F&SF Short Fiction

Recently, Steven King wrote an essay that appeared in The New York Times suggesting, at least as I read it, that one of the reasons for the decline of short fiction was that all too many short works of fiction were written for the editors and the critics, and not necessarily for the readers. Among the host of those who have commented, Scott Edelman, the editor of SciFi Weekly, has just written a response that points out that, while it wasn’t King’s intention, effectively King has said to readers that there are so few good short fiction stories that all of the good ones are in King’s anthology and that readers really didn’t have to look farther.

Both King and Edelman are correct in noting that the short fiction market is “broken.” After all, eighty years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid as much for any number of his stories sold to popular magazines that just two story sales in a year earned him more than the average annual earnings of either doctors or U.S. Congressmen — and he sold far more than two stories a year. Even then it took money to live in Paris.

There are some gifted short fiction writers in F&SF, and so far as I know, not a one of them can make a living purely off short fiction. By some counts more than a thousand short speculative fiction stories are published annually. This sounds impressive, unless you know that around a thousand original speculative fiction novels are published every year, and novels pay quite a bit more. The sales of major F&SF print magazines have been declining for years, and until the advent of Jim Baen’s Universe last year, the rates paid for short fiction have been low, and essentially static.

It’s also a well-known, if seldom-stated, fact that the majority of F&SF magazines are edited as much to promulgate and further the editorial preferences of the editors as to appeal to the full range of potential readers.

Jim Baen was well aware of these facts, and so is Eric Flint. That, as I understand it, was the reason why they created Jim Baen’s Universe, the online magazine. In fact, Eric once told me that his goal was not to publish stories designed to win awards, but to publish outstanding stories that would entertain and challenge readers, and that he felt that too many editors had lost sight of that goal. So far as I’ve been able to determine, Universe has a higher rate scale for writers than any of its F&SF contributors, and Eric and Mike Resnick are obviously working hard to create a magazine that will boost the F&SF short fiction market and increase reader interest.

Yet, interestingly enough, neither King nor Edelman ever mentioned Universe, and how it came to be, and Edelman certainly ought to have been aware of it. Why didn’t he mention it? I don’t know, but I do know that it’s a part of the debate/issue that shouldn’t be ignored.