Monetising the short fiction webzine market

There’s been much in the way of writerly foresight from Jason Stoddard in recent months; plenty of people have been willing to suggest the novel will die (and less people are willing to contest the proposition as time goes by), but Jason is the only person that I’m aware of who is doing concrete thinking about future markets for creative writing from the POV of the writer.

Dude, where’s my market?

Additionally, he’s revived his popular metafiction theme. Popular metawhuta? In a nutshell, BoingBoing and io9 are popular metafiction … as well as proof that people are more than willing to read if you just put the right stuff in front of them. As Jason says himself:

“I’d like to see the science fiction magazines succeed. I’d like to see science fiction become more relevant. I’d like to see it come back to genre that is actively leading us forward, instead of telling us “there’s no use, we’re all going to die anyway.” Unfortunately, there’s little I can do to help the publications directly, so maybe this, in some small manner, will help point the way.

After all, BoingBoing grew organically. It didn’t take millions of dollars in advertising or the combined might of a television network to launch. It occupies a space where science fiction could be.”

Right; I know this first-hand. Now that I’m running Futurismic, thoughts like this weigh heavily on me – how the hell am I going to get that site to pay for the fiction and its hosting fees (let alone make anything on top)? There’s masses of traffic out there, after all; you just have to attract it to your content.

As is probably plain from my rather bitter comment on Jason’s post, I kind of resent the fact that io9 can post 90% fluff and 10% substance and still pay the payroll; it says sad things about the state of the market for fiction, and makes me wonder if I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely.

The readers are out there, they just don’t know where the good writing is

But then I look at the OMFG-Zerg-rush!!!1 we had on Leonard Richardson’s story when Cory Doctorow gave at the thumbs-up at BoingBoingover 7000 page views within the space of a week, and a forty-deep comment thread of people raving about how awesome the story is. Some people obviously do want to read good fiction, and really enjoy it when they do so.

Hell, look at this item I included in last week’s Friday Free Fiction round-up at Futurismica busy gaming and media webzine is doing what its paper equivalents say is pointless, and experimenting with publishing fiction. Fiction that they’re paying the writers for. But they can do that – they have traffic, they have budget, they have leeway. They have the opportunity to throw sh*t at the wall and see if it sticks. I really hope it does, too – more paying markets can only be a good thing, I reckon.


So, where do I go from here? Arguably Futurismic is way closer to the contemporary metafiction model than most other genre webzines out there, and it also has the advantage of domain longevity – it’s a brand that has lasted a while. We’ve got a strong RSS subscriber base, too, and I’m doing my best to grow it further by expanding what we offer – a new non-fiction column goes up later today, as it happens.

But how can I turn that traffic into enough dollar to pay the fiction writers, cover the server bills and possibly throw a bit of cash at my non-fiction contributors too*?

There are options, sure, but they’re mostly not pretty.

Text Link Ads

There’s a couple of direct text-link ad companies who would pay pretty decent money for ads on Futurismic, but they have been proven to be a fast route to a Google blacklisting as they’re essentially a way of selling on PageRank to sites who are, shall we say, “not entirely deserving of it”. Ethically, I’m unwilling to cross that particular Rubicon – sure, there’d be enough money to pay pro rates for fiction, a reasonable column fee and chuck my blog team a bone or two, but what if I ended up boosting the online profile of some hate-group or snake-oil pharma company? Not on my watch, Admiral.


Google AdSense offers me little control over what sort of ads are displayed (how often do you see vanity press ads on genre blogs with AdSense? – too often), and I know for a fact I’ve not clicked on an AdSense box in years; I’m not going to patronise my readers by assuming that they will do something I wouldn’t. Same applies to similar contextual ad platforms; the amount of actual clicks and/or impressions we’ll get just isn’t enough to make it worthwhile without crowding out the content with a bad signal-to-noise ratio. We’re too damn niche.

Affiliate marketing

Funnelling traffic to Amazon or similar might work if we accrue more organic click through, but isn’t going to pay the bills at current traffic rates; see above, essentially.

Direct sponsorship

I’d be willing to look into this, but I have no idea how I’d go about doing it, short of a hefty barrage of very polite cold emailing to publishers. I’d also insist on a made-public declaration from both parties that there would be no preferential coverage or favouritism. Independence and transparency is crucial for credibility, AFAIC.

