Is short fiction devalued by being available for free?

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2008

Gordon Van Gelder – editor-in-chief of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – has opened up a debate about genre fiction short stories and their online availability. Understandably, as a publisher of a physical ink-on-paper magazine, he’s wondering if the sheer quantity of free fiction online has devalued the form in general:

Here at F&SF, we’re open to experimentation and for the past year or so, we’ve been publishing one reprint a month on our Website. Last month, the free story was “The Political Officer” by Charles Coleman Finlay. A few days ago, someone posted on our message board that he wanted to read that story. I explained that it was no longer on our Website but he could buy a copy of that back issue from us or from Fictionwise.

As I did so, I realized that I was putting a reader in a position where he had to decide if he would pay for something he could have had for free just a few days earlier… which doesn’t strike me as a good position. I know that I don’t like being asked to make such a choice.

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

This is a question that interests me too, for obvious reasons. I run Futurismic because I care about getting good writing in front of the eyeballs that enjoy it, and I compile the Friday Free Fiction posts for the same reason.

The answers to Van Gelder’s questions suggest that some people do indeed think short fiction is devalued by there being more of it available for free, but that strikes me as being counter to basic economic theory – surely the good stuff becomes more valuable when there’s lots of rubbish? [Caveat - I am, by no means, an expert in economics.]

Of course, one’s definition of a good story or book is a very personal thing, and doubtless has a lot of connection to the demographic the reader belongs to, so I dare say there’s no definitive answer.

But nonetheless, I’d like to ask Futurismic‘s readers the same question, though with a different angle to it: do you perceive the short fiction we publish as being inferior because you don’t have to pay to read it? And what effect has the availability of free short stories had on your buying habits?

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10 Responses to “Is short fiction devalued by being available for free?”

  1. mono says:

    I like that Futurismic exists. I openly admit that I don’t get around to reading the majority of the works published, but the fact that they’re available for free in the first place is enough to impress me.

    There’s nothing ‘inferior’ about publishing short fiction for no charge, and it has not made me stop paying for fiction either.

    I’m also willing to bet this wouldn’t be considered much of an issue for a free-of-charge print magazine, but that’s a whole other debate…

  2. Arun Jiwa says:

    My two cents:

    For me, the Internet has primarily functioned to let me find out about authors I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Short fiction that’s posted for free can be shared, and, in my mind, if a story is really good (and free) people are more likely to share it and spread the word.

    This model would fail, IMO, if you had to pay to read the good stuff. If I enjoyed a piece of fiction posted on the Internet, chances are I’ll be looking for a short story collection, ‘zine, antho., or novel by the same author.

    To answer the other part of your question, I do think that the ability to post fiction freely and cheaply has greatly enhanced the amount of crap that gets published, but like I mentioned in the above paragraph, blogs filter out the bad stuff and spread the quality fiction.

    A.

  3. Peter Tupper says:

    I think the problem of short fiction is actually enforced scarcity, not that it’s free. There are so few paying markets for short SF & F (and even fewer for other genres), that the entire field of short works has made itself a tiny backwater of publishing with a minuscule readership. Add to that the aging of the short fiction writers and editors in the big three pulps.

    Giving short fiction away for free (or supported by ads) is a necessary attempt to break the monopoly and get people reading it again.

  4. Dave says:

    I certainly don’t think that being offered for free devalues short fiction any more than being offered for free devalues television shows. The quality of the product, not the means of delivery, is everything.

    Free online SF has actually increased my purchasing of SF magazines. I had only been reading occasional issues of one particular magazine and unfairly judging the field by its agenda. After reading several great free stories, I’ve been giving a couple of different magazines a chance. So online SF has helped me realize that short SF still exists.

  5. Brian Carnell says:

    “The answers to Van Gelder’s questions suggest that some people do indeed think short fiction is devalued by there being more of it available for free, but that strikes me as being counter to basic economic theory – surely the good stuff becomes more valuable when there’s lots of rubbish?”

    It is unclear what you mean by “devalued” in your question. The F&SF writer seems to be focusing purely on economic value, whereas other commentators are focusing more on some sort of nebulous “quality” dynamic.

