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A Glance at the SFF (and H) Publishing Industry
by Arley Sorg

They say video killed the radio star. Question: Did the internet kill print magazines?

As readers dig into their favorite magazines, behind the scenes, authors debate about which magazines should get first shot at buying their fiction. Most authors will receive a fair number of submission rejections. The question is about the order in which to submit: should they try F&SF first, or Lightspeed, and so on. Each author has their own metrics for ranking magazines, such as payment, circulation, reputation, or an editor they really like.

One such factor can be awards eligibility. Folks who want a shot at winning a Hugo Award often scrutinize the Hugo ballot, wondering if getting into a particular market messes with their chances or improves it. "Will voters see my story?" they wonder.

Okay, most authors put the Big Three1 at the top of their list. It's a thing. And as I demonstrated last issue, breaking into those markets is not that easy.

But this other thing called "the internet" happened a while back. Many respected magazines are free to read online, but you have to pay to read the Big Three. On the other hand, not everyone reads online magazines; and the Big Three have the advantage of appearing in bookstores and libraries.

The question becomes: Do you have to be in an online magazine to get an award?

Let's see what the numbers say!

 

 PRINT
Award Year Hugo Nebula World Fantasy
2010 4 9 1
2011 7 8 1
2012 9 10 1
2013 1 4 1
2014 2 3 0
2015 6 3 3
2016 0 5 2
2017 0 2 0
2018 1 2 0
2019 0 0 0
2020 0 1 1
Total 30 47 10
 ONLINE
Award Year Hugo Nebula World Fantasy
2010 4 3 2
2011 4 5 2
2012 3 7 4
2013 3 10 5
2014 7 9 8
2015 2 11 5
2016 5 10 5
2017 8 9 3
2018 12 10 4
2019 11 7 5
2020 10 10 3
Total 138 91 46

Table—By the Numbers: Stories from Print Mags vs. Online Mags on Awards Nomination Ballots5

 

I pulled data on fiction2 appearing on final ballots3 from 2010—20204, tallying the number of stories from print magazines vs. online magazines. We're looking at the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards because they are generally regarded as the top awards in the genre.

At a glance, there's a clear shift over the years. Print mags once had a strong presence on Hugo ballots but virtually disappeared. With the Nebulas, they clung on for a bit longer, only to eventually fade. Meanwhile, World Fantasy went from steady trickle to nothing at all.

Conversely, the numbers for online fiction for Hugo and Nebula nominations exploded. World Fantasy looks more striking when you see the online stories crowding the categories. (Trust me.)

But what does it all mean?

First, let's talk about what the table doesn't tell you. Biggest item: Tordotcom Publishing became a real problem for print magazines. In 2014 Macmillan announced the Tor.com imprint (now called Tordotcom), explicitly devoted to novellas, short novels, and serializations. These high quality novella-length books took over a ballot category previously filled by print mags. So, in part, it wasn't the internet that killed print magazines, it was Tordotcom. Over the past five years, it's been a rarity to see novellas from any magazines end up on these awards ballots.

Perhaps a side note: Some awards have other ways of giving a nod to magazines. The Hugos have the Editor, Short Form category, and the Semiprozine category. While Big Three stories may have tapered off, their editors (especially Sheila Williams of Asimov's) are sometimes on the ballot. Meanwhile, the rules for Semiprozine were changed a number of years back, mysteriously rendering all three magazines ineligible—but without providing a decent alternate slot. They are pretty much award-blocked.

Similarly, World Fantasy has two kinds of Special Awards. While online magazine editors usually take up a few spots, F&SF editor C.C. Finlay was on the ballot for the last four years, and Gordon Van Gelder made an appearance for the 2015 ballot.

It's worth noting that when you see all the data together, there's a feeling of staleness to it, even over a ten-year span. Aside from occasional one-offs, the sense is of a handful of magazines dominating all three awards. And yet, a glance at the Locus Magazine Summary or a quick search through Submission Grinder6 will reveal a host of magazines out there, to be read, appreciated, and perhaps handed awards. Sure—sometimes a standard will fade away, sometimes a newcomer will rise. But the list of magazines is not all that dynamic.

Is it that these magazines are consistently putting out work which stands above others? Is it a question of visibility and accessibility? Or is there something else, difficult to perceive, something which keeps a group of "usual players" in the spotlight, and makes it hard for other venues to gain traction?

Along similar lines, and yes, more on-topic: Why have print mags tapered off?

The 2019 Locus Magazine Summary shows Asimov's at 17,273 subscriptions. Online mag Fireside averaged 14,000 unique visitors per month. Yet in 2019 Asimov's was not on the Hugo ballot, and Fireside landed two short story nominations.

Strictly speaking, it's not just about visibility, and it's not just about circulation numbers. Uncanny launched issue 1 in 2014 and quickly became a force in major awards. In 2020 they had two novelettes and a short story on the Hugo short list, plus the editors were up for Editor, Short Form, PLUS the mag won Best Semiprozine—again. That year, S.L. Huang won Best Short Story—on a total 1,432 ballots counted.7

The thing is, winning awards requires that people read the mags, sure. But it also requires that people vote for them.

Moreover, the voting has to be concentrated. If 1,000 readers split their votes amongst ten different stories, while 1,000 readers of another magazine splits votes between three different stories—well, it's not difficult to figure out what those numbers mean.

So, here's the bottom line. Authors are still clamoring to get into the Big Three. And people still love print. In fact, many of the magazines that are primarily online venues dabble in offering print copies. But if you want the magazine you love to get awards (whichever magazine that is), you have to get your votes in. Numbers-wise, the readership is there—the total votes for the 2020 Hugo Awards is a fraction of Big Three readership.

For the Nebulas and the World Fantasy Awards, which have more restricted voting populations, make sure voters know about the fantastic stories available, tales they may otherwise overlook. Make sure they look at them.

As for the authors wondering if cracking a Big Three market means they will get an award? Grab a megaphone. Make sure anyone who will listen knows your work is out there. If people tell you they liked your story, respond by handing them a Hugo ballot. The numbers have spoken, but the conversation isn't over. Things can always change. The internet might not be the culprit after all: Victory is in the hands of the voters.

 

*   *   *

 

The fine print:

1  The "Big Three" is genre writer shorthand for Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF.

2  "Fiction" meaning novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

3  Ballots change! Sometimes stories drop off the initial nomination ballots. To reduce work, I looked at the last iteration of the ballots, ignoring earlier iterations.

4  Why not? A decade is a good stretch of time for a glance.

5  The other slots in these categories are usually taken by work in anthologies.

6  An online engine to find markets to send work—like the Writer's Market books, but free! https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/

7  You can find so much information with a quick search at Locus Online!

 
 

__________________________________

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where hes been on staff since 2014. He's associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.
 

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