Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Murdaland and the end of stories

I know it’s old news now about Murdaland having to shut down operations, and while it wasn’t unexpected due to how tough it is to get a literary magazine off the ground and running profitably, it’s still sad to see such a well-intentioned crime fiction magazine fail, and I salute the staff at Murdaland for their efforts.

One of the things that struck me about all this is a comment Hard Case Crime publisher, Charles Ardai made in a discussion on Sarah Weinman’s blog about Murdaland's demise:

“To a first approximation, people don't read short stories anymore. This is why magazines of short stories are universally seeing their circulation figures dwindle. I started my career at EQMM and AHMM and care enormously about and for them -- they're an important part of our history and it would be a tragedy if they went away. But I'm afraid they will, just because the generation of people who read short stories for pleasure is going away.”

I don’t know how true this is, I’m sure Charles Ardai has some insight into this, and I’m sure the editors of these magazines and others could provide more insight. I can’t tell you what an understatement Charles’s statement is about what a loss it would be if EQMM and AHMM went away, both for crime fiction readers and writers. As a kid I grew up reading both magazines, as well as Alfred Hitchcock short story collections, and as a crime fiction writer, these are the magazines we aspire to be published in. As publisher of Hardluck Stories, I can tell you that these are the two magazines that far and away set the benchmark for quality in short crime fiction. It’s chic these days for some writers to dismiss these magazines as being staid or too cozy (these comments usually made by people who haven’t bothered reading either of these magazines), and nothing could be further from the truth. Both of these magazines publish a wide-range of stories, and some can be very dark, although usually in subtle and clever ways. My story Closing Time which AHMM published, is as dark as anything ever published on Hardluck. With the classic reprints, foreign language translations, return of Black Mask, writers like Tom Piccirilli, Bill Pronzini and Loren Estleman, there’s plenty of darkness in these pages, and a tremendous amount of talent.

So if short story readers are dwindling, what’s the reason? It’s certainly not the quality, the stories from AHMM, EQMM, as well as the guerrilla pulp magazine, Out of the Gutter, and crime fiction web-zine extraordinaire, Thuglit, have never been better. Here are my theories:

1) Younger readers are choosing graphic novels over short fiction. When I was a kid I read comic books (actually had a pretty good collection with Spiderman #4-#13, among others) and there were a few good more adult magazines, like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, but these were nothing like the graphic novels available today. The ones today are more literate, more adult, and much better quality, and I think they’re causing a lot of young readers to bypass short stories—instead making the jump more directly to novels.

2) The overwhelming amount of reading material available. As well as this being a great period for new crime fiction, readers today have this amazing backlog of 80 years or so of great crime fiction available, and with POD and other publishing enterprises, more and more of it readily available.

So are things really this bleak for short crime fiction? I don’t know, I hope not. There’s a beauty and succinctness to short stories, and I challenge any crime fiction reader to read Jim Thompson’s “Forever After” or Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”, and not see these as gems to be treasured. The loss would be equally immeasurable to writers—short stories provide a great training ground, as well as a challenging and rewarding form. So how to get more people reading? No idea.


Graham Powell said...

I dunno. The [City Name Here] Noir collection must be doing pretty well, or they wouldn't keep bringing out new ones. I think the real future is in fast, cheap, and out-of-control mags like Out Of The Gutter, and on the web.

The short story readership is smaller, no question, but it's still there.

Dave Zeltserman said...

I wonder if the appeal of the [name of city] noir series is more of a fad, kind of a cool gift for people who live in that [name of city]? Although Paris Noir put out by Serpent's Tail (as opposed to the other guy with the name that sounds like it came out of an HP Lovecraft story) was really exceptional.

Anyway, anthologies are great and everything, but it's not the same as magazines--you need that market for new writers, and I think new readers too. I hope Out of the Gutter makes it--it's a bit uneven, but some of the stuff they publish is terrific, and I love the vibe of it. It seems almost like a cousin to Gary Lovisi's Hardboiled (is that still around??).

sandra seamans said...

I think one of the biggest problems for the print magazines is marketing. Most women (older like me) pick up their magazines at the supermarket and EQMM and AHMM just aren't there. You can't even find them in Wal-Mart. And I find a lot of people checking out the magazines in the book department at Wal-Mart.

One of the reasons for single issue buying? Spending a few dollars at the supermarket is a lot easier than tapping thirty dollars out of the budget all at once. If the magazines aren't there, people don't buy them. I know that sounds over simplified, but people don't buy what's not in front of them and they tend not to buy expensive magazines that they can't thumb through and get a feel for.

As for Murderland, after the first big splash, they went totally silent, barely any web presence or word of mouth to keep up the momentum. Their advertising seemed to be aimed mostly at the writing community as far as I could see.

But there are no easy solutions to the problem. Publishing is expensive and if you can't sell it, you're just dug yourself an expensive hole.

Nathan Cain said...

Mr. Ardai is in a pretty good position to help out short stories in print (they're already doing okay on the web). He's got good brand recognition with Hard Case Crime, and he could easily parlay that into a biannual Hard Case Digest, featuring hard boiled and noir short stories. He's also got a rolodex full of writers he could tap to contribute and guest edit. Of course he's probably got his hands full with his new line of books.

Bryon said...

I agree with Nathan. I think Hard Case is in a perfect position to launch a magazine like New Black Mask or something like that.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sandra, you make good points, but it's probably tough if you're not selling advertising to put a fiction magazine out in supermarkets and Wal-Marts where you're going to get a lot of returns. The thing with Murdaland was they were trying to make it as a literary journal, and that's a hard road if you don't have a University or government funds backing you.

Nathan, Bryon, it would be interesting to see what Hard Case could do with a short fiction anthologies. I'm sure Charles would be able to put together something worth reading. Somewhere--either Charles told me recently at Dell Magazine's Edgar party or I saw him mention it somewhere on the web, but most of his Hard Case books don't sell anywhere near what EQMM and AHMM's subscription numbers are. And I doubt he'd be able to put out something as diverse or as open to new writers as what AHMM and EQMM are doing. As far as a New Black Mask, EQMM already has the old Black Mask! Nathan, about short crime fiction doing well on the web, well, the quality might be there, but you'd be shocked if you knew what the readership was. There's some good stuff out there, but they're not doing well.

sandra seamans said...

Dave said: The thing with Murdaland was they were trying to make it as a literary journal, and that's a hard road if you don't have a University or government funds backing you.

Which is my point exactly. They were simply targeting a market that basically is closed to genre writing. It's rather like a hooker shaking her ass at a gay man - it's not going to sell. If Murderland wanted to sell they should have wooed their basic audience of mystery readers rather then set their backs up by saying they're better than rest of the genre cause they're literary. ThugLit and Plots with Guns are both as literary as crime stories can get but they don't go around thumping their chests with it.

The old pulp magazines knew who their audience was and targeted their stories and cover art to grab the attention of that audience. Which is what OOTG has going for it and why their share of the market is growing with each issue. Yeah, they're uneven at times but the old pulps were the same way. And those same stories that were considered "hack" writing back then are now considered literary gems.

I think today's publishers have forgotten that about 75% of the reading public is not college educated and they don't all live in cities like New York and LA. They read to be entertained, to let their own imaginations soar. They don't want to be told what they should read, they want to find it on their own, but if it's not there, it can't be found and enjoyed.

I don't know when magazine publishers decided that readers didn't want short stories. All you have to do is look around and see how many short stories writers there are to know that there must be readers for those stories.

And yeah, I'll get off my own personal soapbox now.