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Do magazines and their editors really shape sf?


The history of science fiction is filled with powerful editors who determined how the genre progressed – in fact science fiction was born in a magazine and would not have existed but for its editor, Hugo Gernsback. After my post on the Hugos, Paul Kincaid’s review of a couple of year’s best anthologies, a discussion of that review on the latest Coode Street Podcast, and a discussion this morning on Twitter, I decided to do a little research.

I have it in my head that the written science fiction we see within the community is a product of a small group of people with much greater than average leverage. Not just the editors of the magazines, who chose what fiction to publish, but the editors of the Big Three magazines – Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF. There are also the editors of the year’s best anthologies, who get to choose each year which stories are the “best”, and so set the variety of sf that will be emulated in later years. And those year’s best editors generally pull from a limited number of sources – the Big Three magazines, especially.

So you get this incestuous and self-perpetuating relationship, in which a handful of sources supply the best stories of the year because only those handful of sources are used to provide stories. And this all feeds into the awards, and thus back into the genre, and so provides it with direction… Except that direction only really appeals to that small group who read the Big Three magazines and vote for the Hugo…

But do the numbers actually back up this scenario? How wide is the net cast by year’s best editors and the awards? Who is really shaping science fiction?

Dozois apparently doesn’t look much further than the Big Three magazines and high-profile anthologies. Which makes this the most purely commercial selection of stories.

Horton’s anthology is fantasy and science fiction, unlike the other two. This may explain why he casts his net much wider than the other two, but it’s still a surprisingly wide spread of venues.

Hartwell & Cramer appear to like a lot, but they’ve also picked stuff from some very obscure venues. NewCon Press does quite well, and there’s even a story from Irish sf magazine Albedo One. Engineering Infinity has also done well in all three anthologies – in fact, with Eclipse 4 and Life on Mars as well that makes Jonathan Strahan the most successful editor at publishing “year’s best” stories.

However, I have to wonder how much of this is driven by author-name-recognition. Even in the obscure venues, it’s well-known authors who get pulled out – in the Dozois, for example, it’s Alastair Reynolds in Voices from the Past, an ebook-only charity anthology.

The only outlier in the Hugo shortlists is Panverse Three – and that’s a story by Ken Liu, who is plainly a favourite of Hugo voters.

Again, that same Ken Liu story from Panverse Three. The presence of GigaNotoSaurus is a surprise.

It definitely seems as if there is a second tier of magazines after the Big Three – currently it’s only and Clarkesworld, but perhaps another online magazine will make the jump to Tier 2 in a year or three. Nonetheless, Asimov’s continues to dominate the year’s best anthologies and awards shortlists, as it has done for several decades. F&SF has, I suspect, slipped a little – in the anthologies, though not in the awards – but original print anthologies seemed to do well in 2011. There’s more online fiction than in previous years, but it’s still very much slanted towards print.

The pie charts do suggest that a handful of names have undue influence in science fiction. And the smaller that group, the narrower the range of genre fiction that rises to the top. If sf is becoming more fantastical, more concerned with mining its own tropes rather than doing anything interesting with them, then perhaps it’s because that’s what this group values…


49 thoughts on “Do magazines and their editors really shape sf?

  1. The most obvious name missing from all these pie charts is Strange Horizons. I wonder why?

  2. Graphs!!!!!

    Typo on line one: The history of science fiction is filled with powerful editors who determined who the genre progressed

    that second ‘who’ should be ‘how’, right?

  3. I tend to read the Strahan Year’s Best. Counts for the last volume:
    Subterranean 4
    F&SF 3
    Engineering Infinity 3
    Clarkesworld 2
    Eclipse Four 2
    Life on Mars 2
    Lightspeed Magazine 2
    Asimov’s 2
    Steampunk! 2
    After the Apocalypse
    Naked City
    The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
    A Study in Sherlock
    Everyone’s Just So So Special
    The Wilful Eye: Tales from the Tower Vol. 1

    I think Subterranean is the best contender for addition to your second tier of online mags, then maybe Lightspeed.

