Sunday, 31 October 2010

My first four-way

(No, this blog is not about to turn into a sordid and prurient confessional.)

There was a conversation this morning on Twitter that involved users @jasonsanford, @SFDiplomat and @lavietidhar and myself. Beyond the interesting content (which I'll summarise in a minute), what struck me was that as more people became involved and were CC'ed in the comments, there was almost no room left in the 140 character tweets for any argumentation. This also highlighted for me how, although you *can* get sophisticated ideas across in this short form, it is also highly prone to misunderstandings and violent agreements.

This conversation began with the concern that many small short fiction venues have very few readers (except for hopeful authors, who to be fair should not be dismissed from the legitimate audience), leading to a perception that short fiction publication means very little to a writer's career/reputation. I wondered if the solution (in the fantasy world in which any of us could execute such strategies) would be to make publications more selective--and therefore smaller--or to reach out further to a new readership. A third option was offered: to stop considering short fiction as marking a "published author", but rather something that any hopeful can do. This led to a side argument, based I think upon some misunderstanding of the tone of that suggestion, about the value of short fiction, and this is about as far as the conversation got so far.

I think this is a valuable discussion (although not, of course, a new one), and I hope we'll get the chance to take it forward sometime. The question is not that short fiction is worthless, of course (at least, we'll not waste our time on anyone who argues that), nor that we should be policing who is a serious author or not. I'm not too concerned that people with lots of publications in tiny venues have resumés that look more impressive than they are (I think we can all tell the difference, even in the rare occasions when we need to look at such indicators). But if there really is a problem with the genre short fiction market being "saturated", then the solution is either to increase capacity (potential readers) or reduce flow (publish less stories). The first is more desirable, but obviously hard. The latter would involve more selectiveness (no bad thing), but is actually impossible, since the Internet allows anyone to publish anything and everything.

Selectiveness would have to take place at the point when we look at the resumé and decide what we think it means. We could apply rules such as the SFWA do: that only certain venues qualify as "professional" (although I'd prefer to see a rule involving how selective a venue is rather than how much they pay--or is the size of readership a better metric). Coming from an academic background, I instinctively cringe from all such metrics, knowing as academics do how meaningless they are. A self-published essay or blog post can be just as important and influential as a peer-reviewed and print-published chapter, and no metrics can take account of that. So we're back to where we started--we judge an "author" by what they write, not where they've been published. I mean, do we need to judge or label "published authors" at all, anyway?

16 comments:

  1. As someone who submits to magazines, I can testify that it's difficult to get noticed in the small and less well-known venues. But only by getting noticed do the larger venues begin to open up to you. Also, editors have their own tastes, and some authors meet that taste more than others... which can lead to magazines chiefly publishing fiction by "stables" of writers.

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  2. I think the aim should be to be more inclusive rather than less - and that e publishing in a range of formats offers many opportunities.

    I'd like to see more initiatives like The Campaign for Real Fear where the editors read blind and more calls for open submissions.

    The deciding factor should always be the quality of the writing.

    Many anthologies are by invitation only - editors say they don;t want to be swamped but I think they lose the chance to make new discoveries. It's also limiting - because after a while you may get the same names selling to a contracting audience - and aspiring writers make up a significant part of any potential audience.

    Many of us like Alain-Fournier just want our work to be read - but we live and die in the creative belief that however high the bar is set and whatever the odds - that talent will out.

    I think of the Impressionists who went outside the Salon - and Bloomsbury - Beatrix Potter and Byron. I'm not advocating self publishing without any kind of editorial control - but closing the gates on Versailles has to be a bad idea?

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  3. @iansales: is it really the case that the larger magazines take how well-known you are into account when selecting stories? I mean, I wouldn't be surprised that happens sometimes, I just wonder if there's evidence for it or anyone admits to it?

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  4. @sara: I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression of advocating for less inclusiveness. I think all publications, however small, however cheap, however inclusive, in whatever medium or format, deserve to be read and appreciated on their own merits. Some venues are less read that others, but that's at least partly a marketing problem.

