Will Ellwood continues our series of guest blogs from The Speculators writing group. Will writes short fiction with a hard edge that comments on contemporary politics and hacker culture. He is also a frequent contributor at the Whitechapel forums. I’m looking forward to seeing his story Freedom Fields in print sometime soon.
There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines.
There are millions of people who already read SF novels, and who watch SF based film and television. Even more people also read SF flavoured comics, play SF inspired computer games, listen to music and look at art that could have stepped from the pages of an SF story. Whatever it is SF gives people: challenging ideas, original thinking, mythic storytelling, entertainment or sheer untold weirdness, people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material to consume.
SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are anideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. It is fiction that fits in the small gaps of time that permeate modern living and provide a complete experience. Films and novels are lifestyle products. They are cultural events which demand the attention of their audience. Why do SF magazines not demand the same attention?
I do not think that there are any SF magazines at the moment interested in that sort of attention. Is it because at present SF magazines are deliberately niche publications? Maybe. It keeps the costs down and the expectations low. When success happens it is good, and when lack of sales force the magazine to close then no one is too disappointed.
To actually get people reading SF magazines beyond the present small circulation there need to be new magazines which adopt different tactics. These new SF magazines must demand the readers attention, just as films, books and other SF in the mainstream demand attention. But how?
An successful SF magazine must be a container for radical and entertaining ideas. Ideas able to inspire and enthuse thousands of people, just as the genres original magazines inspired thousands of people their day. Stories that could provoke controversy and discussion on important questions our society faces, and the futures we face.
Tomorrow’s SF magazines must make the short story a prestigious and financially attractive form for talented writers to write for. The stories must not appear to be the work of amateurs. They must not be written as second rate alternatives to making a TV show or film. They must be written in the full belief that short fiction can tell unique stories in unique ways that no other medium can manage, or not written at all.
Tomorrow’s SF magazines also need to be beautifully designed and efficiently distributed. At the moment SF magazines are at best a couple of years behind contemporary magazine design. They all look dated. This is not helping them attract new readers, and it is not helping people read the stories inside. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should be winning important design awards. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should also be on the leading edge of digital distribution so they are readable by anyone around the globe.
And holding together the best ideas, the best writing and the best design, the SF magazine of tomorrow must have a strong identity. Each magazine requires it’s own unique high concept. SF magazines can not continue to face the question: What is an SF magazine? With the answer, a magazine with SF in it. Each new SF magazine must have as strong and relevant concept today as the original SF magazines had in their day.
I think that having popular and widely read SF magazines is important. To me the health of all genre fiction depends on it. Short SF is often seen as the crucible of new ideas in genre fiction, and I think that it can be. However it can only serve this purpose if these stories are being disseminated to a wide audience. Without successful SF magazines the pace of progress in genre fiction slows, and we risk becoming irrelevant and fixated on old ideas and forms; losing readers in a vicious cycle of boredom and nostalgia. To survive in tomorrow’s markets, SF magazines must grow into the imaginations of new readers who will help enrich all genre fiction with new stories to tell and new worlds to imagine.
A few fiction and non-fiction magazines outside SF that fulfil these criteria:
71 thoughts on “There is an untapped audience for SF magazines”
I guess it all comes down to money. In order to start a well-designed magazine and pay top rates for contributions, you need some hefty start-up capital to pay the bills until revenue starts rolling in from advertising and subscriptions. This isn’t so easy to come by if you’re starting the magazine on your kitchen table. (Although it can be done).
@Gareth L Powell – It would cost the same as it costs to start any mass market magazine. Which is what we are talking about here, an SF short fiction magazine that reaches a section of the mass market beyond SF fandom. I agree with Will that the audience is there, and I think he identifies most of what the magazine would need to be. Perhaps the additional factor is not money but intention, it would take a team of very dedicated and skilled people, investing both time and money in the project as a business, to make it happen. But, I think it is very likely that we will see exactly that in the next year or two.
Sent from my iPad
It would cost the same as it costs to start any mass market magazine.
ie A lot of money. Which is why no such magazine has been launched, no one would bankroll it.
This is a great idea and there is so much SF out there, especially in computer games with some original characters and plots. I agree with Gareth with regards to the issue of capital but attracting gamers who want to know more about the origins and future of game storylines could pay off. Look at Halo for instance, that franchise is huge and ultimately it’s SF.
@D.Navekar – Yup. Gamers. Comics, manga and anime fans. The other geek tribes. I think Will is right that these people expect to have their attention grabbed. Current SF magazines aren’t really attention grabbers it seems.
Great post and great vision–I’d love to see the mold-breaking you describe.
In the UK there is such a magazine, it sells 40,000 odd copies a month and it’s called SFX.
It does not have much fiction because short stories are not particularly popular. It’s main focus is movies and TV. Books come third in it’s priorities.
There is another UK published magazine called . I do voluntary selling for its publisher. I’ve sold the magazine at conventions and at events like Manchester’s Independent Publishers Market. Such magazines will not be ‘widely read’ again because technology provides plenty of alternative means to wile away an hour or a journey.
All that high concept art, design and fiction makes little difference without a massive publicity budget, stars in skimpy costumes, and shelf space in WHS and its equivalent.
It’s possible E publishing will improve matters but its just as likely to make them worse if ‘piracy’ becomes a problem.
SF magazines are not deliberately niche but their publishers don’t have the budgets of Hello or SFX. What do you consider a resonable circulation?
SFX is not the magazine we are looking for. It sells to extended fandom, not the kind of audience Will is talking about.
I like Interzone very much, to the point of collecting back issues. But it is not the magazine we are looking for either. For all the reasons above.
And I disagree about the need for a massive budget. New creative enterprises can thrive on minimal budgets.
SFX was my joke but SFX is what sells.
Look at the newstand magazines in, say, Euston Station. Nothing can stand out in that lot without, say, flashing lights on the cover – and that can be done, though it costs.
To get on those racks with a new magazine means paying Smiths £1000’s. If you don’t get on those racks then you are niche.
There are exceptions, even on the newstand. Look at Adbusters. Another magazine that fulfils Wills criteria. But newstand distribution is at best secondary now. SF short fiction needs to be truly in the blogosphere, capturing readers at the scale that Boing Boing or other top blogs do. Why is it we can write about SF, but not write SF itself for this medium? SF short fiction needs to think of itself as exceptional. As Will says, it needs to demand attention, not resign itself to being ignored.
