There’s a big discussion…

There's a big discussion going on at the Rumor Mill about SFWA's proposed new rate increase to 5 cents/word. I'm not sure how SH will respond to this -- we're discussing it now. But I do think it's sort of funny, that by far the easiest way for us to conform to SFWA's new rate guidelines would be to buy far fewer stories (paying the new rate). We publish 51 stories/year right now (we take a week of for the holidays). I think SFWA just requires that markets publish quarterly (heh, and I'm not sure how many stories they require, if any. I wonder if a magazine could publish one story quarterly and qualify?) -- so we could easily chop a whole bunch of slots from the schedule and still meet SFWA's guidelines. Doesn't seem like it'd be so good for writers, does it?

I'm not actually objecting to a rate increase in principle, btw -- that's what SFWA's for, in some sense, looking out for writers. It's just funny that the most likely consequence of this increase would be to hurt more writers than it helps. Counter-intuitive, I know. Poor SFWA. It's not easy, being the professionalism police.

19 thoughts on “There’s a big discussion…”

  1. Tiny nitpick: we’ve actually been publishing 52 stories a year, counting Ben’s and Jay’s sets of short-shorts as a single story apiece—our vacation week slot has been, in a way, distributed over the full year.

  2. Sorry, nitpick to my nitpick: I meant to say we’ve been publishing 52 weeks’ worth of fiction a year. Not actually 52 stories, ’cause we usually publish about three stories a year that are split across two weeks.

    And even my original comment was probably pickier than anyone but me cared about, so I’ll stop now.

  3. SH is an unusual case as a donor-driven not-for-profit.

    Most magazines, if they decided to meet the new guidelines by scaling back production would lose readers, advertising pages, have to lower their subscription rates, etc. Webzines that have a profit model would lose some return traffic and click-throughs. SH probably would as well, but it just wouldn’t matter because SH is run by donations — folks are generally donating to the “concept” of SH.

    At any rate, since stories aren’t purchased randomly or arbitrarily, it is still better for writers to have higher paying slots than lower paying ones. Submissions aren’t about “the odds,” but about whether one’s story matches an editor’s beliefs as to what a good story is. I’d rather submit in a marketplace made up of 5 markets that pay five cents a word than a marketplace with 7 markets that pay three cents a word.

  4. I don’t know that we’re such an unusual case in that regard — consider a museum. If they only fill half their galleries and leave the others empty, it’s going to badly hurt their reputation and probably their visitation rates will go down. We aren’t as strictly tied to a particular number of readers to maintain profitability as most of the mags are, but we do, overall, strongly value our reputation and our increasing readership. So we do have to think about what our readers want — that doesn’t necessarily translate to being particularly good for writers, though.

    I’m not really arguing the principle, Nick. I think the principle of raising rates is obviously sound. It’s just that in practical fact, we publish far more stories than we need to at the moment, if all we cared about were meeting SFWA’s requirements. And the easiest way to meet SFWA’s increased rate requirements would be to cut stories.

    Luckily for the writers, we also do care about having lots of slots available to them. And I do think that’s something writers should care about. Think of it this way — would you, as a writer, rather that we published 50 stories a year at 4 cents/word, or 5 stories a year at 40 cents/word? Same budget for us, and if we published one story quarterly, with say a bonus piece for Christmas, we would still meet the SFWA requirements. It’d be very nice for those writers who we did buy stories from — instead of making $200 for a sale to us, they’d make $2000! But overall, it would be bad for readers, and sad for those 45 writers we didn’t publish.

    The argument could run the other way too, of course — we could right now publish 4 stories a week, 200 stories a year, at 1 cent/word, without affecting our budget. Publish a hell of a lot more writers, at semi-pro rates.

    In the end, it’s just a question of where we want to strike our balance — figuring out what’s best for the magazine, for the readers, *and* for the writers. We’re thinking about that right now.

    The plan has always been to raise rates for fiction, btw (as well as for other departments) — but the question we’re facing is whether we should do it now, or whether we should let the SFWA qualification fall by the wayside for the moment, and stay on our original schedule instead. We’ll see.

  5. The museum analogy doesn’t hold. Having empty galleries would certainly hurt, but we’re not talking about a situation where the absense qua absense is visible.

