The debate over the fate of the science fiction genre keeps on popping up; it often gets intertwined with another discussion – that of the fate of the short story publications – the ‘pulp magazines’ (which in turn often gets mashed up with the ‘is short fiction dying’ discussion). And lets not forget the companion debate – is fandom dying/graying?
I think that one of the reasons that these four inter-related discussions get grouped together is the result of an historical legacy: science fiction, as a recognizable genre, began when a market was created for it with the introduction of several pulp magazine – Weird Tales, Thrill Book, Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories primary among them.
In the minds of many, a robust field of monthly publications is synonymous with the health of the genre as a whole.
Due to the nature of the publications serving the field, shorter works of fiction (and markets for them) were also closely tied to the perception of what the SF&F field actually was. (Consider that most ‘novels’ published during the golden age were serializations first and rarely ran more than 200 some odd pages when published in book form and you’ll begin to see how deeply the magazines influenced everything.)
Anthologies of the day were reprint publications rather than original publications – not separate markets that could be sold to. The original anthology, soliciting new work directly, is a relatively recent innovation.
So it seems natural for anyone even remotely familiar with the history of science fiction publishing to use the monthly, short story buying magazine as a place to take its pulse.
Plenty of others have pointed out numerous reasons why this is an incorrect measure: electronic markets, more room for novel length material (and better pay for potentially less work), the number of original anthologies with decent backing and so on.
But folks still persist in pointing to the ‘Big Three’, noting their declining subscription base and getting all hepped up over the future of the genre.
So, rather than trying to approach this debate head – on, I decided to get to the root of it all and ask if the magazines really are dying. And I think the answer is “No”.
The first thing I did was to graph the history of science fiction and fantasy magazine publications from the ‘beginning’ (which I define as the first year that a regular publication that featured SFnal content appeared on the newsstands). I wanted to see how ‘now’ compares to the historical record.
I restricted this first look to US – based publications only, professional publications (along with just a few highly-regarded and well-distributed semi-prozines) and didn’t include e-zines because they’re almost completely impossible to track, not to mention being a part of the debate itself (are they the future…?).
So here’s the graph:
It runs from 1913 (introduction of the Electrical Experimenter) through 2008. Each block represents one year vertically and one title on the newstands horizontally. Just to make sure you are all reading it correctly, the bottom row of blocks (green) is for 2008 and it’s showing 7 publications being distributed for that year. Similarly, 1926 (also green) shows three publications (Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Science & Invention).
Which brings me to the next caveat: Amazing Stories hit the stands in April of 1926, yet it is still given credit for the ‘year’. All of the publications were treated in this manner. Many were published irregularly, so a title’s entry for a particular year may only represent a single issue – or a full year’s worth. Some titles represented above were quarterlies (4 times per year), some ‘annuals’ (one big issue), some bi-monthly and some simply tried their best.
Finally, in cases where a magazine ceased and then resumed publication at a later date, two (or more) entries for that title are represented. Amazing Stories ceased publication in ’96 and resumed in 2004, so it is added in for all of the years from 1926 to 1996, not represented from ’97 to ’03, and is seen once again for the years 2004 and 2005.
The axis across the top of the graph shows the ‘total number of individual titles’. The highest this ever climbed to was 37 in 1953.
Some folks may be confused by seeing seven titles for the present year. That’s because regular magazine publishing of SFnal content goes on in places other than the Big Three. The titles for 2008 are: Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Starlog, Weird Tales and Heavy Metal. Certainly my definition of what constitutes an SF magazine may be questioned and quibbled, but the intent is clear. Adding a few titles in (SciFi.com, for example) or taking a couple out doesn’t really change the results all that much because,
what we’re looking at is certainly a low point on the graph, but nothing all that unusual.
If you were to adjust the 60s by removing the reprint titles (most from Ultimate Publishing corp) and adjust the 50s by removing the really low-end publications that were almost universally despised by authors and readers alike and adjust the 40s by removing the quarterly reprint rags, the graph would be much more even across the decades.
Without getting into deep statistical analysis, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the current state of affairs, while being at the low end of activity, is still well within the normal range of what we’ve been seeing from the beginning of the field.