A Grim 2009 for Year’s Bests and Anthologies Generally?

Gavin Grant reports that Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror is no more, although it might be revived in the future, and that Ellen Datlow will move on to edit two horror year’s bests for Night Shade Books. The anthology’s sales had been dipping over the last few years, and packaging-wise no real attempt was made to change a formula that clearly wasn’t pulling in as many readers as in the past. Nor, frankly, was the promotional effort for the anthology that good. I think the proliferation of other year’s bests and the easy access of readers to short fiction online may have also hurt the series.

For now, this leaves Jonathan Strahan’s SF/F best-of and Rich Horton’s fantasy best-of as the leaders of the pack on the fantasy side–especially since the disposition of the Hartwell/Cramer fantasy best-of is up in the air. [UPDATE: Apparently, it will be published by Tor.com] Best American Fantasy admittedly took a hit from these lean economic times, but the second volume will appear in the next month, with a 2009 copyright on it, and BAF3 guest edited by Kevin Brockmeier, series editor Matt Cheney, will also be released as planned, although when, given a 2009 release for BAF2, is still a question.

On the horror side, you now have Datlow’s new antho up against Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror (which has rarely gotten that much attention in the US, despite often being very good). Prime’s horror best of has vanished into thin air. (In terms of SF, Gardner Dozois is lord of that domain, although I understand Horton’s SF volume sells pretty well.)

I imagine there will be further carnage before it’s over, and I find it unlikely that the current slate of year’s bests will all still be around by the end of 2010.

What do these times mean for writers generally? It might be stating the obvious, but if you’re a midlist writer with a major publisher, you might be in trouble. If you’re a midlist writer doing a stint with a large independent, you might be okay. Indies have less overhead, and although more vulnerable to cash flow issues, distribution problems and the like, the best-organized indies might be a better place right now for some midlist writers. Or, at least, not any worse, especially when the print runs of some indies have gone up while the print runs of some of the smaller NY publishers aren’t any great shakes.

If Borders goes belly up, the paradigm completely changes, and although some people think that would strengthen the independent bookstores I think it’s more likely it strengthens Barnes & Noble and Amazon. (Finding creative ways to sell more books online, in whatever form, is definitely becoming ever more important.)

In terms of anthologies, eccentric but imaginative projects are unlikely to fly with large publishers, but they usually don’t anyway. And yet some editors are still going to take chances, as always. Solid theme anthologies are probably going to continue to sell well enough, but I can’t see many publishers wanting to launch more year’s bests right now. John Joseph Adams has proven again that reprint anthologies can sell as well or better than original anthologies, and that may also wind up having an effect on what’s published going forward.

I also think the trend of needing as many big names for anthologies as possible is going to continue, with some of the downsides I’ve already spoken about in previous posts. (Although this means the internet will continue to be ever more important for new talented writers, especially as most print magazines continue to take a hit.)

But, precisely because we are in a down cycle and the majority of writers and editors will be looking for safe ways to make money, it is a paradoxically a great time to jump in and start thinking about doing outrageous things–especially if you can find the niche or the slant that gives a publisher some hope of making back their investment. (Ann and I will announce a couple outrageous things soon…)

Some of this is just idle speculation, and I’m sure there are arguments to be made about all of it contrary to what I’ve put forth–please do, in fact, put them forth.

But the fact is–any clinical dissection of the situation aside–we’ve just lost a venerable flagship anthology that had an excellent reputation. And we lost it primarily because not enough people were buying it, for whatever reason.

Sometimes such things are unavoidable–all projects, all series, have decaying orbits. But it does mean we should cherish and be more attentive to the institutions, series, websites, or whatever that we profess to enjoy…because they might not be around forever otherwise. God bless Gavin and Kelly and Ellen. Ann and I know from editing just two years of a best-of that it’s a thankless, grinding task, even if you love fiction. To do it for a long span of time represents a considerable and laudable commitment.

22 comments on “A Grim 2009 for Year’s Bests and Anthologies Generally?

  1. Tess @ Work says:

    I always thought of it as being king of the castle, with all other best ofs scuffling in its wake. The vacuum will be a strange thing.

  2. Brandon Bell says:

    This is sad.

    Maybe the small press/ ezine market always looks as it does now and I am observing from a point of ignorance, but it seems for the new or unknown writers out there (myself included) there are some promising markets specializing in a kind of pulp revivalism.

    From The Willows, Arkham Tales, and Three Lobed Burning Eye on the horror/weird end to Ray Gun Revival, Spacewesterns, and M-brane SF on the SF end, to Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Black Gate for fantasy of the high and heroic sort, there are markets both specialized and well-produced enough that they are garnering some well-deserved attention.

    I’m still trying to crack Weird Tales. but even if the SFWA doesn’t call these markets pro, they are nice operations.

    Hopefully we’ll come out the other side of this poor economy and find that one or more of these venues have become that next important source for great short genre fiction.

    Take care,

    Brandon Bell

  3. eric orchard says:

    Terrible and discouraging news. Especially considering how great the stories have been lately.

  4. Charles Tan says:

    Much like Sir Tessa, YBFH was king of the hill for me and its absence is a void.

