Speculative Fiction May Not Be Broken

Fair warning, this is sort of my Jerry Maguire letter to the speculative fiction industry. It’s not a broken industry—it makes money and lots of it, but it is an industry with a noticeable gap in future development that is caused and worsened by misaligned incentives among the producers of the content it needs. It’s not broken but it’s running pretty rough.

Speculative fiction is a strange world in which to try to be a writer in the first place. On the one hand, its existence depends on ideas, stories, and people who tend to be outliers. Success in SF/F/H is predicated on writing something that is different and yet relatable. The successful editor must then take the further, and perhaps more difficult, step of recognizing these stories with some consistency. It is an area with an inherent dearth of data other than historical sales data and that creates a pressure to pull away from the new in favor of the proven.

On the other hand, there’s a wonderful shared history that reaches throughout science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It is a history of not just great literature from the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ray Bradbury. It’s not just a roll call of author’s like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison who shaped culture and popular ideas about the future, the past, and the nature of humanity itself. Nor is it a merely the recent history of blockbusters like George R.R. Martin, adepts like Peter F. Hamilton, industry trailblazers like Hugh Howey, or stunning new talents like Alyssa Wong. Speculative fiction is, and always has been, as much a reflection of the editors as the authors—their biases, their peeves, their work ethics, and most importantly their ideas about what editors do and should do.

That reflection varies dramatically from the one cast by the editors of the Golden Age and from one outlet to the other. The Golden Age had names the likes of which we no longer have. There is no John Campbell, who saw his role early on as cultivating young authors and helped to give us the likes of Asimov and many others as we now think of them. There is no Hugo Gernsback who not only pushed authors to put real science in their science fiction, but also coined the term. There is no Lester Del Rey who as an editor fought for spec fiction to be judged on its own terms rather than through the lens of the mainstream, so that it would have the freedom to explore ideas the mainstream could not.

There was a time, before speculative fiction was even a term, before we broke down imaginative stories into a handful of categories and dozens of fluid sub-categories, when the best editors didn’t see their roles as tastemakers, arbiters of worth, or even businesspeople betting on the surest thing. It does seem that these considerations compose the entire set of priorities for at least some editors today.

Of these three roles the last is probably the least considered by authors but the only one that is a valid role for an editor. The other two have no place in the business because it isn’t their tastes or their ideas of worth that matter, it’s the tastes and values of the reading public that should count. The role of the editor then with regard to taste should be to uncover what works for the audience and grows it. Of these three, none is a valid artistic consideration because none accept the art on its own terms. Yet almost any writer you talk to in the speculative fiction realms can tell you a story of one time or many times when they felt these were the criteria being used to evaluate work.

To be clear, it’s not that editors with Golden Age talent, vision, and dedication aren’t out there. They certainly are, but in my experience they either work at lesser known publications (perhaps they have to in order to achieve that freedom from mainstream concerns) or they are so far divorced from lesser known writers by their processes and infrastructure that all one has to evaluate them by is their editorial columns and the wording of their robo-rejections of submissions. I will say that the best stories I’ve read in the last few years were not in the big 5 (as I reckon it) and in the top 8 markets only one has contributed significantly to my top authors list.

The editors of these magazines, these top eight, might be fantastic, but how can we know? I honestly am not interested in sales figures (a luxury that writers have and editors do not, I admit), but they haven’t been fired so they must be doing okay. Most of them cry overwork to justify their distance from writers. Fair enough except that some of the mags near the top, very popular and featuring major authors, have literally, absurdly short response times. So which is it, “we’re so busy it takes six months to send a form rejection” or “we’re so busy you’ll get a form rejection within 48 hours”?

It makes no sense from the outside. It begins to look like some pubs take the time to review many if not at all subs on merit, but don’t spend the few minutes it would take to craft a response that would begin to build a relationship which could benefit them down the road. It’s such a wasted opportunity and bad business*. The very fast responders, it seems, either have an extremely low volume of submissions or must be using a process that sorts according to criteria other than merit of the story.