    Anyway. . . yes, for me, the online stuff has dramatically devalued short fiction. Why would I pay for a copy of F&SF anymore when there is far more quality short science fiction posted on the web each week than I can possibly read?

  6. Liviu says:

    Actually for me online availability increased my sff magazine purchases because a lot of new ones like GUD, Aeon, Escape Velocity, Grantville Gazette appeared – I buy only e editions and I bought about 12-15 e-magazines in the past year – of the traditional 4 which are all available e, not that it will stop them wasting away slowly since their problems especially at the 3 US ones is ossification, I bought one e-issue of Interzone, but overall I find them more and more irrelevant because they publish the same authors over and over

    I rarely read free fiction just because it’s free – if I find an author I like or hear about a story, yes I would check that out but otherwise I just do not have the time. I prefer spending 1-6$ on selected e-magazines to peruse them at my leisure since the odds are much better I will enjoy at least several stories if not all. Drip publishing, one or two stories at a time does not cut it with me by and large.

    Ironically the one place free online stuff impacted purchases is in news, reviews, upcoming books, where places like this, review blog, forums, made Locus at which I used to subscribe to lose added value and justify the subscription…

  7. Robert Koslover says:

    Short fiction offers value to the reader whether it is provided for free or not. But it is difficult to charge much for it in the free marketplace simply because the supply is huge and the demand does not match it. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that the number of fiction writers (especially aspiring writers) now approaches, or even exceeds, the number of fiction readers (especially for SF). Rather than lament this reality, let us honor those who labor endlessly to write fiction for us all to enjoy, yet who have little realistic hope of financial reward. This work is done for love and art, not money. To those aspiring writers out there, let me say this: keep your day job, but keep writing too. And thank you for working to brighten our world.

  8. Tom Marcinko says:

    An analogy to the music industry seems to want to be made.

    I was introduced to a lot of my current favorite artists through free downloads, and I’ve gone on to buy their CDs or pay for downloads through eMusic or iTunes. My life is better for having the New Pornographers, the National, the Fiery Furnaces, and Ryan Adams in it. Where was I going to hear them? The radio?

    OTOH, I’ve downloaded a lot of stuff by artists who left my lukewarm or colder, and I never bought anything by them. Presumably somebody else did. I hope that’s the case, ’cause from what I can see the music industry makes publishing seem like an oasis of serene rationality.

    On my desk now are freebies by Will McIntosh, Cory Doctorow, Ken McLeod, and others. I’ve bought books by most of these people and the ones I haven’t gotten to, I probably will.

    I’m sure the analogy breaks down at some point. Even Stephen King got disappointing results from posting fiction online (albeit not for free).

    But I can’t help but think that the loss-leader model would only help SF magazines, which aren’t having the best of times.

  9. Jason Stoddard says:

    Fiction distributed freely does not devalue fiction; it returns it to its natural market value.

    Publishers have been working on a scarcity-based economic model since, well, there were publishers. In the past, this scarcity was real: there were a limited number of organizations on the planet which had the talent could select quality fiction, the capital to mass-produce it, and the distribution network to ship, stock, and display it.

    Today, publishers can be limited only by their ability to select quality fiction and monetize it; online distribution is (nearly) free. The sticky part is, of course, how you monetize something that is freely available. Online audiences have universally vetoed pay-walls, and it’s exceedingly difficult to attract enough eyeballs to make ad-supported publishing work.

    And yet, at the same time, Netflix is having some success moving people to an all-you-can-eat online viewing system (albeit DRMed up the wazoo), the SciFi Channel is finding sponsors for its ad-supported, full-length online episodes, and there are some odd datapoints in the ad-supported spectrum, such as BoingBoing and io9. None of these hit the “traditional” prose science fiction market, though.

    And that, I think, is where it gets interesting. The inherent value of short fiction is very low, mainly because the market is very small–*not because we have failed in creating artificial scarcity.*

    Which makes the interesting question this: How do we *grow the audience* to tap into some of the millions who think Galactica graphic novels are the height of science fiction?

  10. tycho garen says:

    I prefer to thing that a rising tide lifts all boats and that, more than anything what we’re seeing isn’t a so much an erosion of quality, but an explosion of quantity…

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