Small Presses and Small Stories

It’s hard to get a short story published these days. In fact, market reporters say it’s easier for a new writer to sell a novel than a short story. And this is not for lack of talent or stories, but for lack of markets. Let’s look at it in numbers. (This example is for a SF short story. I am using Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best anthologies and Locus as a guide for most of my facts.)

  • Playboy publishes roughly 5 stories a year.
  • OMNI publishes roughly 24 stories a year.
  • Fantasy & Science Fiction¬†publishes roughly 120 stories a year.
  • Asimov’s publishes roughly 130 stories a year.
  • Analog publishes roughly 130 stories a year.
  • Interzone publishes roughly 50 stories a year. (Editor’s Note: Interzone has recently gone monthly, which would double this figure.)
  • Aboriginal SF publishes roughly 50 stories a year.

And, friends, that’s it for the “professional” market, and Aboriginal SF is there only by the hair of its chinny, chin, chin. I even hesitated to add Analog because of its insistence on remaining deeply rooted in 50s SF. Simple addition reveals that there is only 509 short story spots for SF stories in one year.

Now, let’s take a closer look at those magazines and examine the author demographics. Playboy doesn’t publish “new” writers. OMNI only publishes 2-3 beginners a year at most. Only 10-20% of F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, and Interzone are new author sales. Only Aboriginal SF (of course) shows a marked new writer perspective, roughly 75%.

Of course, this is pretty understandable. The short story market is dwindling. Why, just this past year has seen the death of two long-running magazines, Amazing and The Twilight Zone Magazine. Those magazines that are left must fill their pages with what will sell, which means Big Name Authors to put on the cover. Given the choice between an issue with Isaac Asimov or John Doe on the cover, most will pick up the magazine with the Asimov story, because they have read Asimov before and have an inkling of what to expect. For all the praise that readers will get from me for being different enough from the norm to at least read, I fault them for being too staid in their reading choices, always seeming to pick the tried and true route, rather than being adventuresome (this is especially unnerving in SF, where we pride ourselves on our easy familiarity with the different and the daring.)

So, by arbitrarily saying that 20% of the short story market is made up of new writers (given the information above), we arrive at a number of 102. Divide that by 12 (standing for the monthly publication schedule) equals 9.

Nine stories a month for new writiers. Golly gee whiz. John Doe may have high hopes for his stories, but looks to me like he’s outnumbered in the field (Asimov’s alone receives something like 600 manuscripts a month, of which they can only publish 10-12). John better get to work on a secret weapon.

That secret weapon is the small press. Publications in the small press, while possibly not gaining John more readers, will gain John credits that will beef up his cover letter to Asimov’s and F&SF, as well as giving him a small exposure to the field, and practice in the process of writing and then getting what he wrote into circulation.

Not everyone needs the secret weapon. And some writers grow too attached to it, using it instead as a security blanket. But for the majority of young writers, the small press can provide the bridge between amateur and professional.

But, Glen, I hear you ask, I’m not an aspiring writer. I’m just interested in reading some exciting stories. What does the small press hold for me? Thanks for asking. The small press also provides a forum for not only beginners, but also for the exotic. Just a short list of well-known authors who have published a story in a small market in the last year would indicate that there is something more to it than just rites of passage. Check it out. It could be the next Stephen King (or even Big Steve himself!) in the next unknown magazine or book you pick up.

[Originally published in New Pathways, November 1990.]

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