The Fate of SF Magazines

Over at Slashdot.org they posted a news announcement with comments, “Difficult Times for SF Magazines” that is very worth reading if you’re worried about the fate of SF magazines.  The main announcement was Realms of Fantasy will cease publication with the April issue and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has dropped it’s schedule from monthly to bi-monthly.  The folks leaving comments make some interesting points about the state of SF, with many writers lamenting that SF isn’t what it used to be.

Here’s a comment from Moridineas that I particularly liked:

The difference between then and now–imho–is that the Asimovs, Heinleins, de Camps, etc etc etc are gone, and they haven’t really been replaced. My other opinion is that s.f. was largely a product of the zeitgeist of the what, roughly 50 years that it roughly flourished (1920-1970 or so?). We’ve got HDTVs, the Internet, Star Trek and Star Wars on TV, rovers on Mars, decoding DNA, etc etc. The sense of wonder in s.f. is largely gone because we take so much for granted that was virtually unimaginable back then.

Here’s another worthy comment to consider and was echoed by others from Steeleye Brad:

Ugh, agreeing with this. I ended my subscription to Analog around a year and a half ago, when I realized that the story quality had really gone down the shitter. I found myself starting to read a story, but then quitting 1-2 pages in because they were just so terrible. When I would get an issue and go through every story like this, I gave up. Stories with neat concepts completely ruined by confusing writing and indecipherable plots, lame tales where it was screamingly obvious the main character was an author’s self-insert, and vomit-inducing non-stories that served only to let the author express their political views (normally this is ok, except when the author’s soap-boxing completely drowns out and overwhelms the story).

Ultimately the topic degenerates into the pros and cons of publishing on the Internet and sidestepping the issue of content and whether or not the decline of the SF magazines represents a loss of interest in SF or if its an issue of declining story quality.  I brought up this topic in two online SF book clubs and the common comment is they don’t find the stories very engaging.  Second to that is many people have busy lives and let all their magazines go unread.

I started subscribing to the SF magazines back in the 1960s and kept subscribing until very recently.  I was most faithful to F&SF over the decades.  Currently I get F&SF and Asimov’s, but both are up for renewal and I’m not sure I want to renew, at least the paper edition.  I might subscribe to digital editions at Fictionwise.com.

To be honest I don’t read them.  I try every once in awhile.  I have a tremendous nostalgia that makes me want to keep reading these old friends, but when I try I seldom find stories that grab me.  And it’s not the ideas, but the characterization.  I think when I was young I loved the stories just for the ideas and I wasn’t savvy enough about story telling to know the stories were badly told.  Now, after decades of reading great stories I can’t overlook this.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of far out stories out there, it’s just a matter of finding them.  Maybe what’s needed is for the genre to get down to one magazine.  Refocus the field of science fiction.  And since the magazine publishing and distribution industry is so screwed, maybe the short story market should move to a different format.  I’d suggest a trade or mass market paperback series published quarterly to start with edited by team of editors to get the very best and diverse kind of story.  Tie the publication to a web 2.0 site where readers can discuss the stories and vote on them and interact with the writers.  Also get Audible.com to do an unabridged audio edition of the book each quarter, as well as publishing it in the Kindle, Sony and all the Fictionwise ebook editions.

I think we need a modern day Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell to reinvent the field of science fiction.  The number one goal should be to eliminate fantasy stories from the mix and develop real science fiction stories.  The next goal should be to find well written engaging stories that focus on good characterization.  Publish stories that grab people and make them keep reading, and not stories that you have to struggle to the end for a payoff.

Science fiction has reinvented itself many times.  I lament the passing of every genre magazine and worry about F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog, the old big three that now have circulations that are a tiny fraction of their glory days.  I can’t tell if this trend means science fiction itself is dying.  It does feel like we’re on the downward slope of the right hand side of the bell curve.

I’m a member of two online SF book clubs that focus on the classics of science fiction, and like many of the folk who left comments on Slashdot, feel SF golden age was really from 1950-1970, the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke era.  I think there was another bulge of SF fans with a generation that grew up with writers like Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons, Neil Stephenson, David Brin, Greg Bear, John Varley, etc.  And currently there’s a ripple bulge with writers like John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and others.

Whether SF will ever have another golden age with over hundred thousand people subscribing to its top SF magazine is hard to predict.  Like I said, with a new Campbell or Gernsback discovering a new team of Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke level writers it could happen.

JWH – 2/1/9

8 thoughts on “The Fate of SF Magazines”

  1. You really need to know more about Hugo Gernsback. Here is an opportunity……

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  2. James, I doubt the shorter forms will every die out. I’m a novel guy first and foremost, but I loves me a great short story sometimes.

    Your suggestion of how to maintain some high-quality short stories and reach readers isn’t bad. The audience for traditional magazines has shrunk, and continues to shrink, certainly. Who knows where the bottom really is?

  3. “many writers lamenting that SF isn’t what it used to be”

    I just don’t buy that. If anything that is more a product of nostalgia getting the better of people as opposed to any reality. I have certainly enjoyed the heck out of my experience with the ‘classic’ authors, but I’ve read books over the past couple of years…just published books…that are every bit as entertaining and interesting as those classics.