    Most markets don’t provide weekly content. A better analogy would be a museum moving into smaller quarters. SH would be “moving” into quarters the size of other webzines and print digests if it went monthly or quarterly. Or, it could just shorten the length of stories, thus buying 80,000 words annually rather than 100,000, without any change to the fiction budget.

    SH’s reputation is certainly based partially on coming out like clockwork while many other non-corporate zines just offer excuses, but biannual projects like Polyphony or monthlies like SciFiction have similar or superior reputations with much less production.

    If you paid 40 cents a word, I don’t see why it would be bad for readers or reputation, given the writers whom you would be able to solicit at that rate. Strange Horizons presents a new story by Jonathan Lethem… sounds pretty good to me. 🙂 I don’t read stories in the way I buy carpeting. One good story is worth far more to me as a reader than ten unremarkable ones. One of my favorite magazines in fact is One Story.

    As a writer, I’m the same. In my little submissions list, Razor, which publishes no more than ten stories a year, tops my list. They pay $1000 and have 300,000 readers. I’ve sold them three stories so far. Perhaps I could have sold these stories to F&SF too, but the fact that F&SF publishes more stories doesn’t make that so. I know the Razor audience and have sold to two different editors there; my sensibility is closer to Razor than F&SF.

    The second market on my list is Brutarian, which buys no more than four stories a year, and pays 10 cents. I’ve sold to them too — I read it religiously and know that audience (garage/underground/dark fantasy-satire) very well. Then SciFiction, F&SF, and SH (though SH actually floats in between markets frequently, email submissions are sometimes easier than going to the post office). Of that group, I’ve sold only to SH, probably because I read SH more frequently than the other magazines.

    Sensibility trumps slotting in selling, at least for me as a writer. If, for example, Dreams Of Decadence came out every week, I don’t believe that my chances of selling to them would go up, because they publish crap and I don’t write crap :). If The New Yorker published three stories per issue instead of one, I don’t think my chances would go up there either.

    At any rate, I hope I don’t come off as hassling you to raise your rents (but you know, pay up! 😉 ); I just don’t think the slot paradigm necessarily serves writers OR readers, unless stories are published by random chance.

  6. I think that the slot paradigm can be kind of insidious in some ways, and I certainly agree that no individual writer’s “chances” necessarily go up by making more slots available.

    But if we look at the field as a whole, rather than at an individual writer, there’s some value in thinking in terms of available slots. If the New Yorker published three stories per issue instead of one, it seems likely that they would take stories from more authors. One of our goals at SH is to expand the field; we actively want to publish more authors (though, as Mary Anne noted, there’s certainly a balance to be found; if our only goal were to publish more authors, we could publish hundreds of authors and not pay them at all). That goal doesn’t help you individually to get published, nor to get paid, but I feel that it does help the field at large.

    Shortening the average length of the stories we buy would indeed also help with budget issues—but then there are other tradeoffs. We’ve recently had a larger than usual number of really good stories over 5000 words long; reducing the total annual wordcount we buy would reduce the number of such stories we could buy (especially since we want to have a minimum payment of $50 for short-shorts to meet a different new SFWA requirement).

    So there are a lot of tradeoffs among sometimes-conflicting goals, and the problem is finding the right balance among them.

  7. I may be ignorant, but can’t you subsidize space (sort of) by featuring upcoming artists that just want exposure and don’t need to get paid (meaning they let you publish whatever piece of work you like but they retain all rights, etc and don’t get paid for the publication). does it that way.

  8. Ericka– technically we could, I guess, but we’re pretty firmly committed to the idea that writers deserve to get paid for their work.

  9. Susan’s comment in response to Ericka addresses the main point, but there are also at least two other issues involved:

    (1) We don’t want to be in the position of choosing between two stories, one that we like a lot but we’d have to pay for, and another that we don’t like as much but that would be free. There are certainly financial factors involved in choosing stories, but we try to minimize them, attempting to focus primarily on story quality.

    (2) SFWA has always required that original fiction be paid for at professional rates. So publishing fiction that we weren’t paying for would disqualify us from being considered a pro market by SFWA standards.

  10. Jed,

    Not sure if SFWA would like/dislike this, but one possible thought – as a non-profit you can accept donations, could a writer be paid, but then donate their payment back to StrangeHorizons to support other writers who have a greater need of the paid sale?

