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[Interview] Allen Ashley on the state of the SF&F short story market

Is the science fiction & fantasy short story a dying art form? Or is there a growing market driven by push-button publishing and the web? Last year the Guardian newspaper argued that SF&F short fiction was entering a golden age and Greg Hullender recently discovered that the big print magazines are getting serious competition for Hugo and Nebula Awards from online.

Reading short fiction during the 2015 Hugo Awards kerfuffle – and getting a story accepted for an anthology – inspired me to find out more.

Allen Ashley photo
Allen Ashley has published more than 100 short stories in dozens of books and magazines in the UK, USA, Canada and Spain. He’s also written novels, poetry, lyrics, non-fiction articles and critical commentary. You can find out more on his website. www.allenashley.com

Allen was kind enough to give me an interview. Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

Vivienne Raper: Would you say the short story market is in worse shape now than in the past? Or in better shape? And over what time period? And does this depend – in your view – on length of story (e.g. short story of 4,000 words vs novella?)

Allen Ashley: In many ways, I would say it is worse than at other times. We’re never going to be able to go back to the long-ago days when everyone read magazines and often the preferred choice was pulp magazines of science fiction, horror, westerns or war stories. That rose-tinted time before television, computers, mobile devices…

Those of us who have been on the scene for a while often hark back to a perceived golden age for small press short story outlets from the early 1990s and will rattle off titles of places we were published or submitted to. Time has helped us to forget that the production quality wasn’t always great and some of the stories weren’t that fabulous either, but there was a feeling for a while that one could always find a suitable home for one’s story.

There seem to be fewer magazine outlets these days, especially in the UK. For example, one can predict that Interzone and/or Black Static will always be on the shortlist for Best Magazine / Periodical because there is so little established competition. Publishers tell me that anthologies are a hard sell, which is a little surprising since they offer more of a variety than the average novel or short story collection. Anthology publishing by independent presses goes up and down in a-not-entirely predictable cycle. There have been a few recently and I’ve edited several over the past few years so, fingers crossed…

What has changed the market, of course, is the decision of many publications to publish entirely online. There are a lot of good quality regular magazines published in this fashion and without the associated printing costs their editors have a greater freedom in terms of accompanying artwork, story length, total page length, etc. Places like Sein und Werden, Synaesthesia, and Holdfast spring to mind.

In terms of length, there has also been an upsurge in the UK in markets for flash fiction (My definition is: Fully self-contained short stories below 1000 words, probably below 500 words). There are lots of venues and competitions for this format.

As regards novellas, a few independent publishers have lately expressed an interest in reviving this form, which has a proud history within our genre. Pendragon Press and Spectral Press are recent entrants into this market.

Vivienne Raper: Are there fewer magazines paying commercial rates (6 cents per word) than in the past? Are there more anthologies?

Allen Ashley: To the first question: Yes, that seems to be case. There are several reliable markets paying around 8 cents per word – Analog, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and so forth.

I’ve probably not submitted as much to North American markets as I perhaps should have and consequently haven’t been published “over there” on that many occasions. It’s a personal matter, but I feel that my writing has a British or English sensibility and I write about versions of London rather than LA or New York, so I have tended to concentrate largely on British venues.

Rates are not quite so high in the UK. The last time I was in Postscripts, for example, from World Fantasy Award-winning PS Publishing, they were paying one penny per word and that is often up to a maximum of £100 per story. Many markets – good-quality markets – are non-paying or royalties only or nominal payment (e.g. £10 per story). This is driven by the fact that magazines and anthologies are struggling to make sales. With online publications, the product is often legally free or easily available at the point of delivery so sales money isn’t coming in to enable editors to pay big rates.

There remain some markets paying good rates. Of course, firstly one has to place one’s story there, which is far from being a given. After that, there is often a bit of a moratorium along the lines of – if you’ve featured in issue 30, please don’t submit for issues 31 and 32. Fair enough in terms of variety for the reader, but it means that – as a writer – you have to spread the net fairly wide.

Vivienne Raper:  How do you think the SFF community’s attitudes to short fiction have changed since you started publishing shorts?

Allen Ashley: In some ways the prejudice still exists. Why do I use the word ‘prejudice’? Well, people forget that without the short story as developed in Amazing, Astounding, the original Weird Tales and other such venues, our genre wouldn’t have ever flourished. Many of the great ideas in science fiction have originated in the short form or in works that are well below the required 80,000 to 100,000-word expectations imposed by today’s big name publishers – The Time Machine; Fahrenheit 451; Metamorphosis; Nightfall; most of Philip K. Dick’s and A. E. van Vogt’s major works started as short story ideas; fill in your own favourite short story / novelette / novella here.

But short stories both within the genre and beyond are still viewed as ‘minor’ and often as something people work on whilst they are warming up for their apparently more significant work – usually a desperately over-padded novel.

I moderated a panel at FantasyCon this year with the title The Short Story: Short-Lived or Part of the Long Game? where one of the questions we had to discuss was the slightly pejorative, ‘The role of short stories in a writer’s development and career.’ The implication was that you’ll grow out of them or that writers knock out a couple of short stories just to keep their hand in when they are between novels. For me short stories are, in the main, my whole career. I used analogies from music – no-one asked Lennon and McCartney to use Let It Be or Strawberry Fields Forever as a warm-up to writing a two-hour operatic symphony.

Sarah Doyle has given me a better image to respond to those who erroneously think the only purpose of short stories is preparation for a novel: Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter ever. Nobody claims: Oh, he’s just warming up for the entirely different discipline of running a marathon.

As you can tell, this is an issue on which I have quite strong opinions.

Vivienne Raper:  Do you think it would be possible to full-time write short stories for magazines, as it seems some people did during the Golden Age of SF? Or are there too few slots?

Allen Ashley: I’ve partly answered this already. The simple response is: No, it’s not possible anymore. Part of me wishes I’d been born 25 or 30 years earlier so that I might have made a decent living from selling a story every week or so to The Saturday Evening Post back in the golden days. Like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut did.

Short stories are not easy work. The gestation and thinking period can be prolonged. The writing, redrafting, and editing period even in the good times can be at least a week. Focusing on that and nothing else. Then, if you’re lucky, you might get £100 for it. You can’t live on that.

So, one does other things, often writing related. I work as a creative writing tutor with five regular groups and other one-off festival workshops. I’m always warning would-be writers that the big money just isn’t there except at the J. K. Rowling / Dan Brown level. Many well-known writers have to supplement their income with gigs, such as reviewing, academic placements, book tours and the like.

But so what? I write short stories because they are what I love. I read short stories because nothing hits like a brilliantly crafted short hit from Nina Allan or the late Joel Lane.

Whilst I’m in a somewhat ranting mood, I would add that independent publishers are where you will find the important and exciting new work in the short form. This could be anthologies, individual collections, magazines, webzines, podcasts or other formats. The big name publishers aren’t vastly different to Tesco or McDonald’s – it’s all about selling the same product in bulk over and over again: Twilight spin-offs, Game of Thrones rip-offs, whatever. Then they have the gall to say they won’t publish short story collections because these books don’t sell. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don’t publish something, you can’t sell it.

The short story will rise again. I just hope I’m still around to reap some of the benefits!

Vivienne Raper: Thanks again, Allen.

One of Allen’s favourite Nina Allan stories is Darkroom, which he published in his anthology Subtle Edens (Elastic Press 2008). Click here to read it free online.

I’ve interviewed three other writers and – in addition – two authors who use Patreon to fund their fiction. Watch this space to find out more.

{NB: Allen has had copy approval of the final article}

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