Are they getting their money’s worth?

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:

bubblechart

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.

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22 comments

  1. It looks like you would get a definite negative trend (if not a significant negative correlation) if you restricted the analysis to semi-pro and above.

    1. Yes, that would give a steeper decline that the straight-line which I plotted.

  2. “Pro” has a strong correlation with “literary.” Those markets are sacrificing SF ideas and fantastic heroism for emotional exploration of character.

    1. They do seem unconcerned with such things. I wonder if this is limited to SFF? Are horror magazines full of this? Mystery magazines? Are there any popular pure-literature magazines, where the characters just blab about their feelings with no plot or setting?

      1. Mark Thompson · · Reply

        My sister recently subscribed to a mystery magazine, one of the big ones, and said that she was disappointed to find that they don’t have whodunnits of the old, fun type: she says many stories are hardly mysteries at all.

        1. Interesting to know it’s not just limited to SFF.

  3. The eight cents are because that is what SFWA (Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) sets as the current “pro rate”. The six cents places like duotrope and the grinder sets as a pro rate stems from an older SFWA rate.

    I have to disagree with Karl when it comes to correlating “pro” with “literary”. As a long time reader of both magazines, I’d say there’s a big difference between Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizon. The former focuses a lot on humor and original ideas, whereas the latter tends more towards what some call literary fiction (I dislike the high-brow, self righteous use of “literary” as much as the next person, by the way), focusing on writing style and obtrusive themes.

    1. I just looked at the SFWA membership requirements web page, and it is still saying six cents, but I’m not too familiar with the organization, so it’s possible there’s an eight cent reference on another page.

      To me, DSF has a mix of humor, original ideas, and “literary” fluff. It probably wasn’t fair of me to include them, because their job is much tougher, having to put out 364-365 stories per year, and limiting themselves to low wordcount stories.

    2. Oh, I don’t claim there’s a straight line between pay rate and “literary” style. I’m a data analyst in the day job. A fuzzy cloud with a bit of slope to it is still a correlation even if there’s plenty of exceptions.

  4. It surprises me. I would expect the higher rates to mean better stories. I don’t know what I could do with the data, but it’s interesting.

    1. It’s possible an English literature professor would think they are better, but in terms of being enjoyable stories, or having unique SFF ideas, they aren’t.

  5. You’re probably going to hate me for saying this, but since judging the quality of stories is completely subjective, I think you should be a bit more clear that these charts you’ve built, whether it be quality/pay, or quality/gender, are how things appear for you, based on your preferences, not the scientific fact they seem to be presented as. As Karl said, the higher paying magazines may tend toward more literary work rather than pure genre work, which I think your preferences are against. They would rate the stories in their magazines higher than you have. There is a reason for it. That’s where the market is. If it wasn’t, these magazines would gave gone completely bust years ago. It’s a wonder they have managed to survive thus far with how disruptive the fiction market is these days. It’s a testament to the editor’s skill at choosing good stories. Again, all your analysis is based on your subjective views of what makes a good story. I think you should temper your language a bit to avoid the absolutism. But that’s just my subjective opinion on the subject 🙂

    1. I’ve put a link back to the my ranking page, which has a link to my methodology, so I feel that anyone coming across these posts can drill down and find out what I mean by quality. If I had been working with a smaller number of stories, I would have tried to get two or three people to read the same stories, then used an average rating, and this would have allowed for an interesting analysis of intra-reviewer variability as well. (I still might like to do this some day with a smaller story set, just to look into this issue.) However, I didn’t want to ask anyone to read 365 stories, especially once I realized that the majority of them weren’t very good.

      It’s true that I have a strong bias against literary stories, but no more so than the average person on the street. If editors want to grow their customer base, or influence more people with their message fiction, then I think they’d be better off looking at the tastes of reviewers such as myself (or even better, getting some “common man” beta readers) than relying on the opinions of a small literary clique. The last data I saw showed most of the older SF magazines with a shrinking subscriber base, and anecdotes indicate that a number of their subscribers just get the magazines out of habit, planning to read them, but rarely getting around to doing so.

      It’s possible Karl’s comment below has hit on something, but if he’s right, that doesn’t say good things about the markets.

      1. oops, meant to say inter-reviewer, not intra.

