I would be remiss in my duties as "the dude who talks about short fiction" if I didn't send you to look at Gordon Van Gelder's (Hugo Award winning editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) recent blog post: "Questions about publishing short fiction online."
As with many of us (reader, writers, and editors), whether to publish stories online has been on his mind lately. You should go to Gordon's post and enter in your comments there, but here are the questions to which he's looking for answers:
1. When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?
2. Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?
3. Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free. If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you do so?
4. Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?
1. Yes. Whether it's an online publisher or a print publisher, I try my best to support as much of the short fiction field as I can. I particularly try to support new endeavors since I'd like to see what people do.
2. My heart wants to say yes, but my brain keeps telling me no. Gordon carefully puts print magazines in the question in order to exclude places like Strange Horizons, Lone Star Stories, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Farrago's Wainscot which don't have a subscribable product. I honestly can't think of any examples other than myself of print magazines that have put up online fiction, either for the heck of it or as a means to draw in subscribers. Now, if the next question wasn't there, I might think otherwise, but I'm excluding magazines that put up award-nominated stories from this question. I know a few places have started to put up free fiction, but I've either already been a subscriber to those magazines or decided to not subscribe.
3. I was going to say "I don't I think I would," and I'm going to change that to "no I wouldn't" and be more emphatic about it. For me, the point of posting award-nominated stories is to assist in the voting process. I realize that there are people who read the stories for free this way and do not vote, but I can only speak for my own purposes. Now, if those nominated stories were available together (even in a POD format) as a sort of 2007 Award-Nominated Stories from F&SF publication? That could be something worth talking about.
4. No. But I may be an exception. I do know that I'm prone to read the online, free fiction before my magazines for several reasons. The print magazines have a permanance: they are always there for me to read. I can get to them at my leisure. The online fiction might stay up forever, there might be stories that get taken down, the publisher might only have them up for a limited time, etc. Also, since I tend to spend at least eight hours a day in front of a computer, it's very convenient to read the online fiction. A new issue of Clarksworld Magazine or Strange Horizons only has a few stories compared to their print counterparts, so it takes me less time to read an entire issue. I think the prevalence of free fiction online has made it so that I am unwilling to pay for online fiction.
By the time you read this, my responses should also be over at Gordon's post. The question of whether to put fiction online for free is a tough one. At first glance it seems like a great idea. However, if you're the publisher of this fiction, you quickly run into the problem of how to maintain everything. You have to pay for the stories, for the art, for the web space, etc. and web advertising only covers so much. Annual print anthologies of the online fiction or other publishing ventures or donation drives might cover your costs, but this is all so new, no one's hit on a consistent formula yet. We're on the cusp of a new venture, and I'm very interested to see where it goes.