From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Randym Thoughts: The Future of Speculative Fiction Magazines

As both a speculative fiction reader and writer, I get chest pains every time I hear about another speculative fiction magazine closing down. The feeling falls somewhere between “What? They canceled Firefly?!” and “What? They canceled Christmas?!”

When it comes to large circulation print magazines, we are down to the “big three” – Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), and Analog Science Fiction and Fact. And even they are bleeding subscribers.

What dark forces threaten our pulp magazines? Are online magazines any better off? And how can both print and online magazines stand out and prevail in this crazy wired world of information overload and multimedia mania?

The Power of the Pixel

There is no doubt that online magazines have a heck of a lot going for them beyond not having to pay for printing.

Unlike a paper magazine, for example:

  • You can read it at the office while pretending to work on that spreadsheet or answer emails.
  • You can immediately tell the author, publisher, and the world how totally awesome or completely suckarific the material is via the wonders of online comments.
  • Readers feel more like participants in the magazine and part of its community (rather than merely being consumers) due to the various feedback and discussion options.
  • You can click your way to an author’s personal website and immediately begin stalking them. Er, I mean, communicating with them.
  • You only have to read what you want to, without having paid anyway for the things you don’t want to read.

And online magazines not only offer some or all of their shiny words for free, but can also offer podcasts and eBooks, video book trailers, short films, movie trailers, television show clips, and of course the hyperlink rabbit hole leading to more and more related and interesting information.

Got That Paper Feeling

But let’s not dismiss the value of a good print magazine too quickly, folks.

One reason I doubt that print media will ever go away entirely is that curling up in a comfy chair reading a book or magazine in lamplight is fundamentally a different experience than curling up with the hard plastic and glowing screen of a laptop or a Kindle. It just feels different. The same words even read differently.

Paper also has several advantages. Unlike electronics, for example:

  • You can take a paper magazine to the beach and not worry about getting sand in it.
  • Paper magazines get perfect reception everywhere, not just in wifi hotspots.
  • Paper magazines have no DRM, and a universal file format that works with all ocular browser interfaces.
  • Paper magazines are undetectable by your employer’s website security filter.
  • Paper magazines do not leave cookies on your computer, but can be used as coasters in a pinch.
  • Paper magazines use bonded-energy technology that means you never have to recharge them.

Paper magazines are built with non-virtuality persistence (aka reality caching) which means they are never deleted, nor will you ever get a “missing page” error when opening it, so it can be read again at any time in the future and even passed on to your children.

I have also seen at various times cool extras like cut-out card and board game inserts, cover or centerfold poster art, folding-page puzzles, crosswords, cut-and-fold origami-like projects, and cut-out masks.

But I suppose online magazines (or electronic versions of paper magazines) can do most of these things as well if their readers have a printer.

Online Did Not Kill the Paper Star

Just to be clear, while online magazines are surely a contributing factor in the decline of print magazines, they represent just one small arrow in a quiver o doom.

As reported in an excellent PBS article by Simon Owens, print magazine sales began declining before the internet became a real factor due to problems such as the placement and availability of those magazines.

Certainly, it ain’t easy finding magazines like F&SF or Asimov’s outside of a major book chain. And I rarely think to visit the magazine rack in book stores.

Ideally, I would love to see the Magazine of F&SF shelved near the fantasy and science fiction anthology books. After all, it is essentially a short story collection with extras. And it costs about the same as a cheap paperback novel while taking up a quarter of the space on the shelf. Win win for the bookseller, I should think.

But product placement is not the only worry for print magazines.

A Question of Community

Once upon a time, print magazines helped that guy playing D&D in his basement and that girl who sewed herself an Elf Quest costume to know there were others out there just like themselves, to connect with one another, to learn of genre-related news and events, and to share their genre-related thoughts via letters to the magazine.

Many of these community functions are now served bigger and better online, just a Google search away.

A person with strong feelings about Twilight‘s message to young women doesn’t have to write a letter to a pulp magazine editor hoping it will get published. They can blog it in a hundred places, and write a column for an online magazine, and post a fanfic story, and post a YouTube rant about it, and create a website devoted to it, and more. And other genre fans will see that and respond.

Print magazines dropped the ball in continuing such critical community-building and connecting roles.

But while I think it is too late for print magazines to remain leaders in those areas, I do think they, as well as online magazines, can and must still offer these services online to their readers to remain relevant.

A Short Story is far from Novel

The debate over where and how to sell short fiction often overlooks the basic question of whether people want to read short stories. Many genre fans enjoy comics, video games, movies and television and can’t be bothered to read prose fiction. And many other genre fans prefer to read full-length novels rather than short stories, so that they can really immerse themselves in the created world and spend quality time with the characters. For them, the ride is over too quickly when they read a short story, no matter how magical or amazing that story is.

Magazines need to find ways to create interest in reading short fiction, period. How, I haven’t a clue. For those fans who simply haven’t tried short stories before, perhaps use podcasts and flash fiction as gateway drugs and see who comes back for more, though I’m not sure Mr. T would approve of such methods. Another obvious solution is to print longer works. Sure, the online and electronic formats must deal with file size, online reading fatigue, et cetera, but they are also unconstrained by such considerations as limited print space or printing costs.

