Recap: “The State of Short Fiction” Roundtable
Recently, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS) hosted “The State of Short Fiction” Roundtable featuring editors Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld), Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies), Jonathan Laden (Daily Science Fiction), and Norm Sherman (The Drabblecast and Escape Pod); anthologist Bill Campbell (Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond); writer and short fiction fan Erica Satifka (website), whose writing has been featured in Clarkesworld and Daily Science Fiction); and it was moderated by Sarah Pinsker (website), a BSFS member whose writing has been featured in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Asimov’s. Amid the BSFS’s extensive speculative fiction library, the roundtable discussed the present and future of short fiction, the impact of the internet, new voices making a splash, and they offered a few tips for writers interested in submitting.
The panelists began the discussion by detailing the recent resurgence of short fiction. Norm Sherman went so far as to call it “the decade of short fiction.” The panelists described a positive feedback loop wherein new markets showcase new, interesting writing, which leads to the creation of new, niche markets. Sherman said he was also pleased to see the rise of alternative formats, such as flash fiction and twitter fiction (stories told in 140 characters). Scott Andrews said the opportunity to provide a digital publication made it easier to create a niche publication without having to worry about a basement full of remainder issues (Beneath Ceaseless Skies publishes secondary world fantasy stories). By going online, Jonathan Laden said, turnaround time is a lot faster too. Writers can submit, hear back in days, and see it published in a matter of weeks or months instead of years.
This led to a lengthy discussion of the how the internet has changed the market. Clarke explained that not only is distribution wider and easier online, but submissions are also easier, especially for non-U.S. writers. Although these submissions can sometimes require additional editing or narrators who are familiar with the writer’s culture, the panelists were excited to see the diversity or short fiction expand.
Although none of the panelists said they explicitly look for diversity in the authors they publish, the editors have found that they seem to nevertheless publish a diverse selection of authors. Clarke said 30% of his submissions are by women and 30% are from outside the U.S. In 2013, women wrote 55-60 % of Clarkesworld’s stories. Laden reported similar numbers, saying women wrote over 50% of Daily Science Fiction’s stories and made up 30% of submissions. Sherman said women made up 30% of the submission pile at Escape Pod and Drabblecast, and of those women, he tended to accept something like 60-70%.
Regardless of who wrote the story, the editors stressed that they were looking for quality stories and unique characters above all else. Andrews said that search naturally lends itself toward diversity because he will often find something new in stories about people and cultures that are not traditionally represented. And when people from those backgrounds read such a story, it may make them more likely to submit, thereby expanding the market further. Andrews singled out Yoon Ha Lee and Aliette de Bodard for their ability to write quality science fiction and fantasy. Clarke also mentioned Seth Dickinson, the first person to sell two stories in one month to Clarkesworld. And Laden highlighted Nicky Drayden and Connor Powers. Both Clarke and Andrews also recommended Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
The panel then moved on to the topic of podcasting short fiction. Andrews said that he podcasts only half the stories he publishes, so audio doesn’t really play into his selection criteria, unless the story is very long, as this will mean added time and expense to podcast. Although, of the stories he podcasts, 60% tend to be in first person, which he felt is a natural fit for narration, while only 40% were in third person. Clarke podcasts all his stories, so audio is a consideration. If it won’t work in audio (or another format), he is likely to pass on it. But he admits to being wrong in the past. He decided against a story that contained multiple epigraphs, but PodCastle recorded it quite successfully. Sherman only podcasts, so that translation to audio is his chief concern, and stories that shift in time or in narrator will have a hard time getting accepted.
When the discussion moved to starting a publication, podcast, or anthology, the panelists agreed that the “why” is more important than the “how.” Publishing short fiction is not easy, and it does not make a lot of money, so there must be a lot of passion, they agreed. Campbell recalled how he created his anthology, saying that it began with a desire to see a SF anthology by people of color, and then realizing his thoughts had moved from “Someone really oughta do this” to “Oh, shit, I guess it’s going to be me.” Sherman said a new entry on the market has two options: find a niche and an identity or rely on talent to out-produce the others. But that second option means you’re catching up to people who have been doing this for a while. Ultimately, he compared publishing to a short order cook: “producing quality, quickly.”
With new publications entering the market, Pinsker asked if the market was becoming splintered, as evidenced by only three short stories clearing the nomination threshold for the Hugo Awards last year. The panel seemed to think this was more a quirk of the Hugo voting rules than stories failing to find an audience of a significant size. If anything, the panelists seemed to think more people were discovering more stories, although Clarke couldn’t complain too much because Clarkesworld had two of the three nominees.
As the roundtable began to wind down, Pinsker asked the panelists how they handled novellas and novelettes. There seemed to be some mixed feelings about the format, depending on the type of publication. Andrews said the sweet spot for stories he accepts is around 8,000 words, and 13,000-14,000 words is about the max for what he wants to put on one webpage (i.e., one issue). In Laden’s experience, he noted that some longer stories he’s seen probably could have benefitted from a tighter edit. But the panelists agreed that while serialized novels are a growing business, serialized novellas don’t tend to do as well. People don’t like two-parters, or they wait for the story to finish before starting to read.
Before opening up the roundtable to questions from the audience, Pinsker asked if they had ever published something they disliked but knew the audience would like, or vice versa. Andrews, Clarke, and Sherman all said they would not publish something they don’t like. However, they all admitted to publishing stories that they feared would divide their audience. Sometimes that gamble paid off, and sometimes it did not. Campbell was the exception, admitting that he absolutely hated one of the stories in Mothership, abandoning it after three paragraphs. But his co-editor and assistant fought for its inclusion, and it went on to be one of the more celebrated stories in the collection.
Finally, during audience Q&A, the editors mentioned some of those things that they don’t like or are tired of seeing. Clarke hates zombie stories and stories that begin with someone in bed waking up or staring at the ceiling. Andrews dislikes stories that start in a tavern. Laden dislikes “dead body and a detective” stories as well as children in a sandbox who turn out to be god making Earth. Sherman joked that he was okay with a lot of supposedly played-out topics, like post-apocalyptic stories or zombie stories. For him, original ways of telling stories using new characters could overcome just about any problem.
It was a wonderful evening, thanks to the panelists and BSFS. The panelists said their real difficulty is spreading the word about short fiction. So go subscribe to Daily Science Fiction’s daily e-mail of 1,000-word stories. Go read a Clarkesworld story or download a Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcast. Post a review or a link in your social media. There’s a lot of great short genre fiction out there. Don’t miss out.
If you’d like to see a video of the panel you can watch it below.