A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “CMAP: Short stories, what are they good for?”

Charlie Stross writes at his blog about how why, in science fiction, novels make more financial sense for authors to write than short stories do.

Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” were originally published, among others.

For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market—the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up—Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).

The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift—it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:36 pm

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