Alternative ad networks

The current solution, namely Project Wonderful, has everything a niche scene like genre publishing should want out of an ad brokerage system. Seriously – I really can’t overstate the potential I see in this system, not just for Futurismic but for the whole industry’s online marketing business. Total control for advertisers and publishers; fine grain locational selection; precise budgeting, flexible low-scale payment options … it ticks all my boxes. The only problem – there’s not enough advertisers of the right type using it yet.

That last point is a shame – I think about small press publishers with a tight budget, and I know they must want to be able to target their online ads more effectively than paying for some keywords. They want to know what sort of audience those ads are going to, what those eyeballs are used to seeing and what they think is cool – they need demographic precision.

I can offer them that with Futurismic – 7000 views of one page over a week by people who expressly have an interest in written science fiction has to be worth something, right? – and so could a score of other sf webzines and blogs. But they don’t know it’s there yet – most internet ad platforms are aimed at traffic sources an order of magnitude larger than Futurismic.

So I guess yours truly has to go and be an evangelist on Project Wonderful‘s behalf … which makes you realise just how crafty a business model they actually have!

The thesis

But I’m kind of digressing from my original point, which is that there’s definitely a market for fiction as long as you aren’t charging the reader for it directly. Jason also has things to say about how freeconomics effects you as a writer (in a nutshell: play the long game outside the box and you’ll be fine), but it’s us publishers that are caught in the middle. It’s our business model that’s dying, and hence the onus is on us to find a new one that works.

And this ain’t no violin solo, either – this is me thinking out loud, basically, but doing so in front of an audience I hope might chime in with some thoughts of their own. But to boil down my current thinking to the nugget – there’s enough money in genre publishing ad budgets to support the short fiction market in webzine form. I really believe this, and until I see concrete figures to the contrary I’m not going to abandon that belief – because webzines don’t need a lot of money beyond the fiction fees.

The problem is the book publishers are currently throwing their money at ineffective and imprecise advertising channels, and probably only because they don’t know the alternatives are there. If I can get them to a better channel that sends them actual interested buyers and exploits my currently under-used eyeball share, I’ve killed two birds with one stone and solidified the future of what I believe is a worthwhile short fiction market.

So, I have a strategy. What I don’t have are the tactics; I get the feeling the only way I’m going to find those is by getting muddy in the trenches and seeing what works. But if y’all have some advice (or have noticed the inevitable gaping hole in my tapestry of logic), my ears are wide open.

[ * Just to be perfectly clear, I was resigned to the idea that Futurismic will never pay me a red cent long before I took the plunge to take control of it. I am willing to subsidise it out of my earnings as a freelance for the foreseeable future … which is a lot easier to say now that there actually are some freelance earnings on the horizon. But that’s another post entirely; what I mean to say is “this is not a greed post”. ]

13 thoughts on “Monetising the short fiction webzine market”

  1. You wouldn’t be groping towards a genre equivalent of messagespace would you?

    Between Futurismic, SH and some of the larger blogs, there’s probably be a case for something like that existing… an infrastructure allowing publishers and genre TV and Film floggers to target adverts at people on the SF scene.

  2. Any iframe style adverts will go missing from RSS feeds and from anyone running adblock in Firefox. Which tends to be modern savvy internet users. I assume that the majority of my regular readers are these people and will never see any Google Ads. However I also get a large portion of Google searching passers-by, and they are welcome to click the ads and pay my hosting (or not).

    The question is, if a SF imprint offered to pay you to run banner ads would you?

  3. Jonathan – messagespace is a new one to me, but looks kind of along the same lines as PW (just for a very different niche).

    James – conditionally, and with full public disclosure of the relationship, yes.

  4. Paul, as usual, thanks for the mention.

    Totally agreed on there being enough money in genre fiction ad budgets to support webzines–and to even make them prosper. Conventional advertising, and most online advertising, is ridiculously expensive and wasteful. I think that everyone in the agency space will agree that we’re moving to a new model.

    The problem is the gaping chasm between the gorillas (people with money like, say, Penguin), and the small press (people, like, say, Nightshade Press.) The gorillas look askance at models like Project Wonderful and Messagespace, since they don’t show up on their large agency’s ComScore dashboard, plus they’re new, and new is scary, and if new doesn’t work they know they’re going to have multiple fingers, from the CMO to the VP of Marketing, pointing in their direction. The small press typically does not have enough budget to do something *significant* on Project Wonderful or Messagespace, because, well, there are certain best practices for scale and saturation.

