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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16 Responses »

  1. Two things I’d like to add:

    1. A shout out to Realms of Fantasy and Apex Digest, which I personally enjoy, and all other print magazines that, while not the “big three,” are still of excellent quality and fighting the good fight. Your omission was not a reflection on your value, but rather an example of representative sampling.

    2. I did some guerilla magazine product placement, which you can see at: http://quantumage.livejournal.com/7062.html

  2. Nice article, Randy. I, however, take exception at “Nobody Understands My Painful Pain”. The Washington Post called it “Teh Triumph!” The New Yorker said “Gr8! it made me :( & lol” That’s a critique you can really get behind!

    The bummer about online vs. dead tree is this. People equate value with something someone took the time to run off on paper. That’s why complaints to companies are taken seriously when written in letters from disgruntled old ladies who think a fluffy white cat depicts that particular brand of cat food as “too elegant.” Thus sticking the common folk with an orange tabby.

    Even if a story sucks, because it was printed out and bound, people might take it more seriously than a story that shares the internet with Harry Potter slashfic and a live fetish webcam of someone eating and crying.

    There is good stuff on the interwebs. There’s also some terrible stuff too. But yeah, being able to put something on your shelf for your descendants to enjoy (or likely sell for a nickle a pop at your estate sale when you have passed onto the next world) gives it heft. Importance. The internet, now, is still a very temporary thing. Subject to the whim of whether or not someone wants to back up a site. SciFi.com is a perfect example of this.

  3. Hi Randy,

    All great points. I really like your idea of a subscription service to get a weekly short story. It would be great to get something like that sent out as a .pdf so you can save it, print it, open it up pretty much wherever…sign me up, I would definitely pay for something like that!

    I enjoy the online magazine format because I find it to be very interactive as you mentioned. I like having the comments section and getting fast email updates about new posts and stories. It’s cool to be able to connect directly with readers and authors on an informal level. I love the print magazines too though – for me it almost feels like a completely different process to read a story online versus one in print. I think it might have something to do with what Clint said about people taking printed material more seriously. Also, I think that printed material engages your brain differently because it’s tangible and so you’re incorporating the sensory message of turning the pages as you read…it’s like you can physically feel yourself progressing through the story in addition to mentally feeling that. Although I must say I have gotten quite good at judging how long it will take me to read a story by how quickly the scroll bar moves on the side of the page as I read :0D

    Anyway, nice job on the article. I think it will be really interesting to see how this all plays out. Right now I’m enjoying both print and online formats and I hope the two continue to co-exist peacefully. None of that Cro-Magnon / Neanderthal wiping-each-other-off-the-planet stuff :0)

  4. I like Cat C.’s idea about allowing readers to subscribe to “flash content,” getting their daily dose of fiction sent right to their e-mail/Facebook page/outlet du jour. In fact, I offer that in my online novel via an RSS feed, which has been pretty successful in terms of keeping returning readers coming back.

    Not only is it a great concept, but there’s real life examples that it works well.

  5. I edit several small online ‘zines: Thaumatrope (fiction on twitter), Everyday Weirdness (flash fiction), and SpaceWesterns (short fiction). Since day 1 (April 1st, 2007) I’ve been looking for other forms of content, in addition to written stories.

    There’s not very much help for an editor to get the word out about other types of content. Where are the market lists for comics? audio? video?

    It requires a complete overhaul of how a genre magazine is run.

  6. Clint – I agree with your agreement :) And online magazines, no matter how good, do suffer somewhat from being one website among hundreds of thousands of websites that contain horribly written fan fiction and content.

    Because online allows self publishing and posting by anyone who can click a button, there are not the quality filters that exist to some degree or other in print magazines and online zines that depend on reader support to survive.

    But from comments I have heard and read, the readers do notice when a magazine starts publishing unoriginal or less-than-stellar material, and it is one of the fastest ways for a magazine to lose its readers, whether that magazine is print or online.

  7. Cat, Jim,

    Thanks for the comments. It is sounding like the subscription idea might be a popular one. :) I’m not sure if it already exists anywhere, but when I proposed it, I was thinking it might take the form of a short story (not necessarily flash fiction).