    • They’re possibly the next ones to move up, but not quite yet. Across all three anthos:

      Clarkesworld 6
      tor. com 8

      Lightspeed 4
      Subterranean 3

      And isn’t that a bit sneaky of Jonathan picking 7 stories for his year’s best that he originally published? 🙂

  4. # The pie charts do suggest that a handful of names have undue
    # influence in science fiction. And the smaller that group, the
    # narrower the range of genre fiction that rises to the top. If sf is
    # becoming more fantastical, more concerned with mining its own
    # tropes rather than doing anything interesting with them, then
    # perhaps it’s because that’s what this group values?

    I think I largely agree with this, but it’s not “the group’s” fault, it’s an effect of how the system is set up. A different group at the top would just mean a different focus, a different set of values.

    The ‘mining it’s own tropes’ thing is probably because people who get into authority positions tend to be of a certain age, they have to be to have worked their way up to those positions, hence they like things that call-back and reference or comment on the SF that they read in their youths (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just saying that’s where it comes from).

    Btw, I think you can mine tropes and do something interesting with what you’ve mined.

    The problem here, I think, isn’t “Who’s at the top”, but rather a system that treats SF as being one thing, and which is pyramidal. I saw you mention that you’d let your subscription lapse to ‘jupiter’, I’m a subscriber too, but as writers most of us would consider ‘jupiter’ to be a market that we’d get ‘first exposure’ in and then move ‘up market’ to the higher paying markets. In this way we show that we buy into a pyramidal structure that has only a few high-paying markets at the top, and we all aim to get in those markets. If we as writers buy into the idea that the ‘big 3’ are ‘the best markets’, then why should we expect year’s best anthologists to think differently?

    All the markets say “Read what we publish, and send us that.” Hence the ‘best writers’ will be mostly producing what the ‘big 3’ want, and sending that into them, where it will then be noticed for awards and inclusion in ‘years best’.

    So, we can’t just blame the editors (but notice this dynamic, where a problem is perceived and then quickly we slip into “Who are we gonna blame?” It’s a very common and important dynamic.) We are all implicated in the shape of the genre and how such things work. If we want change then we have to design infrastructure and institutions differently. Changing the people running our existing institutions won’t help.

    In this regard I note that there’s been a rise of ‘Best SF’ anthologies, like ‘Best Extreme SF’, ‘Best Apocalyptic SF’ These anthologies are likely to search further afield, because they have to find works that fit their remit, and maybe Asmiov’s hasn’t published much Apocalyptic SF this year. If such anthologies are one-offs, then they dont’ make much difference, they are just one-off curios. However, if there’s a “Best Hard SF” anthology year-in, year-out, then it will encourage and create a Hard SF market.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, SF is not one thing. Complaining that ‘SF isn’t doing what I want’ is futile, because other people want it to do other things. The best/worst result you will get is that you manage to seize the helm of SF, and fly it where you want it to go, but then lots of people will hate you for that because you’re taking it somewhere they don’t want to go (this is called dictatorship). The next best/worst, is that we try to produce an SF that pleases everyone, and so pleases noone.

    What the genre needs is greater fragmentation, and for the subgenres to become more vibrant in their own right. This will break the ‘pyramid’ structure into lots of little pyramids, which perhaps still isn’t ideal, but it’s better, I think?

    • The problem there is that as writers move up the pyramid, their fiction becomes increasingly commercial and conforms to the extant working definition of “best”. Year’s best editors should be looking further afield and stretching that definition, not reinforcing it.

      • Yeah, that’s just what I was saying. But if we had multiple pyramids, then the writing across all the pyramids would be less conformist. If we have one pyramid then there’s only one standard for people to conform to, alas.