  5. I wonder if folks who have been in this longer can look back to the last time things turned south, (perhaps during the sixties? the eighties? I know we likely had a few cycle downs, but I’m not knowledgable enough to know when they happened off the top of the skull)

    What authors and magazines emerged out of the last wind down?

  6. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much institutional knowledge in place, although I’m sure there are a few articles out there. We mostly have the info in people’s skulls. In the late 1980s through the 1990s I was published by indie presses so although I remember things like when the bottom fell out of the horror market in the early 1990s I didn’t actually have to live through them in the sense of it affecting me that much. I think what that particular apocalypse did is force many writers into suspense and thrillers, and some of them grew a lot as a result.

    But I don’t see this as a catastrophic event, because in some of these cases people just didn’t take steps to stave off disaster. Sometimes you can be a victim of chance and sometimes you’re a victim of your own inaction. Not to mention this: writers, unlike actors, do not depend on anyone else to practice their craft. A writer who gets kicked off the midlist doesn’t suffer the way an actor who can’t work in movies or TV anymore suffers, I think. The writer can still write, can still get published. It may be harder, but life’s hard, so so what?

    What we’re really seeing is the outliers getting knocked off–in the one case it’s a respected series that entered a decaying orbit (not talking about quality of contents) and couldn’t or wouldn’t pull out of it. In another, it might be a newbie like BAF possibly not lasting past the third installment. Sometimes these things are inevitable, or even desirable–like controlled burns in forests that clear out the underbrush and allow for new growth. Sometimes they’re not inevitable, but no one wants to make the leap to a new coach or quarterback or offensive scheme. But they don’t necessarily have too much additional significance–I keep going back and forth on that.

    And, for every foreclosure in genre you have something new like Tor.com or Clarkesworld, offering space for writers in some mode, at least. I remain supremely optimistic that it’ll all work out. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because all elements of our society are going the way of the dinosaur. And Datlow has the right attitude–jumping right back in with a horror year’s best. Movement is life and standing still is death, now more than ever.

  7. Dan Green says:

    “I think the proliferation of other year’s bests and the easy access of readers to short fiction online may have also hurt the series.”

    Isn’t this itself probably a sufficient explanation? People aren’t buying all the anthologies because there are too many and they’re too similar, and because it’s becoming easier and easier to find decent stories online.

  8. Dan: You have to ask yourself why other series are still around. One answer is that the expectation in terms of sales is lower. But there are other factors. JV

  9. Dan Green says:

    Couldn’t YBFH also lower its expectations, or are the costs of putting together a high-profile anothology too high? Since you are yourself an anthologist, I guess you would know.

  10. if they moved to another publisher. it’s not that expensive to do. usually contributors to year’s bests get about 1 to 2 cents a word. but if you move an institution to an indie press, is it still an institution?

  11. Larry says:

    I wonder if part of the problem might be that as the SF/F readership has expanded, it has also fractured, leaving a large percentage of the overall SF/F readership basically uninformed in regards to any short fiction (especially those who like secondary-world/epic/heroic fantasies – very rare to hear talk of those stories on the short fiction level). If that is the case, I can’t help but wonder what could be done to bolster awareness in those segments of the SF/F readership.

  12. Frankly, Larry, my response is: who cares? sometimes I could really give a crap. support what is out there that you like and don’t take it for granted. if you don’t and it goes away, well, don’t be surprised–you helped it die. (this is a general you not a larry novel you) we are in a transitional period anyway.

  13. Larry says:

    Ha! :P That novel nick is going to stick now, isn’t it? And to be honest, I do agree to a large degree, except I might note that sometimes people don’t know what they like until somebody thrusts something into their face and they read it and decide they like it. But yes, apathy and all that will rule the day, someday.

  14. Cassandra Phillips-Sears says:

    Thanks for posting these speculations. The loss of that institution hurts writers, editors, readers everywhere, but as you’ve noted, other markets can and may change and potentially open up because of it; just because the market isn’t great right now doesn’t mean that authors should stop taking chances. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Terry says:

    This seems so very odd to me in this Golden Age of short fiction in the genres. Never in my lifetime have I seen so much great short SF, fantasy and horror all coming at me at once. I’m reveling in it. It rather astonishes me that, in an era of shortened attention spans, there aren’t *more* readers of short fiction rather than fewer.

    I never do get the dynamics right.

  16. there might well be–it’s just more spread out across platforms and types of media.

  17. Despite the high-profile cancellation of the YBF&H, the big pressure point isn’t anthologies. Anthologists are flexible and tend to have contracts with multiple publishers. The biggest problem is going to be with mid-career novelists who lose their publisher and can’t get another one.

  18. Blue Tyson says:

    How many Prime YB Horror books do exist, speaking of supporting them? I could never work this out. I have the 2006 volume. Did any others actually instantiate?

  19. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    BT: I think there are only two, but you might be right. Still, definitely no more than two.


  20. Blue Tyson says:

    Jeff, thanks very much. I’ll try ordering the second one again then.

  21. No problemo. I appreciate you visiting the blog, and your comments.

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