The View From Clarkesworld

Neil Clarke, editor & publisher of Clarkesworld magazine, Wyrm Publishing and champion of diversity in the genre publishing world (I think it was he who first instituted analyzing submissions and acceptances by gender & etc.) has published what I consider to be a most depressing editorial in the most recent issue of Clarkesworld magazine.

Despite how much I admire what Neil has managed to do over the course of nine years with Clarkesworld, I think his take on the current and developing situation in the genre short fiction market comes from a decidedly glass-half-empty point of view.

I have to be up-front about my reaction to reading that editorial.  My initial summation of the points Neil makes is:  the market is contracting, those of us who have managed to get somewhere need all the help we can get, so please, don’t try to start a new short fiction magazine.

Were it not for the completion of our first writing contest (for which we offered the minimum professional payment), I’d have been able to largely dismiss the doom and gloom, but the fact that Amazing Stories is now firmly on the path to becoming a regular paying market makes me feel as if I and Amazing Stories are part of the “problem” Neil was addressing.

To sum up Neil’s contentions (you can, of course, read the entire editorial here) in a manner that I hope is accurate:

The magazine end of the field can be described as having very few professional markets; there are many also-rans of varying degrees of success; an expanding market demands more stories and a potential reduction in quality; a reduction in quality will negatively affect the reader base’s willingness to pay;  the industry will begin to contract.

Just like in the rest of the industry, digital publishing has considerably lowered the bar to entry and it has completely altered the landscape for genre magazines. The aspirants category is larger than ever, and may even be growing at a rate faster than the number of new readers and writers entering the field.

There are two reasons to be worried about this:

1. Quality

If the number of quality stories isn’t growing as fast as the number of stories publishers need to fill all their slots, then quality must dip to fill the void.

2. Sustainability

If the number of readers willing to pay for short fiction isn’t growing as fast as the financial need of the publishers, the field begins to starve itself.

I’m singling out the aspirants here because they are the most at-risk. Their financial foundation is the least stable of the groups I’m focusing on, so they are the most likely to fall victim. In the long term, the danger also extends up the food chain and endangers the conceivables and the professionals.  (emphasis added)

“Aspirants” are those magazines/businesses that ” pay authors SFWA-qualifying rates or better, but haven’t found reliable way to cover that cost”.

Neil offers up a hierarchy earlier in his piece that I think encompasses his world-view; and that I also believe is a distorted view of the actual landscape.  Despite the fact that Neil suggests that his categorizations are not the focus of the piece, I want to lay them out here:

Only three professional magazines that support themselves from their revenue – Analog, Asimovs & F&SF

Other professional markets that are supported by revenues from their parent companies (TOR; Subterranean; probably ought to add Galaxy’s Edge here)

Non-profits – crowd-sourced or privately funded. (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons)

Hobbyists/beginners (who don’t pay/low pay)

Aspirants who pay SFWA rates but do not appear to have a sustainable funding method for doing so

Conceivables who may cover their costs but can’t fund their staff

I also want to note that Neil seems to consider this a hierarchy as the levels under Other Professional are described as “Below them are four more groups”

This is most definitely a top-down view and one that displays some old-world thinking, as it is seemingly predicated on the idea that every viable short fiction market has to conduct itself based on an old-world business model:  establish the company, hire staff, pay professional rates and do so in an old-world manner:  revenue must come directly from publication sales and advertising.  Magazines that are “loss leaders” for publishers, magazines that use crowd-funding, magazines that are funded out of an individual’s pocket regardless of sales, are somehow second, third and fourth class citizens.

Which runs contrary to experience;  PBS (in the US) is widely regarded as doing supremely professional work, offers high quality programming and is taxpayer and crowd-sourced for its funding.  If George R.R. Martin wanted to fund GRRM’s SF & F Monthly out of his own pocket, does that fact alone bespeak poor quality?

