The short story market – what next?

One of my collections of short stories
One of my collections of short stories

I’m not the sort of person to defy change just because I like the familiar. The world moves on, and in the book market that means some huge shifts in the past decade and probably the coming one. But it’s worth remembering that these changes don’t always follow the pattern we expect, as shown by the short story market.

When I started seriously writing, and reading about how to get published, it was still said that the best place to start a career in science fiction and fantasy was with short stories. Even by that point this was clearly not true – the magazines that published short fiction were facing huge declines in readership, in print form at least, something Warren Ellis demonstrated every so often by looking at their sales. Having accepted the wisdom I was given, it looked like I’d been sold a crock – short stories were on the way out, in favour of cheap paperbacks and other forms of entertainment. That decline looked set to continue until there was almost no short story market at all.

But the past few years have shown that’s not true. I doubt the sales figures for the print magazines are any better than they were, but high profile markets like Interzone are clinging on, and new magazines are even being launched. Websites have created a new model for the speculative short story magazine, cutting costs by not being printed and posted out, getting income from advertising, subscriptions and donations. Electronic distribution also makes it easier for them to expand their readership through the instant connection of links on social media. Podcasting has let them reach people who don’t have much time to read, but who enjoy listening to a story on their way to work.

Short stories have also become a marketing tool. Indie authors regularly give them away for free. Neil Gaiman has done the same. Even I’m posting a flash story every Friday, as a way to hook readers on my fiction – yes, that’s right, I’m not entertaining you just out of the goodness of my heart, it’s also for the dark motive of getting you to buy more of my books and so help me make a living off this.

It’s also worth noting that anthologies keep on coming out. Star editor John Joseph Adams has created a series of interesting collections that bring stories together to explore a single theme, in a way magazines and websites seldom do. And that old publishing classic, the ‘years best whatever’ anthology, keeps appearing on the bookshelves.

The short story marketing looked like it was dying, but instead it’s diversified and prospered, creating something more intricate, fascinating and far reaching than ever before. I still think new authors are better off writing novels, but the potential is there. It leaves me wondering, what other forms of storytelling will go the same way. And how will books diversify as time moves on?

Is national genre culture declining?

Interzone magazine: the epitome of British genre culture

I read a column in issue 253 of Interzone that suggested we might be seeing a decline in distinctive national genre cultures. That with the international culture that comes in the age of the internet and global mass cultural industries, a certain amount of homogenisation is taking place. British science fiction and fantasy becomes more like American science fiction and fantasy becomes more like Japanese science fiction and fantasy becomes…

You get the idea.

I’m sure there’s an element of truth to this. Doctor Who has gone from something loved by Brits and the more diligent international nerds to a global phenomenon. New shows like The 100 or Gotham get around the world within weeks, and inspire works exploring similar ideas and themes. An e-book uploaded to Amazon becomes instantly and equally accessible around the globe, and the people we turn to in picking which book to read are bloggers and reviewers, often on completely different continents.

But I don’t think that means the total death of national differences. Conventions and other geographically located events mean that the hard core of geek culture in each region tends to talk with itself more than with the rest of the world, and then take those in-person conversations and relationships online. That builds communities of taste and interest that are geographically oriented, though no longer geographically bound. Brits are still more likely to be fans of Douglas Adams and Red Dwarf than anyone else is. I dare say there are books beloved by many Americans that the rest of us never see. But the geographical distinctions may start to become more about regions than nations, based on the area capable of supporting a local convention circuit.

Is geek culture becoming more international? Sure. Does that mean it’s becoming more homogenous? No, because that interconnected global mass allows the emergence of new popular genres and subgenres, things like steampunk and dieselpunk, as well as supporting independent creators. The scene is just as diverse, if not more so, but that diversity is more widely available.

We talk about declines as bad things. But for each thing that declines something new rises to take its place, and isn’t that a glorious thing?