    I myself run a magazine that is (a) very selective (less than 5% acceptance rate) and editorially hands-on; (b) low-paying, so doesn't qualify for SFWA pro status; (c) online and free, but only has a small-to-moderate sized audience; (d) we always read blind. I think we have a good reputation, among those who've even heard of us. But under almost any single metric that might be devised we'd be one of the irrelevants. (And I can think of a bunch of other magazines that are in the same boat, if you prefer me to argue from a less self-serving basis.)

    I think others have already argued that no amount of short stories (even from SFWA-qualifying markets) on a writer's resumé are going to make their career anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter what venues are considered respectable and what not.

    We all want to be read though, don't we? (But none of us want to be marketers... we prefer to write.) I don't know what the relationship of all this is to size of audience--or even if that is measurable. Is that what we're really worrying about?

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  5. Djibril - magazines need to protect their revenue, and known names on the cover sell more copies than unknown names. Given a choice between a very good story by an unknown and a good story by a known name, the editor will always plump for the latter. If you've built up a rep outside that venue, then it can only help your chances.

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  6. Wow, I could go on for a while with this topic, but I'll try to keep it concise.

    1) We need, for an author's perspective, to differentiate between the importance of career and the act of being read. As it is, the market is unable to maintain anything but a small group of writers who do this for a "career". Too many these days have to work a day job while they pursue their passion. And that's with publishing regular novels through larger publishing houses, supplementing it with sales of shorter works. Readership is not just moving online, they just are not reading they way they used to thanks to media saturation.Writers publishing shorter works are mainly doing it to get a foot in the door but more importantly for the confidence boosting act of being read. Without venues publishing short fiction they wouldn't be read at all.

    2)Selective markets in some cases can lead to stagnation. In the effort to draw in more readers, many professional markets have accepted mediocre stories by well-known authors. Was there something better in the slush pile? Possibly, but they don't have the drawing power of a recognized name on the front cover. That's part of the marketing. Blind reading is the only way to go in the larger markets but it isn't done in most places since those big names are an intrinsic part of why they have a larger audience. Smaller e-zines and zines that pay less, because they are often for the love, non-profit ventures are more open to new voices, partially because they are not under the pressure of accepting work from best-sellers. The backlash is that without those recognized names or the funding to pay pro-rates to attract higher quality stories, these venues are considered "less worthy" of mentioning or reading. True, the gems are rarer, but they still come across the submissions desk and others simply need some help polishing to make them shine. Small venues are where an editor has to be doing it for the love of fiction (since most of us don't get paid)and has to work harder to put out a product people want to read.

    3)Do organizations have to set standards for professionalism? Yes. In my opinion those standards mean little when standing next to a masterpiece published in an obscure zine thousands of readers missed out on because it was considered meaningless.

    Thank you for bringing this conversation to my attention. It really has me thinking. The basis behind it, is why I think the small press needs to learn to stand together and support each other, instead of fighting for scraps from the big boys table.

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  7. @iansales: I know there are lots of reasons why this might happen, and as I said I have no doubt that it does, I just wonder if there is any hard evidence (or even suggestive experiences) to support this.

    Seriously, do you know any editors who would admit to this practice? I for one would never accept a story on anything other than its merits as a story (or its fitness for a theme/anthology, etc.). But then I would say that.

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  8. I believe covers speak for themselves. Look at the top billing name. Is it an established author's or the best story in the publication?

    An established author doesn't mean their story is the best. Many reader's polls tend to show otherwise.

    And it brings to question, is a stories quality judged on popularity or skill? I think smaller venues judge less on popularity.

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  9. @brandonlayng: you make a lot of good points, which I'll mull over for a while. In haste I'll reply only to your last:

    Yes! I agree absolutely, and would go further; the small press exists for a reason and very much has its place. It is not, and should not be, a stepping stone toward professional status (for either authors or publications). It should be exactly what it is: a more open and experimental market, meritocratic rather than mercenary, able to take risks and go out on limbs, to be opinionated and partisan, and to be unapologetic for all of these things. These are the things for which we should praise it. (And yes, support it. And support each other.)

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  10. Much agreed. Aspirations towards reaching a wider audience is not something that should be shamed simply because you start at the so-called "bottom" and being at the top does not necessarily mean you're a professional. I've seen (I'm sure we all have) writers with professional sales behave in very unprofessional ways. On the flipside, I've also had the pleasure of speaking with many who haven't forgotten their roots or that the money is a means to an end -- that end being to have more time for what they love.