Another way of looking at that hierarchy is – Dinosaurs on top, new world order on the bottom.  The way the field used to do things in the 20th century is the right way, all this new-fangled electronic stuff that’s funded on a wing-and-a-prayer shall pass once everyone hits the wall of reality.

Except magazines like Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction seem to be proving the opposite interpretation:  the market has changed so drastically that old school doesn’t work (if it did there’d be a lot more “professional” magazines) and the younger market does not view crowd-funded magazines (and anthologies), or impassioned hobbyist efforts as lesser entities.  (Take a look at the gaming world;  they’re all over crowd-funded projects and much of the resultant work is of very high quality.)

Then there is the argument that an increase in markets is going to stress the supply, resulting in a lowering of quality.  More producers does not necessarily equate with lower quality.  In fact, the opposite may and probably is true.  Putting Sturgeon’s law into practice:  if 99% of everything is crud, the only way to acquire more of the 1 percenters is to have more producers.  To get 1 good story, 100 need to be written.  To get two good stories, 200 need to be written.  Ten thousand authors are likely to produce a higher percentage of quality stories than one thousand authors

Neil states “If the number of quality stories isn’t growing as fast as the number of stories publishers need to fill all their slots, then quality must dip to fill the void.”  Another way of looking at that is: Publishers need to find ways to grow the number of stories to keep up with their demand.

Most of the new indie authors coming onto the scene these days head right for novel length work – because that’s where they’ll see the most immediate reward for their work, be it the sale of five electronic copies or a blockbuster like Weir’s The Martian.  Rather than growing up from short fiction (in the magazines), they’re skipping that whole phase.  Because they can, and because they have to.

Why have to?  Neil has definitely got it right – magazines need to pay more (and I say this despite the fact that endorsing that view is going to make my life more difficult).  No aspiring author in their right mind is going to be attracted by 6 cents per word for a hard to write short story when they believe that they can write a novel that they’ll be receiving 70% of $3.99 for each and every electronic copy ($2.79).  (Do the math:  short story length runs to a max of 7500 words. At 6 cents per word, that’s  $450.  They’d need to sell 161 copies of their (super-fantastic best, most awe-inspiring SF novel) to earn the same amount, which is a number well within performance levels in the mind of most aspiring authors.

Beyond that equation:  new, younger authors are growing up in a culture that tells them that they do not need the vetting, the approval or the gatekeeping offered by a magazine’s submission process.  They think sitting around and waiting to be accepted (even if the turn-around time is very short) is nothing but a waste of time.  Many of them view the entire rejection process with complete disdain.  (Who does that yahoo think they are?  The editor of some magazine I never heard of before? Like that means anything.)

It may be a sense of entitlement that’s driving this view, but even if it is, so what?  If the vast majority of your supplier base thinks that someone or something else offers a better distribution deal, they’d be foolish not to take advantage.

(As counterpoint:  I’m old school.  I believe that professional gatekeepers DO enhance the quality of the product;  I do think there is something valuable to be learned from writing in a form that is more difficult; I’m bothered by what I perceive as a sense of entitlement and a quest for immediate gratification;  I’ve got a good handful of stories that have received good notes along with their rejections and I could easily put together an ebook collection and join the fray, but I don’t.  Because I’m old school and I value the acceptance and approval of those I perceive as my peers more than I do the need to see myself in print.  But I’m old school.)

Neil does a bit of comparing between old world and new in his piece.  He explains that in the pre-digital era, many magazines came and went, but few achieved any degree of real success.

Without the digital options available, they adapted in other ways. Small print runs, hand-selling at conventions, mailing parties, and lower pay for authors and artists were routine. While many dreamed of reaching that professional tier, it was often clearly out of reach and as a result their expectations had to be more realistic. Quality and readership for publications were more variable and the overwhelming majority never left the hobbyist/beginner group. None of them reached the ranks of the professionals.

Again, so what?  Not to mention that I’m aware of several aspirational magazines from the bad old pre-internet era days that were completely professional in their business practices and in their offerings, that failed to reach the ranks of the professionals for reasons largely beyond their own control – such as a double-dealing distributor or a change in strategy by a parent corporation.