    This isn’t to say that things are hopeless. The small press may take a chance, and the gorillas will slowly awaken. The future of marketing is in being part of a community, in honest and relevant ways, not in GRPs or millions of “impressions” that may never be seen.

    I wish I had more answers, but it is early in the morning and pre-coffee. I’ll be back.

  5. Jason’s point is a good one. The real problem here is that the people with the budget (the large publishers) simply don’t understand the power of niche sites because it’s invisible to them.

    Comscore for example is panel based, arguably inaccurate and yet everyone uses it. Publishers really do lag behind the rest of the online division in their measurement of online spend and ROI – ironically the bigger the budget the worse they are.

    I work in online marketing for publishing company – admittedly not fiction – and quite a few of the marketers I interact with in the print world simply don’t understand how to measure online spend accurately. That’s why they outsource.

    It is changing. As more spend migrates online marketers are beginning to come under pressure to extract a higher ROI and that forces them to take a much closer hand in online campaign management where the power of niche sites is a lot easier to see.

    An example: Publisher X is spending Y million on online marketing (display, ppc, email, rich media, etc). But they outsource it to an agency, the agency will – if the publisher is lucky – track all the media through one system however even if they do (many don’t) they will most likely be tracking it on a last click basis.

    This is bad for sites running a display advertising model because display often doesn’t work as a direct response channel and is rarely the last referring advert BUT is often a key influencer to conversion via other online channels such as PPC and SEO.

    This is further compounded as the marketer – particularly if online is only part of their job – will never see the daily data only the end of week or more likely end of month figures. The agency will not be interested in micro managing the account because they have a string of other accounts they need to be making money on and so won’t even be thinking about niche sites. They’ll just be thinking PPC, large display networks, and rich media probably from a single supplier or core group of suppliers.

    Part of the interim solution might be to seek out online evangelists within the publishing markets that match futurismic’s content as these people are more likely to have the analytics set up to prove the ROI you’re delivering. Where one publisher has success the others are likely to jump – cheque book in hand.

    Everyone’s asleep now. I’ll shut up.

  6. Being entirely candid, Justin, I’m not sure. Steve Rubel and the Techdirt guys talk about good advertising being content in its own right, and I think we’re in for a lot more of it in years to come. That said, I kneejerk at it badly. It just tastes funny, y’know?

  7. Neil: yep, this is my life, too. And I’ll concur that you are *really, really lucky* if your online marketing is handled by only a single agency with a single reporting system–and if they pay *any attention at all* to the data, even at the end of the month. I’ve seen so many horror stories (typically with large, traditionally-focused agencies) that sometimes I want to beat my head against a wall.

    I concur on finding the online evangelists within the publishing markets and pitching them on a sponsorship deal. Someone who has dropped, say, a few hundred thousand on Second Life may think a sponsorship on this site is a relative bargain.

    Also, we need to find the online fiction evangelists. BoingBoing pays attention to Futurismic; a couple of my own stories were linked from them. Is a closer relationship possible? Is Futurismic a possible fiction adjunct to BoingBoing? Apologies if I’m getting too close into your business model and business strategy here. Is there a closer relationship possible with the fiction forums on SomethingAwful and similar sites, without burying you in having to play “the friendly fiction publisher” on their site all the time? Is there something similar you can do with Slashdot? Could you be (gasp) the fiction arm of io9?

    And–I have to say it–please don’t apologize for wanting to make a buck. No other profession has to do so. And, if we’re *really* going to move this forward, we need people who can make a living at this. As in, “I am an online publisher,” or “I am a science fiction author.” Not, “I am a (part time) online publisher (who is funding this with my own cash)” and “I am a science fiction author (who knows I will never, ever make a living at this.)” If you hit the magic formula and this venture makes you rich, congratulations. You don’t need to apologize.

  8. Good food for thought, Jason, many thanks. Some big ideas to think about there. As regards the money issue, I was not so much apologising for wanting to make some money as I was making it clear that I’d want all my contributors to get paid before me!

  9. Aha, yes–well, in that case, if you find the secret formula, then both you and your contributors deserve to benefit!

    This post has given me a lot to think about. You can expect some more articles on my own site as a result of this. I’m convinced that there are many things we can do to bring the field forward!

  10. I’ll look forward to them. The most obvious thing that has leapt to mind is that getting a bloc of publishers together might be a good idea – strength in numbers, and so forth. I need to do some more thinking …

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