Mystery Short Story Readers: Where Are They and How Do We Get Them Online

In my last post on  this topic Chad Eagleton had a couple of great points that I was initially going to use as my jumping off point, but then I found something else very interesting that I think might be even better to start with.

Now to be clear on this, I’m not talking about how to get more paying markets in crime fiction. I believe that if there are enough short crime fiction readers online then the money for paying markets will follow. So what I’d like to figure out is how to get more short crime fiction readers online. I’ve been comparing the crime fiction field to the science fiction field in most of my discussions and that’s what makes what I just found this morning interesting to me. The problems we’re having trying to get readers online, the sci-fi field is having getting readers to the print magazines. The circulation for crime fiction’s two biggest journals Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock is over 100,000 each. The circulation for sci-fi’s “Big Three” – Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog- is less than 75,000 COMBINED.

This quote from John Scalzi on their problems I think sums up the problem with online crime fiction markets perfectly:

“I think the major thrust of their problem has been that all the pulps have seemed to be content to work with what they have in terms of subscribers and readers, as opposed to being very active about acquiring new readers.”

Substitute “pulps” for “online crime fiction magazines” and you have a great summary of our issues. Contributors to some online crime fiction zines are editors and publishers at others and the reader pool doesn’t expand out much past that core group of writers and editors. And if you try to broach this subject with many of them you’ll be shot down as a traitor to the cause or a whiner or be told to “do something about it.” This brings me to Chad’s major point.

As far as the online markets for short crime fiction, I think variety is big problem. Go check out a science fiction mag and you’re gonna get a hard sf story, pulpy space opera, an alternate world piece, a time-travel tale, a socially-conscious futurist story, and maybe a sword and sorcery adventure. The online crime zines, from what I’ve seen, tend to publish the same types of stories. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to one of the online crime mags and in a single issue had the option between reading a police procedural, a cozy, a whodunit, a Black Mask pulp tale, gritty hardboiled noir, and maybe something funny.

That’s HUGE and I think I know why it’s a problem. One of the big reasons these online journal sprouted up is because there was a small core of writers doing great work that didn’t fit (at the time) into EQMM or AHMM. Unable to fund an alternate print journal, these writers went the cheap route and posted online. Since then, EQMM and AHMM have flexed with the times and started publishing darker and edgier work, but in most online circles there is still the Us vs. Them attitude that drives away the more casual readers. If these editors are really interested in expanding their readership (and I’m not at all convinced that most of them are) then they need to publish high-quality work across a variety of crime sub-genres. But as many of them have expressed aggressive stances against “cat books” and the like I don’t see that happening soon.

The other point Chad brings up is one of age.

First, I think Sci-Fi has a long and vibrant history of active and engaged fandom. It’s something you get into when you’re a kid and probably like well into adulthood. I can’t think of too many kids who are into crime fiction.

Anyone who has attended a crime fiction book signing or one of the major crime fiction conferences can see that this field plays to a much older demographic, a demographic that is more comfortable with print short stories than online short stories. That’s why I think the circulation rates for the print journals are so much higher in crime fiction than in science fiction. This doesn’t that mystery readers as a whole hate to go online. Sites like CriminalElement, and GoodReads, and even Facebook have large and active communities of all ages, but you have to work harder to get them than a print journal does. I think it also helps that those sites also have a heavy presence from traditional publishers who can provide a stamp of approval for readers who may be overwhelmed by the volume of online fiction available from unknown authors and editors.

So those I think are the biggest problems preventing a stable, diverse, and financially sound online crime fiction community. Now what do we do about it?

 I don’t think there’s a quick fix. I think the biggest thing that needs to happen is to infuse more youth into the field. This I believe lies more at the feat of the large organizations like MWA and Bouchercon. They aren’t doing nearly enough to encourage younger readers to seek out crime fiction. As for getting more of the current short story readers to check out online crime fiction I think we need to get past the Us vs. Them stuff. Writers and editors also need to read wider across the genre to appreciate it’s variety.

And I say this as someone who sucks hardcore at all of this. I mostly just want to write and let the markets sort themselves out. Editing and publishing these journals is a huge pain in the ass and it takes a special kind of person to do it and to do it right. I’m not that kind of person. I just hope by writing this I can inspire the next generation of writers and editors and hopefully we can keep this field vibrant and active for a long time to come.

How do you all think we can fix this? Or hell, do you think there’s even a problem?