How technology has transformed short science fiction and fantasy

Technology is changing how you read and write everything — but short fiction is at the center of the technological vortex of change. At Worldcon, we attended a panel about the future of short fiction, and learned just how the world of short stories is changing.

Top image: Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine cover art by Alex Schomburg

The panel included Stephen H. Segal with Weird Tales magazine, Sheila Williams with Asimov's Science Fiction, Lou Anders with Pyr Books and Neil Clarke with Clarkesworld Magazine. They shared with us how the way they publish short fiction has changed, and how they think it'll change in the future. Including:

Greater emphasis on electronic editions of print magazines. Williams said that Asimov's had been dependent on a "waning audience" of print subscribers — but the magazine had experienced a lot of growth in the past two years, since it became available in digital form on the Kindle. It took a long negotiation with Amazon to get added to the Kindle list, but in the end "we got great exposure," said Williams. Some print subscribers converted to electronic subscriptions, but also a lot of new people came on board. The magazine now has 5,000 Kindle subscribers and 2,000 subscribers on Barnes & Noble's Nook. And the magazine is developing a full-color version for the iPad, which will have more color than either the print edition or the Kindle/Nook versions. Asimov's also did a digital-only anthology through Amazon, called Enter A Future: Stories from Asimov's, and it's been a huge financial success. A second book is in the works, and the first book may actually come out in a print version.

Passaround is more important than ever. Segal talked about launching "One Minute Weird Tales," which are basically one-minute video versions of ultra-short stories which can be posted on Youtube and other sites to let people share and embed them easily. Meanwhile, Clarke talked about how every story at Clarkesworld needs to have social media links, like a Stumbleupon button — and when a story blows up, like Peter Watts' "The Things," it can get 50,000 readers in the first month, instead of the usual 20,000 who read the magazine.

Free fiction can be monetized Clarke talked a lot about how Clarkesworld started out as a free website, but has branched out into print anthologies and podcasts. And now the magazine is doing an ebook edition — which people are willing to pay for, because "people pay for convenience." And now, the magazine's electronic version has joined the subscription program at Amazon, and Clarke has promised that if they get 500 subscriptions, they'll increase the number of fiction in each issue, because their budget will have gone up. So far, the subscriptions are already bringing in ten times as much revenue as single issues.

More novellas. Novellas are notoriously hard to publish because they take up so much space — but Segal predicted we were about to see "the golden age of novellas," because it's the perfect length for an ebook. It's much cheaper to produce a 25,000-30,000 word story than it is to write a novel, by an order of magnitude, and that means you can price a novella at the pricepoint that people think an ebook ought to cost. With a novella, readers get an experience like reading a whole novel, but it's cheaper and quicker.

More adventure fiction. Anders predicted that the rise of e-books would bring in a younger, wider audience — who would be interested in plot-based adventure fiction. We could see more swashbuckling tales of action and suspense, and maybe a bit less introspection, in popular e-book titles.

Electronic submission tracking is changing things a lot for writers — but it's also helping more new writers break in, and increasing the number of international submissions. Clarke developed an electronic submissions and tracking system for Clarkesworld, and helped Williams implement it at Asimov's. This has vastly increased the volume of submissions at Asimov's, and Williams now rejects 99 percent of submissions instead of 98 percent.

More creative uses of print. Now that books are going electronic, a print book should have an adventurous format that you couldn't do electronically. Segal talked about helping Quirk Books to develop a book by Theodora Goss called The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story. (Here's how the publisher describes it:

The Thorn and the Blossom is a remarkable literary artifact: You can open the book in either direction to decide whether you'll first read Brendan's, or Evelyn's account of the mysterious love affair. Choose a side, read it like a regular novel-and when you get to the end, you'll find yourself at a whole new beginning.