Why SF is no longer a young person’s game

Those who watch the field have often noticed that the median and mean age of an SF writer has crept upwards for decades.  Anecdotally, this seems to be true.  Let us assume the trend is real.  Some fear that this is a sign that SF is dying, as young people no longer take an interest in SF, and so only old readers and writers are left.  But I think the explanation is much simpler, and does not bode ill for the pipeline of SF readers and writers (that is, I do not believe that young people are losing interest in SF) but does indicate a trend that makes it challenging to produce quality SF.

Short stories and novels are the life blood of SF.  Sure, movies are the main exposure for the general public, but 99% of the movies are trailing indicators (lagging decades behind the written form in their creativity) and are not very innovative.  John Carter is coming to the screen a century after Burroughs wrote the books.  Don’t expect to see The Windup Girl on screen anytime soon, but expect the sequel to Avatar to arrive with fateful certainty some summer or fall.  New and innovative science fiction happens in prose.

So let’s consider stories.  Here’s the rub.  The pro rate as defined by SFWA (as I write this) is $0.05 a word.  And that’s not much different than what some magazines were paying in the 1950s.  In nominal dollars.  Now think about what that means.  A 5000 word story published in Galaxy in 1955 would have earned about $150.  A 5000 word story published in one of the big three today would earn $250 (or a tad more — and in most other mags today it would earn much less that $250).  Again, that’s nominal dollars.  I’ve not adjusted.

In 1955 the median household income was $4,400.  In 2010 it was $49,445.  You see the moral.  A 5,000 word story sold in 1955 at $0.03 a word to Galaxy would earn a writer about 2 weeks of a middle class existence; a 5,000 word story sold today at SFWA “pro-rates” would earn less than 2 days of a middle class existence.  So, in 1955 if you sold two short stories in a month, you made a decent middle class wage for that month.  You could pay rent or a mortgage, eat, go to a movie, buy clothes, and so on.  It would be possible to have a middle class life just writing short stories.  Today, you could not manage a poverty wage selling short stories.

The result is that a young person selling a short story in 1955 could have seriously considered become a full time writer on the spot.  She had a chance.  Today, that same writer selling a story when she is 25 cannot then just drop everything to become an SF writer.  She would starve.  She must pursue a day job.  And that means that she will be producing less, and her production will likely become noticeable when she is substantially older.

I’ve not run the numbers for novels, but I suspect it’s exactly the same.  We’re in an environment where traditional publishers might offer a new writer $2,000 for a first time novel (which they’ll pay out slowly in thirds, etc.).  I suspect in nominal dollars that has not changed much.  The result would be similar:  you could probably make a middle class living as a mid-list novelist in print selling one or two novels in 1955 or the decades that followed.  Today this is nearing impossibility.

(There may be hopeful counter trends, of course.  Indy e-publishing may offer a new alternative to this downward slide.)

My conclusion is that if the age of SF writers creeps up every year, then it is because every year it becomes more difficult to earn a living as an SF writer.

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