Literary headwinds

Alex Shvartsman of Future Science Fiction on why he's putting the magazine on hiatus and the challenges SF magazines face

Literary headwinds
Image: UFO Publishing

The Golden Age of Science Fiction of the 1940s and early 1950s left something of an outsized impact on the history of the genre. It produced some incredible stories and launched the careers of a number of authors, but it was a reasonably short period, one that saw a significant constriction when the distribution market collapsed in the 1950s.

Prior to that point, you could find magazines of all flavors at grocery and drug stores, news stands, and a number of other retail outlets, brought along there by distributors that bridged the gap between publisher and retailer. When paperback novels began hitting stores, they followed along on those established supply chains.

It was in the 1950s that one of the biggest distributors, the American News Company, collapsed. The company faced antitrust litigation in the 50s, and major publishers, sensing some challenges for the company, began to pull out. As ANC saw its customers depart (and as some went under), it abruptly went under, which had the added effect of pulling countless smaller magazines and publishers under with it.

Science fiction magazines persisted, but in far fewer numbers. And those that did survive faced numerous, familiar problems: competition from other forms of media, other magazines, the rise of television and movies, and subscribers who've become picky with their income. The rise of the internet has been something of a boon for creators, as launching an outlet dedicated to short fiction has become easier, and we've seen the rise of outlets like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and plenty of others grow and hold a sustained presence online, while plenty of others have risen and fallen.

Introducing Fran Wilde’s new SF/F publication: Sunday Morning Transport
Introducing Julian Yap and Fran Wilde’s new weekly speculative fiction magazine, Sunday Morning Transport

Launching a publication might be easy (or at least easier), but sustaining one takes a considerable amount of work. In recent weeks, we've seen some new challenges arrive that shows just how thin the margins can be, and that keeping those subscribers and the energy to keep a publication afloat is the hard part.

At the beginning of December, Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld revealed that Amazon was making some major changes to how it distributed magazines by shutting down its Kindle Subscriptions program and shifting publications to Kindle Unlimited, something he noted would cause problems in retaining their subscribers.

Earlier this week, Daily Science Fiction revealed in that day's email that its January 9th story would be its last: "One last tale on which to say goodbye...Daily Science Fiction is officially on hiatus. See y'all around..." The closure had been announced and was expected, but it still stings, given how much it published, and how many familiar names count one of their stories in their personal table of contents.

And it came on the heels of another publication announcing its hiatus: Future Science Fiction, edited by Alex Shvartsman and Tarryn Thomas, which announced in the Foreword to its December 2022 issue that it would go on indefinite hiatus with that issue.

I wanted to learn a little more about the challenges that Future Science Fiction faced, so I reached out to Shvartsman. Here's our interview.

In the foreword in the December 2022 issue, you announced that Future Science Fiction was going on indefinite hiatus. Before I get into that, what can you tell me about how the publication came about, and what are some favorite memories of your time at the helm?

I've always been interested in highlighting the work of international writers, especially those from countries where English isn't spoken as the primary language. While there's been many anthologies and special issue calls for disadvantaged authors, I can think of few disadvantages or barriers to entry into anglophone publishing more difficult to overcome than the language barrier. And yet, my personal experience as a non-native English speaker and translator strongly suggested there are many great stories outside the anglosphere that would be of interest to genre readers.

The opportunity presented itself five years ago when I teamed up with the Future Affairs Administration who helped me create and fund Future Science Fiction Digest. Our goals aligned – they wanted more international exposure for Chinese science fiction as well as to develop deeper relationships with international authors, and I wanted to publish great stories from across the globe. The relationship has been great, and I'm deeply thankful to my FAA partners for supporting me and my team, and helping us accomplish all that we've done in half a decade.

Issue 17
This issue features fiction from Argentina, Nigeria, China, Brazil, and Chile.

Each issue featured translations and stories written by authors from across the globe, with only an occasional story by an American or British author added in. I'm very proud to have published work that went on to be reprinted in Year's Best anthologies, nominated for awards, and featured on recommended reading lists. Even more importantly, I'm proud to have shared all these great stories with anglophone readers.

The magazine is going on hiatus: why take the break at the moment?

The short answer is, I simply could not keep up with the workload.

I'm proud of the work I did sourcing and editing the stories, but I often dropped the ball when it came to marketing and promotion, building a solid financial base outside of the FAA sponsorship, or even building a strong team where the magazine could go on without me at the helm. (Which is not to say my associate editors haven't been great, but the framework was not resilient enough for someone else to simply step up.) I dedicated a lot of time to the magazine, but I also have a day job, my own writing career, as well as other editorial and translation projects. At times, many of these things would demand my time concurrently, creating a tremendous amount of pressure and anxiety.

