At my last book club meeting, a member expressed surprise that nearly every Hugo short work nominee this year came from an online publication, rather than the traditional Big Three print magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF). I was surprised that they were surprised. I find it unlikely that a traditionally published magazine will ever publish a Hugo-winning story again. Not because they don’t publish quality work (they do! and are rightly respected for it!), but because they will not get nominated to the final ballot.
Getting nominated is about exposure. A story will not get nominated if it has not been read. Likewise, the more people read a story, the greater the likelihood it will be nominated, simply because more voters are aware that it exists.
If I read a fantastic story in last month’s issue of Asimov’s magazine, and I tell my friends, “OMG! Story X is amazing!!! You have got to read this!!”… what can they do with that information? Unless they also have a subscription to Asimov’s – nothing at all. No one is going to drive down to wherever the nearest bookstore may be to search through the bottom racks among rows and rows of magazines to try to find a copy of Asimov’s for this one story. Nevermind the cost of a single issue, the investment in time and effort is greater than it would take the read the story itself! Not to mention, some bookstores don’t carry all three magazines (or any…), and those that do often don’t carry more than one or two copies of any given issue! And what does my friend do if I got to Asimov’s a couple month’s late, and read the story after that issue has been removed from the stands? Go track down a back-copy somewhere? OMG.
For this same reason, if someone recommends an amazing story from F&SF to me, unless they physically hand me their own copy of the magazine, I will never get a chance to read it. No matter how great it is.
OTOH, say I read something that blows me away at Strange Horizons. Not only do I tell my friends at book club, I also share the link in Facebook. Now dozens (maybe over 100?) people not only see that I like they story, they can read it instantly. At work, on the train, in bed, whatever. And if they like it? They can share as well. The exposure potential is massive.
The Big Three print magazines will probably never get another Hugo, unless they change their distribution model. This year out of 18 short work nominees, only one came from the print magazines.
The thing that really interests me about this is that the online publications are all works of passion. That is to say, profit is only of distant interest. They are staffed almost exclusively by passionate volunteers. Nearly all revenue raised is used to buy stories and keep the website up. The few that can afford to pay the editors at the top cannot pay them a living wage – everyone still has a day job (or doesn’t have to worry about making money for some other reason). I don’t know what effect this has on the fiction they buy – it’s very freeing to simply purchase and publish what you think is really freaking good, without having to worry if it’ll “satisfy the market.” But it could also lead to the increased insularity and inaccessibility that has made Lit Fic a wasteland. I admit to being a bit of an SF snob myself, so I may be contributing to the problem…