Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen

They've Got Issues
One Possible Future for Genre Short Fiction

I subscribe to Family Handyman magazine.

(Shut up; it's the only home improvement magazine for the rational homeowner who doesn't own a laser-guided saw.)

Every month, I receive an excellent issue full of practical advice for maintaining a house, everything from installing cabinets to replacing windows. Unfortunately, the projects in each month's issue rarely correspond to the ones I need at that moment. I may one day need an article on reshingling my roof, but I don't need it today. So I file away the issue with the old ones, hoping I'll have the patience and memory to go looking for it later.

I also subscribe to Weird Tales, a magazine entering a wonderful new renaissance. Sometimes, though, I don't happen to be interested in one or more of the stories Ann Vandermeer has selected for me this month. I'm pleased when she surprises me, but sometimes a story just doesn't hit me at the right time. So I file those away, too...never quite sure when I'll look them up again.

Sometimes I wonder if the issue with short fiction magazines might be issues themselves.

Nobody who writes or reads short fiction today has missed reports of declining subscriptions and newsstands sales of our genre's flagship publications. Locus Magazine helpfully publishes their yearly "Oh, Shit!" issue with all of the depressing statistics you can stomach, all drawn with graphs plunging downward like old Russian satellites burning up from orbit.

There's no dearth of theories or explanations, either. Sure, distribution is terrible. Certainly, large bookstores don't exactly display our magazines with pride, laying them on the bottom shelf beside Writer's Digest at best or tucking them behind the bin so only the title shows. And yes, some segments of the fan population are dying off, and others are reading less, and still others are reading more online.

We talk often about new profit models, new delivery methods, new ways to reach a younger audience; there's also no dearth of creative solutions, at least in theory.

But I wonder if we're missing some fundamental new reading expectations that have evolved from the Internet, expectations that can one day choke off magazines altogether if they don't evolve to meet them.

Specifically, I'm thinking about the expectation for customized, individualized, on-demand content. We don't want a whole newspaper; we want the stories that matter to us. We don't want a whole album; we want one or two songs. We don't want two hundred channels of television; we want the five shows we actually like, preferably without commercials.

We've grown accustomed to choosing very specific content, customizing our preferences to filter out the superfluous. We've grown accustomed to reading what we want when it is most helpful for us.

We don't want to find the August 2008 issue of Family Handyman to learn how to install a toilet. We want to look that up.

Likewise, I'm not so sure that we want a whole magazine full of stories when we're only in the mood for steampunk right now--or space opera or horror or interstitial weirdness.

A magazine issue offers us just what the editor gives us. We're buying the magazine partly based on that editor's history of choosing stories we like, true, and there is certainly no obligation to read it all. But it seems a pity to read 30% to 60% of an issue and never quite find the rest.

Of course, Weird Tales isn't Family Handyman, is it? The former seems less time-specific, but is it really? How will I find the magical realism story I didn't feel like reading this month whenever I do next, say two weeks from now?

I suspect that magazines are going to have to address the advantages of online content providers in their own way, specifically figuring out how to handle:

  • Delivering searchable, on-demand, a la carte content--including questions of long-term storage and writer royalties.
  • Delivering frequently updated content, keeping readers checking for what's new.
  • Accepting micropayments or advertising for those a la carte selections, a model that enables readers to buy a story or a column at a time based on their needs and interests.
  • Establishing community between their readers, a forum for comments and interaction that also keeps readers returning.

What if some magazines became online repositories where you could buy stories selected by your favorite editor in your favorite genre? What if you could search for what you wanted to read right now by keyword, say "ghosts" or "Brian Keene" or "golden age" or "rockets" or "libertarians" or "sexually suggestive steampunk robots"? What if you paid for the right to read a certain number of stories a month, or even just for individual ones?

Your search becomes your genre. You're not losing your trusted editor; he or she is choosing what goes into the online repository in the first place. You're not even losing the wonderful surprises you once got in magazine issues; you could still browse for things you never expected in that repository or even click an I Feel Lucky button.

If you had:

  • The daily updates and genre news of io9.com, PLUS
  • The suggestions and linkages like on Amazon.com, PLUS
  • The editorial insight of Ellen Datlow or Sheila Williams or Rich Chizmar selecting what goes into the repository,

...then you might have the future of genre publishing--something to appeal to a generation of readers expecting on-demand content.

The closest I've seen is Fantasy Magazine; they update frequently with both fiction and non-fiction chosen by discerning editors, they have excellent categories and tags, and they have a search. Strange Horizons is another contender, with their own crack editorial team, search system, and frequent updates.

These are glimpses into the likely future of short fiction publishing, especially if they find a profit model.

As for readers, we want what we want and the rest is filler. We want what we want now, too: not whenever the next issue staggers out of the print shop.

The big hard copy flagships of the genre will have to face the issues with their issues sooner or later.


Will Ludwigsen will soon have new fiction in Cemetery Dance, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the Interfictions II anthology--all good hard copy stalwarts. For online, on-demand Will content, check his website at www.will-ludwigsen.com.

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