So anyone who already consumes SF is part of extended fandom and you therefore want to launch a new SF magazine that is explicitly not aimed at anyone who currently consumes SF. Good luck with that. I’m sure there is an audience for this sort of magazine but I doubt it is even reachs four figures.
It is weird that Will would frame this as a way of making SF magazines more popular: “SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people.” You clearly don’t want to sell more issues to more people since that is precisely the aim of SFX. To sell more issues, the magazine would have to become something anathema to your wider aims. In particular, it would have to drop short fiction since, as Roy say, it isn’t very unpopular. The idea that there is a vast untapped market for shortform SF – “SF short stories are an ideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF” – is utterly faulty.
Will gives the example of Electric Literature as the type of magazine he is after. Despite the fact it is a US general literature magazine it only sells about the same amount as Interzone, a UK specialist literature magazine (~3,500 copies). In fact none of his examples are very popular: Wired is the bestselling and it is a generalist magazine ratehr than a literary one and only shifts the same as SFX.
@Martin & @Abigail Both your arguments start from the same place…short fiction is not popular. Hence, any attempt to reach a large audience for short fiction will fail. Basically, I disagree. There is the potential to reach substantial new audiences with short fiction, and I think Will gets the why and how of doing that accurately. But, as with most areas of potential, either you see it or you don’t. Certainly, I expect to see a magazine meeting Will’s criteria in the next year or two.
Sent from my iPad
Both our arguments start from that position because it is a fact. If there are substantial new audiences with short fiction, why has no one reached them before? There is simply no such thing as a mass market fiction magazine. The closest is probably The New Yorker and that isn’t primarily a fiction mag. Even the most popular fiction mags like McSweeney’s and Granta are quarterly niche mags that do most of their business through subscriptions. And their focus and hence their audience is broader than a SF only fiction magazine could be.
Well I mucked up the link there, sorry, but I don’t seem to be able to do much about it.
The UK SF magazine is Interzone. Website http://ttapress.com/interzone/currentissue/
SF short fiction needs to be truly in the blogosphere, capturing readers at the scale that Boing Boing or other top blogs do.
And you think that marketing dollars will do this? Last year John Scalzi, who after Boing Boing probably has the biggest megaphone in online fandom, plugged Strange Horizons‘s fund drive. The money flowed in, but as far as I know his attention hasn’t translated into greater awareness of SH or online short fiction in general. There are, at present, some half dozen well respected, award-nominated, seriously funded genre short fiction magazines online, and none of them have Boing Boing’s readership because the readership just isn’t there. There are fewer people who want to read fiction, much less short fiction, much less genre short fiction, than there are people who want to read about copyfighting and bacon cats on Boing Boing. All the advertising and funding in the world won’t change that.
The problem is, what kind of a magazine would attract a mass audience to SF/Fantasy short fiction? One publication that does sell millions worldwide and includes (some) short stories is Readers Digest. As a prototype it has certain advantages that might suit the purpose: it is of a size that is convenient to carry, put in a pocket, read anywhere, it contains a mix of material (including humour, real-life stories, science/environment articles and fiction), it is distributed by mail rather than through traditional retail outlets, it is truly multinational, it appeals to all kinds of readers regardless of age, class and taste. A kind of ‘Fantastical Digest’ might be worth considering… bringing the best of the online zines and some hard-nosed commercially driven commisioned articles and general interest pieces.
If you can make the cover price cheap enough — less than the £4-5 pound range most magazines sell at (remember the minimum wage is just £5.80 an hour) it might possibly fly.
Problems? Well, it might not be possible to highlight great art in a small, pulp-style magazine and the ‘inclusiveness’ of a mass market publication will bring obvious accusations of dumbing down. The biggest problem, however, is that magazines (like books) are having a bad time of it at the moment.
Thought provoking stuff, Will. Although I have the suspicion that First Contact with aliens is far more likely than getting over ten cents a word for an SF story.
It is a nice idea that there is a vast untapped market out there who want SF short fiction, but your post does nothing to convince me that an SF magazine of the type you describe would attract that audience when all the other SF short fiction out there has failed. Postscripts seems like the closest equivalent to something like Coilhouse – an upmarket, expensive magainze with good production values and top authors, and that did not as far as I know sell copies to the untapped millions of SF fans.
@Liz – a large untapped audience does not = an audience of millions for any single magazine. There are millions of potential readers for SF who do not identify as SF fans, and a magazine could capture a large enough audience from those millions to be professional and sustainable. Again, I think Will gets the key criteria that such a magazine would need, which are when you consider them quite broad.
@Dan – a reprint magazine is a different proposition all together. It might be possible to make that profitable, but it would not be definition have the high concept and editorial focus Will is talking about. Another post all together maybe.
I think we will have to disagree on this one, in that you think a magazine with the criteria Will outlines could capture a large enough audience to survive, and I don’t. Unless you have some compelling evidence which would persuade me of why this new magazine could succeed where others have failed, I think we’ll have to wait until someone puts up a large amount of money and tries it to see if it would work.
Imagine a fully professional 65k word per issue fiction magazine paying £0.05 (about 7c US) per word. 12 issues £39000 on text. Editor and part time assistant/proof reader salary £36,000. (not great but could keep a newish graduate if they work from home in Bolton or equivalent.)
Art? Yes for on line but not for most e book formats. (Which makes E book advert revenue dodgy as yet) Say £500 per issue total £6000.
On line and bandwidth costs – no idea. Say £3000 including insurance, any bank charges and office costs.
Sell at £3 per issue but you only receive 75% of that as e book sales use on line retailers who take at least 25%.
Sell over 3200 of each issue and you could be in the black. Sell 10000 and get advertising and you are well away.
£0.05 per word won’t make your authors a living but the publisher could do OK. But this is old fashioned as you can post stories and text weekly or daily and sell little chunks of the magazine. Do audio versions and comic versions for mobiles at a cost.
You could get income flowing after the first issue but salaries and getting material in hand will require you start with around £50000. Will you invest?
If you were the banker asked for the £50K would you stump up for 6% SVR interest? (£250 per month about 110 extra issues per month)
I’ve wondered about this for some time. Is there much short fiction read these days at all, before we even mention sf?
lots of it about.
