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Neil Clarke on The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Reviews

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Clarkesworld 108-smallNeil Clarke, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the award winning Clarkesworld magazine, has some pretty harsh words on the utility of short fiction reviews in our industry.

The sad truth about short fiction reviews is that the overwhelming majority of them have little-to-no impact on readership. After monitoring the incoming traffic for the online version of this magazine for nine years, I can say that the typical review has a statistically insignificant impact on the readership of a story or issue. The only notable exception to this has been reviews on high traffic sites, like io9 or Tor.com, that focus specifically on a single story. As the number of stories in a review increases, there’s a dramatic drop-off in story readership.

“Oh, but that’s not the purpose of a review.” Yes, reviews have many purposes and sometimes their impact on readership can be secondary. For example, a good review in Locus may indicate good chances at being on their recommended reading list. That might have an influence on other award nominations as well. If a story happens to make one of those ballots, it definitely has an impact, but that’s a very small percentage of the stories reviewed in a year.

Shouldn’t reviews of good stories have the effect of encouraging people to read the story?

With all due respect, I think Neil is missing the essential point of short fiction reviews. I bought and published short fiction for over a decade, and one thing I learned was, with a handful of exceptions, nobody writes short fiction for the money. They write to reach an audience, and because they have something to say. Short story writers, in a very real sense, are paid with the acclaim they receive.

Neil is focused on selling his magazine. I get that. But as long as his magazine is healthy, there are things that more important to his writers than how many copies he sells.

World Fantasy Award Nominee

World Fantasy Award Nominee

Sites like Tangent Online, The Fix Short Fiction Review, Goodreads, and Locus Online, reviewed virtually every issue we published, and those reviews were solid gold. To most of the writers I published, that feedback meant far more than the check we sent them.

Sure, it would be wonderful if short fiction reviews also increased traffic. Neil is correct to say that, by and large, they don’t. But after publishing six Morlock stories in Black Gate magazine, James Enge went on to sell two Morlock trilogies to Pyr Books, and be nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the first one, Blood of Ambrose. That happened because reviewers were raving about the stories, not because every issue of Black Gate that had a James Enge story sold better than the ones that didn’t.

The very first short story I purchased for Black Gate, Devon Monk’s marvelous “Stitchery,” eventually grew into her series House Immortal, as we first revealed here. We published acclaimed stories by Cory Doctorow, Harry Connolly, Howard Andrews Jones, John R. Fultz, Myke Cole, Jonathan L. Howard, Sarah Avery, C.S.E. Cooney, ElizaBeth Gilligan, Ellen Klages, David B. Coe, Peadar O Guilin, Don Bassingthwaite, Judith Berman, Charles Coleman Finlay, Michael Canfield, Gaie Sebold, and countless others long before they’d published their first novels.

What made it possible for those writers to launch great careers wasn’t how many copies of Black Gate I sold. It was the acclaim they received for the fiction they published here, and elsewhere. It was getting their name out. It was the encouragement they received when they were just getting started, in places like Tangent Online, Locus, and the countless blogs and podcasts by excited readers who took a few moments to say, “Damn! I just read a great story over at Black Gate — you gotta check it out!”

Now, I know Neil knows all this. I hardly need to lecture him on the power of short fiction to launch careers, or how much a good review means to a writer who’s just getting started. But I think maybe, with all this admirable laser-focus he’s maintained over the years to grow Clarkesworld into the success it is today, perhaps he’s forgotten that the men and women who put so much unpaid time into writing reviews of his stories, don’t necessarily do it to help Clarkesworld. They just want to share with the world this great new writer they’ve found.

Clarkesworld is one of the best venues on the market to launch a writing career today. That’s because reviewers, agents, publishers, and readers pay close attention to every issue, and because those appearing in its pages today are the ones publishing the award-winning novels of tomorrow. All that is made possible because of the attention the magazine gets in reviews, blogs, and elsewhere.

Maybe that attention doesn’t help sell individual issues the way Neil would like. But I think he’d sure miss it if it was gone.

Read Neil’s article in its entirety here, and see our coverage of the last issue of Clarkesworld here.

Foo 1 Comment »

  1. Hi John! I am testing the BG upgrade. Also I completely disagree with everything you said. Also, sad puppies, etc. Good day.

    Comment by David Munger - September 7, 2015 1:20 am


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