        • But more paying markets is not going to happen. So either people need to take low- and non-paying markets seriously, or writers need to stop striving to be paid top dollar and instead consider other, perhaps artistic, factors.

          • More paying markets is more likely to happen than the other two, I suspect.

            I know you’ve read my post on awards ( I SEE ALL ). Seriously, how much would it cost you to create a ‘Sales Prize’ for… whatever it is that you want to see more of. That way you’d at least get to see some of what you want to see more of, and an award would publicize those stories. I imagine that people compiling ‘Best Of’ anthologies keep an eye on what’s winning the various awards.

            • What would be the point of an award that only a couple of hundred people are going to take note of? Especially given how much it would probably cost me to set it up and run it. Granted, Pornokitsch have been very successful with their Kitschies but a) they work really hard at it, and b) they’re London-based which gives them a natural advantage.

              As for paying markets… The biggest cost in any magazine or anthology are the contents. And if you only sell a few hundred copies, then you might cover your costs but not all the unpaid work you’ve put into it. The sf community comprises a series of concentric spheres, and it takes luck or money to break out into a wider sphere. Despite all the positive reviews online for Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the book is far from a commercial success. Despite being shortlisted for a BSFA Award, SF Mistressworks still gets less than 100 hits a day on average.

              • # What would be the point of an award that only a couple of hundred
                # people are going to take note of?

                That depends on who the couple-of-hundred people are. Movements have always come out of small numbers inititally. Gibson read ‘Burning chrome’ to an audience of four people at a con, but one of those people was Bruce Stirling.

                Also it would at least encourage the production of the kind of writing you want to see. In that regard the only person who needs to take note, is you.

                # Especially given how much it would probably cost me to set it up and run it.

                That’s why you’d need to hook up with like-minded people to spread the load.

                But you could be right, I’m less confident about my ‘awards’ idea than I was when you made your post about the Hugos. However, people aren’t going to stop chasing top dollar, and they aren’t going to start taking the smaller markets seriously, and changing the faces at the top will change nothing important. So, it would seem that change is impossible. But change happens.

                Perhaps though, we don’t drive change, and it can’t be driven, perhaps it moves in its own mysterious ways.

                # Despite all the positive reviews online for Adrift on the Sea of Rains,
                # the book is far from a commercial success.

                You were just saying that writer’s need to abandon their crass materialism! If you want commerical success then write vampire erotica (to be clear, I have nothing against vampire erotica, it services a public need and probably does it well). Terry Mixon of the Dead Robots Society is making a fortune writing erotica under a pen-name. But I don’t think you really want commercial success?

                I liked ‘Adrift on a Sea of Rains’, and I hate everything, and I came to it somewhat hostile given that you’d told me it was a novella with a glossary as long as the story itself. However, I liked it, and trust me that’s a level of success that few writers achieve! Other august figures liked it too. We’d all like to be JKR, but that ain’t gonna happen either.

                At then end of the day we should all be writing primarily for ourselves, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too worried about what’s winning the Hugos. Never worry over what you can’t change, work at what you can change, and focus on the donught, not the hole.

                And a hundred hits a day is pretty big. One hit a day is worth it if it influences a person in the way you want, that would be 356 converts a year.

                • Of course, if you want your commercial and artistic ambitions to be aligned, you really should be writing Vampire Erotica in SPAAAAACE.

                  There’s a whole market there whose needs I bet no-one is servicing.

              • I think that’s the name – I’m actively interested in SF by women (see my website!) but “SF Mistressworks” sounds either misogynist or overcompensating, to me at least. I know it’s a pun on SF Masterworks, but it’s not exactly confidence-inspiring – I’d avoid clicking on it if it came up in a search unless someone explicitly recommended it to me.

                “Master” and “mistress” are not semantically equivalent beyond the gender difference, and “mistress” is often used to overcompensate for the discrimination of women, or even worse, perpetuate misogynist stereotypes. I think Robin Lakoff wrote about this at length. But even people who have not read any of the scholarly discourse can feel this intuitively, I know I did (which is how I came across the Lakoff stuff – I was searching for it) and I’m not even a native speaker.

