Monday, December 5, 2011

Why So Few Short Mystery Fiction Markets?

Yesterday I mentioned that I had ended up doing a bit of freewriting to start my "Write 1/Sub 1" story for last week. The path that led me there actually involved realizing I had a bit of a roadblock on the "Sub 1" side of things for the story I had started earlier in the week. That roadblock was that it was a mystery short story and, while there are literally dozens of markets which pay Pro or Semi-Pro rates for speculative fiction short stories, there is a relative dearth of markets for mystery short fiction. And the places I'd submit that particular story first all have one of my stories under consideration already. So, I set that aside for the moment, started on my freewriting, and came up with a new story. All's well that ends well.

But, darn... I like writing mystery fiction and this was a reminder of the difference in the market for fiction in the two genres. The discrepancy can be illustrated by looking at the lists of approved short fiction markets for the Mystery Writers of America and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Not only is the SFWA list nearly twice as long, but it includes a much healthier representation of open genre-specific publications while the MWA list includes a couple of closed markets and quite a few general-fiction listings. You can get a similar sense by querying the Duotrope writer's market website. Search for "Fantasy", "Pro" rate publications for "Short Stories" (excluding closed markets) and you get back 28 selections. Change "Fantasy" to "Mystery/Crime" and you get back 9. Ouch!

So, why is there this big gap between the two?

Here are three possibilities which come to mind:

1) Mystery readers aren't (relatively speaking) interested in short fiction. This seems to be the "common" answer given by people to this question. But I'm not sure that it's a very convincing argument to me. There's plenty of history of short fiction in the mystery genre. There's nothing inherent in mystery fiction that keeps it from working at short length. Yes, there used to be quite a few more mystery short fiction professional magazines back in the pulp and early digest years. But that's equally true of science fiction and fantasy. What seems to be different is that on the SF/F side, small presses and hobbyists have continually been producing new markets since the decline of the pro digests which have filled in the gaps and provided for a vibrant secondary stream of short fiction markets for readers and writers. As far as I know, there really haven't been a huge number of similar venues on the mystery/crime side. If there were, and they were showing continually worse business results than spec-fic markets, then that might provide evidence for this argument.

2) There's something unique about the culture of the genre in Speculative Fiction. I alluded to this a bit in point one when I mentioned "hobbyists." I don't think it's much of a surprise to anyone that small-press publications are frequently running on tight budgets and have often ended up being labors of love for the people who produce them while not seeing much in the way of profit. I can imagine that the landscape may look better now for these publishers with the ability to produce webzines and eBooks and such without having the physical costs of printing and shipping issues of magazines. Still, I doubt that you're seeing great wealth rolling in if you're one of the intrepid publishers of these magazines. Is it possible that there's something in the culture of Speculative Fiction readership that lends itself to people extending their efforts in this way? Well, it doesn't seem completely unfounded as a supposition. There is, as another example, a much larger convention culture in Speculative Fiction than in the Mystery genre. Perhaps the same kind of grassroots approach that leads to SF conventions dotting the country is at play with the magazines as well.

3) Speculative Fiction ended up "concentrated" in a genre, Mystery has been more "mainstreamed." This supposition basically says "Mystery short stories got to sort of go wherever they wanted to some extent, but SF was constrained to its own boundaries." This may not be as true today, but if we're looking at the current state of the short fiction market as being a culmination of decades of activity, then maybe there's something to the theory. If a mystery/crime short story had an easier chance of making it into a non-genre magazine in the 1950s-70s, say, then that could have had multiple effects. It could have weakened the existing genre magazines by both drawing stories/authors and readers away from them. It also could have discouraged the formation of small press mystery fiction venues since it might have been perceived that there were "lots" of places publishing mystery/crime stories.

Ultimately, as a writer and reader of short fiction in these genres, I'm grateful for all of the publications which do exist. But I hope that the digital wave which has come to speculative fiction with places like Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction and One Buck Horror (to name literally just a few) may also come to the mystery/crime genre. How great it would be to wake up every morning to The Daily Thrill or be able to download a new issue of One Buck Mystery every month... A fella can dream, right?


  1. Hi Mike,

    An excellent and thought-provoking post.

    I'm a strong proponent of theory #1, because I'm also a believer in free markets. That is, free market economy - not markets that are free to submit to or read. :)

    If more interest in mystery genre short fiction existed, more mystery markets would spring up. Given the relative low cost of launching even a pro paying 'zine, it's hard to explain the lack of many more such venues in any other way. Especially when compared with how successful the mystery and thriller *novel* market is.


  2. Hey, Alex, thanks for the comments!

    If there was a track record of these markets popping up and dying, then I'd have no problem buying that there just isn't enough readership interest. But no one is even really *trying* to create mystery fiction markets in the style of DSF, OBH, Clarkesworld, etc.

    Now, we could take a market approach to that, too and say "Well, obviously all those publishers did market research and decided that SF was a better bet than Mystery or any other genre." Maybe so. And I'll admit that I don't know the background of how any of those publications came to be, so maybe that's exactly what happened. I sort of suspect it's not the case, though. A lot of these markets seem to come from people who love the genre first.

    Maybe we'll get lucky and someone will start up a test case or two for us to... observe. Yeah, that's it. ;-)

  3. Amen, brother. I'm all for that. :)

    I wonder if there's a way to scan Duotrope for defunct mystery markets. I suspect there's a small graveyard of them next to the enormous pile of dead SF/F zines.

  4. They have closed/dead listings, but I don't think there's a good way to search for rate/genre, etc.

    I can say that I've had some awareness of short fiction markets off and on for 20 years now and there's always been a plethora of SF markets in the semi-pro/small press pro arena. (95% of which I would guess turned no profit.)

    I wouldn't have been specifically looking for mystery/crime markets between a few years back, though. The pattern we're seeing now has been the case over at least the last few years. I can't say that I recall any pro-rate small press mystery pubs that came and went in that time. (Though I certainly could have missed some.)