Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Future of Stories (Short)

There's a certain nobility in short stories. Building something up from a conceit to an idea to a full-fledged blueprint isn't the easiest thing to do, as any successful writer can attest, and condensing that blueprint into six thousand words or less is no mean feat either. Nevertheless, I can't help but be struck by the feeling that the golden age of the short story is long over.

Robert J. Sawyer reported on Tuesday (look how timely I am) that Realms of Fantasy, a fantasy genre short story magazine in operation since 1994, will be folding for good after its April issue. I've never read it myself - pure fantasy isn't precisely my bag - and neither have I ever seen a copy of it, as far as I know, but that doesn't mean that I'm not blind to the greater problem of which Realms' closing is a symptom.

Back in the day, before and during and a bit after the Second World War, short stories were the name of the game in sf. The economics of the time wouldn't have it any other way; novels were expensive to print and buy, but pulp magazines were cheap - though that same cheap construction means that those that survive from the period need to be treated almost as carefully as the Declaration of Independence if they're to last. Back in 1939, Robert A. Heinlein launched his writing career when he sold "Life-Line" to Astounding - known better today as Analog - for the princely sum of $70.

"In 1939," Heinlein wrote in his 1980 semi-memoir Expanded Universe, "one could fill three station wagons with fifty dollars worth of groceries. Today I can pick up fifty dollars in groceries unassisted - perhaps I've grown stronger." Sure, $70 is hardly chump change even today, but according to the Inflation Calculator, $70 USD in 1939 is the equivalent of $1,034.84 in 2007. I would be hard-pressed today to dash off a few thousand words and pay off one month's rent with the proceeds.

So the market has changed, and is still changing. What concerns me is the shape that it's going to take on. Two years ago, at the 2007 Word on the Street festival, I listened to Robert J. Sawyer's advice to new authors. He said that short stories were where writers made names for themselves. It's still good advice - if you have well-regarded shorts under your belt, you'll be that much better off when you try to break your teeth on something longer - but I can't help but wonder how much longer the shape of the market will make it possible for all but a few to break in that way.

F&SF is going to a bimonthly publication schedule, and Analog and Asimov's have reduced their size and depth of content to save on printing costs. With the magazines getting smaller, and some going bust, it's going to be more and more difficult for short story authors to break into them, and more and more stories that would have been printed in their pages in better days will have to be rejected now.

So what's the future? I'll admit I'm nervous about it myself. Having a story professionally published is great, but when it comes time to chisel my headstone, I don't want it to say "HE WROTE ONE THING OF CONSEQUENCE." Nor do I want good authors to have to wage battles royale for the reward of appearing in print. At this point it's safe to say the future will not belong to the magazines the way the past did, but there will be a future.

Though it's not going to be what it used to be.

First, I think anthologies may pick up some of the slack, anthologies like Return to Luna. There are eighteen short stories between its covers, and since novelettes, novellas and serials are frequently printed in magazines like Analog or Asimov's, eighteen short stories would have to be spread out over the better part of a year in either of them.

Second, Jim Baen's Universe. That is what the future would look like if I was building it. JBU was built around the opportunities afforded by INTERNET and takes full advantage of what electronic publication can offer. It's not entirely electronic, either - I'd only need to pick up one of the paperback collections to read it on the streetcar just like I do anything else.

So there is still hope for those starting out. Still-- an era is passing. That's not something to cheer.

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