There’s no other way they could respond so much more quickly. It takes time to read a story, it takes time to consider it, to live with it, to discern and ponder the subtext. Not long ago I submitted a story at around 1a.m. Twelve hours and sixteen minutes later I received a robo-rejection. That’s absurd. There’s no way that story, which has gotten a very positive response from editors who still edit in the Golden Age sense, was read and considered on merit, not because it wasn’t accepted, but because there wasn’t enough time.

Then there’s the fact that the other magazines, the not-top-5, seem pretty busy too. So busy they black out submissions in order to catch up. Yet they often manage, in just a few words, to teach, inspire, and encourage. It should seem obvious then that aspiring writers should go first to the smaller, well edited, outlets (I’ll provide a list below). The reason it isn’t obvious is because the backwards spec fiction market system pushes authors of all quality in to the narrow chutes of just the few mags at the top.

I don’t want to use the term “blame” here, but there is certainly some accountability to be had. Certainly some goes to authors who look at per-word payment rates and submit in descending order. If you do that, as a writer, and you’re not brutally and desperately impoverished, it’s a foolish error. Even if you are trying to keep the wolves from the door, you’re probably better off spending your stamp money on a lottery scratcher.

The SFWA plays a role as well. By basing membership for authors on how much the author is paid by a publication, rather than judging the worth of the pubs on their contribution to the field, they add an incentive for the authors to go into “the chute”. It clearly sets a pressure to discriminate against less wealthy pubs, pubs that are more likely to develop new talent, and thereby puts an unnecessary additional barrier between them and the writers. This makes it harder for these mags to survive and reduces the range and depth of story, of thought, and of future stories by reducing the paths for authors to develop.

Agents contribute to the problem, not all agents, but the agents that rank writers noteworthiness on the basis of which of the big 5 publish them and whether they are members of the SFWA. Again this is more likely a measurement of safety than quality—a valid but not necessarily long term way of thinking in that field. That’s not to say the big boys don’t publish wonderful writers, they certainly do, but usually not until those writers have been sweating it out in the minors for quite a while. This waiting period hurts the writer, the agent, and the pub in two ways.

First of all, the fresh voice that writer brings is squelched until they are herded through the chute and molded into something safer, not by good editing but by rejection and humiliation. In the old days if the technique was lagging or the ending was bad or the voice was off—enter Campbell, Bates, or Gernsback. Today that doesn’t happen very often and the industry, the author, and the fans must wait indefinitely while the writer struggles through.

By then the author’s voice is likely much different and possibly not better. Whatever she would have brought to party in the early days is long in the rearview mirror. Her new stuff may be great, may be better than the old, but the value of the earlier work is lost not for lack of talent or worthy ideas, but for lack of a system that would have allowed it to be developed. Some of those early stories will surely be revisited by the later, successful author (many won’t), but who she is and what she has to say will be different, so that opportunity deferred is most likely lost for all.

The second way this system hurts the field is much simpler. Authors quit. The Hunger Games process that leads to publishing a good short story is solitary and demeaning. Many good writers find a more uplifting profession and put their creative energy into that work or other interests. More and more they continue to write, but self-publish because they could do no worse than they probably will by throwing themselves into the faceless meat grinder that is the mainstream SF markets. This not only depletes the available content for the markets in the future, but saps the creative strength now and generates virtually infinite competitors for the fan base, which is large, but finite.

Hugh Howey is the latest shining example of this and I, like so many writers I know, am following his example and leaving the traditional markets bit by bit. We have no worse chance of being successful on Amazon or Smashwords than we do at the Big 5 and people read our stuff. Isn’t that the real reason we write? To be read? The downside to this of course is that many authors going this route are without editorial input and they’re stinking up the internet. But they were without editorial input in the first place weren’t they? Maybe the question should be, “Why do editors edit and have they gotten away from that reason?”

