Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Promoting Short Fiction, Part 2

There's been some discussion of this topic on the Short Mystery Fiction Society list, but the bulk of it seems to be missing the point. It's not about getting magazines on the shelves of bookstores or even about subscribing to the magazines that do carry short fiction.

What it's about is convincing people who do not now read short fiction, for whatever reason, to begin doing so. You cannot increase the readership of short fiction without increasing the number of people who read short fiction. Editors have to see that the people who read their magazine want short fiction before they will publish it, and wishing won't make it so.

It's about getting out of the traditional publishing rut and attracting the attention of a person with something they like. That's a person, not a reader or a customer or a set of eyeballs, a PERSON who does not now read short fiction. We will not do that by continuing to do the same old thing.

I'm about to gore a couple of sacred cows here, so hold onto your hats.

Maybe part of the problem is the names of the two powerhouses in mystery fiction themselves: Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen. At the time these magazines put out their first issues the names of Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen WERE the cutting edge of mystery fiction. Now, how many of the people under 30 even know who Ellery Queen was? How many can remember the TV shows? Or the radio shows? Today, to the Great Unwashed, those names convey nothing, with the possible exception of a connection to old movies.

I'll bet that if you stopped a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings on the street and asked them what the names Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen conveyed to them, high on the list of responses would be the words "old" and "stuffy". The fact that these magazines publish stuff that is neither old nor stuffy has nothing to do with it. It's all perception.

Take a look at our science fiction brethren. Analog has been around for longer than either AHMM or EQMM, and it has had three (I think) names. Asimov's is a new kid on the block having only been around 27 years, and Fantasy and Science Fiction says what it is without any confusing ancient personalities leading off.

Are their readerships any larger than AHMM and EQMM? Don't know. But I do know this: their readerships AREN'T BIG ENOUGH.

Now, am I advocating a name change for AHMM and EQMM? Not necessarily. But something has to be done that they aren't doing. And aren't likely to do. They are the Old Guard (bless 'em, and long may they prosper). A new demand for short fiction will not come from them; they will, however, benefit from it. The new demand will come from the new media: the iPods, the Audibles, the blogs, the ezines and probably something nobody's thought of yet.

What we have to do is increase visibility and access.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Steve Hockensmith said...

Interesting comments, Bob -- and I've gotta agree with your point about drawing in new readers. Getting decent newsstand distribution is important, as is maintaining a healthy subscriber base. But neither is the biggest hurdle short fiction magazines face. The real challenge -- and threat -- is reader indifference.

As has been pointed out before, even the kind of hardcore mystery fans you'll find at Bouchercon usually don't read (or even know about) the short story mags (let alone the short story webzines). Check out the discussions on RAM (rec.arts.mystery) -- I see short fiction mentioned there about once a year. And I don't think short fiction's being ignored because the magazines aren't visible enough (though that can be a problem). I genuinely think most readers simply aren't interested in the form. They prefer novels.

We could have a looooonnnnng discussion about why short stories have fallen out of favor. (Or we could have a very short one. It would go something like this: "Television.") But that wouldn't answer the question you raise, which is "What do we, as short fiction fans and writers and editors, do about it?"

Would it help to rename "Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine" "CSI Mystery Magazine"? Maybe. It's an interesting idea. But I can't help feeling that the problem runs deeper than that. It's not necessarily the title that fails to entice readers -- it's what's inside. Much of what you'll find in EQMM and AHMM (or in PWG, HLS, etc.) is every bit as good as what you'll find lining the mystery shelves at Borders. People just don't know that...or don't care.

The best way to counter that, in my opinion, is to do what this very blog is doing. Say to folks, "You like mysteries? Well, you really ought to read this story. It's good. Yeah, I know it's not a novel, but check it out. Go on -- what have you got to lose? If you like it, I'll bet you'll want to read more...."

-Steve Hockensmith

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Steve said, "the real challenge -- and threat -- is reader indifference."

I'm not sure whether it's indifference or ignorance. Maybe a little bit of both. Either way, the situation is correctable.

Steve said, "I genuinely think most readers simply aren't interested in the form. They prefer novels."

Again, I think this is a problem of perception on the part of the people who read. I just downloaded a 60-page marketing report on short stories in the UK. (more on this in near-future posts) I've only managed to skim the executive summary so far, but one of the recommendations is: "Readers of literary fiction and readers' groups may be more likely to respond to the form [short stories] if they are marketing not for their brevity (and therefore likely to fit into their lives), but on the basis that they are 'provocative, meaty, satisfying'." Those are the reasons people give for liking to read novels. There's a thought.

Steve said: "Much of what you'll find in EQMM and AHMM (or in PWG, HLS, etc.) is every bit as good as what you'll find lining the mystery shelves at Borders." In fact I think that, on a percentage basis, the magazines have more quality writing than you will find on the Borders shelves. A lot of people see the ezines as being sort of a farm team for AHMM and EQMM, mostly, I think, because the ezines either don't pay or pay only a token amount. THIS IS NOT TRUE! The quality of writing published by most of the ezines is equal to or better than what you will find in the Big Two. The only difference is that the stories in the ezines are of an edgier nature than the Big Two feel comfortable printing.

In any case, we have to educate the people who read.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Steve Hockensmith said...

"In any case, we have to educate the people who read."

So I guess the $64,000 Question is how do we do that? I'm hoping you'll find some answers in that marketing report....


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