A New Golden Age of Short SFF: How Genre’s Earliest Days Are Informing Its Future

shortsfScience fiction was birthed in the short form: stories that numbered in the thousands of words, which distilled big concepts down into fast-moving adventures that filled the cheap pulp of thousands of disposable magazines. It was decades before the genre flirted with novel-length stories, a change brought on by the emergence of the mass market paperback, the advent of chain bookstores, and the rise of dedicated genre publishers. And yet, the rise of the novel meant a decades-long decline in the prominence of shorter SFF…at least, until recently: thanks to online magazines and traditional publishers alike, the format is experience something of a second golden age—though this time, the stories are filling not magazines, but our smartphones and ereaders.

Short fiction has never vanished from the science fiction world, but by the 1990s, only a handful of major magazines persisted; pulled along by an ever-smaller number of loyal readers, Asimov’s, Analog, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction carried on a long tradition of excellence. It wasn’t until the advent of the internet that short fiction found a new home: entire websites dedicated to short SFF. Some were short-lived: Redstone Science Fiction lasted all of two years; Heliotrope, three years; Helix, two years; Sci Fiction, five years; and so forth. Others have thrived, like Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, independent entities that have racked up awards and prestige. (Full disclosure: I write nonfiction for Lightspeed Magazine).

Publishers have taken note. Tor.com, an offshoot of Tor Books, was established in 2008 as a venue to publish short fiction as well as serve as a hub of genre news.  Tor.com Marketing & Publicity Manager Mordicai Knode noted that one of the greatest successes of the site has been that, “it is publisher neutral. Obviously Tor has a lot invested in the site, [and] the site has a lot invested in Tor, but there’s also a firewall in-between the two, for good reason.” Since its inception, Tor.com has covered the width and breadth of genre fandom, and has become a “community site, a place for fans [and] readers to congregate [and] discuss, [and] the content reflect that; including the reviews.”

Funded by a major publisher, Tor.com has had the ability to innovate and experiment, paying top rates to secure choice material and creating original art for each story, not to mention releasing them all for free on the web (downloadable copies are available in ebook format for $.99). The modelproved successful enough to warrant further growth. Plans to establish a new imprint, Tor.com Publishing, were announced in 2014, trumpeting the fact that, “ebooks offer greater flexibility than print publishing in terms of story length and publication schedule, greatly increasing the options that both new and experienced authors have in getting their fiction to the market.” Tor.com Publishing titles are released as ebooks or in print-on-demand editions (the latter format proved so unexpectedly successful that it became more cost effective to switch to a traditional bulk publishing model).

In late 2015, Tor.Com Publishing launched its first wave of short books in a relatively unoccupied publishing niche: the novella. Knode noted that the format requires much less of a time commitment from authors, and moreover, “that by publishing novellas, we can work with a fun selection of authors.  There are a lot of writers who might be otherwise engaged, but have a novella or novella idea kicking around in their head that their current publisher doesn’t have a home for.” Early response is nothing to scoff at: one of their launch titles, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson, recently picked up the Crawford Award.

Tor isn’t the only publisher eyeing serialization and shorter works. Harper Voyager, the genre imprint of HarperCollins, has also been experimenting with digital-first publishing and shorter works. Executive Editor David Pomerico noted that the biggest shift that they’ve seen “is what you would expect with innovative technology in an established field: speed.” In 2012, they launched a new program called Voyage Impulse, through which they published newly acquired short novels and novellas as ebooks first, with the print edition following several weeks later. With their first call for submissions in 2012, they received over 4,500 manuscripts. Pomerico said the format allows books to “publish within six months of receiving the manuscript and contract, as opposed to a more typical nine months to a year for a hardcover or trade paperback.”

Pomerico said Harper Voyager took some cues from a wave of self-publishing success stories: authors who had established themselves by self-publishing their own novels or serials and nurturing groups of dedicated readers: purchasing a novel or series from these authors allows publishers to tap into a group of readers they might have otherwise missed.

Sorter works and faster turnaround times have allowed authors to experiment a bit more, and to write new works between novels or other major projects, while allowing the publisher to devote more time to a wider range of genres. Harper Voyager’s program has been highly successful: in 2014, they announced that they would be expanding their experiment into a larger program, with more books to be published in 2015 and beyond. Recently, they’ve seen success with a novella series Los Nefilim, a novella series from epic fantasy author Theresa Frohock.

The flexibility of the web affords publishers  other unique opportunities. Orbit Books launched the Orbit Shorts program, which saw a range of tie-in short fiction from authors such as T.C. McCarthy and James S.A. Corey, producing short “in-betweenquels” that slot into longer series. Corey’s Gods of Risk, The Churn and The Vital Abyss flesh out the larger world of The Expanse, and N.K. Jemisin wrote a series of short stories set in the world of her Inheritance Trilogy, collected in an eBook entitled Shades in Shadow and the novella The Awakened Kingdom. Orbit is also serializing a lengthy epic fantasy novel by K.J. Parker, The Two of Swords, that has released 18 installments since April of 2015.

Not all innovations came at the hands of major publishers. Founded by Ana Grilo and Thea James in 2008, The Book Smugglers began life as a review site within the speculative fiction world. In October 2014, Grilo and James founded a new venture, Book Smugglers Publishing, a small publishing house dedicated to “original short fiction featuring subversive, feminist, and diverse perspectives;” namely, stories that might have had trouble in the wider marketplace, with a built-in readership to support them. More recently, the site announced plans to publish longer works; a novella program is slated to launch in 2017, with four releases per year. In March 2016, they released their first novel, Broken, by Susan Jane Bigelow, a reprint of a book originally published in 2011; remaining installments of the series are planned for later this year.

Some publishers have decided to change up the publishing game altogether. Serial Box is a startup founded by Julian Yap and Molly Barton in 2015. Their approach is different: they look not for novellas or novels but serialized works, with a plan to release them in weekly “episodes” akin to the latest installment of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The series are run on a “writer’s room” model, with multiple contributing authors; successful stories can be renewed for future “seasons.”

Their first series, Bookburners, was written by authors Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty and Brian Frances Slattery, was released in 16 parts; others followed, including The Witch Who Came In From The Cold (written by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone) and Tremontaine (written by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover). Serial Box stories experiment with the form and focus on readability—specifically on devices such as phones and tablets.

Despite Serial Box’s approach as a digital-first imprint, their stories will be available as print novels: in early March, they announced a partnership with Saga Press to release physical editions of their first three story arcs in 2016 and 2017.

The web has had a strange affect on the science fiction publishing world: while some decry the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, it has created new opportunities for publishers and writers alike, allowing them to break from the traditional business model—sometimes by going back to the genre’s earliest roots. While full-length, traditionally delivered novels are undoubtedly here to stay, the process to acquire, publish, and promote them has been upended, allowing books that might never before have seen the inside of a bookstore to find their own passionate readers.

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