The Company We Keep

In the last several months I’ve heard more than one established pro say something along the lines of “I’m sure glad that I broke in when I did. It’s a lot harder now.”

Whether you accept that premise or not depends mostly on how you define your terms. If you’re working strictly at novel length, that’s one thing. If you consider “breaking in” the process of making your first few decent short fiction sales and going from wannabe to neopro, then the statement is absurd on the face of it. It’s not easy to sell to a top-notch market starting out, and the fact that some people manage doesn’t change that. It wasn’t easy 10-20 years ago and it’s not any easier now, and if it was much if any easier back in the true pulp era I’d be amazed.

If, otoh, you define “breaking in” as establishing yourself and becoming a recognized name in the sf/f field, that’s a different kettle of herring. Over the past twenty years or so that’s gotten quite a bit harder. There are a lot of reasons for that: competition from other media, a fragmented readership, et many ceteras. Whatever the reason(s), I think it’s quite arguable that establishing yourself in the sf/f field is harder now than it’s ever been.

So why do new writers insist on making it harder than it has to be?

A lot of them do. And I think that’s true for a couple of reasons that feed off one another: Reason #1 is that one thing is much easier to do now than it was a few years ago: it’s much easier to sell to a bad market. That makes sense. After all, there are so many more of them. The internet made it possible for anyone with a little time to create a webzine and call him or her self a publisher. Usually all such a one has to do is announce the fact that they exist in a few places where the hopefuls hang out and soon said hopefuls are falling all over themselves trying to get into Joe Bob’s Really Cool Webzine. Why? That brings us to Reason #2: a lot of writers enter the sf/f field without knowing a sodding thing about it. They simply do not know any better.

As someone who’s been around the block but is still “breaking in” by the second definition, I’ve seen a lot of this. Not too long ago I had a beginning writer tell me in all seriousness that it was actually better to publish in a place like Joe Bob’s Really Cool Webzine rather than, say, F&SF or Asimov’s because “you get more readers that way.”  Riiight. Granted, the “Big 3 or 4” are not the powerhouses they used to be, with circulations “only” in the tens of thousands. Granted also that a new webzine—or any other web site—has a potential readership in the millions. Yet the problem with that comparison is the same one with online marketing—availability doesn’t equal demand. If one of the established print zines has a circulation of, say, 30000 (aside from their web presence, which most also have), that’s 30000 motivated, engaged readers. If Joe Bob’s Really Cool Webzine gets more than 300 hits a month, I’d be amazed. We’re not talking here.

For the record, I’m also not talking about the usual beginner hunger for a publication credit, any publication credit. Honest, I get that. It’s perfectly normal at a certain stage of our development: The ego is fragile, the future is uncertain, and the novice leaps on any hint of validation, any sign that they’re on the right track. Been there. Part of me is still there. No, what I’m talking about are the beginning writers who don’t know the field they aspire to work in, don’t know what publications are best suited for their work, and don’t see why they should bother to learn. This simply boggles my mind.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m picky about where my work appears. This is not arrogance but self-defense. My work matters to me and I want the best possible presentation for it I can get. Which, by the way, isn’t always one of the magazines or anthologies you may be thinking of. While I don’t automatically embrace a new market, neither do I dismiss them. I look at who’s editing, what their stated intentions are, and who my potential ToC-mates are going to be. I do my homework, to the degree that’s possible and I’ve found great new venues that way. Payment is always a factor but it’s not necessarily the biggest one; sometimes it’s not even in the top three. Yes, we all have to start somewhere, and that includes editors and publishers. Only time will tell if Joe Bob is serious and talented, or whether he simply wants a convenient place to publish his friends and gets tired of it all after a few issues. Or there may develop a really good buzz quickly, with the smart money on the chance that Joe Bob’s Really Cool Webzine actually is really cool, but the burden of proof is on Joe Bob as editor, and that’s the way it should be.

Is there a fact more self-evident in the sf/f field that “Not all publications are created equal”? Is there anyone reading this who honestly doesn’t get that? I would hope not. A credit is only a credit if the publication matters, and some publications simply do not matter. Worse, you might get tarred for life if you become associated with a zine that develops a reputation, and that reputation turns out to be for publishing crap. If that doesn’t happen, you might get lucky, have a readership of ten to twenty. Maybe.

The only exception to this I know is, If you’re prolific enough, there’s an argument for spreading your work as widely as possible on the theory that having your name in so many places automatically raises your name recognition and branding, and there’s some truth in that. But only–ONLY–if you’re also hitting the better markets and are producing more good stories than they can absorb.  In which case second and third tier markets can actually work for you by making your work widely available to feed the demand (in theory) created for it by the better markets. But for most of us, we need to be more selective. Or settle for that readership of maybe ten or twenty.

If that’s good enough for you, go for it. Call that elitist if you want but it’s the simple unadorned truth, and new writers ignore it at peril of their careers.