For example, I wrote practically no new fiction in the latter half of 2022 because of my Future SF and UFO9 responsibilities. Ultimately, I knew I had to let go of some of the projects I deeply cared about. The magazine and most other editorial work were the victims of this. I've also scaled back on translation work, though that was a choice made for me by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and, subsequently, many projects involving translation from Russian drying up. But I'm already reaping the benefits in that I've been able to get back to writing fiction again.

I recently saw Neil Clarke at Clarkesworld reveal that Amazon is changing how it does periodicals, and there’s the perpetual scramble to attract subscribers. What are the particular challenges that you faced running Future SF?

All of us magazine editors wish for the same two things: more readers, and a more resilient subscriber base that would provide a chance for growth and stability. Future SF was better positioned than most thanks to the FAA grant; I was able to spend much less time on fundraising (and, frankly, less than I should have) but these were still extant issues. I would encourage everyone to support their favorite magazines via Patreon, subscriptions, Kickstarter--whatever. Even small donations can really add up.

Future SF, due to its unique nature, had an additional challenge. Sourcing stories from outside the anglosphere can be difficult because you can't simply read the submissions in English and pluck out the best stories from the slush. Often, you have to go directly to the source. I'm fluent in Russian and can understand enough Ukrainian to get by, so I was always able to source good material from that part of the world. My FAA partners helped me find consistently great stories from China.\

But it was especially difficult for me to source stories from Africa and South America, though I've made very good progress on that in 2022. I regret not having found a story I loved enough to publish from India during my tenure (though I did publish stories from neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka.)

A lot of the work involved was talking to editors and reviewers familiar with the local scenes in their languages or countries, and tracking down potential stories, then reading synopses and sometimes taking chances by accepting the stories based on that and paying for translation without having first read a completed text. It was a tough gig, though ultimately rewarding.

Thinking widely, what types of things do you think publications should be doing to not only publish high-quality short fiction, but attract people to read them? What should readers and fans be doing?

There's no easy answer to this, or all of us would be doing it. Those publishers who are more effective at marketing than I am find ways to reach beyond the small group of hardcore fans who are already aware of the semiprozine scene. Most SF/F readers and book buyers don't know our magazines exist. Some are aware of Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF, at best.

The most effective outreach the publishers can do is to expand the readership by finding ways to bring those hard-to-reach readers in, which often involves difficult to achieve marketing coups such as appearing on a TV program or being interviewed in a mainstream magazine or a major news site. Beyond that, consistency and great content do speak for themselves and help grow short fiction publications in ways potentially more accessible to magazine editors and publishers.

As to the readers and fans, the big challenge there is for more folks to understand that free-to-read fiction isn't free. Just because Future SF and Clarkesworld and countless others make their content available to everyone on the web doesn't eliminate the costs involved.

I may sound like a broken record, but be sure to support the publications you read, even if you're reading them online or listening to their podcasts rather than purchasing an issue outright. Incidentally this is also a great way to support writers and translators as the magazines with a solid financial base could afford to raise their pay rates. And with inflation being rampant, many authors could sure use it.

You mentioned that this hiatus is indefinite, but you haven’t closed the door entirely on shutting the publication down. What needs to happen for it to return?

Someone would need to step up and take over the reins. Which is a tall order since this is a time-consuming and skill-intensive gig that doesn't pay anything. In fact, I've spent a good amount of money over the years on this, on top of what the sponsorships and subscriptions brought in. It's not easy to find an individual or a team willing to take over under such circumstances. Alternatively, I could one day resume publication, perhaps when I'm retired from my day job, thereby freeing up many hours a week toward a project like this.

What will you be doing in the meantime: what projects do you now have time to tackle?

I just turned in the revisions on Kakistocracy, my fantasy humor novel (and a sequel to The Middling Affliction) that's coming out in 2023. My goal is to write two more novels this year (which is a lot for me, as I'm a slow writer.) I also have a number of translations and short stories in the publication pipeline.

I do hope to do more editorial work, such as anthologies or guest-editing a magazine issue here and there--but I will only take those on where there's a publisher who is prepared to take on considerable marketing work so I can dedicate most of my time to creative work instead.

That's all from me for this week: I'll work on getting a regular roundup out to y'all next week, in addition to some other things that I have in the pipeline. In the meantime, head over to the comments, and let us know what magazines you've enjoyed and what stories you'd recommend your fellow readers should check out.