    And I also thought perhaps the subscription might grant access to additional online content like non-fiction articles, book reviews, etc. that normally accompany fiction in magazines. Although, again, I think that the magazine would want to offer a certain amount of that content for free to everyone in order to draw people to their website where they could then promote their product, benefit from online ad revenue, etcetera. But there could still be “subscriber exclusive content,” drawings, etc. that build the relationship between the purchased products and the website, and that add to the value of the subscription.

    Jim’s interpreting the subscription content as specifically “flash fiction” raises the point that different subscribers might be interested in different forms of content. Some might want longer works on a monthly basis, some a daily short short or article they can read at lunch at work, etcetera. Which means, for example, either supporting multiple subscription “packages,” or allowing a menu-style pick-and-choose subscription customization. That might be a bit ambitious for the smaller zines though, at least to start.

    Randy

  8. Nathan,

    That is a very good point.

    And I don’t think there is any one good answer, especially when you look at sites that don’t follow a “traditional” magazine format online, like Thaumatrope – which I think is a great concept, by the way.

    When it comes to multimedia and non-fiction content, I’d say the first trick is to draw in fans who can contribute said content. But that may seem a bit of a catch-22 — you need good content to draw in readers, and you need to draw in readers to find content contributors.

    Personally, I have observed that sites that include and encourage reader participation through contests, debates on popular topics, etcetera draw in fans of all sorts. Online zines have the advantage of being just a Google search away. You put enough references to H.P. Lovecraft, or Firefly, or Steampunk, or Twilight, or Doctor Who, or whatever on your site, fans of said topics will find it. And if the content is good, thought provoking, and/or funny or controversial, they will forward the link, and will hopefully stick around to see what else you have.

    You can then post calls on your site for audience contributions, or reach out to those readers whose contributions to your contests, forums, etcetera have stood out as particularly entertaining or informed, and ask if they have anything they would like to contribute to your zine in terms of videos, reviews, humor pieces, etcetera.

    A fan might have put together their own funny little video that they would be more than happy to have “published” in your zine, for example. Or they might love to write a humorous non-fiction article linking to already existing content on other sites or youtube. Or they might love to lay claim to being the official movie reviewer for an online zine.

    Of course, as with the fiction, quality will still matter. But the contributors do not need to be paid professionals, or even paid amateurs, at least not to start. There are a ton of fans out there who would love to have their name on a byline in any spec fic zine, and send that link to all of their friends and family. :)

    And once you are able, you can start to solicit more professional contributors of custom material, and paying all your non-fiction contributors, professional or otherwise, which will help you to compete with all the other zines that are seeking non-fiction content as well.

    Another consideration is the ease of finding that content. Layout matters. The prominence and accessibility of non-fiction entertainment, contests, debates and discussions, etcetera that will actively engage the reader (rather than passive content like fiction, reviews, etc.) seems like it would be important.

    Not saying that’s the only way to do it, or it’s guaranteed to work for everyone, but again it’s one method I have observed that seems to be working, though I don’t have any web metrics or usability studies or anything like that to back it up :)

    Best of luck,

    Randy

  9. Nathan,

    I just wanted to add a couple of example ideas for Thaumatrope.

    I wondered if there wasn’t a way you could have “free” fiction entries (as well as non-fiction entries) interspersed with the purchased fiction entries, somehow differentiated with key words or symbols up front. You could have themed contests, for example, where followers submit a Tweet on a specific theme, and you post them and select a winner who gets, say, $5 and bragging rights. In that way, you might get, say, 20 Tweets for $5, rather than for $24, AND engage your readers and potentially draw in a few additional readers.

    And for multimedia, you can link to youtube or other content from a Twitter. You could even have “Best Twitter Caption” contests, where users go to the linked content, and then come back and submit a humorous caption or synopsis of it, etcetera.

    Randy

  10. Interesting stuff. Rings true. Lots of morphing going on.

    Enjoyed “suckarific.” Could also go with “sucktastic.”

    The play between the bad connotation in the first half of the “words” and good connotation in the second is amusing.

  11. An example of someone doing a subscription service for short fiction. I seem to recall reading that he’s amassed quite a subscriber list:

    http://www.shortshortshort.com/

  12. Gosier – Good link. Indeed, one suicidal approach for magazines is to be exclusionary or insulting (whether intentionally or not) in their content choices when it comes to issues like gender balance, inclusion and depiction of persons of color, issues of sexual orientation, etcetera. They are not only hurting those they exclude or insult, but hurting themselves.

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