The decline of the science fiction magazine

The decline in science fiction magazines’ circulation has been going on for decades. In the mid-1980s, when I first began reading the magazines, Analog’s circulation was around 150,000, Asimov’s was around 100,000, and F & SF was, I think, somewhere around 60,000. (I’m quoting from memory so these figures are almost certainly off.) In 2006 — twenty years later — not one of them has a circulation north of 30,000. In response, Warren Ellis has issued a cri de cœur that has been picked up by others.

Two posts by blogging SF writers — or, if you prefer, SF-writing bloggers — argue that the magazines are less relevant to the field than they once were: Cory Doctorow says it’s because the buzz is being taken away by their online competition; John Scalzi suggests that their loss of influence can be measured by the number of authors who make it as successful novelists without passing an apprenticeship in short fiction published in the magazines.

I think that the problem can be explained economically, at least in part. Let me take a stab at it.

From a historical perspective, the magazines pay astoundingly poorly. Pay rates start at six cents a word at Analog and Asimov’s, for stories under 7,500 words. In 1987, when I first saw the Asimov’s writer’s guidelines, the word rate for beginners’ stories under 7,500 words was … 5¾ cents. Not much growth for two decades of inflation. (Then again, the leading pay rate in the field was four cents a word — in the 1950s!) Pay rates have simply not kept up with purchasing power. In 1941, a copy of Astounding cost 20 cents, and Campbell paid a penny a word (unless you were Heinlein). It took 20 words to buy a copy of Astounding. Now, Analog costs four dollars a copy and pays six cents a word, so it takes 67 words to buy a copy of the same magazine today (Astounding was renamed Analog in 1960). By that measure, science fiction magazine pay rates today are the equivalent of being paid a third of a cent a word in the 1940s — a rate that contemporaries would have flinched at.

At one point, a prolific hack could make a reasonable living writing for pulp fiction magazines. Now, with the restricted market and low pay rates, a writer would make more money from a blog than from writing short stories. I’m serious: selling one short story might yield $450, which is less than I make per month from my Google ads — and as bloggers go, I’m C-list at best. And there’s no way that a single author could sell one short story a month: the market simply couldn’t absorb it.

The end result is that many good writers aren’t writing short stories, or if they are, they aren’t sending them to the magazines. This has, to some extent, always been the case: the SF magazines have traditionally been the place where up-and-coming writers make their bones before making the jump to novels. But if up-and-coming writers don’t need to pass their apprenticeship at the magazines, and if the rates are sufficiently low that established SF writers are even less inclined to write an occasional story, then it’s getting worse, and the SF magazines are diminished.

But are the SF magazines diminished? Memory is always unreliable, but the Asimov’s of 15 years ago was, in my recollection, a bit more vibrant than it is currently. And I’m finding it hard to keep up with the magazines: at the moment I’m more than a year behind. Now I’ve always found it hard to keep up, but I don’t have the same sense of excitement I had back then when a new issue arrived with something amazing inside. (Except when F & SF had a Ted Chiang story a couple of months back.)

For whatever reason, the magazines are losing subscribers, which is hard for their bottom lines, which makes it harder and harder to pay writers. Vicious circle.

As a teenager I dreamed of being published in a science fiction magazine. I’ve been working at it, behind the scenes, off and on, ever since. It worries me that, just at the point where I think my writing might be good enough to get published, the magazines might not be around for me to submit to. That I might decide instead that I can’t afford to take time off from blogging to write a short story — that may or may not sell to a market whose readership may or may not exceed that of my web sites — worries me even more.