Neil Clarke spoke at length during a kaffeklatsch at Boskone about editing and publishing. Having submitted a half-dozen manuscripts to Clarkeworld, with none of them selected, I was interested to have more insight into what he’s looking for. But he just said, “Surprise me.” He then went to go on to about thematic things he doesn’t like or wouldn’t like. He talked about how the statistics of what he’s accepted historically are misleading, because they don’t really predicted what the next thing is. Although he uses them to try to maintain balance, for example, in terms of accepting manuscripts from international authors. In other countries, the markets for short fiction are limited or absent — or are actually overwhelmed by work translated from American sources. Some local authors can benefit from the “pedestal effect” of having their work appear in the US market and then get translated for distribution back home.
He spoke at some length about the state of the small press. He argues that most short fiction outlets are functionally small press (with a few notable exceptions like Tor.com). Many struggled during the pandemic, but things seem to be normalizing. The biggest problem is not quality or supply, but in getting people to pay for what they consume. (Only about 7% of readers pay for what they read.) The lack of funds means that a lot of the labor involved (e.g. editing) is unpaid, which makes these outlets vulnerable to illness or burnout. We need to find some way to make the finances work better.
Someone asked about using a paywall to let people see some amount for free. But he said that model, which might work for news, wasn’t satisfactory for fiction. Authors want their stuff to be out where people can see it — especially for the fan-nominated awards. If people can’t read your stuff, they can’t nominate it. And, in fact, there was evidence to suggest that stories that were in anthologies — or paywalled — were at higher risk for not being nominated for fan-based awards.
I asked about alternate financing models, e.g. Patreon and Kickstarter. He said he thought they were OK and, in fact, he uses Patreon his own self. But had concerns about using Kickstarter, which he said was like a “sword of Damocles” hanging over your head. It might be OK for seed money to start something, but subscriptions are more predictable: you may have some lapses and some new ones every year, but more likely to be incremental in terms of changes.
A key problem with small presses is that, since it doesn’t really pay for itself, it often depends on free labor. He indicated he had declined to pay himself for his editorial work for years, to “re-invest” the revenues back into the press. After some personal reverses, he decided he wanted to quit his day job to focus on the press full-time, and that it took 5 years, but that he had accomplished that. (Although, he admitted, his wife still had a day job).
In the end, he said he enjoyed working with short fiction: its where experimentation happens, so its constantly changing and evolving — it’s what drives the field. The money quote:
“It’s not negative to notice the problems [in publishing]: it’s negative to do nothing about them.” —Neil Clarke