Short stories were once the bread and butter of the science fiction industry. Some of them, such as Isaac Asimov's legendary Foundation stories, were collected into book form and became some of the most respected works of fantastical literature ever committed to paper. Since those golden days that are so highly regarded even now, the short story has seemed to slip by the wayside to a certain extent. The magazines that have traditionally published short science fiction and fantasy stories have been struggling in recent years, but the online market for short-form fiction has been growing at an incredible rate. The difference? Price. Much of the content online has been available for free, on websites or as PDFs, audio podcasts and more, and the magazines have struggled to stay afloat in the face of all this free content.
How can the balance be redressed? I'm not entirely sure. Publishing is in the midst of a transitory phase, with consumers getting used to the idea of ebooks much quicker than most publishers can (or are willing to) keep up with. But ebooks aren't the whole future of the publishing industry- more an adjunct that will eventually match paperbacks for sales. I don't see them completely replacing printed books any time soon, but what I do see on the horizon is the continued rise of print-on-demand books.
That aside, the short story market is something that has been of great interest to me for many years, and with the death of many magazines (as well as the inability to get any - apart from the wonderful ANALOG - in the UK without a subscription), it looked as though short SF and fantasy was a dying breed as a market for new writers and readers. But things seem to be on the up at last. More magazines are starting to emerge, and the old titles are hopefully starting to see an upward turn in fortunes too. I think that readers are now starting to get the hang of shorter fiction again.
How can the market make this work in its favour though? Giving fiction away is a great way to get people to visit sites, become aware of authors and suchlike, but there has to be some level of monetization in there to make it feasible for creators and publishers to do so. Donations buttons are a good idea, but low-priced short stories and novellas are even better. Michael Stackpole, famed SF and fantasy author, is the king of this. His website (www.stormwolf.com)is awash with very reasonably priced short fiction that has proven to be very popular with readers.
Check out the iBooks store for iPhone and iPad, for example. You can find a wealth of fiction there for a low price from writers both new and established. The Kindle store is a good place for fiction at a low price, too. As for printed fiction, try looking towards independent publishers as well as the big names, as there is a massive amount of fiction out there that goes unread, which is little short of criminal. There are some true gems being published by indie presses, and isn't it worth a little effort in order to get hold of something wonderful?
Yes, I'm biased regarding this matter as I write and am always looking for a new creative endeavour, but the reader in us all can gain a huge amount from short fiction. It's important to the continued evolution of every kind of literature - not just genre fiction - that short stories, novelettes and novellas continue to find their way to publishers and readers the world over. Check out websites such as 365tomorrows.com for free flash fiction, or podcasts such as Podcastle, Escape Pod or Starship Sofa for free audio fiction (or the brilliant Dragon Page: Cover To Cover or Adventures In Sci-Fi Publishing for publishing chat) and when you read or hear a story you enjoy, seek out what else the writer of the story has done, and make it known that you want more. That's the only way to help the short story market grow and develop further- make it known that you want the content, and content you shall have.
(Expect links galore to the best fiction available online and elsewhere in the near future, along with more opinion on SF and publishing)