Lots of magazines trying to offer a quality product is, in my view, a positive.  That most of them will fail along the way is, in my view, just the way things happen in a capitalistic economy.  More magazines trying would seem to me to potentially result in more magazines succeeding.  If that results in a non-sustainable glut on the market, the market will correct itself, while offering us all a bonus along the way:  for however long the buildup and the glut lasts, there’ll be more short stories for us to read and more markets for authors to sell to.  The only real negatives associated with this process are those experienced by the businesses themselves as they struggle to survive in a competitive market.  Readers want more markets.  Writers want more markets.  The only entity here that might want fewer markets are the magazines themselves.

Then there’s this:

Without a doubt, the lowered bar has triggered a boom period in short fiction. Most of the time that’s been quite exciting, but more recently I’ve found myself noticing some worrisome trends that could be signs of a market correction looming on the horizon.

Over the years, I’ve consulted on a number of new publishing projects. I generally start by telling people that they need to have a metric for knowing when to quit. For example, how much money are you willing to lose? It’s a business, not your baby, so you need to know when to fold. There’s no shame in this and you can always try again later. Our history is littered with magazines that couldn’t make a go of it for some reason or another.

There’s always a market correction on the horizon;  what happens if the north american market suddenly starts to embrace Japanese (Korean?) tastes and begins to go for short-shorts they can read on their phones during the morning commute?  Daily Science Fiction will probably do very, very well, other magazines perhaps not so much.

I don’t buy the “lowered bar” part of the argument, as mentioned earlier.  What concerns me though is that second paragraph.  Start your project by “knowing when to quit…It’s a business”.

Except it may not be a business.  It may be a hobby, or a passion or a fetish, a non-business that businesses need to take into account.

I can understand taking issue when, as a business, it’s necessary to build up and pay for a staff, pay for formatting, printing and distribution, do everything the hard (and “proper” way), all the while competing with a similar “business” that doesn’t seem to need to do any of those things.

I ran into this same situation in the paintball world.  There I was with a commercial playing field operation:  I paid for my insurance, I invested in equipment, I paid for staff, I paid rent.  I was the one the police came to when someone shot up a house.  I did this at a loss while I built up the business, all the while “competing” with renegade field operations – some guy and his kid with 40 acres of woods in their backyard, letting the customers I had to charge a fee to play for free.  I had two viable options:  I could have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees and court costs to legislate renegade activity illegal (a temporary fix at best) or I could offer a better product, a different product, while recognizing that the renegade fields were always going to be a part of my competitive landscape.  Which is what I did (even to the point of participating myself at those renegade locations and offering them help and advice that accrued to the benefit of the industry as a while).  I offered training, equipment servicing, constantly changing game fields, a prestige opportunity to play with and against professionals, top of the line product.

I’m reminded of the fact that Frederik Pohl discovered Cordwainer Smith in the pages of an “aspirational” magazine, and that Cordwainer was not (and will not be) the only such discovery.

It is certainly true that Neil knows more about the inner-workings of the various magazines than I do, which places him in a better position to judge the viability of their individual business models, but only up to a certain point, beyond which it is anyone’s guess;  I don’t think he is privy to their contingency plans, future planned changes in focus, funding deals they may be working on, and as a result, I think it a bit short-sighted for him to be suggesting that there’s only really one viable model.

Take my own circumstances as example.  When Amazing started, it was nothing more than me wanting to preserve the name for the science fiction community.  My wife and I made a coldly calculated business decision that the money we invested in the trademarks would be recoverable in future if only by selling it (to someone in the field).  Finding a partner in the field that wanted to use the name was the initial business “plan”.

But then it took nearly three and a half years for the trademarks to grant, during which time I was able to really survey the market and develop a plan that I believed I had the initial funding for and that would meet the goals of offering professional rates on a sustainable basis.

