From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Jeremiads: Welcome to the Minority

If you are reading this, you are in a very small minority of people who read genre short fiction (I assume you read short fiction if you are reading this column on a genre short fiction website). You are probably in a slightly smaller minority of people who write short fiction, if the rumors about who reads short fiction are true and I suspect they’re more true than not. And what’s more, you’re in the tiniest of tiny minorities, people who read genre short fiction online.

I don’t know what the reader count is for a magazine like Fantasy, and anyway it’s hard to measure online statistics in any concrete manner, but we can make some guesses about the size of the current active short fiction audience by looking at a few things. At Worldcon, Sheila Williams of Asimov’s said something along the lines of advertisers count every magazine subscription as 2.5 readers for the purpose of estimating reader count. Analog has roughly 22,000 subscribers and a couple thousand newsstand sales. So let’s be generous and say 3 people for each copy of the magazine. Why not? That’s 72,000 readers for the largest of the SF/F magazines. Escape Pod, the internet’s largest genre short fiction podcast, has according to the last figures I can find, 18,000 downloads an episode. Let’s be generous and say that there are 3 listeners to each download say that’s another 54,000 reader-listeners. That brings us to a generous estimate of 126,000 readers a month–mostly just U.S. readers probably, and the number is certainly larger in the whole English-speaking world. The math is highly suspect, but let pretend it’s accurate for a bit.

Let’s compare those numbers to a few popular blog RSS feed subscribers. Yes, blogs are free, etc, but I just want to make a point here about the number of people involved in doing what you’re doing. Techcrunch has around 986,000 feed subscribers. BoingBoing has 536,000 or so subscribers. Let’s be generous and triple those numbers too, because not everyone reads websites by RSS feed, right? Some of the biggest websites on the internet have ten times as many readers as there people reading short fiction in total.

Argue with the specifics, but the basic point here is that your interest in reading short fiction is on par with shortwave radio enthusiasts. No, strike that. It’s even more minor a hobby–there are over 722,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. alone according to the ever-accurate Wikipedia. Another fun fact: holy crap, shortwave radio is popular in Japan. Who knew?

Let’s say that again for effect: SF/F short fiction is less popular than shortwave radio. The comparison is also interesting because some of the early SF magazines were founded by companies that were also running magazines for shortwave radio enthusiasts and other similar hobbies. So what is my point, you may be asking? And let me thank you for asking that question, dear reader. It leads to my central thesis! So astute of you.

Why the hell does anyone bother writing or publishing something that has such a small market? It sure isn’t for the money. If you want to write for money, surely there are dozens of things you could write for better money, say, screenplays or historical biographies or articles about the joys of owning cats. If you want to publish something that makes money, and why you would want to do that instead of producing a TV show or selling Beanie Babies on Ebay I have no idea, then start a magazine about the joys of owning cats. That will never go out of style! That is, until the genetic monstrosity known as “dots” hit the market. All the loyalty of a dog, with the cleanliness of a cat! Trust me, dots are the pet of the future. Or is that the ice cream? I get the two confused.

In the online community, sometimes it’s easy to forget how small a minority we are. Our interests are our world. I think it helps to remind myself that what I write is not read by millions. It’s barely read by hundreds. Neil Gaiman has other problems, sure, but I am not Neil Gaiman, and neither are you. Unless you are, in which case, what the hell are you doing reading this column and not writing Beowulf 2? I demand a sequel!

Rather than depressing me, the fact comforts me and gives me a sense of freedom. If I’m writing for pennies per word and my audience is less than the number of people who tuned in to Firefly when it was actually on air, what the hell am I so worked up about? In the grand scheme of things, what I write probably won’t change the world. Generally, it’s going to offer some fleeting entertainment to fewer people than I could reach with a couple of classes and a cheap short wave radio.

This is not to say that I don’t respect each one of you who takes the time to read my work. I know that you would probably rather be reading all the comics over at Penny Arcade or the Lord of the Rings for the fiftieth time. I appreciate that you chose to spend your time on me. You idiot.

Nobody does this to get rich. Nobody does this to get famous. Nobody reads these things because they’re popular. We’re a tiny group of humans (mostly humans anyway–I’m not so sure about that Neil Gaiman guy) and we have one big thing in common. We all think Angelina Jolie is hot.

No, wait. Sorry, I can’t stop thinking about Beowulf! Was that not a great film or what? Remember that part where the dead-eyed Angelina Jolie computer-animated character is almost naked and stuff? Man, that was awesome.

More people know what I’m talking about in the above paragraph than if I rave about the latest Ted Chiang story. I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a good, bad, or neutral thing. Okay, I’m lying. You’re supposed to decide it sucks, but also realize there’s nothing we can do about it.

We still read and write short stories for whatever reason. I gather that most of us writers are in short stories until our novels sell, and then it’s sayonara, suckers! On to a slightly larger minority of people who still read books. Ugh, books, can you believe it? Why would you want to read that when you’ve got millions of short story words online to dig into?

Next time you find yourself embroiled in some ridiculous controversy about what some writer or fan said, or whether SF/F short fiction is alive or dead, remind yourself that it doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. Maybe it will help you relax too. If that doesn’t work, go pop in the DVD of Beowulf and let the dulcet tones of a dead-eyed Ray Winstone simulacrum sweep you away to a better time–when you could use the word “swive” and not get strange looks.

Jeremiah Tolbert lives with two cats and a wife in the foothills of Colorado. He spends more time on the internet than is healthy.

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