28 March 2005

Short Stories, Long Tails

Maud Newton's post on The Atlantic's decision to cut back on short fiction includes a link to this overview of short stories in general American culture. The comments after the article are worth reading for the variety of responses -- people who defend the short story are, for the most part, talking about short stories in SF magazines, mystery magazines, gay magazines, etc. Short stories are disappearing from high-circulation, general interest magazines, but not from places that are often seen as parts of various subcultures.

The whole concept of "subcultures" when it comes to fiction is inaccurate, though, because contemporary literary fiction is about as sub- to a culture as it's possible to get without hitting the ocean floor. Start talking about audience sizes, and the supposed subcultures don't seem so small anymore, unless you're comparing them to Hollywood, which is one of the only real general interest entities functioning in the U.S. anymore (probably to its detriment, but that's another subject altogether).

As forms of distribution change because of technology, then cultures and how we define them change, too. We can all get more specific stuff more easily than it could be gotten, say, thirty years ago. It's impossible to get any sense of what's going on with short fiction if you aren't also at least partially aware of things like the "long tail" concept:
Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what's available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

An analysis of the sales data and trends from these services and others like them shows that the emerging digital entertainment economy is going to be radically different from today's mass market. If the 20th- century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses.
I'm not any sort of economist, so if this whole idea is full of horse effluent, let me know, but it makes intuitive sense to me, and it seems to be what's happening with short fiction, and one reason why "general interest" is becoming a contradiction rather than the convenience it's been until now.

It's going to be more and more difficult for some places to maintain their audiences without radical change, but there are other markets that are probably capable of surviving just fine, and even prospering, with only an occasional tweak. The short story is not dead in American culture -- various Best of the Year anthologies, whether specific to one genre or more general, don't sell too badly, suggesting that what the contemporary audience wants is not so much a continual blitz of monthly fiction, but fiction in portable chunks. The monthly and even weekly delivery of fiction may get taken over primarily by internet publishers, while print publishers find more success with less-frequent publications. As someone who has an awful lot of magazines, I can't say I mind the idea of most magazines becoming internet publications, because, frankly, they take up less room, and if I happen to forget an issue, I can go back through the online archives rather than digging through boxes. If I can zoom in with Google, I like as long a tail as possible, but prefer a much shorter one when it's stored at home, wriggling over shelves and the floor.

Perhaps the real future is one that's more like what's done by Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, and various other magazines that have separate, complementary print and web editions. Maybe it's more like what Strange Horizons, Infinity Plus, and Fantastic Metropolis have done: web content primarily, with an occasional print anthology.

Short fiction writers may not be able to make the kind of money that F. Scott Fitzgerald got from The Saturday Evening Post (reportedly $4000, or, according to the Inflation Calculator, about $43,200 today), and it's certainly unfortunate that a high-paying market like The Atlantic is cutting down on its already-marginal supply of stories, but there are plenty of readers and writers of short fiction out there today, and a magnificent diversity of approaches and styles. With any luck, as markets for and distributors of short fiction find ways to adapt to changing circumstances, more people, rather than fewer, will make short stories a regular part of their reading life.

3 comments:

  1. Great post, Matt.

    I have a blogpost (not yet up) "complaining" about the amount of high quality short fiction out there. Looking at the recent storysouth best ss nominees, it's clear that great stuff is being published out there. Whether people are finding out about it and whether they are actually reading it is another matter.

    There's a tremendous amount of high quality short fiction on the web, both public domain and new stuff. That is especially true in "genres" (or subcultures as you say) such as erotic, scifi, etc. But nobody reads on the web (not even litbloggers). Ebook readers are the longterm solution, but that time has not yet come (although I read an awful lot on my ebookwise 1150).

    Despite the complaint by publishers a few years ago that nobody reads short story collections anymore, actually short fiction is better suited to the rhythm of our times than novels (novels are suited only for listening in the car during long trips).

    On another note, I plan to write a review of Eileen Gunn's Stable Strategies for slashdot and noted with horror that you had already reviewed it. You bastard!

    Robert Nagle, http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/

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  2. I haven't done much of a review of Stable Strategies, actually -- I was blogging a couple stories at a time, but stopped because I decided to end on a positive note, and if I had continued I wouldn't have been able to do that. "Lichen and Rock" is a phenomenal story, but the others, frankly, didn't do much for me, much as I wanted them to and hoped they would. I also found myself responding quite negatively to the hype around the book and so lost the ability to look objectively at the stories; if I'm writing about a book I try to approach it objectively as possible, and I found that as the book got more and more publicity, more and more praise, I wasn't able to be even remotely objective anymore. So I stopped. And probably won't say much else about it than this.

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  3. BTW, I made it a point NOT to read your post about it. Yes, the book was hyped a bit (and Eileen seems to have a lot of friends in high places), and the amount of hype tends to be inversely proportional to my interest in something. rjn

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