The marks granted – but too late for me to be able to sell my other business for an amount that would fund the startup of Amazing Stories (the economy was going into its dive).  But I’d already announced the acquisition and started getting a lot of pressure to “do something” with the name.

Which necessitated a reversion to a “bootstrapping” strategy, one we are in the final stages of right now.  With nearly 25,000 members/subscribers and internet traffic that is on par with all but a handful of the top online fiction sites and just beginning the first stages of purchasing and publishing fiction at professional (albeit unacceptable) rates.  We’d not be where we are right now if I’d “known when to quit”.

We’d also not be here right now if authors didn’t see some benefit to themselves in supplying us with copy at no charge; if sponsors didn’t see some value in funding us for specific projects; if a whole heck of a lot of people didn’t see some value in devoting a bit of time to reading the site.

My “business model” (following that initial one) was predicated on the belief that the name of the magazine still carried enough cache and import to become a source of income through licensing.  A source of revenue that is atypical and not an option for most competitors (though I do note that some of them sell t-shirts, associated collections and anthologies, posters).  I think it safe to say that in the 21st century, a business may find that its flagship offering is not what brings in the majority of its revenue;  it may very well be that the short fiction magazine market will need to move in the direction of offering its magazine as a loss-leader, offering other related product lines that have a higher profit margin.  (You don’t sell razors – you sell razor blades.)

Most magazines used to derive their primary income not from subscriptions and newsstand sales but from advertising.  And look where that’s gone.

Amazing’s non-traditional business model is bearing fruit.  We’ve got an increasing number of books coming out from our partner and licensee, FuturesPast Editions (including the soon to be released The Best of Amazing Stories, The 1940 Anthology, created specifically for the 2016 Retro Hugo Awards, which I am shamelessly taking this opportunity to plug:)

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Do I pay staff or contributors?  Only in trade.  Is everything we produce of professional quality?  No.  Are we on the path to addressing those issues and “doing things the right way?”  You bet.  I’ll not say anything else regarding that other than the fact that my original contention – that the name was capable of funding the magazine largely through licensing – is proving to be correct.

I don’t have any special knowledge to base my suppositions on, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that one or more of the aspirants in the field have something similar up their sleeves.  (Hell, my back-up plan is – I’m due for a fairly large inheritance.  If I have to putter along for ten or even 15 more years, I figure I’m building something that will be able to take great advantage of that once it becomes available.)

Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, maybe Neil is being a realist and his pronouncement of doom and gloom is accurate, but I don’t think so.  I think he’s looking at the way things are “traditionally” and not giving enough credence to the fact that things are changing mightily and change often brings opportunity.

Neil begins his conclusion with this:

Lately, I’ve started seeing projects to resurrect dead magazines or save those that couldn’t get enough subscribers to sustain their ambitious goals. It’s uplifting to see our community rallying around these causes, but are we setting ourselves up for a fall in the process? Are we simply delaying the inevitable…?

At least in the case for Amazing Stories, I don’t think so for at least one good reason:  we want members and subscribers, but we don’t need their revenue to sustain our goals.

He then follows that with a list of things he thinks folks ought to do, which I will address individually:

  • Subscribe to or support any magazine that you’d be willing to bail out if they were to run aground. Just-in-time funding is not a sane or sustainable business model. If you want them to succeed, then be there before they need you.

By all means – support the field. I’ve never viewed this as a zero sum game, believing that if a reader gets one magazine, they’re likely getting many more. By the same token, publishers ought to look at their pricing model(s) and see if they can’t offer more/better incentives to their potential market. (And on that score – most of them need to market more.)

  • If a magazine doesn’t offer subscriptions or have something like a Patreon page you can support them financially through, encourage them to do so.

However, neither of these is a constantly reliable source of income. Develop other sources of revenue.

  • Encourage SFWA to raise their qualifying rate for short fiction. Why? Given the small explosion in markets that are paying that rate, it’s clearly too easy for publishers to earn that badge. Yes, that rate is a badge of honor for publishers. Seriously though, the authors deserve better.

