fiction for over a decade, and one thing I learned was, with a handful of exceptions, nobody writes short fiction for the money. They write to reach an audience, and because they have something to say. Short story writers, in a very real sense, are paid with the acclaim they receive.

Neil is focused on selling his magazine. I get that. But as long as his magazine is healthy, there are things that more important to his writers than how many copies he sells.

World Fantasy Award Nominee

World Fantasy Award Nominee

Sites like Tangent Online, The Fix Short Fiction Review, Goodreads, and Locus Online, reviewed virtually every issue we published, and those reviews were solid gold. To most of the writers I published, that feedback meant far more than the check we sent them.

Sure, it would be wonderful if short fiction reviews also increased traffic. Neil is correct to say that, by and large, they don’t. But after publishing six Morlock stories in Black Gate magazine, James Enge went on to sell two Morlock trilogies to Pyr Books, and be nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the first one, Blood of Ambrose. That happened because reviewers were raving about the stories, not because every issue of Black Gate that had a James Enge story sold better than the ones that didn’t.

The very first short story I purchased for Black Gate, Devon Monk’s marvelous “Stitchery,” eventually grew into her series House Immortal, as we first revealed here. We published acclaimed stories by Cory Doctorow, Harry Connolly, Howard Andrews Jones, John R. Fultz, Myke Cole, Jonathan L. Howard, Sarah Avery, C.S.E. Cooney, ElizaBeth Gilligan, Ellen Klages, David B. Coe, Peadar O Guilin, Don Bassingthwaite, Judith Berman, Charles Coleman Finlay, Michael Canfield, Gaie Sebold, and countless others long before they’d published their first novels.

What made it possible for those writers to launch great careers wasn’t how many copies of Black Gate I sold. It was the acclaim they received for the fiction they published here, and elsewhere. It was getting their name out. It was the encouragement they received when they were just getting started, in places like Tangent Online, Locus, and the countless blogs and podcasts by excited readers who took a few moments to say, “Damn! I just read a great story over at Black Gate — you gotta check it out!”

Now, I know Neil knows all this. I hardly need to lecture him on the power of short fiction to launch careers, or how much a good review means to a writer who’s just getting started. But I think maybe, with all this admirable laser-focus he’s maintained over the years to grow Clarkesworld into the success it is today, perhaps he’s forgotten that the men and women who put so much unpaid time into writing reviews of his stories, don’t necessarily do it to help Clarkesworld. They just want to share with the world this great new writer they’ve found.

Clarkesworld is one of the best venues on the market to launch a writing career today. That’s because reviewers, agents, publishers, and readers pay close attention to every issue, and because those appearing in its pages today are the ones publishing the award-winning novels of tomorrow. All that is made possible because of the attention the magazine gets in reviews, blogs, and elsewhere.

Maybe that attention doesn’t help sell individual issues the way Neil would like. But I think he’d sure miss it if it was gone.

Read Neil’s article in its entirety here, and see our coverage of the last issue of Clarkesworld here.

16 Comments »

  1. Speaking as a short story writer, I’ll go out on a limb and say that if I had any sense at all, I would long ago have given up the form. It doesn’t pay.

    But then again, the arts in general “don’t pay,” except at the very top of any given arts discipline pyramid.

    J.K. Rowling as compared to Sarah Avery. Me, in playwriting mode, as compared to (pulling name from mental hat) Sarah Ruhl. The kid rapping at a birthday party (for free) as compared to Kanye West.

    At this stage, I write short fiction when a decent idea comes along and it’s not “big” enough to spin out into a novel.

    Then I sit back and hope, not for readership, though that would be nice, but for a sale that puts a few coppers in my pocket, and that said sale might be at a venue whereby whatever “platform” I’ve developed increases.

    Mercenary, I know.

    But then, since when did the arts ever live in an ideal bubble, free from economic constraints?

    As for reviews, there are very few competent reviewers out there. Very few who hold themselves to a truly high standard. (Of course, there have never been very many…and yes, I miss Robert Hughes, not that he ever dealt with short fiction.) Writers of short fiction (and publishers of short fiction) would do just about as well if nobody were reviewing the work at all. At least not formally. Word of mouth is, in my experience, more valuable.

    Or maybe I’m just feeling cranky today, because the last story I sent out came back with a form letter rejection.

    : )

    I salute both BLACK GATE and CLARKESWORLD for publishing short stories. I salute their many worthy competitors.

    There will always be more stories to tell. Thank goodness. And maybe some, now and then, will fall into the hands of passionate, intelligent reviewers.

    But it’s okay if that doesn’t happen.

    M.

    Comment by markrigney - September 2, 2015 2:46 pm

  2. A review that doesn’t send new readers is functionally equivalent to emailing your thoughts to the author. Nothing wrong with that, but there are reviews that send the author a message and readers to the story. I’m saying that the we should all aspire to the former and that most reviewers aren’t. That’s the sad truth I was referring to in the title.

    Comment by Neil Clarke - September 2, 2015 6:29 pm

  3. > Writers of short fiction (and publishers of short fiction) would do just about as well if nobody were reviewing the work at
    > all. At least not formally. Word of mouth is, in my experience, more valuable.

    Mark,

    Well, I have to disagree. When we published your short story “The Find,” amateur reviewers at Tangent Online called it “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics. I can’t wait to see what fate awaits Gemen. A must read.” And they called “The Trade,” a “Marvelous tale. Can’t wait for the next part.”

    The fact is, the only folks who reviewed fiction in Black Gate — only blogs, in podcasts, and at places like Tangent, Locus, etc — were amateurs. The buzz they helped create WAS the “word of mouth” you talked about.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 3, 2015 10:25 am

  4. > there are reviews that send the author a message and readers to the story. I’m
    > saying that the we should all aspire to the former and that most reviewers aren’t.

