I was reading over an old blog post on the subject of short stories versus novels, and the thing that struck me about whatever I was ranting about was how dated the thing was. Irrelevant, even. I am constantly reminded that so many “truths” that I had internalized to the core of my being about the writing and publishing of sf/f just aren’t true anymore. Some were never true at all.
It’s something I should be used to by now. Back when I was struggling to “break in” at even an entry level, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, and where I was trying to get to. The field had fairly clear parameters. I knew what magazines “counted” and what my targets were. For writers, I knew who the major players were. But a funny thing happened on my way to entering the field—by the time I got there, it wasn’t the same field. Remember the phrase, “There were giants in the earth in those days”? Well, there were. My first sale was to the venerable Amazing Stories, the absolute oldest of the magazines and arguably the first real sf magazine, period. By the time I sold my second story, to Asimov’s SF, Amazing was no more. My third story sale was to a magazine that didn’t even exist when I was targeting the first two, SF Age, now also gone. For the first fourteen years that I was selling stories my “go to” market was Realms of Fantasy, and now? Poof. Gone.
And it wasn’t just magazines. I had my heroes, writers who were almost like gods and goddesses to me. And by the time I felt somewhat part of the field, again, it wasn’t there anymore. Many of the old gods had died off or retired. New people, like me, were filling the niches. Some would go on to be major players, people I’d never even heard of in the preceding years. I was where I wanted to be, but it wasn’t where I thought it was.
And it wasn’t just the people or the venues. The nature of the beast itself was changing. Once the magazines were considered stepping-stones to a novelist career. Appearing in the magazines was how one got noticed, and it still does happen, and there are many writers who work in both vineyards even now. But someone who sells a novel these days is just as likely to have never appeared in the short fiction venues at all, and may in fact not know they exist. A lot, maybe even most, dedicated novelists couldn’t write a decent short story if you put a gun to their heads, and without that gun they wouldn’t see any reason to try. Pragmatically and for their own artistic goals? They’re right.
Speaking of publishers…they were the gateway, together with their editors, and the only one. Self-publishing existed, in the sense that, if all else failed, you could pay through the nose to get your manuscript printed and then have it completely ignored…if you were lucky. If not, you did something silly like sending copies to every single reviewer/editor you could find an address for and become briefly infamous for putting out something almost as bad as “Eye of Argon.”
Now we’re past the simple incremental changes and into a true paradigm shift, because then came Amazon, who made ebooks, something everyone knew was coming for years but no one could figure out how, front and center of their business plan. Say what you will about Amazon, and I’ve said a few choice things myself, but the current ebook market would not exist without them. Period. So whether you view with exceitement or cringe in alarm, the ebook explosion has changed publishing dramatically. Self-publishing is still viewed askance and for many of the same reasons it always was—no gatekeepers, no external quality control, completely open to anyone with the means, regardless of talent or lack of it. Only now the bar is so low in the means department that almost anyone who can write a book can publish one. Often it seems like everyone in the world can and does. Most are crap. Some aren’t, but either way the publishing process has been democratized. Whether this is good or bad long term is the kind of thing people will be arguing about for years, but from my perspective at the moment all the arguments are kind of pointless. The fact remains that the genie is out of the bottle, and it is not going back.
So where are we? No idea, and that’s kind of the point. We need goals, or otherwise how do we know where we’re trying to get to? Yet reach a goal, and where are you? Probably not where you thought. So maybe reaching any particular goal doesn’t mean what you thought or maybe hoped it meant. At times like that it’s easy to get discouraged, confused, and distracted. That is, it’s easy if you’re concentrating on the publishing part of it all, because publishing is in heavy transformation mode, perhaps the greatest sea-change since Gutenberg, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. Some will ride the wave and some will be swept away by it, but either way the wave is coming.
So. We’re just clumps of debris blown willy nilly by the winds on an ocean of change? We can’t have what we want because by the time we reach it, it’s not what we wanted anymore? Oh, please. The goal posts always move. A little or a lot, but they move. We don’t have any control over that and guess what? We never did. What we control is how we react. What we do. Whether we reach for a surf board or a crying towel. Most of all, what we control is what we write. The things we care about, the things that fascinate us.
If all you want to do is write to the market, good luck with that, because it’s a moving target and it’s always at least five steps ahead of you. If you write what you love, then ultimately it doesn’t matter what the markets do. If our interests change? Fine, then so do we, but only because we choose to do so. We are and remain in charge. Whatever happens in publishing, that’s the one thing that doesn’t change.