Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I never knew it was this bad

I never knew it was this bad.

Sure, declining sales have been on the lips of every critic of the SSF Titanic's course for the past decade--and many of the passengers of science fiction, too. And writers have bemoaned the apathy for short fiction along the way.

So, yes, things are bad for science fiction short story magazines. Out on the edges, titles have shorter runs than the fly-by-night pulps. Fire sales of back issues before closings are not uncommon. Amazing was saved from a failed Kickstarter by an angel investor writing checks in excess of $10,000. More than one small press has gone out of business thanks to repeated flirtations with short fiction. And the recent Weird Tales revival just...vanished. The old names don't have the drawing power they used to, and the new names are stuck between not-taking enough risks and taking too many in a field that is glutted with supply but not demand.

It's not the short story. The indie shared universe mega-series make mone selling anthologies and even fanfic anthologies to their fans.

Still, in my ignorance, I thought things were bad by pulp standards, where 50,000 in circulation was average, 100,000 was good, and 35,000 was the lean years. Anything below that, and the magazine would be set aside for one that covered the current fad in short fiction. And, given that I've come across anecdotal statements that placed Asimov's and Analog at around 85,000 in the 1980s, I assumed that the same standard still applied.

Given the declining audiences in just about every entertainment media, this was a lazy assumption on my part.

No science fiction magazine currently has a circulation higher than 20,000. To pick one example, Fantasy & Science Fiction has gone from 60,000 to 6,000 in 80 years.

Many of the "cool and forward-thinking" are lucky to get 5,000 or even 3,000.

And the market here has been floundering for a while, as 2009 figures show. Certainly, a precipitous drop from the 1980s.

The market is contracting, without signs of stopping, from at least the mid-2000s generational handover. Digital and its different margins have likely kept some of these magazines in business far longer than print runs can justify. This has also allowed many smaller magazines to thrive in niches as a sort of underground to the underground. But the overall scene is still shrinking, and there is no prestige, no coolness to short fiction in a time where tens of thousands and more devour teenagers' first fanfiction short stories. If there was, the magazines would be growing, not managing their decline

It's almost to the point where the established science fiction "fandom" does not and should not be the audience. There are 300 million people not reading science fiction short stories. The editor who can figure out how to reach even 0.0001% of that will be the king of science fiction.

Where's science fiction's Dana White?


  1. Readers want novels. Sometimes more than novels. Mega-series. Space opera series go on for dozens of books. The most popular Harry Potter fanfic is a single story 660,000 words long. The paperbacks I bought myself are five to ten times wider than the ones I inherited from my father. Hell, the Hugos added "Best Series" to hide how few nominating votes the shorts are getting.

    The audience for science fiction is out there, but very few of them want short stories.

  2. I hate that the trend is moving that way. I love short fiction. But I'm afraid Karl's right. Few people want short stories anymore.

  3. Has there even been a period since the 1930s when circulation numbers went up?

    This feels like a slow death from a killing blow struck long ago.

    1. Anecdotally, the 80s. But no one has yet to surpass the Shaver Mystery era of Amazing.

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  5. Millennial here. I don't read short stories on purpose. When I see a short story on the internet, or think about a subscription to a digital mag, my mental knee jerk reaction is this sort of "I'm not going to get the bang for my buck" feeling. Like the story isn't long enough to justify the expense or money to buy it or time to enjoy it. I know for a fact this is a fallacy in the extreme: I have very much enjoyed the vast majority of the short stories I have read. But, if I have to power past the assumption that the story is too short to be worth it, then perhaps others do as well. And most people don't want to have to work for their entertainment.

    The short story anthology, especially if it's grounded in the same world or same MC, gives me less of that "too short to be worth it" impression.

    Also, and this is rather idiosyncratic to me I think, I'm leery of magazine subs becuase 1) most fic mags are heavy on the 'edgy enlightened literary tropes' and light on things that excite me. Like most of the time the stories are trying to preach something. 2) I also, hypocritically enough, think I won't have time to keep up with a magazine...even though I make time to read articles like this...

    Maybe we should just start throwing up our short stories in our FB posts and monetize our friend requests :D