You can’t turn your head or click a link these days without bumping into someone proclaiming the death (or terminal illness) of print media. Science fiction is not immune to this state of affairs, either – and I’ll readily confess to being one of those who say that print is in trouble, if not actively dying at the current moment.
I take no joy in that statement, either. I ascribe my ability to say it without rancour to my short tenure on the genre scene; I didn’t grow up reading short fiction magazines, and I don’t have the obvious (and quite understandable) emotional attachment to them that many older or longer-standing fen possess. Don’t misunderstand me – I’d love to see genre mags not just survive, but proliferate. But that’s unlikely to happen without some significant changes.
There are bastions, of course – such as the venerable and esteemed Interzone, the British sf magazine which celebrates a 25 year lifespan with the issue that should be arriving in letterboxes some time this week, and a market I am immensely proud to be a reviewer for*. Over the pond, you have Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF and a few others. But as loyally as they hold on, the figures show that readership just isn’t what it used to be. And the problems are far wider than our own little neck of the woods.
Small press mags seem to come and go, and it’s a sure sign that the genre itself is still alive and well when people are willing to start up these projects for the love of the genre, with little or no hope of profit, and that good writers are willing to sell their art to them so cheaply. And if the Long Tail hypothesis holds as much water as I’m inclined to think it does, then smaller niche magazines may, counterintuitively, have a better chance of long term survival.
But even they run up against the enemies of the bottom line, namely logistics and economics. You want to sell a hard-copy magazine? Then you need to deliver it, or get it distributed to newstands and shops – and not just any shops, but the ones where your readership is likely to already be lurking. Science fiction is a niche market at the best of times, and specialist shops are few and far between. You’re going to have to transport that dead tree device to a different location to sell it. Nationwide, internationally, whatever. The mountain must go to Mohammed.
Which is another part of the problem – convenience. It’s not such an issue with older readers, who are more accustomed to waiting patiently for something they want. But my generation, and the ones below? If we can’t have it now, we’ll take the easy alternative – a sweeping generalisation, yes, but good enough for the point I’m driving at.
F&SF, for instance. Great little magazine, and a long runner too. But you know what makes me mad about F&SF? The fact that people in the States are reading the April issue when I’ve only just received the February one. Sure, I could pay extra for airmail delivery. But I’m quite fond of having food in the fridge, and electricity to run it. So I wait.
Websites and PDF mags have a lot of potential, but with a few brand name exceptions, people are very resistant to paying for them, instant delivery or not. No one likes a paywall on a website of any kind (damn you, New Scientist!), not only for the convenience issues but especially if there are already tons of annoying moving and/or popping-up ads, and e-Books just aren’t comfortable enough to read yet – not while I have to sit at my computer to do so.
So embedded advertising is the best (and maybe only) option for monetising an e-mag. But I keep hearing that people don’t like websites or PDFs with ads on them, and I have some sympathy with that feeling – there are already too many adverts in the world. However, I don’t think we’re going to have the choice much longer, as Subterranean seem to have realised. Theirs is a project I shall be interested to see develop – if the model works, then they’re out ahead of the curve. Give it away for free, and let the advertisers pay for writer’s fees and running costs. Your overheads are lower already without that print-and-distro albatross. (Although the current lack of ads on Subterranean makes me wonder what they’re planning for the future – is this just a loss leader for the already very successful book business?)
Plus if you’re giving it away with adverts in it, then you’ll not be bothered by piracy. The more people who read, the happier your advertisers will be. As Cory Doctorow is so fond of saying, piracy is a far less significant enemy than obscurity, and as Eric Flint (editor of the Baen Free Library) points out, there’s so little point in pirating the ads away from a story in a free digital file that hardly anyone is going to bother doing it – nor looking for a clean version when the original is so easy to get hold of.
The magazine markets have always been the proving ground for new novelists in genre, and that’s the best argument for wanting to them to survive that I can think of. Novels will take much longer to die off in dead tree format for an assortment of reasons – the iconic status of the book, the inconvenience and user cost of printing out a novel length manuscript, and so on – although the big publishers are starting to realise that digital is as unavoidable as death and taxes if they want to stay relevant in a wired world. But magazines of all types are already suffering, because there are so many more efficient ways to get hold of bite-sized content.
Back to F&SF, as an arbitrary example: if they just released a PDF once every month, I could get it straight away, and print off sections as I wanted them – a story a day for lunch hour at work, for example – and be discussing the latest stories with people woldwide within a day or two. I expect the argument against would be that the cover fee pays for more than the print and distro, and that is only logical – writer’s fees, admin costs, a wage for the magazine staff; none of these pay themselves.
But I remain convinced that with some smart thinking and sharp marketing, a fully electronic version would garner a much bigger readership in just a year of business. It would be free. The barriers to trying it out dissolve instantly – no more financial outlay and lengthy wait before you find out whether it’s the right thing for you or not. And speaking for myself, I could stomach a free PDF with ads on it. I put up with them in the dead tree version, so why not?
Hell, I’d probably be happy to go to the website and donate a dollar or two a month – especially if the website had different extra content that wasn’t in the mag. In F&SF‘s defence, at least they’ll let me buy a subscription by PayPal, which is more than Analog and Asimov‘s will do – and which is why I don’t have a subscription to the latter two, much as I’d like one. The less barriers to people getting at your product, the better your chances of shifting it.
There are hungry young writers and editors who can already see the revolution coming. Doctorow, of course, is its most vocal cheerleader; here in the UK we have Charlie Stross giving novels away when his publishers will let him, and Jason Stoddard, possibly due to his background in marketing and promotions, has some sensible (if unpopular) things to say about extracting heads from sandbanks and getting engaged with the new paradigms. The way forward is clear to see; the path may be rocky, and the footwear necessary may cause some blisters and twisted ankles while it is being broken in, but if you want to climb the cliff path before the rising tide washes away your industry, sacrifices must be made, and realities faced up to. (Mangled metaphor ends.)
To round this off, I’d like to emphasise that this isn’t an attack on the paper magazines – it’s a cry for action. I’ve only stumbled into this wonderful rich little scene in the last few years, and I’m utterly in love with it: the sense of community, the debate and development, the wonderful work that so many writers and artists and editors produce. And that’s why I want to see it continue for my entire lifetime. Which it can do – no problems at all – if people are willing to step out of the comfort zone and take a risk for the scene they love. The demand is there, and the tools are available. Our stock in trade is fiction that deals with the future – so as an industry, we should be grappling with the real future just as hard as the ones in our heads.
[* TTA Press has just launched a new internet forum, by the way, which looks a lot less clunky than the old one - so go sign up, why don't you?]