Yes, absolutely. If SFWA steps up to 10 cents per word, I’ll meet it when we start to purchase and I’ll be looking to exceed it. But keep in mind, acquiring the status of Qualifying SFWA Market (whatever the rate is) may be a badge of honor for the publisher, but it means very little to most (new) authors these days. (SFWA is doing yeoman’s work in bringing the organization to the new generations of authors who make up the indie crowd, but it will take some time for that badge of honor status to penetrate.) There are plenty of prestige markets that would qualify for SFWA status but that don’t bother to remark on it; plenty of non-SFWA qualifying publications that carry prestige so far as individual authors are concerned.

  • Don’t support new (or revival) projects until they clearly outline reasonable goals to sustain the publication after their initial funding runs out.

I completely disagree. Any new publication that wants to send me PR or avail themselves of whatever exposure Amazing Stories can offer, please feel free to do so. While you’ve got funding, please try to pay good rates. In the meantime, give it your best shot while knowing that a very high percentage of new businesses fail, and often for reasons beyond the control and scope of those running the show. (What happens to the short fiction magazine market here in the US if the Chinese juggernaut Science Fiction decides to start publishing in North America?) I say – do your best: plan, strategize, try to offer something unique, there’s plenty of people out here who want you to succeed, readers, authors, everyone. Plan pessimistically, hope optimistically.

  • Introduce new readers to your favorite stories and magazines. This is particularly easy with so many online magazines being freely available at the moment. We need more short fiction readers if all this is to remain sustainable. This plays into my comments on short fiction reviews last month.

Absolutely. And we need more people extolling the virtues of short fiction and more places for budding writers to learn how to write short fiction, just as we need as many outlets as we can possibly offer them – short term or long.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.

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  1. We are in exciting times in publishing. We don’t need to do everything the traditional way. Experimentation is good. I’m reading a number of short fiction magazines. Something I wasn’t doing 5 years ago. I also buy individual pieces of short fiction as well as authors anthologies of their reprints of work from magazines/anthologies they’ve been in. Something new authors should think about – they get seen by a larger audience in a magazine and later can sell both the short and bundle it with other shorts to sell.

    Publishing is not a zero sum game. The more out there the more likely a group will like something, mention it to friends, and go looking for more such things. It’s a real thing which happens.

  2. I’m a newcomer to this business, but I do think one element of Mr. Clarke’s analysis is off-base. It’s not at all clear to me that there are so many markets that the quality of stories accepted is in any danger of decline. Every market that pays a pro rate has many more stories in its slush-pile than it can possibly print. I see no evidence that anyone is having trouble finding quality work to publish.

    Besides, the Clarkesworld business model ensures that Mr. Clarke is probably going to get very close to first choice of all the short fiction that comes out on the market. He pays well, his slush-pile is always open, and his response times are very short, which makes him attractive to any writer who’s paying attention. If anyone needs to worry, it’s the markets that pay the bare minimum pro rate (or less), open up for submissions maybe one week per quarter, and take six months to respond.

  3. I think he’s mistaken as well.

    Looking at the broader picture, the internet has caused issues for related industries like newspapers; some of them have managed to adapt well (Business Insider just sold for half a billion bucks), while others haven’t (FT is struggling).

    We’re just at the beginning of exploring new sorts of business models that will allow content creators to make money from their work; your approach with licensing product seems feasible (works for niche market companies like ThinkGeek, or AdaFruit).

    The real key that he’s missing here: grow the freakin’ market. There’s plenty of decent writers to sustain the quality requirements, but we need more readers. This is a marketing problem, pure and simple. We need to find ways to attract new fans and hook ’em. Your route (rely on the brand, emphasis on 90 years of tradition) could well work. DSF is taking a different route by emphasizing small packaging. Some of the “glossies” could go upmarket (as they did in the 50s). Loss leaders, like you mentioned, are also workable for large publishers. There’s lots of approaches, and only by experimenting will the industry find viable models. Without new startups though, how will those experiments happen?

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