    Clearly not a great option for most writers, but perhaps it would be an option that a few writers each year could be in a position to take, especially if it helped strangehorizons maintain professional rates and payments for new and emerging writers?

    I know that a lot of people who would normally bill for their time often work for non-profits in a similar manner – that is, they submit a bill but then directly donate the money back (or waive the payment).

  11. We’ve been discussing this topic lately in other venues, and I’m wondering what the appeal to you, as a market, is in being pro-paying?

    I may be the Anti-Nick with my views towards submission here, as there are markets that pay next to nothing who I will submit to before some that are fiscally pro because I think the semipro magazines print the sort of things I want to be associated with, or because the pros are horribly managed and really annoying overall. So, even assuming that no markets will change their rates or close or anything, I don’t know how much my submission policy would change, as I’m not in this *just* for the SFWA membership so much as for the long haul, and the right credits.

    So basically, I’m wondering what the pro issue looks like from the other side of the fence here.

  12. Oops, I think I lost track of my point in there, which I think actually brings me back to what Nick was saying which is, if you want to pay authors, but accept that you can’t pay them enough to really matter anyways, then what is the difference to you as a market between paying 4 cents a word and paying 5 cents a word when the difference to the author will be so minimal? It seems to me, from the outside and all, that what is important to you as a magazine is some money, lots of stories, because if it truly was the money that mattered, like Nick said, you’d pay the big bucks for many fewer stories.

    At least that’s how I see it, basically. So I wonder, what does the pro distinction mean to you that it would balance fewer stories?

    Gosh, I hope that made sense.

  13. Re Shannon’s question: it’s fine with us if writers decide—after they get paid—to donate some or all of their payment to any organization they want to support, including us. But if the writer chooses to donate back to us, I don’t want to know about it even after the fact, and I certainly don’t want to know ahead of time that the writer is planning to do that, because of two of the same issues mentioned earlier: we feel that writers deserve to be paid for their work, and we don’t want to ever choose a story (or, for that matter, even look like we chose a story) on the basis of knowing it’s going to cost us less than another story of the same length would cost. I want us to only publish stories that we’re willing to pay our full rates for; what the author does with the money later is up to them.

    (And the reason I don’t want to know about it even after the fact if an author donates money to us is that I don’t want it to influence my judgment of their future subs. I don’t want to be thinking, even in the back of my mind, “We should take this story ’cause the author always donates money back to us, so it’ll probably cost us less.”)

    Another way to think about it is that I never want anyone we publish to feel pressured to donate money to us. If it ever even looks like we’re giving preference to authors who donate their payments back to us, we immediately lose credibility as a market.

  14. Celia: since I seem to be taking over Mary Anne’s comments page, I’ll post a brief response from my PoV (which is not, btw, an official statement from the magazine). I may address this issue, among others, in much more detail in my journal later.

    It seems to me that the advantages to authors of our raising our rates, aside from any question of getting more money for a specific story, include: (1) for authors who want to join SFWA but aren’t members yet, it gives them a pro credit (though this aspect is irrelevant for those who don’t want to join SFWA or are already members); and (2) indirect benefit: retaining pro status lets us continue to maintain a certain level of respectability with at least some of the established sf community, and being published in a more-respected venue is better for an author than being published in a less-respected venue. Certainly there are ways other than having SFWA recognition to gain respect in the community; there are plenty of venues that aren’t recognized by SFWA but nonetheless are well-respected, especially by certain parts of the field. But an online magazine already has strikes against it from the point of view of the established print-publishing world; we’re slowly trying to change that, but we can arguably do so more effectively if we can say “we meet the standards set by SFWA to be labeled as pro.” Does that make sense?

    (Also, of course, all else being equal, we would rather pay authors more money for their work than not.)

  15. I may be the Anti-Nick with my views towards submission here, as there are markets that pay next to nothing who I will submit to before some that are fiscally pro because I think the semipro magazines print the sort of things I want to be associated with

    Oh, I’m all for doing this. I’ve never submitted to Asimov’s, for example because I don’t like it, and wouldn’t like it even if it paid a buck a word. Luckily, many of the magazines I do like do pay pro or super-pro rates.

  16. I only submit to markets I like, which means I submit two stories a year 🙂

    But you’ll notice, in my defense, that I never ask “Why don’t I sell more?”

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