Issue 198 – March 2023


Editor's Desk: An Important One

I work in an industry where words matter, so when I hear that short fiction will die because of _______, I bristle. I’ve been hearing about the death of short fiction for as long as I’ve been in the field. For example, here’s a button we distributed in 2009:

Short fiction is not dead hypnochicken

Time and time again, whatever has filled in the blank has been proven incorrect and I have no doubt that it will keep happening just like that. It won’t matter how loudly (or by whom) that impending doom is proclaimed or amplified. Short fiction has never died nor will it.

Individual magazines and publishers, however, can and do perish. It happens all the time and it will continue to happen. It absolutely sucks, but it isn’t the extinction of short fiction, no matter who it happens to, how much it hurts, or how many times we experience it.

Publications die for a lot of different reasons, but income-related ailments are the leading cause of death among genre magazines one year or older. The financial state for most short fiction magazines is no better than a house of cards. It’s simple math. While there are plenty of people happily reading, listening to, and writing short fiction, a very disappointingly small percentage of those same people are actively paying for it. As a result, most genre magazines run with thin budgets and underpaid staff.

It’s nothing I haven’t said before. Many times. Many many times. Enough that I’ve been mocked for it, but not enough that it has changed anything.

Even the genre’s largest or longest-living magazines aren’t immune to changes in the way the wind blows. The next couple of years will be particularly rough for the publications, like ours, that have been participating in Amazon’s subscription program. (It’s safe to say that this program is, in part, responsible for the resurgence in short fiction that began over a decade ago.) Often, Kindle subscriptions represent a significant percentage of a magazine’s annual income. In September, that source of revenue will be unceremoniously cut off when Amazon terminates this program.

It’s an earthquake, but the effects won’t be felt immediately. Over the next six months, you’ll see a lot of publishers trying to convince former Amazon subscribers to migrate to other subscription services, all without a means of contacting those subscribers directly. That’s right, none of us know who these subscribers are. It’s a fairly standard business practice. Publishers, toymakers, greeting card companies, etc. don’t know who buys their products through their retailers either.

It’s been a struggle to get this far and to have so much progress wiped away in one fell swoop is very disheartening. The end for Clarkesworld is not upon us, but the next few years will be rough sailing. We could hunker down and hope for the best, but if you’ve been with us for a while, you know that isn’t our style. It’s even more important than ever that we stand on-deck and fight for a better future for the publication and the people we work with. We want to come out of this with a stronger house, better prepared for whatever wind blows next.

For starters, we have to do these three things:

1. Migrate as many existing Amazon subscribers to alternate subscription platforms.

This will be a significant challenge and we anticipate losses simply due to our inability to do direct outreach. Which leads to:

2. Heavily promote current subscription opportunities to readers that aren’t currently subscribing.

We want to remain friendly towards those that can’t afford a subscription, but will have to balance this against staying open and working towards paying our staff a living wage. The severity of the changes we need to make here will be directly proportional to how much or how little our supporting rate changes. We’re starting by asking nicely. If you’ve been reading or listening, please subscribe. However, history suggests we’ll have to be more than a bit louder than that.

3. Increase our monthly subscription rate from $2.99/month to $3.99/month effective September 1, 2023.

On that date, current Patreon and ClarkesworldCitizens subscribers will be grandfathered to the old price, but have the option to switch to the new one. (It’s both an incentive to switch to those services and a thank you for those that use them.) Internally, we’ve been discussing a price increase since 2019. After the pandemic began, we didn’t think it was the right time to do that, even though the rest of the world didn’t necessarily share that mentality. It’s been nearly ten years since we’ve increased our subscription price and we no longer have the option not to.

Genre magazines have long been subscription-driven, meaning that they live or die on that source of revenue. Starting with these three items is the prudent course of action. That does not mean we will be ignoring things like advertising, grants, etc., but we are being realistic about them. In our experience, they don’t generate much income, however, they can buy us a little more time to achieve our subscription goals. Even if just months, that time could make a significant difference.

We are also among a small number of genre magazines that have been invited to participate in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited for Magazines program. There are limits to what I can say about the terms of our contract, but I can say that our earnings for the first year will be substantially below what we had been receiving. Critically lower, but it does lower the number of new and recovered subscriptions we’ll need to acquire, so we’re going to give it a chance. At worst, it buys time, but we are also very aware that we are playing with the dog that just bit us. We’re proceeding with caution.

Some things are simply off the table. We will not lower our pay rates. Even though we pay above the former SFWA qualifying rates, I struggle to believe that twelve cents a word is even remotely professional. Our staff already earn well-below what they should be paid for the hours we put in. All of my personal income from the magazine goes directly towards paying an ever-increasing health insurance premium. Given the severity of my medical issues, there’s no margin for cost reductions there either. The field cannot continue to prop up magazines by shortchanging the people who work on them. If this is the hill we die on, I’ll stand proud, but frankly the thought depresses me. We all deserve better. Not just here, all across the field.

If Amazon’s actions are the wake-up call needed to change that reality, then perhaps it will have been a good thing. Optimism, however, isn’t my strong suit at the moment. I don’t have the luxury of pretending everything will be fine. Short fiction will certainly survive, but if you want Clarkesworld to continue to be a part of it, subscribe and help us get the word out.

Author profile

Neil Clarke is the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, and several anthologies, including the Best Science Fiction of the Year series. He is a ten-time finalist and current winner of the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), has won the Chesley Award for Best Art Director three times, and received the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award from SFWA in 2019. His latest anthology, New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction (co-edited with Xia Jia and Regina Kanyu Wang), is now available from Clarkesworld Books. He currently lives in NJ with his wife and two sons.

Share this page on:




Weightless EPUB/MOBI