Granta moves around 50K a pop internationally, around 20K of those in the US. The New Yorker. Ambit. Harper’s, I think. McSweeney’s. Zoetrope All-Story. Paris Review. A dozen others I’m forgetting. And all over the internet, every day.
OK. Is that a lot? Does that mean there is a big market for short fiction?
The kinds of SF readers mentioned do not identify with “book culture,” either, and so book forums and the like don’t register on their radar. There are communities, tribes, and subcultures out there on the internet who read fiction but don’t self-identify as “fiction reader” in the same way that core SF fandom does. It’s these readers that any fiction publication with an online presence needs to find ways of reaching. That requires the work of what I’d call next-generation publicists, whose creative allegiance to the publication they are publicizing is as tribal and communal as those organizations, entities, and subcultures that this person will be contacting. I.e., spacefarers who have received extensive cultural SF training and absorbed communication methodologies conducive to First Contact.
In short, what SF magazines need is to send off inner-space colonizing missions or emissaries that travel across the vast entirety of e-space in search of those interested in short fiction, each emissary basically traveling in a body-suit innerspace-ship encoded with universal signifiers that will tell those the emissaries come in contact with that there is something of interest here. Some emissaries will target particular e-planets and e-systems. Others will be sent out into general quadrants of e-space emitting friendly communication signals with bursts of more specific information in hopes that alien e-cultures will pick up these signals and tractor-beam them to their home e-planets.
Traditional SF magazine emissaries would look like inert blocks of dead matter to most alien subcultures, or like fizzing masses of loosely attached white noise. Which is why such fiction-nauts must be properly trained and prepared prior to launch into the vast reaches of e-space.
I have been dead, driving for people, hungover and reading so I haven’t replied. I also try and subscribe heavily to the author stays mostly silent to criticism and praise rule.
However, a few quick observations:
– The negative responses are really negative.
– The basic reading is pessimism and no hope of this ever happening and it isn’t true.
– I am interested the reasons for this perspective.
– Putting aside business reasons, because we are all making back of fag packet calculations here, am I right in assuming this because the people making these comments see no chance of SF reaching wider audiences?
– Or is it because they can’t see a way to reconcile their take on SF with the popular, er, Lady Gaga view?
– Why is this?
– The positive comments are pretty hopeful and optimistic.
– A good definition of success, to me, is survival and growth in readership, as well as critical acclaim. To grow and survive even current SF magazines need to find new readership from somewhere.
– Many of my points could be applied to current magazines.
– Improved design and a stronger identity can only help existing magazines.
– Most replies seem to have missed my deliberate use of the plural ‘magazines’.
– I assume that this is deliberate and not a lack of comprehension.
– I do not think that individual SF magazines should try to appeal to everyone.
– Also in my experience of manga fandom this is a well understood concept.
– In general fans of shojo manga are not fans of shonan manga, and both these groups are not expected to be interested in Josei or Seinen.
– There is cross-readership, particularly in Western manga readership, on edges of each “style”.
– SFX / Sci-Fi Now / etc are filled with reheated press releases and sensationalist reviews.
– Magazines designed to sell to everyone and ultimately only weakly satisfy.
– I will be surprised if they are still on the market in five years time.
– I occasionally pick up a copy of SFX, and I read very little of it.
– Unique stuff: scan the reviews, see if the classic book is interesting and check the opinion articles.
– Most of what they have that I’m interested in I’ve read already online, and not on their site.
– I hear Omni was a good magazine while it lasted.
– Is that a model worth trying again?
– A balance between of quality non-fiction and speculative fiction can probably be found again.
– It might be fiction masquerading as journalism.
– But if it worked for Bruce Chatwin and Hunter S. Thompson….
– There were interesting comments made on ‘The Review Show’ about non-fiction and the death of the novel. Also comments were made about novels changing in to shorter form to suit e-readers.
– I think that Jeff is seeing where the wider audiences are to be found; while Martin and Roy aren’t seeing this. I think.
– I did enjoy his comment though.
– A newish graduate being paid £36,000 in Bolton is a very wealthy graduate.
– No, really.
– In my experience graduate’s are getting paid about 20k. That instantly frees around 16k of capital to spend on art and writers if we keep to Roy’s calculations.
– If I had 50k I would invest because risky ventures make good bar stories.
– 65k of words is too many.
– A single issue comic filled with text holds about 12,000 words comfortably.
– Warren Ellis’ ‘Do Anything’ is 48 pages and about 24,000. This costs £4.50.
– However that is print.
– Digitally the tend does seem to be shorter is sweeter. (Long enough they are hooked, short enough they finish and want more.)
– A reprint magazine is a slightly different idea, and I too think that it could be a profitable enterprise.
– It would have to be curated like a museum exhibition.
– Each issue its own annex of a much wider theme.
– We shall have to talk about this.
– BoingBoing certainly courts the attention of fans of SF books, comics and films.
– I started reading ‘DMZ’ because of Cory Doctrow’s review on BoingBoing.
– It is interesting that BoingBoing (and Rock, Paper, Scissors, a PC gaming blog) pay their contributes a salary earned from advertising and probably lead onto other work.
– They are collectives of writers.
– Tor.com is the elephant in the room.
– What can be done to make short SF reach more people?
– Let’s assume that isn’t futile.
So, the basic premise is wonderful, lets get Spec Fic back up, lets fire up imaginations, lets, lets, lets. However, there are a couple hurdles to overcome. Funding, first, foremost, and last. Without a good backer, banker, broker, or crazed millionaire out there willing to drop the cash on a high art concept magazine that’s glossy, shiny, and new, with 0 advertising dollars, no potential revenue stream from anything other than other high art concept magazines who themselves are short on funding, and is catering to a minority market, this thing itself is nothing but Spec Fic.