      2. I wish I had the time to read 365 stories (I probably do, but don’t time-budget well). I agree that conventional genre works are more popular with readers than literary ones. I certainly prefer pulp to preach. But the question is, who actually pays for short stories now? Yes, most SF magazines, and periodicals in general, are losing subscriptions. Once hugely popular magazines like Popular Science are suffering so bad I can get a year’s subscription for $5. And that mag does target a general audience. I would argue (without data of course) that the common reader expects not to pay, or pay very little for short fiction these days. There are just too many places where you can get fiction for free these days. The “average person on the street” wants Netflix/Spotify-like unlimited content for a cheap monthly price, not to pay for each issue of a single magazine. These days, because of companies like Netflix, we have a different idea of value. $15-20 a month should get me everything I want, not only two issues. This is why subsciprtion-based fiction apps, like Ficitonite which I am writing content for (shamless plug), are expected to be the next big thing. Generally speaking, people who pay a lot for content are either superfans or connoisseurs. People who buy steel box BluRays for example. I expect the bulk of the people who will pay $5-10 for a magazine of short fiction these days are either authors looking to study, as Karl suggests, or people looking for a very specific sort of work that is not commonly accessible. Generic science fiction is all over the place, literary work is not. It’s a niche market, and it pays. You say that SF magazines’ subscriber base is dying as evidence that the editors are doing a bad job, I say these magazines have survived when the vast majority of periodicals have died or are almost dead (e.g., Popular Science/Mechanics). I argue again that their continued survival suggests the editors have some idea of where the money is. There a many generic or pulp science fiction magazines and ezines out there. By your suggestion, these magazines should be exploding in popularity because they are in line with the general readership, but the opposite it true, They are all either struggling, dying or dead. My guess is that general readers are just not willing to pay for the stuff. You need a niche market these days to sell subscriptions. But this is all just a poorly educated guess. I think it is a very important discussion to have. Writers need to understand how the market is changing.

        1. I’ve just been thinking about the lack of “Young Adult” content in the magazines, and wondering if that points to you being right. There are a ton of YA books out there doing well, so you’d expect YA magazines or YA stories in the regular magazines. Unless, as you said, the consumers were getting what they needed elsewhere. Although regarding pricing, with my e-reader I could probably get a full year’s subscription to most of these magazines for $15-$20, and many of the mags I reviewed are free on the web. One of the mags I reviewed, Lyonesse, can be purchased as a subscription service by email, or as a magazine/anthology collection.

          I haven’t followed how well Amazon’s unlimited Kindle Unlimited service is doing, it’s possible people are using it in preference to magazines. However, I’ve found it difficult to browse specifically for short stories on Amazon, as they have a category for “short stories and anthologies”, and authors are taking the broad definition of anthology, flooding it with 10-novel box sets.

          You mentioned Fictionite, do you know of any other names in that space that do sci-fi or fantasy? (PS, I thought your Fictionite group was using the term “serial boxes” but another company seems to be using it now?). If I find a few of them that look good to me, maybe I can do another review series.

          Also, it’s interesting that these new companies seem to be doing serials rather than standalone stories, while serials were something that most magazines phased out a long time ago in favor of stand-alones.

          1. Yes, fictionite is set up for serials, as are many of the similar apps. As far as I know, all the stuff on fictionite is speculative. I think a lot of what they are relaseing now are targeted to younder readers though. My StoryVerse is adult epic fantasy, but not live yet. There are some more adult SF series out but not sure the names.

  6. “Market” in the case of the pro zines may be driven by writers more than readers. I see allegations tossed about that the subscription base, patreons, etc. of pro zines is primarily aspiring writers watching the market to learn how to shape their stories. I don’t know how true that is. Even the editors wouldn’t know unless they run a correlation between their subscriber list and their slush pile. But the novel market is driven by readers and the best sellers have a very different style than the pro short fiction market.

    1. I’ve also heard this theory before, and unfortunately, it doesn’t sound wrong. It would be interesting to get a true answer, but like you said, we can’t do that on our own. If the readership of these magazines is mostly aspiring authors, then the mags might be able to serve their readership, and increase their circulation, by including writing-advice articles, interviews with industry insiders, etc..

      As you said in your last sentence, reading these mags may not be a good experience for aspiring novel writers, since they might tend to make their novels more literary, and novels need a wider audience, which means they probably need to be less literary.

      1. I suspect writer-focused features might cost them subscribers by breaking the illusion that they’re serving a general market.

  7. Reblogged this on Cirsova.

  8. […] to look at the stories in my 49 ranked magazines broken down by genre, by nation, by gender, and by pay, I didn’t present the entire dataset.  So, here it […]

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