It would be reasonable to assume that magazines which pay more for their stories end up with higher-quality material to publish. I decided to plot my ratings of short stories in 49 ranked magazines against the cents per word paid for them. I was only able to use 299 out of 365 stories, as some magazines only pay royalties, others have gone out of business and no longer have a submissions page, and still others are invitation-only and don’t publish their rates.
As there were many stories sharing data points, I used Microsoft Excel’s bubble chart feature to represent the data:
Let’s look at the horizontal axis first. Magazines are called “professional-rate” if they pay six cents or more per word, “semi-pro” if they pay between one and five cents per word, and “token” if they pay less than one cent per word. My data seems to indicate that these categories have meaning, as there are large clusters of stories at the one cent and six cent breakpoints, where magazines are paying the minimum they can to remain in their category.
I do not have an explanation for the other large cluster of stories at eight cents per word. Are they engaged in one-upsmanship? Hoping to attract better authors? I should also note that there is, in reality, a fourth vertical cluster for the token-paying magazines, but they are represented as a series of smaller spheres next to each other rather than grouped into larger spheres. This is because I took their token payment and divided it by their average word count to determine a pay rate.
Next, let’s look at the vertical distribution of each cluster, thinking about implications for us as readers. As mentioned above, the token cluster is hard to see, but the lack of any data points above four stars is noticeable. So, if you’re searching for the very best, perhaps the token magazines are not for you.
The clusters at the semi-pro and pro boundaries have similar shapes: a bit thicker in the middle, and fairly evenly-weighted above and below. The major difference is that the semi-pro band is much thicker at the one-and-a-half and four-and-a-half star points. So, if you read semi-pro, you’re more likely to get that really great story, but also more likely to run across that stinker. Greater risk, but greater potential reward.
The eight-cent cluster is something else. Instead of being centered around three stars, where you might expect the center to fall, its center of mass is closer to two stars. They do not appear to be getting more bang for their buck. The magazines contributing to this cluster: Analog, Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Worlds Without Master.
It seems I can reject my original hypothesis. Magazines that pay more do not publish higher-quality stories. The red trend line superimposed on the chart tells the story: a strong increase in quality moving from token to semi-pro, followed by a sharp decline beyond the six-cent professional barrier. When I used a straight-line formula for the trend line, it began around 2.75 and sloped downwards to just under 2.5. Not a steep decline, but still noticeable as a downward slope.
Let me know if you have any thoughts on this topic, or if you see something in the chart that I’m missing.