                (This should not be read as an endorsement of some of the other stuff she wrote, but I think she’s dead on about this one.)

                BTW I think the concept of the site is great and I’d like to see it get more views, so the above is not meant to be disparaging, it’s just one reader’s data point.

                • Mistress (noun) “a woman, specifically one with control, authority or ownership” (from Wiktionary). It doesn’t have the connotation of “expert” but the use of it, as you point out, clearly links to Masterwork. There’s now a Fantasy Mistressworks website, the label has been used on many different blogs. I don’t much care how it’s seen outside the sf community, because that’s not its intended audience. And those within will recognise the reference to masterwork.

                • I can see prezzy’s point about the word, but I wonder if the use of it in SF mistressworks is taking it back? It is being used in the dictionary sense in SF Mistressworks, not the slang sense.

                  Of course, words don’t mean the same thing to any two people who use them. It’s a tough call.

                • Colum, it is, so to speak, a bit fucking late to be moaning about the word now. The site’s been going for a year, it was shortlisted for an award, and it has so far published over 130 reviews of books by women sf writers. So, no, I’m not going to change the name.

                • I wasn’t suggesting you change the name! I was just saying I could see where they were coming from. Overall I don’t think it’s a bad choice of name, but as I said, words mean different things to different people.

      • I beg your pardon, but are you saying that editors should be less commercial. We are employed primarily to be commercial and if we are not, we sooner or later lose our jobs.

        • Jonathan Strahan mentioned on Twitter a past attempt to have an editorial team put together a year’s best anthology, and that while it produced a good anthology it was a commercial failure. Obviously, commercial considerations are part of the equation – but there’s also that use of the word “best”.

  5. I’ve read about 250 short pieces this year and it’s clear to me that (a) that 2012 is a poor year in short fiction, (b) Asimov’s does publish the strongest works and (c) the online markets have dropped off in terms of quality.

    Now this is entirely subjective and only representative of 6 months worth of reading, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Asimov dominates this year in terms of the short stuff. And it won’t just be because the editors don’t look far and wide.

    Also to be fair to editors like Jonathan, Ellen and the Van Dermeers, they’re often asking around for stuff they might have missed.

    • I don’t actually like the sort of short fiction Asimov’s publishes, so they’re far from the “best” for me. To be fair, most of the short fiction I’ve read recently has either been online or in original anthologies.

      • >I don’t actually like the sort of short fiction Asimov’s publishes, so they’re far from the “best” for me.

        Wait, Ian, aren’t you the guy who insists there’s an objective measure of “best” in fiction? Just asking… 😀

  6. Also, with Year’s Bests I find it pretty idealistic to expect that each of the editors is picking the 20 short stories that they thought were “the best” that year. As an editor, Ian, you know that there are all sorts of valid reasons why that might not be the case – including but not limited to: variety of style and subject, variety of length, not including five stories by author A (who had an outstanding year), not including ten stories from publication B (who had an outstanding year, but still…variety), variety of contributor (gender, race, etc), availability of rights and finally good old making sure you have enough marquee authors on the cover so that the thing sells.

    Do I think there’s a closed system determining what gets called “the best”? Not really, I’m afraid. I think that all the above aside editors do read widely (I know Dozois and Datlow certainly do) to give themselves as wide a pool as possible to select from. But, when it comes down to it, they just prefer stories from the big markets. And the big markets get the best stories because the best writers submit to them, because they offer the most money. Which is how it’s always worked.

    Also, I’d say that Asimovs etc are definitely far less heavily represented than they were five, ten years back. Tor are already up there as one of the Big Ones, and the second tier definitely includes CW, SH, Lightspeed, etc. And there are still a whole bunch of decent original anthologies being published which, all in all, makes the range of possible sources pretty wide.