Why do so many online magazines have word limits between 3,000 and 5,000 (when even the definition of “short story” often extends up to 7,500 words)? Well, okay, sure, if I had to read a thousand amateur submissions a month, many written with the skill of a MySpace teenage “nobody understands my painful pain” poem, I’d want them to be short too. But perhaps magazines can draw in more novel-reading fans by publishing novellas and serialized novels. True, they might need to bring on an additional volunteer slush reader or two, and author pay rates and methods may need to differ for the longer works.

But then rather than competing with all the other magazines for the same shorter stories, they could snatch up all those perfectly good stories out there that are too long for other short story publishers, and too short for book publishers. Then novel fans would have a place to purchase longer fiction in between the book-length releases from the publishing houses.

What Have You Done for Me Today?

There’s plenty of stuff out there to distract us all. Expecting readers to remember to check out your magazine a month or six from now for the next big issue stuffed full of fictiony goodness is asking a bit much. But give those readers a tasty little online snack every day and they’ll constantly drop by and check in on you, kind of like a broke college student.

With online publishing, every day there can be a fresh review, column, news update, bit o’ multimedia whizz-bang, or passionate debate to retain a reader’s interest while waiting for the next story or issue to be released. Such materials can even attract those fans who don’t read prose fiction, and get them to spread the word about your site to those who do. As author John Scalzi notes in the previously mentioned PBS article, print magazines seem to largely be on the defensive, looking to retain readers but not doing much that is innovative to gain new ones. Even their forums and blogs are infrequently updated and, too often, rather boring.

It’s not enough to throw up a forum because the other mags have them too. These magazines have to provide the same wide variety of interesting and frequently updated content to their existing readers online as the true online magazines do, and actively promote themselves to attract new readers. Viral videos, social networking and meetup group sites, email and RSS notifications, online forums, and blogs all offer ways to reach out to new and existing readers.

And once you have the readers’ attention, then you can try to sell them your product.

When Worlds Collide — Selling Fiction Online

Online fiction does not have to mean free fiction, nor is it mutually exclusive from print publishing. Both online content and copies of printed stories can be sold in electronic versions on eBook sites, for Fictionwise or Kindle, and text or audio formats for iPods/ iPhones and other devices. You would not believe how many ridiculous applications I have bought for my iPhone because, heck, they’re only $.99 cents. Seriously, when will I really need this virtual Stargate Dial Home Device? So make something that seems interesting, cheap and easy to purchase, and people will buy it. Or, for example, set up a subscription service, where for a monthly fee a person is emailed a story a week so they can be cheap and lazy about getting the magazine’s fiction.

Magazines could also create direct online incentives to purchase their product. Perhaps the purchase of a magazine or story through their site would open additional online content, grant points that can be spent on virtual gifts to be shared with others in the community, or even partner with popular sites like Gaia Online to grant virtual money for spending on avatar clothing, et cetera.

Also, look at new and creative ways to use their existing human resources. Many readers of speculative fiction magazines tend to also be aspiring genre writers or artists. If by subscribing to a magazine I could enter monthly drawings to win a free detailed critique of one of my stories by the likes of Gordon Van Gelder, Sheila Williams, or Cat Rambo, I would definitely see that as an incentive to buy. Likewise, have drawings for exclusive one-on-one online chats with genre writers and stars – surely some of the personalities that editors know would be willing to donate twenty minutes of their life from the comfort of their own home office in support of a magazine that contributes to their fan base?

Still, whether you are a print or online magazine, selling through brick stores or websites, the question of “why pay for fiction when I can view stories for free online” is an unavoidable one. The answer is simple.

It’s the Quality. Duh.

The absolute best thing any speculative fiction magazine can have is outstanding speculative fiction.

All the tricks and gimmicks and extra materials pale in comparison to building a reputation of consistently publishing the best speculative fiction out there — fiction that always leaves readers satisfied, makes them come back for more, and creates word-of-mouth promotion. This means not only being able to attract and recognize such stories, but also promoting awards the magazine has won, giving away the occasional high-quality story for free as a “sample,” and providing attention-grabbing excerpts or teasers.

And while the online magazines certainly are beginning to compete in quality of content and in pay rates for their writers, there is still a certain amount of allure and prestige from a writer’s perspective to having one’s story published “in print,” and having readers pay to read that story.

This prestige, as well as the reputation of magazines like Asimov’s or F&SF, are the print magazines’ greatest asset (at least for now). It is what will continue to gain them first shot at many big name writers and the cream of upcoming writers over the online magazines. They might even be able to draw in the popular novel writers, if not with short story assignments then perhaps novel tie-ins (prequel chapters, “deleted scene” chapters, etc.). Just imagine how many magazines you would sell if you had an exclusive Harry Potter, Twilight, or “lost” Wheel of Time story?

Bottom line, if you sell truly great fiction then readers will buy it. But only if they can trust it will be of the highest quality, they are reminded when it is available, and they can easily find and purchase it for a reasonable price.

Still, lots o’ shiny freebies never hurt either.

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