We can play a game though, and it’s a fun one that the whole family will positively enjoy. “What If” is the name of the game. What If we came up with the funding? Even with the funding we still need content, and content comes in one of two forms, small print writers looking to break out, and big name shiny attractive oh wow writers. What draws readership here? Would I be willing to read material written by my next door neighbor over her coffee while she figures out that morning’s sudoku? Rather, would I be willing to pay up to see a big shiny new story from the likes of Iain Banks? Names, publications, people, fandom, gravitas, publicity, and recognizability carry a huge weight with anyone making a purchase. Now, no offense to Wil here, we’re friends and have conversed much, but, would his name on the cover of a small run publication induce anyone, other than people that already know him, to pick it up, give it more than a cursory glance, gawk at the audacity of the cover price, and then swiftly place it back in the magazine rack? This dear gentle reader is the awful reality of many, many, boutique publications. If you don’t already have a user base that recognizes whom you are, your publishing company, your intentions, virtues, and function, sadly you’re moving nowhere fast, aside from the compost heap. So, let’s go with What If number two. What If there’s a user base just waiting to be captivated and given it’s due? User bases are fickle things, you publish bigger and bigger authors and you lose your original fans, you publish nothing but small print authors and you lose those who come around for bigger talent, you publish nothing but Spec Fic and you lose your sci-fi contingent, you publish nothing but what you consider a well tempered blend and you end up alienating your readers that want to read a less tempered format. But, this is where the third What If comes in. What If we have a perfect balance that makes, however improbable, the exact key demographics happy and they shower this now god like magazine with praise every month and send, willingly, their hard earned pocket cash in by the wheelbarrow full? We grow wealthy, we feel this enigmatic power to sway our readers with our very words, thoughts, ideas, concepts, our very breath gives the universe meaning now, Randolph Hearst spontaneously resurrects to congratulate us. And then we grow bored, or we get wooed away, or we find another place that does big print, or we decide we’re better off on our own spawning an even smaller print magazine that gives us a finer control over who we see every month. This sadly kills the magazine, we’re victims of our own success, and that is how it ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Gloomy, I know, and I love Wil for his optimism, but really, small specialty print publications are a dying breed. And yes, we have the internet to blame for it, but not like that. I can, at any given moment, read thousands of books, catch up with my favorite authors, read their latest leaked proofs, and find thousands of documents online that are stranger than most Spec Fic, sci-fi, space opera writing author can even dream about. I can read about magnetron stars forming, I can then jump to read the latest short story on Coilhouse, and then pop over to CNN to see who thinks what about the latest political cartoon. In a way, it’s overload, but SEE, SEE this for what it is, it’s a golden dawn to a golden age of literature. Stop thinking about dead trees, stop thinking about making a buck, stop worrying about when that next George R.R Martin book is due out. It’s irrelevant, needless, and immature. Yes, I am proselytizing the internet, this very medium you’re using to read a debate about the desire to produce a piece of static paper. Sure it might feel good in the hand, but, well, folks I hate to break it to you, but print died the very first time an ebook was spider’d across foonet.fi and then spammed to alt.ebooks.scifi. If new readership is what you want, being heard, felt, read, written to, understood, validated, stalked, and gossiped about, you need to get in on this little thing called HTML. I appreciate a good book just like everyone else, nothing satisfies quite like the soft sound and dusty smell of a well read book. Books, magazines, papers, all of it though, gone. Readership of the most respected news papers in the world keep dropping quarterly, publishers who once were eager to open into niche markets now have to do focus groups to make sure it’s profitable, and magazines that opine about other worlds are going dark like the faint stars they dream about.
This brings us to our final What If. What If we grab the internet by the balls, yank, and then hang on? This: BoingBoing, Wired, Coilhouse online. Those are just the first three that come to mind. So, how in the age of the decaying dead tree publishing industry, did these all make very successful presences for themselves online? They yanked, they rode it out, they tamed the internet, they forced the future to bend to their will, all of them. And that, dear, sweet, gentle reader, is what must happen here. Nothing less than grabbing the internet by the balls and no matter how awful things get, hang on. Otherwise we go the way of Omni who was on the bleeding edge of all things science, fiction, and science fiction, but floundered and thought that internet publishing was a gimmick for boutique publications. So, to wrap up our heavy handed, foreshadowed, full of flame bait and vitriol discussion shall we. The past haunts the present, authors are afraid of the internet, of having their property violated, of losing control, of no longer holding on to what they feel is their right and their words. But ride it, tame it, understand this beast of thing called the internet and embrace it, otherwise it’s the way of the dead tree that you hold in your hands and that is a future that leads nowhere.
Great discussion we have going here.
I always inquire, politely, when someone says, “I don’t read much.” Two big reasons I hear. One: there just isn’t time. Two: it makes them fall asleep. To approach this argument of declining profitable genre magazines, we need to look into the basic root: readership psychology.
In the same conversation, these same people tell me about watching genre television shows and playing hours of games like Starcraft. Those are both story telling mediums that have vary widely in their narrative qualities (with the universal ratio of quality that seems to transcend into both life and art), but it’s enough to satisify the hunger.
The things is, a bad game or television show require little or no effort to advance through; not so much with printed words. There is a time and energy investment. Even more so with a genre magazines, where the social-recognition and social-reward is almost non existent. In other words, when a customer buys a genre magazine, it must be enjoyed purely for pleasure.
When we partake in an activity that is wholly for ourselves, we are using time that is only for us. Weighing risk vs. reward of spending a free evening with a genre magazine, risk being feeling bored with the activity, and reward is feeling entertainment, television and video games seemingly offer a greater chance at reward. But, in my opinion, these risk in sitting down with a random story in a magazine or a newly opened game is the same: both have equal chances of being good or bad.
But add that to the natural boredom-suspicion that the school system seems to breed in all children and adolescents towards the printed word, and you’ll get an evening with video games over a magazine any day.
Those are just some ideas at looking at the issue a little deeper. Logically, it would seem the short story would be preferred written form in our culture. I know I love it. Short stories can offer as much emotional impact as novels in a much shorter span.
@Jeff – Yes!
@All – Perhaps this conversation is complicated by a confusion between the object, and the audience. Will’s central thesis is that there is an untapped audience for SF short fiction. I’d be interested to know, who agrees or disagrees with that thesis? I’m in agreement. I think there are probably millions of potential readers, who we need to go out there and grab. Not with one MEGAMAG, but a whole ecology of publications that all go about it their own way. My curiosity is about the people who say there is no greater possible readership, and my question is then, do you really think SF short fiction has so little relevance that it can’t possibly reach bigger audiences?
