April 14th, 2010


Salute Your Shorts

So this is happening.

Essentially, Orbit is offering its authors' short fiction, any and all original short fiction, for download at an unspecified price, and will be paying them an unspecified royalty rate rather than a per word flat rate, as authors usually get paid as things stand in the short fiction market now. They say it'll be available for a variety of devices, etc.

I find this interesting, though not attractive, even if I were an Orbit author, which I'm not. I'll admit the release is short on details and I haven't seen any other discussion of it. What does all this mean? Any original short fiction? Meaning no editorial input? Direct line from hard drive to publication? I'm uncertain about that. Even great writers can write bad stories. And why shouldn't they offer those stories themselves for download, and keep all of the purchase price, if the editorial side is minimal and they aren't being packaged in an anthology with other authors who might sell more and therefore expose said writers to a new audience. (Like when I'm in an anthology with Neil Gaiman--the advantage to me over offering it on my own site for .99 is that people who read Neil Gaiman hungrily might stumble across my story.) What kind of publicity is on offer here? What kind of publicity is short fiction ever given, really? Not much.

On the surface, it's at least better than the Amazon Shorts program, which fizzled under the dampening weight of unedited junk fiction. I don't think that's a danger here--Orbit has great authors in its stable. But I do think there's a misunderstanding of the state of the short fiction market at the moment.

The idea that one can write short fiction to earn a name and then lever that into a novelist's career is still pretty prevalent. It's an unfortunate idea, not least because it's not really true--you can take that path, sure, but it's one crowded with other hopefuls and there is very little direct causality left to be squeezed out of a career model some 75 years old. It's an unfortunate idea because it means that the majority of short fiction markets are inundated by submissions from people who don't give a crap about short fiction as a form, but only about "making their name." And of published short fiction, I have to say as a reader I find little enough to excite me, because so much short fiction is workmanlike, uninspired, done with ulterior motives in mind.

Is brilliant short fiction being written today? Of course, absolutely. I'm reading Jeff Vandermeer's new collection for blurbing right now and it's excellent. There are even authors like Theodora Goss, Ted Chiang, and Kelly Link who have yet to write novels at all. I'm not claiming it's all bad--that would be silly as I make a substantial income from my short fiction. Am I even saying new, unpublished short fiction writers aren't out there doing good work? No. But I can smell a story written to get a pub credit from quite a distance, and I'm betting you can, too. I'm saying that Sturgeon's Law holds, and I've gotten the feeling it's largely the fault of this pernicious myth that short fiction is some kind of path to novelist fame and fortune.

Somehow, we have yet to be able to monetize short fiction in a reliable way. It seems an obvious thing: we all have short attention spans in this internet-saturated age. 4000 word stories should be enormously popular, moreso than giant doorstopper novels. But it's not so--short story collections are known underperformers even for big names, and of all the thousands of stories published online, only a few acheive any real readership. Anthologies as a market have shrunk, though again there are great ones out there--it's just that getting people on the ground to read them is a struggle.

So, coming back to Orbit, I question whether this is really going to be the path to that monetization. Single short story digital sales have not proved a particularly attractive format--I think the assumption here is that the novelist's fandoms will follow them into short fiction.

But again, if editorial acceptance is assured, as it seems to be, why would those novelists not just make the stories available themselves? If they aren't being paid a flat rate up front, there's no monetary value in taking a fraction of the price instead of the whole hog when publicity for short fiction has always been slim. If novelists are bringing their own fans to the table, why share? The advantages of the short story market as it stands are removed in this system: no packaging with stories by bigger authors, no spotlighting in a previously prestigious publication, no upfront payment. I'm just not seeing the advantage, except to flip the model and use short fiction to promote the novels.

Which, in the end, just reduces short fiction to a tool again. Instead of a tool of the aspiring to reach for their ambitions, a tool of the established to bolster their sales. And that leaves the quality of short fiction available to readers even poorer, and that makes me a sad panda. Because short stories can be amazing--I've learned this through the process of becoming a short fiction writer, which I was not until I had already published my first novel. It was a difficult and frustrating process, and I'm hardly the best example of short story writing out there, not by a long shot, but I care a great deal about the state of the genre world, and this doesn't feel like a step in the right direction.

Not all steps toward the digital are steps toward the good. This is not even a step toward more authorial control--instead of making fairly substantial money up front (depending on how big the name, actually substantial) which is how many novelists keep themselves in electricity between novels, they're taking an unspecified fraction of a likely low price point in exchange for very little or no editorial control (I'm willing to be proven wrong on that score, it's just how I'm reading the release) and digital distribution that those authors could do themselves for very little time or money. This isn't like Tor.com, which pays generously and has a pre-established audience. An author is better off after a story published on Tor than before. I think they'd be about the same after publishing through the Orbit system. There's no value added that I can see. I don't think I'd take that deal, given the many short story opportunities even an author at my level has that pay right now, and package me in advantageous ways. What it feels like to me is a way for publishers to get money even from their authors' side projects, and that feels like a way to keep authors from being excessively diverse in their publications, and I like none of that in the least.

We'll see if details, when they come, reveal some benefit that's not clear right now.
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