"Consider our contract void," was what a recent email told me.
For those of you who aren't in the business of submitting stories to magazines, let me tell you, it's difficult. Americans don't read much short fiction these days, so the number of outlets for sci-fi shorts is small. That's not even talking about those which will pay the SFWA's pro-rate of eight cents a word.
You read that correctly. Eight cents a word. Sound like a lot? Well, let's say you sold a six-thousand word piece, that would earn you $480. That'd be great pay if you could write, edit and get it accepted somewhere in ten or twelve hours. Of the 238,777 words of short fiction that I have tried to sell, I average 1.93 words/minute to turn out submission-ready copy. For our imagined 6K word story that would be 51 hours. Of course, that's an average for all my writing. For my most recent story near that size, I produced 2.43 submission-ready words/minute. That faster speed, ostensibly garnered by experience, would still have me spending a little over 41 hours on that story. That translates into a wage of $11.70/hour--less than minimum wage in some states. I know, write faster, right?
All that's to say, it's a difficult, low-paying gig, writing is. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of places that will take a story for free and slap it up on their website so you can call yourself nominally published, but to get someone to actually pay for your writing is quite difficult.
That's why it was so much fun to receive an acceptance from Mythic Magazine for my story "Slivers" on October 11th. They were only paying a penny a word, down from three cents a word when I submitted. Since the story had already been rejected by the more lucrative outlets, I was happy. At least my work wouldn't be completely wasted. I signed the contract and waited for issue #18 to arrive.
Imagine my surprise when on December 21st I got an email from the publisher saying that he was closing the magazine indefinitely; I should consider our contract void. Thankfully he didn't actually write "Merry Christmas."
Of course, publishing a magazine of short speculative fiction is an even worse gig than writing for one. Getting Americans to pry open their wallets and actually pay for written entertainment is extremely difficult. The internet is awash in free content. Some sci-fi writers actually give away the first book in a series to get people to buy the others! People borrow/steal their friends' and family members' streaming passwords. Most video entertainment and books can be pirated on the internet. So getting those same people to pay for a periodical is outrageously difficult. People are more and more used to not actually paying for what they read, and often what they watch.
That is, I sympathize a little with the publisher, but only a little. Let's say his magazine runs 50K words of content an issue. To pay a penny a word for those 50K words would cost him $500. Said another way, to close out his last issue would cost him about $500 in content and a lot of elbow grease to get his electronic-only magazine published.
My point is that it would have cost him on the order of $500 to keep his word to perhaps a dozen authors who he strung along for months. But, wait a minute, his business failed (again). You can't expect one man to bear the responsibility of the entire enterprise. Maybe. Maybe it's my fault for not seeing that a magazine that just dropped its rates is faltering. And let's not forget that over-arching fallback of every crappy businessman: it's perfectly legal. Yeah, it's true. The reason we have corporations and LLCs is to protect hard-working entrepreneurs from having their life destroyed by a business failure.
So, there's no black-and-white in this little teapot tempest of ethics. There's an incompetent, well-meaning guy who I admired for his tenacity and pluck right up to the point where he screwed a dozen writers three days before Christmas because he couldn't cough up $500 to shut down his business gracefully.
How much is your integrity worth?