@damien/will yes, there is somewhat of an untapped audience I believe. There are loads of people I know who will read fantasy for instance or Margaret Atwood or even George Orwell, but they won’t read anything that is put on the SF shelf at the local Waterstones or Smiths. They will happily consume Twilight and Harry Potter, but when you say the words ‘science fiction’ they think Star Wars or Star Trek in book form and then think, why would I read that when I can watch it on DVD?
I on the other hand love science fiction and many different types of SF although I stray toward the softer side. However, I don’t read many SF mags anymore. I do agree with the original post that they aren’t satisfying to me because it’s hard to find the gems amongst the dross. And that is entirely a personal opinion. It’s very hard to get any two readers to agree on taste. Perhaps as a lover of SF fiction and a writer of the same I should support genre mags more, but few actually appeal to me as a reader. There in lies the crux and agreement with the original idea.
Am I untapped? perhaps, but it would take a lot to get me to read an SF magazine these days. I am much more in agreement with @ian_sales view of an online multi-media system that appeals to different fans in different ways. Perhaps combined with the another service like HPs MagCloud or Blurb on demand publishing which would allow you to create your own magazine/anthology tailored exactly for your taste or to give to others to share your favourite fiction finds.
I think Interzone is 58 to 63K words depending. The US print SF mags have greater word counts.
My cost estimates applied to an E mag and a print mag is much more complex. Printing costs, distribution costs, retailer cut etc. have to be accounted for.
Manga mags do fill shelves in Forbidden Planet and its like but there seems to be very little Manga elsewhere eg on TV. When IZ featured Manga style covers some readers objected.
In selling magazines outside cons I have found that youngsters tend not to have heard of SF fiction mags and a good proportion of older bypassers used to read IZ but had long stopped doing so. Sometimes I manage to persuade them to try a copy.
I’m happy top agree there is a potential readership of millions ‘out there’ but how to get at them is the problem. What I could use is a photo(s) of Stephen Fry, Drogba, David Beckham and/or Kate Winslet reading Interzone or Black Static.
@Roy – It’s not about appealing to that entire audience of millions. They are not one cohesive group after all. Its more a task of finding a variety if ways to present SF that attract a variety of readers not currently engaged with the material. Hence the need for concept driven ‘zines, where the concept is something other than being an SF ‘zine.
Wordcount – I tend to agree with Will. 20k of material that supports the ‘zines concept is more likely to appeal to a targeted readership. Or even less.
Interzone ~60k bimonthly, = ~30k monthly. Are you thinking monthly, weekly, daily?
Are you talking fiction only or reviews, illustrations, graphic fiction, essays and columns as well?
Lower word counts can mean lower prices and greater costs productionwise.
£36 K in Bolton may seem a lot for 1.5 people but that includes expenses the staff don’t see like pension and NI contributions. And you need someone competant as editor.
Yes I understand a multiplicity of magazines serving a multiplicity of audiences but that’s what we have now.
I ‘d be interested to know how we could get to the huge English language reading audience in India and other parts of Asia.
@Roy wrote – Yes I understand a multiplicity of magazines serving a multiplicity of audiences but that’s what we have now.
I think we have a multiplicity of magazines all serving much the same audience…a core of SF readers, most of whom harbour some desire to be SF writers, or are otherwise involved in fandom. There are some subdivisions around genre and nationality, but essentially it’s the same market.
For me, the key to this idea is having a concept beyond being an SF magazine, that engages a non-SF readership. In this regard Weird Tales and Analog are probably the most successful of the existing magazines, because they both still have the concepts they were formed around, before SF had solidified.
Purely as an example, consider a magazine that presented itself as primarily radical and political, and used SF as a way of exploring those two vectors (which is something SF does very well). It could publish stories much like the best currently appearing in Interzone, but hit a completely different audience.
As for the figures under discussion, I really don’t see any major barriers in any of them. Although, I think given the state of print publishing that e-publishing is now the natural environment for SF stories. Not sure I would even consider print distribution at this point. But really, small creative business’s are established all the time that face these kinds of issues. They are high risk, yes, but thats the nature of almost any creative endeavour.
“Manga mags do fill shelves in Forbidden Planet and its like but there seems to be very little Manga elsewhere eg on TV. When IZ featured Manga style covers some readers objected.”
I find this both interesting and possibly indicative. Not only does the writer mistake manga for anime, but we are informed herein that “some” readers of an sf magazine whose circulation is regularly stated to be under 3000 copies per issue objected to a modern, international style being used on the cover of said magazine.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a bit of an imputation here that the magazine is more worried about pissing off a half-dozen of the readers they’ve got than making an object that might conceivably appeal to more than three thousand people.
(Perhaps in “other parts of Asia.”)
Which kind of surrounds the current difficulties of sf magazines nicely.
@Warren Ellis – its an argument that you hear again and again with SF ‘zines. Every creative brand faces the issue of balancing its existing audience with catching anew audience at some point. The irony is that handled right, changes can do both. I think Weird Tales is a great example of that, following Ann Vandermeer’s subtle but significant changes, it has got a vastly larger readership, and also retained its old fanbase who seem, if anything, much happier with the magazine. So it can be done.
Also, you may not find much “manga on tv,” but you’ll probably find some anime, and the internet is chock full of it. I mean, the hundreds of kids traipsing to MCM London Expo in the drizzle, dressed up as anime characters and clutching magazines, books, iPod touches and smartphones are filling their heads and their hands for *somewhere*…
FROM somewhere, not FOR. Jesus. Sorry.
I want to throw one final thing into the mix, with all apologies for spamming the thread:
Payment for fiction in the SF magazine market is bad. Criminally bad. The idea that 7 US cents per word is a professional rate is disgusting.
To reiterate what the writer upthread said: at that rate, a magazine of 63000 words can cover its creative costs for the local equivalent of less than $4500. Which wouldn’t even max out a low-end credit card.
The team who work out how to pay writers a non-insulting rate and still balance the books will find that they can fill a magazine with everyone’s favourite writers and therefore probably move quite a lot of copies.