    Neil,

    Thanks for the response. When you say, “most reviewers aren’t,” it sounds like you’re blaming reviewers for their lack of reach, and their inability to send readers to your magazine, which doesn’t seem very fair to me.

    It seems to me that the responsibility of a reviewer is to respond fairly and honestly to what they’ve read, nothing more than that. If they take the time to rave about an author they love, so much the better — and if they send the reader to the magazine in question extolling them to buy it, terrific! But that’s not really the function of a review, not should it be.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 3, 2015 10:36 am

  5. I’m not saying any of that. I’m saying that the data indicates that the current traditional model of reviews does not generate word-of-mouth marketing to any noticeable degree. A reviewer who wants to have that impact needs to change their approach or add to it. “Most reviewers aren’t” simply means they are not adapting (or perhaps not even noticing).

    Comment by Neil Clarke - September 3, 2015 2:41 pm

  6. > A reviewer who wants to have that impact needs to change their approach or add to it. “Most reviewers aren’t” simply means
    > they are not adapting (or perhaps not even noticing).

    Yeah, that’s certainly true enough.

    Any suggestions on how reviewers (or the folks that publish those reviews, like Tangent and Locus) can see more impact from their reviews, say by by adding more links or including subscription info in their reviews?

    Comment by John ONeill - September 3, 2015 3:03 pm

  7. Neil and John,

    I would love to bring more attention to the books I review. Life is short, so I only finish reading a book if I think there’s something worth liking about it. Of course, as the series fantasy reviewer, my beat is the opposite of short fiction, but I’m sure there’d be overlap in methods.

    When I find a book I truly love, one that makes me want to be a better writer, I definitely hope my review will add a little to that reader’s material prosperity. It’s so hard to make a living at fiction, the best return many of us can hope for is to make enough money to keep writing. It would be a loss for the world, and a personal loss for me as a reader, if Sebastien de Castell (my favorite find as a reviewer) had to abandon the Greatcoats series in favor of doubling down on his day job.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - September 3, 2015 5:12 pm

  8. J.K. Rowling as compared to Sarah Avery.

    Mark,

    That little fragment made my day. Even if the basis for comparison is that I am unlikely ever to make the kind of money Rowling does, the fact that my name occurred to someone in the same thought with her is delightful.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - September 3, 2015 5:14 pm

  9. I started reviewing short fiction on my own site as a way to force myself to read new fiction. It seemed the easiest way to discover as many new writers as possible.

    I also aimed to become a better writer and more able to analyze fiction. Again, this seemed the best way to achieve my goals.

    Once I realized how many writers were creating good, vital new fiction, I made it my goal to generate as much attention as possible from my little perch on the internet. Hopping on to the bigger perch that’s Black Gate, I hoped to to bring new stories to even more potential readers.

    I put links in facebook, twitter, and my own site. Does it do any good? Who knows. But still, I keep trying.

    For myself, reviews play a significant part in how I discover new books and stories. Probably more than half my purchases of new fiction over the past several years come directly from reviews on Black Gate.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - September 3, 2015 7:29 pm

  10. > Once I realized how many writers were creating good, vital new fiction, I made it my goal to generate as much attention as
    > possible from my little perch on the internet.

    You’ve done a marvelous job, Fletcher. In fact, I think you’ve helped inspire more attention to short fiction (and magazines) by several new reviewers at BG, like Learned Foote and Derek Kunskun.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 3, 2015 8:47 pm

  11. Thanx for the compliment, John, and the bigger perch. If I’ve done what you say, then that’s pretty satisfying.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - September 3, 2015 10:40 pm

  12. John – I think, as usual, that I’m being insufficiently clear. Reviews and reviewers are important, yes, and for a variety of reasons. Witness the importance I clearly attach to the trio of good notices I’ve received over the past week, including right here at BG.

    And yes, those reviews ARE a form of word-of-mouth advertising.

    However, NOTHING is more powerful than a friend telling me about this terrific book they’ve just read.

    It’s friends who’ve turned me on to Moorcock, Robinson, Crowley, Bear, Russell, Leiber, and countless more.

    So I guess in an ideal world, some stranger reads a review of my work, and buys a copy as a result. But that’s only step one. Step two is, they tell all their friends about the book they just read and adored. It’s step two that matters most.

    Sarah – You’re welcome. : )

    Comment by markrigney - September 6, 2015 9:56 pm

  13. […] Neil Clarke on The Sad State of Short Fiction Reviews […]

    Pingback by Amazing Stories | AMAZING NEWS: 9/13/15 - Amazing Stories - September 13, 2015 11:04 am

  14. On Rocket Stack Rank we decided that people wanted recommendations, not just reviews. Our goal was to encourage more people to make informed Hugo nominations in the three short-fiction categories. (We’re not trying to sell anything.)

    http://www.rocketstackrank.com/2015/10/getting-more-from-short-fiction-reviews.html

    The trouble with most reviews of short fiction is that they spoil the story. Also, a lot of the online reviewers give glowing reviews to almost everything they read. They’er the kind of think you’d like to look at after finishing a story.

    Comment by Greg Hullender - October 7, 2015 6:51 pm

  15. […] a discussion on his editorial here at Black Gate, Neil elaborated on his […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Clarkesworld 108 Now on Sale - October 28, 2015 2:46 pm

  16. […] in the latest issue of Clarkesworld (a sequel of sorts to last issue’s editorial, “The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Reviews“) is titled “The Sad Truth About Short Fiction […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Clarkesworld 109 Now on Sale - October 28, 2015 4:02 pm


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