    You're doing a good thing with this blog post, drawing attention to an issue that unfortunately stands in the way of turning the public back into readers, instead of the watchers they've become.

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  11. Djibril & Brandon - yes, smaller venues don't have to worry about the pulling power of names and can publish according to merit - editor's taste notwithstanding. Also, yes, every magazine cover proves my point; and I agree that the smaller magazines allow for "other" stories to get out there - stories not like the ones which fit the big mags' mould.

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  12. Yeah, this is what I'd really like to see here: discussion of how we redress the underlying problem of the small press not having enough readers. I'm not so worried about paying readers, or "bottom-line" profit (though that's easy for me to say, as my 'zine is non-profit), but just getting eyes on text. People who hardly read but watch television and films (and webseries and comics?); people who do read but don't know about the small press; people who don't read genre, but only "literature".

    So what do we do? E-books may be part of the answer. Publish cheap samplers in traditional formats (novel-shaped anthologies), to get noticed by the print market. Other fancy things with genre and medium maybe? Engaging with cinemtic circles. Ditto literary circles. Cross marketing with other independent web publications. Gaming search engines?

    Any more concrete suggestions than my vague arm-waving?

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  13. Bundle issues together into an anthology and sell it as an ebook for a low price. More people read books than fiction magazines, and if it's cheap enough they'll take a punt on an ebook containing names they don't know.

    Also, get review copies out to *everyone*. Get it reviewed in as many places as possible. The more routes back to the magazine, the better.

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  14. Great conversation but I would like to add one thing:
    Getting the word out. I just got my first 2 publications and I am spamming it everywhere. I think, especially in small markets, that has to be a very important action on the part of editors, publishers and writers. Sure some people are going to be annoyed at it, but unless the word gets out, then no one know those stories are out there besides your constant readers and other writers.

    Even if friends, family and co-workers don't read your genre, it does not mean that they won't pass on that story or website or magazine to someone else who does.

    We, meaning writers (esp new writers), editors and publishers don't need to be afraid to publicize our work. It does not take much time to write a FB mention, a Tweet or even an email to your friends. Point people to your blogs and mention what you are writing for, even if you don't get accepted. Show your support even if one magazine is your goal or if you have written a story for them in the past.

    It's our job but I don't see a lot of that happening at times.

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  15. Another way is to join the SupportTheLittleGuy campaign. Djibril, what you're talking about is the whole purpose behind the campaign. It's not just about the books in the small press but the magazines as well. On average a SupportTheLittleGuy announcement is reaching between 3-8K worth of followers on Twitter and it continues to grow. It's free, takes advantage of one of the most influential social tools and because of the brief nature of the announcements even appeals to non-readers. It's about getting people in the small press to stand together and promote the whole while giving the individual venues/writers more exposure.

    This whole conversation, the base needs being discussed, was the impetus behind starting the campaign.

    iansales, I'm not sure how much reviews influence non-readers anymore unless it gets picked up on the news/MTV/celebrity/talkshows. They might help encourage an audience already inclined towards your material, but chances are those outside of your genre won't be reading reviews of your genre either. Non-readers, already don't read, so they most likely won't read a review either. Word of mouth and advertisement in places they are more likely to see it, is a different matter. If you want to broaden audience, you advertise where they will see it, i.e. teens "Teen Beat", Women "Vogue", etc. To use a cliche, think outside our box, outside the genre to pull them in. Spec mags advertise in other spec mags, which means we're trying to attract our (dwindling)target audience and what we're doing is stretching/competing for an already cash-strapped, time-strapped audience.

    What SupportTheLittleGuy is trying to do is reach the non-reader followers on people's lists, to get to a point where the hashtag is trending and drawing attention to the small press. Each time a new issue comes out add the hashtag and it gets retweeted, it's free and you're tweeting the announcement anyways, take advantage of guaranteed additional exposure.

    There are many free services out there that can be used to promote small press works, we just have to learn to use them.

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  16. Genre readers don't know of *every* magazine that's out there. Getting reviews onto websites that genre readers browse will inform them of the magazine's existence. I've no idea why you'd want to attract non-readers -- you're asking them to break a habit and that's not easy. Get those predisposed to reading your magazine to come to you first. There's more than enough of them to keep you going.

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