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Questions about publishing short fiction online

A few months ago, I was at a retirement party for a newspaper editor and the subject of publishing material online for free came up.  “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give away your main product for free?” asked one veteran journalist.  “I remember when I was at Time and we looked at it.  One of the smartest people I know said, ‘If you start giving it away, no one’s going to pay for it.’”

That comment has been echoing in my head a lot lately.  At Readercon, a veteran editor told me, “Even with PayPal, I think it’s going to get harder and harder to get anyone to pay for anything online.  There’s just too much out there for free.”

On August 3, John Scalzi posted in his blog (http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=1231) that his story “After the Coup” published at www.tor.com has already gotten 49,566 hits, which is close to the combined circulations for Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF.  When I pointed out that he was comparing the number of paying customers with the number of people who took a freebie, he replied, ‘Well, on my end, I’m comparing eyeballs to eyeballs.’”

Here at F&SF, we’re open to experimentation and for the past year or so, we’ve been publishing one reprint a month on our Website.  Last month, the free story was “The Political Officer” by Charles Coleman Finlay.  A few days ago, someone posted on our message board  (http://nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/378/12233.html?1219150161) that he wanted to read that story.  I explained that it was no longer on our Website but he could buy a copy of that back issue from us or from Fictionwise.

As I did so, I realized that I was putting a reader in a position where he had to decide if he would pay for something he could have had for free just a few days earlier . . . which doesn’t strike me as a good position.  I know that I don’t like being asked to make such a choice.

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

I was thinking of this question in terms of contrast with trilogies.  The format of a trilogy has been around for a long time, but I think it’s accurate to say that in the 1970s and ‘80s, book publishers (especially the team of Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey) trained readers to expect fantasy fiction to come in series formats, particularly in sets of three.  For instance, Stephen Donaldson’s original Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were one book—the del Reys split it into three volumes and published the trilogy to great success.  Nowadays, it’s noteworthy when someone published a fantasy novel and nothing indicates that the book is the start of a series.

I look at trilogies and the form appears to me to be thriving.  But I don’t see many publishers giving away the books for free.  By contrast, I see publishers posting short fiction for free in many places, but I don’t see many of those publishers reaping rewards for their efforts.  I think short fiction giveaways have been good for individual authors, but are they working for publishers?

Also, I realized that I’ve done something extremely stupid.  I’ve run an experiment without trying to measure the results.  Sure, we’ve looked at the number of hits our online stories and columns get, and we’ve done one or two other things to measure the effects of our online publications, but we’ve never done a survey.

So I’m posting now to ask for feedback on a few things:

  •  When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?
  • Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?
  • Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free.  If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you do so?
  • Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?

Please note that I’m trying to keep the discussion just to fiction (not articles).

If you would care to do so, I’d be grateful if you’d include your age with your post.  No need to get specific—I just want to know if you’re in your teens or if you’re in your eighties.

And finally, please be aware that I plan to convert this post into an editorial for the print magazine, so don’t post anything here that you wouldn’t want me to reprint.  If you’d like to comment but don’t want to do so in public, you can use the Contact Us form on our Website (here: http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/contact.htm).  Write “DNQ” on your email if you don’t want to be quoted.

Thanks for your feedback.

—GVG

Free Fiction: Footnotes by Charles Coleman Finlay

"Footnotes" by Charles Coleman Finlay originally appeared in our August 2001 issue. It’s currently available on Finlay’s website.

Free Fiction: Dale Bailey (x3)

The following stories by Dale Baliey originally appeared in the pages of F&SF. Now they’re all available online:

"Heat," Sep. 2000 [link]

"The Rain at the End of the World," Jul. 1999 [link]

"Night of the Fireflies," Jan. 1998 [link]

Free Fiction: James Patrick Kelly (x2)

"Serpent" by James Patrick Kelly originally appeared in our May 2004 issue. Kelly has since adapted it to audio as part of his "Free Reads" podcast. [link]

Another story of Kelly’s, "The Pyramid of Amirah," appeared in our March 2002 issue. That one is also now available via Free Reads. [link]

Free Fiction: Eating Hearts by Yoon Ha Lee

“Eating Hearts” by Yoon Ha Lee originally appeared in our June 2005 issue. Podcastle recently adapted it to audio, which you can listen to on their podcast [mp3].

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