If we're asking for your money, it's only fair to tell you what we're going to use it for. You already know that we're not using it to pay staff salaries. We're also not using it for renting office space, printing and shipping magazines, hiring receptionists, or buying paperclips. So what are we doing with it? As you can probably guess, we have some incidental expenses -- web hosting, tea parties, sending out review copies of books, that kind of thing -- but the bulk of our budget goes to paying our contributors. And the bulk of that money goes to paying for fiction.
In every other department, we pay a flat rate for contributors. We pay twenty dollars for each poem we publish, fifty dollars for each article, twenty dollars for each review, and seventy-five dollars for each story illustration. (Full submission guidelines and information can be found here.) In the fiction department, though, we pay by the word, which is generally standard in speculative fiction. For the last couple of years, we've been paying four cents a word. Starting in January, we'll be increasing that to five cents a word. One might ask why, in the middle of asking for more money, we're increasing our fiction budget by twenty percent. The answer has a lot to do with what it means to "pay professional rates" to our contributors.
Within the sometimes-murky world of short fiction publishing, it's common to categorize magazines as either professional, semi-pro, or amateur. Magazines like Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy are generally considered "professional" markets, while magazines like Interzone and The Third Alternative are seen as "semi-pro," and something like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet would be considered "amateur." Before I go into any more detail about what those distinctions mean, I want to point out one very important thing: the divisions are mostly business-related, and are generally more important to writers than to readers. As a reader, you can probably find quality fiction in the better semi-pro and amateur publications just as easily as you can in the professional publications. In fact, depending on what your particular tastes are, you might be more likely to find what you're looking for outside of the professional publications. When I talk about pro and semi-pro magazines, I'm making a distinction based on publishing practices, not on the quality of the magazine.
That said, then, what makes a magazine professional (rather than semi-pro), and who cares? In speculative fiction publishing, the definition of a professional publication is set by the two professional organizations for writers: the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and the Horror Writers of America (HWA). Since Strange Horizons doesn't really publish horror fiction, I'll focus mainly on the SFWA guidelines. Before SFWA will consider a magazine to be a "qualifying professional market," it must have been publishing regularly for some period of time, be able to demonstrate circulation or readership numbers above a certain level, and pay above a certain minimum pay rate. (Full guidelines available here.) Strange Horizons was among the first online magazines to formally qualify with SFWA as a professional market.
If you go look at the SFWA guidelines, you'll notice that they've changed recently. For a very long time, the minimum pay rate for fiction was three cents a word, but starting on 1 January, it will be five cents a word. It's a big change, but it's one that needed to happen. The minimum pay rate for short fiction publishing hadn't changed in decades, and three cents a word is just too low. That's what Strange Horizons paid for fiction at the magazine's launch, but we raised the rate to four cents a word as soon as we were sure our budget could accommodate it, and we've had plans in place to raise the rate again within a couple of years. We're raising them now, ahead of schedule, in order to keep pace with the SFWA requirements. This is one of the reasons this fund drive is so important, though -- raising the pay rates ahead of schedule has thrown our budget a little bit off-track. We're raising our fiction budget by twenty percent, and we're doing it with very little lead time. If we can't raise enough money to make up the difference, we may have to take some kind of corrective action, such as running a few weeks of reprints instead of original fiction. This isn't something that we'd prefer to do, but we felt that this was the best of our available options.
Which brings us to the next part of the question: who cares? Why does it matter if we're a SFWA-qualified professional market? The answer is that it doesn't, really, not to us as a magazine. Paying competitive rates for fiction certainly helps us bring better quality fiction to our readers, but we would still have been competitive at four cents a word. We've found, though, that SFWA qualification is important to our writers. Part of our mission statement, after all, is to encourage new writers and to help the speculative fiction community as a whole. If we continue to be a SFWA-qualified professional market, then we continue to help our authors become SFWA members, which will bring them some measure of professional standing and recognition in the community. (Not to mention the right to vote on the Nebula awards.) We firmly believe that the writers published in Strange Horizons are among the best and brightest the speculative fiction community has to offer, so we believe that we're doing right by both the writers and the community to keep our status as a SFWA-pro magazine.
The publication standards set by SFWA are based on market considerations. As a non-profit magazine with an explicit mission to serve the community, market considerations aren't our primary concern at Strange Horizons. We've gone to some great lengths to make sure we're meeting what we consider professional standards in a variety of other ways -- our contracts are very writer-friendly, we make every effort to pay our contributors promptly and fairly, and we strive in every way to treat both our writers and our readers with respect. Right now, meeting our goals means raising our pay rates, and we hope you'll help us make that possible.
Copyright © 2003 Susan Marie Groppi
Susan Marie Groppi is Associate Editor of Strange Horizons.