Is Online Genre Fiction All Powerful?

I received an interesting email the other day from Tom Dooley, the editor of Eclectica Magazine. After Tom crunched his own statistics around this year's Million Writers Award—arriving at similar if slightly different numbers as Robert Laughlin, whose stats I reported on last week—he noticed something interesting. Among the top 18 magazines with the most notable stories in this year's Million Writers Award, genre magazines held the top five spots, and overall landed 33 of those magazines' 69 notable stories (or 48%).

This general pattern also holds over the last two years. However, if one looks at the overall notable story stats for the entire seven years of the award, then genre fiction doesn't do as well. Only three of the top 13 magazines with the most notable stories over that seven-year span are genre magazines, and their stories only account for 44 of those magazines' 236 notable stories (or 19%). This means non-genre magazines used to do much better in the Million Writers Award.

As Tom said, "The statistics show the MWA has come to be dominated by genre fiction. What they don't show, or at least, what THESE statistics don't show, is why."

I should note that Tom isn't condemning genre fiction, nor is he complaining. His magazine regularly publishes high-quality genre fiction alongside non-genre stories. He's also long been a vocal supporter of the Million Writers Award, which is open to both genre and non-genre stories and tries to be a level playing field where different stories compete against each other. After reading Tom's email and looking at his stats, I was also curious whether or not genre fiction now dominates the Million Writers Award—and by extension online fiction in general.

To figure this out, I counted the magazines with notable stories in this year's award. There are approximately 108 magazines on the notable story list, with 81 of those being "non-genre" and 27 being magazines focused on SF/fantasy/horror/crime or other mixes of genre fiction. Please note these estimates are rough. I could have miscounted, and I'm sure I didn't slot some magazines into the proper category. There are also magazines like Eclectica which, while counted as non-genre, also publish genre fiction. The simple truth is it's sometimes difficult to divide magazines and fiction into convenient categories.

But assuming my counts and category cramming are close to correct, that means about a quarter of online magazines on the notable list are genre magazines, while around 75% are non-genre or more general "literary" magazines. And if the MWA notable story list is truly representative of online fiction today—I know, another assumption, but one I believe is likely true—that means genre magazines probably make up a quarter of all online fiction magazines.

Yet here are online genre magazines holding down the top spots in this award for the last two years, a fact out of proportion to the number of genre magazines out there. Why is this happening?

I think the reason is simple: The best genre fiction magazines now occupy an equal weight to genre print magazines.

For example, when you look at this year's list of genre magazines with the most notable story selections—Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Subterranean, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Thuglit, and Apex Magazine—it is interesting to note that almost all of these are professional-level speculative fiction magazines (with Thuglit instead being a crime magazine). Why so many spec fic magazines on this list? I believe it is because this genre has, to a large degree, accepted online magazines as a legitimate place to publish and read short fiction.

In the speculative fiction genre, there are a handful of English-language professional print magazines with large circulations, such as Analog, Asimov's, Black Static, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, and Weird Tales. There's also another handful of great print magazines like Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Necrotic Tissue, and On Spec which are also extremely professional but have slightly lower circulations and distribution.

My point? I just named what many people would consider the top speculative fiction print magazines. But there are an equal number of professional online magazines in this genre. By professional, I mean these online magazines publish works by top writers, pay professional rates, have top editorial standards, and have large readerships. That means over half of all the professional-level magazines in speculative fiction are now online magazines. Because of this, they publish some of the best stories online, carry critical weight both inside and outside their genre, and are very hard to compete against.

Compare this to non-genre or literary magazines, where the majority of top magazines are still in print. While there are great online magazines like The Barcelona Review, Eclectica, Storyglossia, and Word Riot, if you want to read the vast majority of fiction influencing today's literary world you must turn to The New Yorker, The Southern Review, Granta, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly (through their annual fiction issue), and so on. Yes, some of these print magazines also cross-publish online, but in most ways they still consider the web a mere afterthought. And while some non-genre online magazines like Blackbird and Narrative are seen as the equal of The New Yorkers of the world, proportionately they make up a much smaller percentage of the top-end literary fiction market than in the speculative fiction genre.

Please note this is not an attempt to put down online literary magazines like The Barcelona Review or Eclectica, which for my money often publish better fiction than The New Yorker. But the simple truth is that despite all the changes of the last decade, the world of non-genre or literary fiction still considers print as superior to online publishing.

That's why I believe genre fiction is doing so well these days, both online and in the Million Writers Award. It's like a professional baseball team competing against a college team. While the college team may have some great players who play at a professional level, overall they'd have a tough time against the New York Yankees. And at the moment the Yankees of the online fiction world are speculative fiction magazines.

Below are some of the Million Writers Award stats referenced in this post.

2009 Notable Story Leaders
(genre magazines are bolded)

Fantasy Magazine, 7 notable stories
Clarkesworld Magazine, 5
Strange Horizons, 5
Subterranean, 5
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 4
Blackbird, 4
Kill Author, 4
Thuglit, 4
Writers' Bloc Magazine, 4
Agni Online, 3
Apex Magazine, 3
Eclectica Magazine, 3
Kenyon Review Online, 3
Knee-Jerk Magazine, 3
Prick of the Spindle    3
Storyglossia, 3
Toasted Cheese, 3
Word Riot, 3

2008-09 Notable Story Leaders
(genre magazines are bolded)

Fantasy Magazine, 13 notable stories
Strange Horizons, 11
Narrative Magazine, 9
Clarkesword Magazine, 9
Blackbird, 8
Storyglossia, 8
Eclectica Magazine, 7
Agni Online, 7
Subterranean, 7
Carve Magazine, 7
Word Riot, 6
Thuglit, 6
Apex Magazine, 6
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 6

All Time Notable Story Leaders
(genre magazines are bolded)

Eclectica Magazine, 38 notable stories
Pindeldyboz, 31
Strange Horizons, 27
Narrative Magazine, 24
Agni Online, 22
Word Riot, 22
Blackbird    19
Storyglossia, 19
Clarkesword Magazine, 17
failbetter    17
Fantasy Magazine, 5
King's English, 15
Mississippi Review, 15