Eric’s Writing Blog

The writing blog of Eric Rosenfield

On The Magazines

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Once upon a time, there were two kinds of magazines that published commercial fiction, colloquially known as “slicks” and “pulps”, because of the quality of the paper they were printed on. These magazine had large circulations, and, if one sold to them regularly, they paid a livable wage. They were professional magazines, and one expected the same kinds of response times, ability to “break in” and editorial treatment that a professional journalist would. (That is, they might change the title or edit your story without asking you first, but at least they responded to your queries quickly and paid you on time.) Making a living this way was tough for most writers and they had to pump out a lot of material to do it (Lester Dent, writer of the pulp character Doc Savage, famously once wrote 200,000 words a month for over two years straight) but it could be done. Slicks, naturally enough, paid much better than pulps, and published more highbrow (or, really, middlebrow) material like the work of O. Henry or Rudyard Kipling, while pulps published sensational, plot-driven work like that of H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett or E. E.”Doc” Smith, and writers often sought to (and did) move from the latter to the former.

Fast forward to the present. The number of slick magazines left that publish fiction can be counted on the fingers of one hand– The New Yorker, Harpers, Playboy, once a year the Atlantic Monthly. All of these magazines generally draw from stables of established writers, who have usually already published novels, and prefer agented material (agents will not take on writers based on individual short stories, only novels and, sometimes, collections). There are a few magazines left that could be called pulps, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ellory Queen, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction, but none of them pay very well, certainly not anything that could be thought of as a livable wage. (The Science Fiction Writer’s Association still calls a magazine that pays 3 cents a word a “professional market”, which is a bad joke.) For the most part there are two kinds of magazines left to send short fiction to, “little” literary magazine and “semi-pro” genre magazines, and each of these markets have their own problems.

The problems with the literary magazines generally center around them being run like scholarly publications, which is hardly surprising considering how many of them are published by universities. Publication in these magazines, rather than seen as a way to a general readership, is more often seen as something to put on a resume, which is especially important for MFA graduates looking to secure professorships so they can make their livings, not as writers, but as teachers of writing. After all, in the academic world, one must “publish or perish” and if one is a professor of creative writing than creative writing is what one must publish. Unsurprisingly then, these magazines are full of dreary, navel-gazing, MFA-polished stories that are about as much fun as being hit in the head repeatedly with something heavy. A tire iron perhaps. There are notable exceptions, and more on that in a later post. Also, like scholarly journals, these magazines tend to take extremely long to respond to submissions (in some cases six months or more) and pay token amounts, if anything. On the plus side, at least they accept simultaneous submissions, so you can submit to many of them at once.

The genre magazines, on the other hand, generally come from a tradition of fanzines, which for decades before the rise of the personal computer were hand-made, photocopied and stapled by fans and passed around by mail or at conventions. These zines were by definition amateurish, but what they lacked in quality they made up for in enthusiasm and many people who later became genre professionals started out in them. The Internet completely changed the world of fanzines, by making this kind of thing more widely available, easier to do, and easier to look good (a good designer can create a website just as good looking as the New Yorker’s). And because the pulps have come to pay so little, many of these online-only enterprises can match them, and attract professional talent, meaning that suddenly you could have a newstand-quality (or better) magazine available anywhere in the world run out of someone’s basement. This is pretty remarkable. The problem with these magazines is that often they still have a fanzine-trying-to-be-like-a-pulp mentality. Many have piss-poor design. Most don’t accept simultaneous submissions even though they take months to respond. (Yes, if you’re going to pay me 50 cents to $1 per word, like Harper’s Magazine, I’ll give you a couple months with my story alone. If you’re going to pay me $20 and take four months to respond, give me a break.) On the plus side, unlike literary magazines, at least you can usually get a reponse in under three months, and they’re much more likely to pay you something.

All-in-all it’s a little depressing to realize that it’s pretty much impossible to make any real money writing short fiction, and if you want to make a living as a fiction writer, your best bet is to write novels. (And, of course, even that is extremely difficult, but at least it’s possible.) And no, you don’t need to publish some short fiction in order to get an agent and sell your novel. It doesn’t hurt any, but if you don’t really love short fiction, just do everyone a favor and don’t bother writing it.

Next: what I look for in a fiction magazine.


Written by ericrosenfield

April 12, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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