    And the argument that science fiction has nothing new to offer today is just bullshit in my opinion. To say that it was merely a product of its time with no validity today points to close-mindedness. Again, my opinion only which is certainly no more or less valid than others. I just find those arguments weak and petty. Seems like more of an outlook or attitude issue than reality.

    Good stories are good stories and there will always be a market for good stories in the speculative fiction genres just as in other genres. Science fiction titles continue to hit major bestseller lists today and books in the genre have validity.

    I’m sure I’m probably being pissy myself with my response, especially since it is so late at night and my ‘be kind’ filter isn’t adjusted tightly. I just think it is a stupid thing to say.

    Short story magazines are going the way of newspapers and other print media. In the digital age and in our weak economic times these things just don’t sell. But to in any way indicate that there aren’t great short stories being written today is just pure ignorance coupled with, at best, too much of ‘the grass is always greener’ mentality regarding the past.

    The stories being written today will become the ‘classics’ of tomorrow and ‘tomorrow’ people will be using whatever the latest form of group discussion is to bitch and moan about how ‘science fiction just isn’t what it used to be’, pointing to today’s stories as the time when things were good.

  4. I agree, great short stores are being written, but they are hard to discover in the monthly magazines. I think the real problem is not the stories, but the audience, because modern readers are just abandoning the short story form.

    The slope of the line that plots the circulations of the genre magazines has been pointing downward for decades, and we’re slowly getting near that point where the professional magazines are going to become extinct. When we get down to one magazine we’ll know just how many fans are willing to shell about $35 a year for short stories.

    However, there are plenty of other markets for short stories and Gardner Dozois will have no trouble filling his annual best of anthology. The question is, how is the support for his book? Are people willing to shell out $22 for the distilled collection of the best stories of the year? Maybe, there are legions of SF short story fans but they just wait for Dozois’ book every year.

    Has anyone ever examined the idea that the many best of the year anthologies have hurt the magazine sales?

    Lovers of science fiction short stories are pretty much in the same boat as lovers of poetry. There’s plenty to read but you don’t run into many fellow fans in your day to day life.

  5. “Has anyone ever examined the idea that the many best of the year anthologies have hurt the magazine sales?”

    Not sure, but I think you definitely have something there. I own far more short story anthologies than I do SF/Fantasy mags. One would have to think that, at least on a subconscious basis, that an anthology indicates that the stories contained therein are worth reading simply because of their inclusion. It seems less of a risk to buy the latest Anders, Strahan, John Joseph Adams, or Dozois anthology than to pay the high subscription price for the monthy or bi-monthly magazines. And that is without making the argument that you are getting a more sturdy product (often with a really cool illustrated cover) than you get with the mags.

    That being said, I read on with jealousy when I pick up a classic and think that many lucky sods actually read say, Foundation, in magazine format. The optimist in me wants to think that there are great stories today being serialized in mags that will turn out to be the next generation’s Foundation series, etc.

    “Lovers of science fiction short stories are pretty much in the same boat as lovers of poetry. There’s plenty to read but you don’t run into many fellow fans in your day to day life.”

    Boy, ain’t that the truth. I was so pleased with the response to my latest sci fi short story mini-challenge. Even then it was a mere handful of readers that gave it a shot, but those readers dove right in and gorged themselves on some amazing short stories over that weekend.

  6. Science fiction and fantasy are so tightly linked in the commercial mind, I suspect a lot of new or “less sophisticated” fans think they are reading sci-fi when they pick up Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or even Twilight. What I have noticed is a void in science fiction for young readers.

    Where is Harry Potter’s counterpart in science fiction? Think of all the kids that started with Harry and lept to Tolkien. I teach high school and I see ten times the fantasy books as I see science fiction, more if you include the vampire fad. I was absolutely thrilled when one of my students asked me why the library didn’t have a copy of OSC’s _Speaker for the Dead_. You can guess how often that happens.

    As for short fiction itself, it’s becoming a digital world. I suspect it would be a touch hypocritical of science fiction to fight this. The sheer volume of free stories available online makes it difficult to justify shelling out the cash for the big three magazines, especially when their content is arguably comparable, especially from a perspective of raw entertainment value. Is the science more accurate in Analog than in Strange Horizons or some semi-pro site (take your pick)? I suspect it is. Is the characterization, plotting, or pacing better? I doubt it.

  7. “Ugh, agreeing with this. I ended my subscription to Analog around a year and a half ago, when I realized that the story quality had really gone down the shitter. I found myself starting to read a story, but then quitting 1-2 pages in because they were just so terrible.”

    That may be true, but it may also be a reflection on the editing staff that are selecting the stories that are going in to these magazines.

    I can’t believe that the story quality is just poor acroos the board. There are loads of people writing SF shorts and the magazines only let us take a peek at a tiny fraction of them. Maybe it’s time to look at some new names/faces and decide if they have anything new and/or fresh to add to the genre. It can’t all be bad stuff.

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