I have to stop typing now before I wheel into the long ramble about how SF magazines of the future will not contain 63000 words anyway, they’ll be pieces of Burst Culture loaded with submunitions of less than 1000 words each interspersed with 60-second videos and 90-second audio pieces etc etc
Let me just look in my cheap crystal ball… The SFWA forces magazines to increase payment rates for short fiction… Asimov’s issues a press release: “Due to the increased costs of magazine content, each issue of Asimov’s SF Magazine will henceforth contain only a single story. This issue: Mike Resnick. Next month: a deleted chapter from Stephenie Meyer’s latest sf blockbuster”…
Got to love how the first reaction to “you should be paid like a human with dignity and opposable thumbs” is snark. Explains so much.
I enjoyed your amusing joke about the SFWA being able to do anything about anything, though.
“To reiterate what the writer upthread said: at that rate, a magazine of 63000 words can cover its creative costs for the local equivalent of less than $4500. ”
And what about all the other costs? They don’t get magiced away because they dont fit your argument. If you believe you can do better why not start your own magazine?
Also, no-one is forcing you to do this particular job, if you’re not happy with $0.07 per word consider doing something else. However, I suspect that you enjoy doing and therein lies crunch.
I was hoping this discussion wouldn’t slide into the infantile nonsense argument of “If you believe you can do better why not start your own magazine?”
But, to address your other points: I was clearly just illustrating one factor in pursuit of what I considered to be an important part of the discussion. You can disagree, of course. Most online print quote calculators will give you an (over-) estimation of what the print job would cost, and any publishing forum will tell you about reducing and deferring print bills.
I would also note that much of the conversation here has been about routing around printing entirely.
Also, you’re ranting blind: without wanting to sound too po-faced about it, I work in graphic novels, prose novels, journalism and other media, and I neither submit to nor publish in SF magazines because I find the payment rates demeaning and unprofessional. The only time I took a job at that rate that I can think of is when I was invited to publish in NATURE alongside a list of SF greats who similarly dropped their rates. It was worth it just to be asked, and to be keeping that kind of company.
(I’m hoping this reply goes to the right person, as the commenting system seems to be bending a little bit under the strain, which is possibly all my fault.)
What?! Not rant blind? This is the internet isn’t it?
I’m glad you have the integrity to not take the work you consider demeaning, and i think anyone would forgive you for wanting to be published in Nature.
The point I was ineloquently trying to make is if you think there is a niche in the market why not try and exploit it? Offer something more expensive and better paid for a discerning audience. As a consumer of SF I find the entire “SF” market to be frustrating and I do tend to agree with the OP piece; it’s been many years since I picked up an SF magazine.
I’m not in the publishing/journalist trade so I may well be speaking out of line but most established businesses do not embrace change so long as they are paying the bills each month. There is little incentive. A new editor might rustle things up but aside from that why break something that “works”?
FWIW I am sure many people find things demeaning but unless there is an alternative they have no choice but to accept the status quo – and no one should be forced to listen to that rubbish :)
@Warren Ellis Would some kind of graduated rate for payment work? Published authors, those with work printed by established outlets and not self published would get one rate, and unpublished another? That might make it possible to get work at a market rate from recognizable authors that could draw readers to a publication, and aspiring authors would get paid less, but have their work potentially between the same covers as some established talent.
I think we have to take into account, the much heated debate for and against or somewhere in between is that we are all writers and readers of SF. Consumers of both the written and the visual. We are the exceptions to the rule. We’ve all wanted more from the offerings of the genre and have been perplexed by publishers who don’t seem to follow us to the brilliant and experimental that can be found within all the more ‘mainstream’ and ‘populist’ mediocrity. There are publishers out there (mags and books) trying to do good work, but it seems that a larger portion of the buying public then we represent are less willing to take chances on the written word. It is unfortunate, although I’m not sure that it is a new problem.
I’m a huge genre entertainment fan, including SF, who recently picked-up a bunch of SF magazines to research how / where to publish a short story I wrote. I was SHOCKED by what I found.
In the July /August Fantasy & Science Fiction, publisher / editor Gordon Van Gelder writes “…I’ve grown skeptical about the internet as a publishing medium. Much as I love the convenience of online communication, I just don’t find the experience of reading fiction online to my taste.”
This is absurd. A SCIENCE FICTION geek wants to keep things in the 20th century. Firstly and foremost, these magazines need Wired / Boing Boing inclined editors who are dying for the Singularity or whatever other future to become reality. They need to embrace everything about modern design and publishing.
And as someone who works in Hollywood (the horror!), I was surprised at how few advertisements these magazines have. You can subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine for fifty seven cents an issue; the subscription fee isn’t the point, the point is the advert revenue. There is no good reason that these magazines aren’t half-filled with advertisements for the next Marvel feature film or XBox videogame. You could drive-down the cost of purchase, expand the net to consumers of other mediums for SF/Fantasy, and still pack the other pages with compelling storytelling.
My suspicion from what little research I’ve done is that the SF magazines have been reduced to an entertainment medium, much like live theatre, where the vast majority of consumers are people trying to become creators. Many of them seem to be old and out of touch. SF mags cannot merely dream about the future, they must actively work to bring the future to its readers.
You try selling adverts in magazines.
Try Lightspeed or Strange Horizons if you don’t like F&SF.
Lots of people don’t like reading on a computer terminal but that doesn’t mean they don’t use the web. F&SF will get 3 or 4000 stories submitted every year. Unless you can use a Kindle or equivalent print is best for reading in long bursts.
Warren hit the nail on the head at the end of his last post. Short fiction (for me) isn’t 10 pages of tiny print in Interzone, or the archaic looking tome that is Fantasy & Science Fiction. I want sub-1k pieces that I can grab with Instapaper and consume comfortably between sandwiches and conversation over lunch at work.
Oh and if those bursts cost a few pence? I’d be up for that.
Yes yes yes! That is the space where SF stories need to sit, grabbing attention in RSS feeds and Twitter streams and even Digg (if Digg even exists any more?) There is still a space for longer stories, but really, why shouldn’t sub 1000 stories be grabbing a piece of the blogosphere pie?
Also, I didn’t meant to imply stories shouldn’t cost anything. I just think that, for someone like me, micro-payments would be a better option.
RSS feeds definitely! A mashup of feeds with various flavours of SF straight to Google Reader would be perfect. Of course then ads would become worthless…
The kind of near-future SF that Warren tends to write, where we’re all about to plunge into some unpredictable and potentially horrific future, would sit quite nicely alongside a normal news feed :).
