Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Wealth of Writers

So, having basically saturated the professional-level speculative fiction short story market with my drivel, I've started looking at the semi-pro 'zines to see what kind of deals they're offering writers. I regularly read a slew of semi-pro's, and it is curious to notice how there are some publications that, even though they pay a greater rate than their competitors, I would simply never even be capable of admitting being published in; and on the other hand, in the case of several obscenely low-paying markets, a reader who was not also a writer would probably never guess that the magazine in question wasn't "professional," and that I, personally, as a writer, would be terribly proud to appear in.

(A certain but tangential problem of the matter here being, of course, that in the speculative fiction market the idea of "professionalism" has been rabidly cornered by the SFWA--temporarily or possibly pathologically mentally obstructing me, a spec fic writer, from being able to respect any non-speculative markets that don't pay SFWA-decreed "pro" rates as "pro," non-speculative markets. Not to demean the organization, of course: the SFWA does a great job of spreading industry information, as well as providing general help and advice for writers who are both in and outside the club. It also provides a generalized rallying point for spec fic writers, and, from what I hear at least, does a good job of protecting its members auctorial rights. But, stepping outside the role of a writer and stepping into the shoes of an informed reader, sometimes I can't help but wonder how you can, in any good conscience, shake the "you're not professional" stick--even if only by omission--at slick, solid 'zines like On Spec or Weird Tales. This, coupled with the fact that to disentangle the sine qua non of the SFWA's seal of approval requires really nothing more than a simple iteration to the order of: what does Jack specifically have over Jill, but a penis?)

But what is really weird, what's awfully strange about this, what's come to light the magnesium filament within my skull is, that magazines--editors, publishers, subscribers, the zeitgeist of the product itself--can create massively different value structures for stories, and hence alter the very fabric of what kind of material the magazine can conceivably hope to receive and thus publish, depending on the way in which they're willing to pay authors. Some markets, for example, pay a flat rate per word. Some pay a flat rate per story. Some pay on the word, but impose an upper limit on the amount they will pay you.

This last is what awes me, and is what creates (theoretically, hypothetically, hystericallalilly) the "reality bending" effect on stories. If a magazine will pay you three cents a word, but cap that payment at forty dollars, they're creating a world in which longer stories have regressive value. As the story drags on, the words--which, until you got to about fifteen hundred of them, were, really truly, almost professional in quality--even the ones you've already written, start to lose value. You can't write your way out of this; to do so would only further devalue your story, like putting expensive but gaudy and tasteless decorations on your front lawn for no particular reason. To preserve the value of your story, you need to cease writing it.

Similarly, I came across some literary 'zines that pay by the page, but, in their guidelines, provide strict limits to word counts. So, if a magazine is willing to pay me forty dollars per page, but I only have three thousand words with which to reap this harvest, I ought to provide them stories with many terse, punctuated conversations--and preferably ones that drag on for long periods of time and in which each character's dialogue occupies but one line at a time. Ellipses, too, might be appropriate, as well as fragments and, well, terse paragraphs generally. I can, like a player creating a really awesome warrior character for a role playing game, "max out" the potential value of my stories by creating, or merely submitting, material tailored--or just happenstancially appropriate--to acquiring the most value from a given venue.

There are obviously some complex arguments to be had here about economic value versus value generally, and perhaps about whether or not I am a good person, a real visionary, or an artiste (and I realize, yes, that that is a feminine conjugation) because of this economic crassness. And without a doubt, this calculus bears in no direct or necessary way upon the reader's experience of the work--although we dare to suggest that, since it could impinge upon submission type and quality, it might. Also, it says nothing useful about what makes a "good" story; but the idea being, if you lived in a fantasy universe where you were a machine that could produce the ideal story for any market at any time, you would undeniably follow this calculus to the bone.

The point is really that, if you are a writer, and you want to make money from the things that you write, then you are at least going (slash, should) to pause and think about the value that a publisher attaches to your words before you submit them. If a magazine offers you professional pay to fifteen hundred words, but not after (and such magazines do exist), well... they're going to get my flash fiction. They won't get my shorts, my novelettes, or my novellas. Those will go to people who don't cap their payouts.

Unless, I'm really desperate. Which I frequently, now certainly, am.



  1. Ben, if I may ask, what does your "list" of pro SF&F markets look like? One way I've been growing my own list is to actually write outside the usual SF&F scene, such as crime and/or mystery stories, which I send to Ellery Queen and Hitchock's. Even if the story is nominally SF, if it's got mystery or crime elements, I still send it to Ellery Queen and Hitchcock's, just on the chance they might sell there. You never know when an editor will sit up and pay attention.

  2. Brad,

    That is an excellent point. Lately, I've been trying to pull myself back into horror writing--which is in fact what, on a dark night long ago, after a binge of Lovecraft and night tremors, started me off on to this whole writing thing in the first place. I think I might take your advice and try to fit some of my speculative bits and pieces together with a good crime or mystery story, as well.

    Something else I've tried doing to shake up both my marketability and my own creative gray matter is writing what amounts to magical realism. Although to me the writing of it still feels just as good as writing fantasy, by dwelling on contemporary issues, modern characters, and the "real world" in general, I can usually hash up something that is both out of the ordinary, and appropriate for more general or literary consumption.

    Thanks for your comment!