    They may not include the stories that you loved, but when it comes down to it, like awards, anthologies – even year’s bests – are just someone’s opinion.

    To be honest I think all this angst about the shape of the genre is pretty futile. We should all get on with writing the kind of stories we want to write and trying to persuade the publishers to print them.

    • # like awards, anthologies, even year’s bests, are just
      # someone’s opinion.

      Neil, saying that here is close to trolling!

      #To be honest I think all this angst about the shape of the genre
      #is pretty futile. We should all get on with writing the kind of stories
      #we want to write and trying to persuade the publishers to print

      I agree with you here though. Still, it’s always interesting to see some graphs of how things are. But, if we can’t change them, we shouldn’t get too het up about it. People who want something different from the dominant trend will seek out the small presses.

    • I agree that the Big Three are less represented than they used to be, but I still think they still contribute to the shape of the genre. This post was just a bit of number-crunching to see if whatever preconceptions I held were true.

      Like you say Dozois picks the stories he likes, and Asimov’s publishes the sort of stories he likes… so the circle reinforces itself. Perhaps year’s best anthos should not have single editors? Perhaps more people need to be involved? Because if Dozois’ definition of best does nothing for me, then he doesn’t speak for me and he’s not defining a genre which means anything to me.

      • > if Dozois’ definition of best does nothing for me, then he doesn’t speak for me and he’s not defining a genre which means anything to me.

        But really, so what? To be honest with you the way I’ve always approached Year’s Bests is to mentally unpack the title to “selected from among the year’s best stories” or “among the year’s best stories”. You obviously can’t put those on the title because of…you know, marketing… so it becomes “Year’s Best”, but it’s still someone’s opinion, someone’s selection.

        I’m really not sure why you have this bonnet bee about what represents the best of SF in anthologies or awards, or “the current state of the genre” generally speaking. Actually I’ve never understood why people in the genre have such a yen to self-chronicle, but that’s by the by. More to the point I don’t really believe that there’s that strong a link between award nominated/year’s best anthologised stories and “shaping” current trends. Are we suggesting her that enough writers look at what’s currently meant to be “the best” and attempt to ape that to better their chance of sales rather than plug on gamely pursuing their own artistic vision that a few editorial choices or awards can swing the bulk of what’s being written?

        If so, I don’t think I know any of those writers.

        • Should have finished that thought off with:

          Is it not more likely that one or two visionary authors with a strong and individualistic sense of style make a big splash suddenly catch everyone’s attention, garner awards and reprints, and latterly a slew of imitators?

          There have several such in recent years: Mieville, Vandermeer, Chiang, Valente and now, it seems, Ken Liu.

          For my money, strong, original voices make the biggest impacts in the perceived topography of the genre landscape.

      • Ian, Gardner–and any other editor–publish what they enjoy and want to see more of. I’ve a suggestion for those magazines who are concerned that they are not being represented in Year’s Best anthologies: submit your works. Abyss & Apex is a second (or third) tier market, but we consistently get honorable mentions in places like YBSF because we submit our author’s works. We went from 2,000 hits a year to over 2,500 a day because we promote our authors regarding things like that. And what’s really astonishing is that 25% of our authors are first-time publications. It’s not a closed system or an endless feedback loop. But there’s just so much for Year’s Best editors to read that a publication has to work with them by providing memorable stories and submitting to Year’s Best and genre awards in an intelligent fashion.

  7. It really is a pity that there isn’t room for a Best of British Science Fiction anthology… or am I wrong?

    • Ah, but we’d have to find a master anthologist to put it together, and none of us know one of those…

      • It’s not the need for a master anthologist that’s the problem… it’s the need to fund the project. If we want to publish the best of British, the best of British will want paying top rates.
        If we were to put an anthology together of the best upcoming British authors, then we could use the kickstarter method to raise funds for the costs and use London World Con 3 in 2014 as a launch pad. Financially this is more of a goer.

