Can Sci-Fi Short Stories and Novellas Survive in the World of E-Publishing?

By Don D’Ammassa — Various changes in the structure and management of the publishing world combined with the advent of the internet and electronic ebooks have resulted in a curious paradox with regard to science fiction short stories. In general there are more new stories than ever available to read, but in another sense, there may also be considerably fewer than there used to be. To justify that last part, I’ll have to explain myself a bit, and I’ll confess up front that I have a mild aversion to online publishing and ebooks. Not that I object to their existence; they – along with print on demand publishers – have given new life to many books and stories that might otherwise languish in obscurity. But there’s always a down side.

The problem is twofold. First, these venues tend to be ephemeral, that is, you won’t be able to find them in a second hand bookstore sometime in the future, and they won’t be available online indefinitely. Second, and potentially more significant, is that the editorial process that determines which stories get published is wildly inconsistent. We have always had vanity presses but today anyone with a website can effectively publish their own work or that of their friends. Yes, I know that much of this is weeded out by selective reading. The really good writers are going to rise to the top and the really bad ones are going to be ignored. But most writers fall somewhere in the middle and since reader tastes are at least as wide ranging as writers’ talents, there really isn’t a reliable way for most readers to find the stories that are actually worth the time to search for them.

This is compounded by the fact that the major publishing houses rarely do single author short story collections any more unless you’re Stephen King, Greg Bear, or someone who regularly makes the bestseller lists. During the 1950 and 1960s, there were new single author collections on the book racks almost every month, most of them from what we now call midlist writers like Murray Leinster, Keith Laumer, Avram Davidson, Poul Anderson, and Zenna Henderson. There were also several monthly science fiction magazines with relatively large distributions, as compared to the three which survive today (and none of them appear every month), along with a handful of semi-pro magazines which tend to be fantasy and horror. So for readers who are devoted to science fiction and willing to spend the time to chase down all of the short stories being published, there are probably more new ones each year now than ever before. But for the casual reader, most of these are going to be effectively invisible.

I suspect that the long term consequences of this are that it will be very difficult for a new writer to emerge who doesn’t write novels on a regular basis. A young Harlan Ellison would have a very hard time writing in the genre today, and a niche writer like David R. Bunch would be unlikely ever to find his audience. This is not to say that there are not several very fine short story writers at present. Robert Reed, Paul Di Filippo, Ted Chiang, and Connie Willis come immediately to mind. But even in these cases the majority of the collections by these four authors have been published by non-mainstream imprints like Golden Gryphon, Four Walls Eight Windows, and PS Publishing.

Until the 1970s, anthologies were overwhelmingly filled with reprints from the magazines. There were a few exceptions like the Star series edited by Frederik Pohl, but the most prolific anthologists like Groff Conklin and Leo Margulies drew from what were arguably the “best” stories published in the pulp magazines. This acted as a kind of filter and the average quality of these reprint collections was higher than that of their source. Today there are very few reprint anthologies other than the “best of the year” collections edited by Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and others. These have the additional virtue of occasionally providing a physical appearance of an online story. Retrospective anthologies are otherwise extremely rare.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the all-original anthology, and it might well serve as a replacement for the magazines that have fallen by the wayside. Several attempts were made to create ongoing series of non-themed anthologies – Orbit, Universe, Destinies, Whispers, Quark, and so on, but I believe that the only one still alive is the Solaris series formerly edited by George Mann, and now by Ian Whates. The vast majority of original anthologies have either a shared world setting or a single theme. The shared world is more popular in fantasy and military science fiction and tends to target a narrower group of readers. The theme anthology can be well done if the theme is sufficiently loose. An anthology about the exploration of Mars provides a great deal of latitude for the contributors. On the other hand an anthology limited to stories about dogs in orbit will understandably have a tendency to repetitiveness.

The biggest impact of all has been on the novella or short novel. Magazines used to boast that they contained a “complete short novel” in each issue. In the days of the Ace Double book, two short novels were often bound together in a single volume, either reprinted from the magazines or completely original. There were anthologies consisting of three or four novellas, and stories of this length constitute a separate category in the Hugo Awards. Novellas took a double hit. The demise of the magazine market was initially ameliorated somewhat because mass market paperbacks often published novellas as separate books. But today a paperback of 144 pages is almost unheard of. Publishers insist that novels be longer and longer – which is a whole separate issue – and in fact there have been many paperback re-issues containing two or even three titles which originally appeared as separate books.

The consequence, of course, is that ideas which would justify 50,000 words are expanded to nearly twice that length. I can’t blame the writer, whose work won’t get published at all if it isn’t adulterated, but I do miss the economically constructed and fast moving stories of the past.