Science fiction magazines and aspiring writers

A minor kerfluffle about whether or not The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction will be paying the writers for the stories that make it out of their forthcoming writer’s workshop (short answer: yes) reveals something about what has happened to the institution of the science fiction magazine in recent decades.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s response to the news that F&SF is running a writer’s workshop in the first place is that it’s “another step down the road to being a literary magazine oriented primarily to aspiring writers. Which is arguably a direction in which the ‘big three’ science fiction magazines have been going for a while.” That caught my attention: there’s something to that, I think. For one thing, it turns out that the circulation numbers for the “big three” science fiction magazines — Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction and F&SF — are comparable to those of the higher-end literary reviews (e.g., the Paris Review). For another, I think it’s extremely telling that the issue is whether workshop participants will be treated fairly — not whether the stories F&SF get from the workshop will be any good.

A fiction magazine’s readers should not care how the magazine gets its stories, so long as the stories are good. Whether or not a publication has open or closed submissions, whether it accepts electronic or paper submissions, or whether the only way to get published in the magazine is to bestow sexual favours on the editor,1 it doesn’t really matter — so long as the end result is a great magazine.

Writers, on the other hand — especially aspiring writers — deeply care about process. Submissions policies and pay rates are of overwhelming interest to them, but to readers they’re just inside baseball: most people just aren’t that interested in sausage-making, even if they like to eat sausage. The trouble is, the science fiction community is infested with wannabe writers (full disclosure: I are one), who are the very sort who will raise hay over whether they can submit a story electronically or how long it takes Gordon Van Gelder or Sheila Williams to reject their manuscript. That extremely vocal minority of aspiring writers has seriously skewed the discussion of the magazines to which they submit: magazines aren’t treated like literary products, they’re treated like literary competitions.

I haven’t collected a rejection slip from a magazine in ages (simply because I haven’t sent anything out), but from online sources I gather that they’re each still getting more than 800 submissions a month — the same as or slightly more than what they were getting 20 years ago. But their circulations have declined to the point where they’re getting the same number of submissions for something like one-fifth the readers. The reader-to-wannabe-writer ratio is, in other words, out of whack. And the table scraps over which this particular pack of dogs is fighting are growing more and more scarce.

No surprise if a magazine facing this situation tries, to borrow a phrase, to “monetize the slush pile.” It’s the only thing left to monetize, what with readers and advertisers evaporating.

Previously: The decline of the science fiction magazine.

1 Not, as far as I am aware, applicable to the present discussion.