        • We produced volumes of Scottish fiction for both the 1995 and 2005 Glasgow Worldcons. The first was self funded, the second was through the excellent Mercat Press for whom our business case was: thousands of Worldcon attendees are coming to Scotland, and we want to show case what Scotland can do. I only say this because there would have been no business case any other time. Loncon3 is the ideal time to do a Best Of British SF (Or English SF, or London SF, or all three), but I don’t think it would necessarily be meaningful to do it any other time.

          • If this is a good idea… who’s willing to help out to do what? And what experience do they have?

            • I have no experience. I would be willing to help out, but you and I Rosie aren’t heavy hitters. We need some heavy hitters to get attention, people who know people and know what they’re doing.

              I think it should be British SF. Worldcon is coming to Britain, not just England or London. Also Scotland is, in my opinion, the strongest source of SF in the isles, and can’t be left out.

              What about the Welsh? I’m ignorant of whether there’s a Welsh scene? If there isn’t, maybe this is a chance to do something to encourage one?

              The ‘best of British’ might want paying top rates, but that would mean the Anthology would mostly be full of established authors. Is that what we want? Do we want a ‘best of’ or to showcase what’s being done in different areas by different people? We should think about what the purpose of this anthology is, and what uses it can serve.

              • Totally agree something like the Best of British (upcoming) science fiction has to be a team effort. But the first thing is to find out how many people are willing to help out and how they can help. That to a certain extent will contribute to the form of the anthology. For instance I have a good track record in proof reading (so long as it’s not my own manuscript!).

                It also needs to have Loncon 3 organisers agree to such a proposal. Which means it has to be done to certain minimum standards of representation and presentation.

                It all boils own to a balancing act between what can be practically done and would we would like seen done.

                So, are there any other volunteers?

  8. As it looks like Ian does not seem to be interested in the Best of British SF anthology for Loncon3 idea, I think it’s better to take this discussion off his website. I’ll put a post on mine next weekend as another place to gauge interest.
    In the meantime, I’ll try and find out if Loncon3 have had any interest in this type of thing – they may know of a variant, in which it would be sensible to join forces if practicable.
    I’ll be at Bristolcon myself… have fun at Fantasycon for those that are attending…

    • Rosie – one thing I would say is that you wouldn’t necessarily need to try and make it an official Loncon3 publication. They *might* be interested in being involved, but they might not. The ones we launched at the Glasgow Worldcons were done entirely independently of the running of the con itself.

      If you want to pick my brains at all, feel free to drop me a line.

      • Your offer of advice based on experience is most welcome, thank you. I’ll certainly be in touch.
        I suspect Loncon3 organisers will have their hands full organising the the Con. What I want to make sure through them is that we are not treading on their toes / plans and that in principle they would be happy for the anthology launch at Loncon3.
        Bets Wishes, Rosie

    • I’m not disinterested, and would be willing to offer help and advice. But I’m not ready yet to jump into editing another anthology. Thinking about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian Whates was thinking about doing something for Loncon 3 himself.

      • Ian – I appreciate where you’re coming from re the editing front.

        Having been part of a larger anthology team, I know that many hands make light work. The work was done before we knew it, even though there were times when it felt like all hands to the pump. Hence the gauging of interest in helping out exercise.

        Loncon3 seems too good an opportunity to miss to give British SF wider publicity… so let’s see what we can do to make it happen.

        Your offer is much appreciated, thank you.

  9. The reason the Big 3, and Clarkesworld gets the “best” stories? Pretty obvious. They pay the best and have the most readers.

    • Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But what if someone submits an excellent story and they don’t like it? Perhaps it’s not genre enough, perhaps it doesn’t something different… The Big 3 may be receiving the best stories, but it doesn’t follow they’re publishing them.

  10. Pingback: British Science Fiction Needs You! Yes, YOU! « Rosie Oliver

  11. Pingback: Shaping sf « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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