We’ve had steady growth with 365tomorrows over the past 5 years, and even though we’re not a paying market, we continue to have enough submissions and staff written content to post a new story every day. It’s 600 word or shorter flash fiction and we’re seeing between 500 and 900,000 views a month, either to the site or via RSS (of which admittedly we can’t know how many are actually stories read).
Maybe not all the stories are of the calibre that an Asimov or Analog would run, but there’s certainly a demand, and we’ve found it’s steadily increasing, not declining – short pieces of SciFi that you can chew through over a coffee or while waiting for the bus
I look at something like Coilhouse where the writing, artwork, and production quality are all top notch. It seems like they’re commercially viable and I get the sense they’re increasing their readership steadily as well as their advertising base.
Something similar in a purely SciFi format should be able to do equally as well in the right hands. I’d buy it, I’d pay to advertise in it, and I bet there would be no shortage of talent that would emerge to contribute to it. If it were salted with contributions by some established authors, I expect it could get traction fairly quickly.
How close is this to what you, or some of you are thinking of? http://dailysciencefiction.com/
That depends on what the stories are like. An SF story in the blogosphere needs to be as different as a successful blog post is from a traditional journalistic article. I’m willing tk bet this is happening, it’s a big Internet and we only see a fraction of it.
Quoting from their Story Submission Guidelines (if any text is bold that’s my highlighting)
“Daily Science Fiction (DSF) is a market accepting speculative fiction stories from 100 to 10,000 words in length. By this we mean science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, etc. All that fits under the broader science fiction umbrella. We have a special need for flash fiction.
“We pay 8 cents per word for first worldwide rights and for nonexclusive reprint rights. Additionally, we reserve the right to pay you more money for additional reprinting in themed Daily Science Fiction anthologies.
“This sounds simple, but in today’s fractured fiction market it is anything but. Here’s what we mean by first worldwide rights: Your story will be distributed by email to our (free) subscription list, it will then be available on the website, via RSS, eventually through kindle and iphone/ipad (the “issue” consisting of all stories published during its calendar month), and as archived on the DailyScienceFiction.com website. The nonexclusive reprint rights are anticipated to apply to the omnibus volume of DSF’s stories for one year. Themed anthologies are anticipated to consist of 50-100% material originally published on DailyScienceFiction.com, plus additional materials as contracted. For these anthologies, payment will be 5 cents per word.
“Helpful Hints from Putative Editors
” We love long fiction. We look forward to reading your novelettes, your long short stories and your other novelties. However, if you want to get published in Daily Science Fiction, brevity may better serve your purposes. We need flash fiction, and a lot of it. Among our featured stories, a shorter tale will get an extra nudge on the scale when weighed against a longer one. This is both for financial reasons and because we anticipate that it will match the preferences of a plurality of our readership. Not fair? Perhaps. Consider yourself forewarned.”
A few Random comments from my bedroom (*I.e Typical Internet commenter)
Firstly I think anyone who is imaging a nice paper bound real world object is a little instance and stuck in the past. As TmTx wrote the soon as something hit alt.books, the print world was dead, and since then we’ve all just been waiting for it to write is own obituary. (which the dying newspaper industry does on a weekly basis). So any new magazine Must be almost exclusively digital.
Why I don’t buy Anolog or strangehorizons. This mainly comes down to access and formatting. both the formentiond websites have horrible website formatting. I know that Anonlog is available for download but the process is overly cumbersome. I would be willing to buy Anolog digitally if it was available in an orropate form that I could just download to my Ipod, or login to a page and read well formatted txt files. One Web SF outlet that I feel has worked is EscapePod podcast.
When I visit some online communities I get the overwhelming feeling of smugness from the site, that they look down upon other subculture’s with varying levels of disgust. For a magazine to be successful to a wide audience some of this needs to stop. (i.e the hated of the steem-punk, fan fiction writers, Furies ect)
Payment ~ For a magazine to be viable it has to have content that people will come to it for rather than going elsewhere. and there is alot of elsewhere for people to go on the Internet. and alot of people willing to write (to various standards for free (see fanfiction.net again))
Payment Two @ the written word is facing the same assault that has faced the music industry and while we may agree that real music culture is made by seeing bands preform in live settings opposed to being in sterile recording studios or on live TV on the X-factor (or one of its clones). Writers don’t have the same refuge of live performances and appearances when going up against the army of people writing for free,
I think part of why “SF magazines” are doing badly, and have an ‘untapped audience’, is because of the whole proprietary nature of the sci-fi magazine culture. Most literary magazines that do well (and, well… that’s not exactly a lot) don’t bill themselves by genre. Or, if they do, it’s more of a theme rather than a… I dunno, mission? I get the feeling, when reading a “SF magazine”, that it’s some kind of insular crowd that tries to convert readers to SF readers rather than be assimilated into the overall reading material that the reading audience indulges in. I think you can see immediately why this is a backwards way of developing and keeping an audience, and turns many readers off.
For a sci-fi themed magazine to tap into this audience of “would read sci-fi, but not religiously” readers, it would need to try to escape the trappings of genre. Normally, genre is a marketing point. In this case, genre does not help. Sci-Fi does not appeal to the eye or to most casual readers sensibilities. It gives them glazed eyes and thoughts of “oh dear, it’s going to be about aliens and lost civilizations and talk for yonks and yonks about boring details, and if it’s not hard sci-fi it’s going to be soft sci-fi which means it’s going to be space wizards from the past-future.” So instead, it should bill itself as a magazine with a speculative fiction ethos but WITHOUT mentioning genre. The back summary might reference “Stories like Asimov’s and William Gibson’s”, or it might mention Snowcrash or other things that might instantly grab they eye and appeal to the modern reader. But for god’s sake, don’t use the letters “SF”. It just makes the magazine look, frankly, douchey.
On another subject of this discussion entirely, having got past the quibbles of SF marketing (and the failures thereof) I must say that while Ellis might have been simply brainbuzzing about the Burst Culture concept, he’s pretty on the dot with what he described. Except for one thing, those aren’t “SF magazines of the future”, those are happening NOW. I can’t count how many podcasts I listen to/watch, or how much web-delivered material I consume. Online shows, online comics, online journals, all of which could be easily combined into small bursts of information to be consumed daily and at minimal cost.