Until the editors of today take responsibility for the genres and engage more authors, not just the eight appearing in this month’s issue, they are going to increasingly drive the content producers away, resulting in overwhelming competitive force on the web and reduced quality overall that will alienate the pool of consumers for all outlets. It may not be fair to lay this responsibility at the feet of a handful of editors, but they did set themselves up as the gatekeepers of the realm rather than the custodians it had in the Golden Age. And, a funny thing about economic markets, which is what we’re really talking about here, is they don’t have a single f**k to give about what’s fair to an editor, any more than a robo-rejection has a single f**k to give for a writer.

4 Behaviors of Big Outlets That Should Earn Your Boycott

  1. They sit on your story for months and months insisting that you not send it to anyone else and then robo-reject you. They are tying up your asset for months and you don’t even get advice or a hint as to where you went wrong? To quote my 17 year old daughter, “Ruuude!”
  2. They have a reasonable published response time, but then don’t live up to it—then they robo-reject you. See #1 and add that they’ve started your relationship by showing you blatant disrespect in that they do not honor the terms they set or have any regard for you as a person. In writing, as in business, that’s a partner you’re better off without.
  3. They send you an absurdly fast robo-rejection. I touched on this one above. If they’re rejecting you before they’ve had time to seriously consider what you’ve written, they have no respect for you. You’re a literary booty call. You read the magazine, subscribed to the newsletter, looked at their online ads, did all the nasty stuff they wanted you to, and they were never ever going to buy you dinner. They didn’t even put in the time to get to know you and now they’re going to publish their real author.
  4. Response time is good, they honor their commitments, but they repeatedly reject your work without explanation. You end up wasting just as much time and more effort, but over many more stories. You have to decide the right number for you, but when an outlet hits that number without useful response, drop them to the bottom of your submission list. Whether you get published or not you’ll become a better author and advance your career more by going to smaller magazines that respond to you personally or publishing online and taking the reader reviews to heart. When you’re the talk of the town in the future and the Big 5 come calling, you should definitely forego the extra three cents a word and give first dibs to the small pubs that actually helped you.

Spec Fiction Pubs and Editors I Recommend

  1. Shimmer – currently my fave, E. Catherine Tobler rocks and was more helpful and encouraging to me in under 50 words than the Big 5 have been in the last 25 years.
  2. Allegory – Ty Drago and friends provide remarkably detailed and specific feedback. In one case Ty’s advice led me to completely re-write a story and the result was a much longer, much better novella that I’ll be releasing soon. In another he challenged me on a couple of points of style. Although I ultimately stuck with my more unconventional form for the rhythm of language and flow, he got me to seriously consider his points which did help me make some improvements and have stuck with me as I’ve written subsequent stories. Ty has also helped me more in the last two years than all of the big boys have in forever.
  3. Apex – Great communication to authors so you know where you stand.
  4. Lackington’s – quick turn around and personal response.
  5. Penumbra – They’re gone now but deserve a posthumous mention. Wonderful folks.
  6. Other Writers – Though not currently with a pub, my friend Heather has helped me workshop my stories for over a decade. She is my sounding board and mentor and you need one! Her challenges to my work have made me a dramatically better writer and that’s what you want in an editor—to be challenged.

*I should mention here that I am an MBA who has studied economics extensively and spent most of the last two decades working as a world class turn around, customer relations, and process improvement expert. When I talk about issues of economics and business it is as an educated and experienced expert.

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2 thoughts on “Speculative Fiction May Not Be Broken

  1. Love this. What i have wanted as a young writer without market success is opportunity for growth and engagement that i dont have to pay for in the form of a class(that will usually tell me i am dpecial anyway). I am writing–we all are–to see what the value of my work is and to be given ways to make it more valuable, more entertaining, intelligent, and awe inspiring. The current, dying system isnt set up for that. They dont care about you unless they have already heard of you. Its like trying to ask the most popular girl to prom over and over.

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    • I know your frustration Joel. I think every author does. We just have to keep writing and working because we’re driven to do it and then try to get creative in finding ways to be published and read. We’ve had some good success with Outliers of Speculative Fiction over the last year and we’re going to be ramping up those efforts through some other channels to help authors reach more fans and to make it easier on readers to know which indie product is worth their time. The system is changing but it can still go a lot of different ways before the new model of publishing is settled at last.

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