January 18, 2003

A Column by Byron McAllister

A diatribe addressed to writers of short mysteries.

At one time, magazines were extremely important sources of popular entertainment. They were found on newsstands, and they were distributed through the mail, and, no, they weren't free, but back then there was no television nor even radio competing for people's free time, so lots of people paid the money. Lots more received old issues from their wealthier friends. Those weren't particularly what you'd call the good old days, since too many things of the time that we see as old weren't particularly good by modern standards. Medicine, just for one example, was still pretty primitive (though a great improvement on the old "bleed-and-purge" doctoring that had gone before). Still the times weren't entirely bad, especially for those mystery readers who, by hook or crook, could lay their hands on issues of such magazines as Black Mask, Dime Mystery, Thrilling Mystery, Mystery Novels Magazine Quarterly, and many others, including an amazing variety with "Detective" in the title and featuring both truth and fiction--often indistinguishably. Besides which, mystery stories showed up fairly often in such household standards as Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and American Magazine.

Them days aren't exactly "gone forever," but have you tried to subscribe to or purchase a mystery magazine lately? They come and they go. I've subscribed to a good many, over the years, and I can certainly vouch for their come-and-go-ness. Two seem to be stable, and have long been the most prestigious--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (AHMM) and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM). Not too many others manage to keep plugging along. For a while I tried to subscribe to them all, but it got to be too complicated. Things like this would happen: a wag on one of their staffs responded to a (paid) request for a sample issue with a copy from which he or she had scissored out several pages and fractions thereof. When I subscribed anyway, nothing happened (though at least the check wasn't cashed.) One magazine accepted the subscription, sent an issue or two, disappeared, managed, through friendships, I think, to remain on various lists as active, succeeded in reappearing and even assured me, about three years ago, that I'd receive the next issue "soon." It seems to have vanished again. Several of them just quit sending out issues, and prove to have converted themselves into on-line-only magazines. At least two gave me the impression that they had been created by their editors, at some expense, I'm sure, purely in order to print stories by the editors and his or her friends.

Now, let's face it: the reason I subscribed was this: I wanted to find somebody who might think seriously about publishing a few short stories by, of all people, me. (Well, me and spouse: we collaborate; but I'm using the un-editorial "me.") During that period, both AHMM and EQMM seemed to have gone over entirely to stories in which the criminal "gets away with it," and I don't write those. I try to avoid even reading them. Needless to say, at that point neither of those greats could be interested in anything Isent them. (That this may have been due to lack of quality is not the point here: the point is that at that time my work couldn't meet the editorial needs of a magazine with the emphasis I mentioned, well-written or not.) That's okay, I said, there are others. At least, I think there are.

Now, in fact, I did eventually find a magazine that appeared to be stable and whose editor's tastes and mine agreed enough that it published several things I wrote. It didn't appear to have very many subscribers, however, and so far as I could tell wasn't available on newsstands. I wondered whether, perhaps, at least those mystery-writing beginners who write short stories as well as "great novels" subscribe to it--or, indeed, to other mystery magazines.

There was a way to ask a reasonably representative group of mystery writers: I raised the question on a mystery writers' webboard: do the people here who write short stories subscribe to or otherwise regularly read any mystery magazines? And if so, which ones?

Let's cut to the result: exactly one of the maybe twenty or more who responded at all said that yes, she subscribes. She usually reads AHMM (or maybe EQMM--I forget). All the others said they don't read short stories or can't afford to, or gave some other excuse, though a couple said they--on rare occasions--pick up an AHMM or an EQMM. I did notice that the instability of the mystery magazine industry was not one of the reasons cited, from which I'm inclined to deduce that none had even set out to subscribe.

(It's not part of the main thrust of this article, but just for everybody's amusement, I've seen several stories by the one person who replied that she does read mystery mags frequently. They are good, and I saw them in a magazine that pays $500 for each mystery story it accepts. For anybody but a "big name," that ain't bad. Her acceptance there may or may not have anything to do with the fact that she's sufficiently interested in mystery short stories to read some.)

Naive people like me sometimes draw hasty conclusions, and here's the one I drew for all but one of the respondents: they see mystery magazines as things that might accept their work, but not as things that a person might try to support by subscribing--or even, for that matter reading.

You know, it seems to me that writing short mysteries for publication without frequently reading some of the magazines that feature such things is like hoping to get one's vitamins and minerals without going anyplace that sells vegetables.

Incidentally, it was a sad day for me when, recently, the one editor who had liked my (our) stories well enough to print more than one was closing down. The editor could no longer subsidize it, and wanted to put her time in on her own writing. She declines to pass the title of the magazine on to a new editor/subsidizer, so it's gone. I wonder if I should have campaigned harder for people to subscribe to it. All I did was tell some mystery story writers it was there and that the editor was regularly providing feedback even when she rejected submissions. Too weak an endorsement.

So now my wish is that all my readers would sit down and subscribe to some of the remaining print mystery magazines. Of course, there's that instability thing: how can I push for it? I guess I can't. I can tell you what some of them are--but then, if you're reading this website, you surely know how to do a web search for mystery magazines (try ClueLass, for example), and you might find some I don't know about. Anyway, the ones I thought looked promising during my early free-spending days have mostly folded, and I think you're just going to have to find your own successes--and make some of your own mistakes.

But I do think short mystery writers should not only read but actually subscribe to short mystery magazines--and I don't just mean web versions. Part with the cash! Mystery writers can't be the sole support of a printed magazine, but it's be stupid of us not to do our part.