Okay, I have an idea. I’m going to write a series of posts here, focusing on “then and now” — how things were done *then*, back in 1998 when I sold my first novel and *now*, fifteen years later and seventeen-or-twenty-depending-on-how-you-count books later.
And the first topic I’m going to discuss is breaking in — launching a career in speculative fiction.
THEN: Conventional wisdom was in the process of changing, but the most common “how to get published” advice I received was: Write Short Fiction. “Professional” short fiction markets paid three to five cents a word (as they had since around 1950), and they published in print (as, ahem, they had since around 1950) in digest format (small “paperback book” type publications, with the footprint of Reader’s Digest) or in a traditional magazine format (larger publications, sometimes glossy, like Time or Newsweek.) Magazines were sent to subscribers, and they were widely available in bricks-and-mortar bookstores — certainly in Borders, Barnes & Noble, B Dalton’s, and Waldenbooks, and often in the multitude of independents that thrived in cities that weren’t fortunate enough to have one of the 20 or so Borders stores in existence.
In addition to professional markets, there were dozens of semi-pro and “for the love” markets. Writers interested in publishing short fiction subscribed to mailing lists to find out about possible homes for their beloved stories. (Speculations was a great one, and I’m still friends with some of the folks I met through that publication.)
All stories were submitted on paper, by U.S. Postal Service (with the added fun of International Reply Coupons for our international friends), and editors returned rejection slips in the authors’ self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), along with the manuscript, if enough postage was included.
Certain publications had great cachet, and New York editors of novels regularly read those pubs to find new writers. Writers who had won Hugos or Nebulas, or whose work was regularly featured in one or more of the key magazines could expect to be contacted by editors, asking if they had anything novel length. Even if an editor didn’t reach out directly, an author who had successfully sold a dozen or more stories could recite those credits in his/her query letter and get solid attention from an editor.
NOW: It’s a new world, baby.
There are very few print publications left, and they rely primarily on subscriber lists for distribution, because bricks and mortar stores are dying out. There *are* online publications, and some of them are making great names for themselves as discerning homes for fine speculative fiction. Professional markets generally pay around 5 cents a word, but some pay the princely sum of ten cents a word. (Don’t even *think* about what’s happened to the relative value of a dollar, from 1950 to today…)
The vast majority of editors accept submissions by email and return their rejection slips the same way. No trees are sacrificed for manuscripts.
Hugos and Nebulas continue to be awarded, but there are very few authors (I’m not thinking of one from the past five years, as I type this, but I’m sure you’ll correct me in comments) who are “discovered” by way of their short fiction. New York editors might read short fiction in their spare time, for their personal enjoyment, but they are overworked and stretched for time to such an extent that they do not rely on short fiction markets as a screen. (Rather, they rely on agents; we’ll get to that in a future week.)
In short, there’s a vast gap between short fiction and novels, and the number of authors who straddle both arenas is vanishingly small. (Nancy Kress, um, um, I know I’m missing several, but again, I’m sure you’ll correct me in comments.) Short fiction is no longer an entree into long fiction. Short fiction no longer provides enough money that it is a viable alternative to long fiction, even for people who are willing to live like starving students.
I know I’m painting with a broad brush here. The Internet has transformed distribution so completely that short fiction can (and does) become viral. With the cost of distribution so low, authors can generate multiple novellas and distribute them electronically, directly collecting real money. (My Jane Madison/Fright Court crossover novella, Capitol Magic, which I wrote to promote both of my light paranormal series has sold over 6000 copies, generating four-figure income despite my writing it as a loss-leader.)
But I think the bottom line is clear — there’s been an essential change between then and now, in the ways new writers “break in” to our field. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you write both short and long fiction? Do you consider those fields to be parts of one whole, or separate?
And do you think this concept — then and now — is interesting enough to continue as a series? I could write about the role of agents, the way books are distributed, the structure of publishing houses and whatever other topics you suggest below!