From what I can tell, the people who make these things do pretty well for themselves in ad revenue and merchandise. The fact that no one (other than McSweeney’s, that iPhone app is pretty damn sweet) really delivers these things in consumable, marketable, and ad-revenue-able bursts means little when you realize how easy it is to do it. It’s being done right now, but on the consumer-side using things like RSS feeds and browser tabbing to combine the media and provide it in bite-sized pieces. The biggest draw I notice out of all these things is they don’t require much user-level commitment. Just a few clicks and you’re watching an episode of Red vs. Blue on youtube, then listening to an NPR podcast in another tab, then you can read that newest Penny Arcade, and then reading the writer article that goes along with the comic. Coordinate all of this so it’s delivered in a one-stop-one-click package and you’ve got a multi-media internet magazine with monetization pretty much ready-made.
Now, if you REALLY want to talk about the future, let me get my spreadsheets out that derive ad and ISP investor-related monetization based on a ratio of bandwidth costs and torrent seeder/peer traffic…
Oh, and I should also mention, considering the POD nature of modern culture (point, click, receive product, rather than go out and get product) it might be more in tune with modern society to just have an online zine, a POD process for anyone who wants to have a physical copy, and simply set up racks in stores with free pamphlets containing a link to the website/RSS feed and POD site for the magazine rather than trying to sell physical copies to retailers directly. Pay the retailers the fee for advertising space for your magazine, and it’ll be more clean and react to demand better.
Though if the retailer notices a huge demand for physical copies in-store, you can always sell them a bunch at wholesale prices. Or whatever, I’m sure I’m oversimplifying things at this point, but I’m sure a more economics-savvy person can see that it’s definitely a functional and hopefully more efficient way to go about things.
The people here saying that “There’s no market for short stories” remind me of those who said there was no market for the personal computer. They were right, there was no market for the personal computer, the market had to be made.
Similarly, until recently, it was a commonly accepted ‘fact’ that there was no market for young adult fiction. You couldn’t sell novels to teenagers, they were all watching TV and playing computer games. This created a massive opportunity for Ms Rowling to come in and own a market that no-one else perceived to be there.
It *may* be that people genuinely don’t want short-story mags, much like they appear to not want videophones, or it may be that the short-story mags are akin to the mp3 players that we had before the ipod. Prior to the ipod no one but tech geeks wanted mp3 players, they were an oddity in your local ‘comet’ store, along with the minidisc players (and no-one wanted those either). Apple came in and created a market for an mp3 player, completely turning things around.
However, much like the ipod, you’ll not create the market unless you come up with a new format that turns a niche ‘geeks only’ product into something that appeals to the mass market. One thing that needs addressing, as you correctly point out in this article, is the simply terrible cover design that SF mags have. Many SF mags (Analog and F&SF are particular culprits) could, if you cover up the barcode, just as easily have come from the middle of the last century as from this one. They do not give much feel of being radical or exciting, at least on their covers, and the cover is where it matters.
Another thing that bugs me is the ongoing claim that ‘the print world is dead’. Tell this to Stephanine Meyer, JK Rowling or ‘Hello’ magazine, and they’d quite rightly laugh in your face. The arrival, at last, of decent e-readers may mean that it’s finally try that people are going to move away from print, but for years I’ve heard this claim made when there was really no evidence to support it.
Online magazines have been something of an unmitigated disaster, despite all their promise. They rarely have a working business model, and because of the expectation that everything online will be free, most have been loss-making enterprises. When “Baen’s universe” folded there was a lot of talk about how it was a victim of the recession, but Baen’s made it quite clear in its closing statement that it had NEVER made any money, so the recession wasn’t the problem.
Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod and Daily Science Fiction may actually be making money. I hope they are. But if they’re not then the genre has a problem that print magazines that once made a profit, however small, are now being replaced by loss-making or ‘not for profit’ online magazines. Is this a good thing? I’m not sure.
If you walk into a magazine shop, you’ll see very many weird and wonderful magazines that seem to be able to stay afloat in print, and in some cases even seem to be doing quite well. You won’t even find the SF story magazines. I think the whole claim that ‘print is dying’ is something that SF pundits put about to hide from the grim truth that it’s short SF that’s dying, not print, and the reason it’s dying is because it’s become ossified and cannot adapt to modern times. If someone managed to make short SF sexy again (sexy as Neil Gaiman for instance, Locus reports that whenever they have an interview with him their sales skyrocket) then I think you’d have no problem keeping a print magazine alive.
Ultimately I expect that print will be replaced, but it’s not going to be replaced by websites viewed in firefox on people’s laptops, so the claim that such websites have been ‘killing print’ is pretty much nonsense. If the claim were true, Baen’s would still be with us (along sci-fiction and god knows how many others). What will replace print is going to be e-readers, but it’s still early days with those. Up till now it’s not been print that’s dying, but SF (even in novel form it’s been hard to find in bookshops for a long time).
If SF mags don’t change their ways and pitch to a larger (and younger) audience, then I predict that they’ll be every bit as unsuccessful when the e-reader revolution finally breaks as they were in print. No doubt then we’ll hear crys of “Well, online is dead! It’s direct synaptic delivery that’s the thing now!” And when direct synaptic delivery finally rolls around, they’ll be just as unsuccessful there too.
Good response. And I agree, make an SF magazine as sexy as Neil Gaiman, and give it a decent business model and it would sell well. Maybe someday soon someone will do it…
As someone who grew up on Clarke,Asimov, Heinlein etc i tried my hand at SF short stories but found current magazines had a snooty, ‘that’s not proper SF’ attitude, and reading the stories they did publish, they seemed more about neurotics with sexual problems. If SF does not throw in its lot with fantasy it will join the pulps in print history. Start printing stuff people want to read, is my advice.
Don’t cry, though. No one reads Booker Prize winners except the pretentious. Why not? Because they’re boring, that’s why. In the thirties teenage boys could read about blasting off from their backyard to battle aliens. Now they can see it in a movie by their thousands, while hard SF welters in a smug elitism that drives its base readers away. These mags desserve to die if they don;t change.
I think that the James Hogan Axiom, or the Michael Flynn Axiom, or even the Jerry Pournelle Axiom, might be a little fairer for this one.yacht transport