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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

F&SF, September 2008 now on sale!

The September 2008 issue is now on sale. This issue includes the story “Picnic on Pentecost” by Rand B. Lee, so our free reprint this month is Lee’s “Coming of Age Day” (December 2003), which is set in the same universe. (This version has been revised and expanded from the original.)

Here’s the whole table of contents:

NOVELLAS

  • Arkfall – Carolyn Ives Gilman

NOVELETS

  • Pump Six – Paolo Bacigalupi

SHORT STORIES

  • Search Continues For Elderly Man  – Laura Kasischke
  • Picnic on Pentecost  – Rand B. Lee
  • Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight! – Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn
  • Salad for Two  – Robert Reed
  • Run! Run!  – Jim Aikin

DEPARTMENTS

  • Editorial – Gordon Van Gelder
  • Books to Look For – Charles de Lint, covering You Call This the Future? by Nick Sagan, Mark Frary, and Andy Walker; Echo, by Terry Moore; The Born Queen, by Greg Keyes.
  • Books – Elizabeth Hand, covering The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt; Sway, by Zachary Lazar.
  • Coming Attractions 
  • Curiosities – Dave Truesdale, covering Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Sir Walter Scott (1830).

CARTOONS

  • Joseph Farris, Arthur Masear

COVER

  • Cory and Catska Ench for “Arkfall”

F&SF, August 2008 now on sale

The August 2008 issue is now on sale. This issue includes the story "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay, so our free reprint this month is "The Political Officer" which is set in the same universe.

This issue also features the debut of our new reviewer, Chris Moriarty. See Gordon’s editorial for more details.

Here’s the whole table of contents:

NOVELLAS

  • The Political Prisoner – Charles Coleman Finlay

NOVELETS

  • Childrun  – Marc Laidlaw
  • But Wait! There’s More! – Richard Mueller

SHORT STORIES

  • An Open Letter to Earth – Scott Dalrymple
  • Another Perfect Day  – Steven Popkes
  • Bounty  – Rand B. Lee

DEPARTMENTS

  • Editorial – Gordon Van Gelder
  • Books to Look For – Charles de Lint, covering Mind the Gap by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon; Heart of Stone and House of Cards by C. E. Murphy; and Jumper: Jumpscars by Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir, and Brian Hurtt.
  • Books – Chris Moriarty, covering Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov; The Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright; Lorelei of the Red Mist by Leigh Brackett; The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett; and The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson.
  • Film: Not with a Bang, But with the Sex Pistols – Lucius Shepard, covering Doomsday.
  • Coming Attractions
  • Curiosities – David Langford, covering Adrift in the Stratosphere, by Professor A.M. Low (1937).

CARTOONS

  • Bill Long

COVER

  • Kent Bash for "The Political Prisoner"

F&SF, July 2008 now on sale

The July 2008 issue is now on sale. Here’s the table of contents:

NOVELLAS

  • The Roberts – Michael Blumlein

NOVELETS

  • Fullbrim’s Finding – Matthew Hughes
  • Poison Victory –  Albert E. Cowdrey

SHORT STORIES

  • Reader’s Guide –  Lisa Goldstein
  • Enfant Terrible –  Scott Dalrymple
  • The Dinosaur Train –  James L. Cambias

DEPARTMENTS

  • Books to Look For –  Charles de Lint, covering Duma Key by Stephen King and Jack: Secret Histories by F. Paul Wilson.
  • Books –  James Sallis, covering The New Weird edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer and The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick.
  • Plumage from Pegasus: Galley Knaves –  Paul Di Filippo
  • Film: "Superpowers Do Not a Superhero Make" –  Kathi Maio, covering Jumper.
  • Coming Attractions 
  • Curiosities –  F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, covering The Big Ball of Wax: A Story of Tomorrow’s Happy World, by Shepherd Mead (1954).

CARTOONS

  • Bill Long

COVER

  • Mondolithic Studios for "The Roberts"

F&SF, June 2008 now on sale

The June 2008 issue is now on sale. This issue features a new story by Al Michaud, and this month’s bonus web story is Michaud’s "Clem Crowder’s Catch," which is reprinted from our July 2003 issue.

Here’s the table of contents:

 

NOVELETS

  • The Art of Alchemy  – Ted Kosmatka
  • The Salting and Canning of Benevolence – Al Michaud
  • Litany – Rand B. Lee

SHORT STORIES

  • Fergus  – Mary Patterson Thornburg
  • Character Flu – Robert Reed
  • Monkey See… – P.E. Cunningham

DEPARTMENTS

  • Books to Look For – Charles de Lint, covering The H-Bomb Girl, by Stephen Baxter; Black Magic Woman, by Justin Gustainis; Out of the Wild, by Sarah Beth Durst.
  • Musing on Books – Michelle West, covering Dust, by Elisabeth Bear; God’s Demon, by Wayne Barlowe; Mister B. Gone, by Clive Barker.
  • Coming Attractions
  • Film: A Tale of Two Turkeys (Maybe Three) – Lucius Shepard, covering Cloverfield, The Orphanage, and I Am Legend.
  • Curiosities – Paul Di Filippo, covering Return to the Future, by Diamandis Florakis (1973).

CARTOONS

  • Arthur Masear
  • Bill Long
  • J.P. Rini

COVER

  • David Hardy for "Litany"

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