Science fiction magazines don’t have to die

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?]

31 thoughts on “Science fiction magazines don’t have to die”

  1. 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

  2. Brilliant, brilliant post. I will make sure JJA sees it, although I don’t think anything will come out of it, but it’ll be good for him to see.

  3. First: absolutely spot on.

    Second: the pubs would do well to read, reread, and reread again your comments on accessibility. You can struggle to make deals with distributors to get a few copies of your magazine on a few select newsstands in a few select markets–or you can, literally, get in front of millions of people in an instant. People who may have very warm feelings about science fiction, but don’t even know you exist.

    And yeah, I know the process isn’t automatic, and yeah, I know then you have to show them ads, or ask for donations, or open up to other forms of media, or take sponsors, but all of these are relevant and managable ways of monetizing content.

    BTW, the most popular comment at my house, when people see a copy of one of the US digest-sized magazines on the coffee table: “I didn’t know they still did stuff like this.”

    Thanks for the mention, and thanks for continuing to read my blatherings. If I’m cutting, it’s only because I love. I want to see science fiction succeed.

    Oh, and by the way: Session 2 of New Marketing For Science Fiction Publications and Writers is up at

  4. Thanks for the feedback, folks; that one’s been brewing for a while, and I was of two minds about posting it because I didn’t want it to seem like I was calling anyone names. It took a few rewrites, that’s for certain.


    “If I

  5. Fictionwise offers unencrypted multi-format (pdf, mslit and many other formats – being unencrypted you can easily extract an html/rtf too with various tools freely available on the Net) subscriptions or single issues for all 3 major SF&F magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF).

    I am not 100% sure about selling outside North America, but I think they do though you may have to pay VAT; so if you want you can definitely buy digital versions of all these magazines.

    I have e-subscriptions through them to Asimov’s and FSF and I am quite satisfied.

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  7. Hell and yes. Another side benefit to electronic publishing is that there’s potential for more people to get published. I dig F&SF, but I’m getting tired of seeing the same authors appear again and again.

    What if this happened: every month, F&SF posts an e-version of the paper mag, but with three or four bonus stories that GVG couldn’t afford to squeeze into the print version. The bonus stories pay lower rates, but that’s okay because a) those authors can show that they made GVG’s cut and b) they’re going to be read by a much wider audience. Hell, throw in some ads, and the bonus stories might pay for themselves.

    I keep hoping Interzone will do this, just so I don’t have to wait until the paper version wings its way across the Atlantic. But a two-month gap for F&SF? Dude.

  8. Thanks, John; I can’t post there because I’m not a member, so I’ll reply here.

    I agree fully with GVG’s comments regarding books, and I in fact mention the same thing in the post above. The book isn’t going anywhere for a while yet, and there are numbers to support that which I would be a fool to refute.

    But the falling magazine subs numbers are just as irrefutable. The webzines GVG mentions may not have as big a readership as the hard-copies yet (I don’t know the figures – and I think I may start doing some research on this) but that’s because they don’t have the same name and reputation among the hardcore of the genre scene that the hard-copies have. That reputation needs to be carried on into the new era before it fades into memory – which I think we can all agree would be a terrible shame.

    As regards training readers to think all their fiction comes free, well, for the generation below mine, it’s already too late. They don’t read music magazines – they have myspace. They don’t read gossip magazines – they have Perez Hilton. They don’t read short fiction magazines – because they don’t know they exist, or if they do, they can’t be bothered to stump up some cash and wait for the hard-copy to arrive. And the material wouldn’t be free – if the advertising is relevant, contextual and unpatronising, people won’t object. I can’t find the relevant links right now, but plenty of the more lucid business blogs have debunked the ‘people hate adverts’ thing into the more correct ‘people hate ads that sell them stuff they’ll never want or that insult their intelligence’. Take a tip from the viral marketers – the best ads get treated as content in their own right. People will *choose* to see an ad that’s worth their time – Coke and Mentos, anyone?

    Finally, I agree that jumping to a purely electronic format right away would be a mistake, and I probably should have been more clear about what I meant – namely that a gradual transition starting sooner rather than later will be a much better bet than a ‘leap across the chasm’, whether too early or too late. See Mr. Rakunas’ comment above for a suggestion on how to smooth that transition.

    If you’re reading this, Mr. Van Gelder, I hope you’ve not misunderstood my intent. Like many of your subscribers, I love to read, and I prefer hard-copy if I can get it. But if there is one certainty in the digital age, at least when applied to the younger generations, it’s that content is competition. Keeping your current subscribers happy is easy enough – we’re willing to accept the wait because we know it’ll be worthwhile. But how are you going to snare the next new wave of readers, to whom the internet is the first (and often only) port of call for written material?

    As a canonical hero of the genre once wrote, the future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

  9. It’s ironic that so many in this forward-thinking genre are so conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies and ways of doing business.

  10. Paul—

    No, I don’t think I misunderstand your intention. In fact, I appreciate your making F&SF your sample model and I’m grateful about your concern for our welfare.

    But I don’t think you’re right on many points here. A few specifics:

    1) “But the falling magazine subs numbers are just as irrefutable.”

    Our “falling” numbers have held steady for the past three years. This whole meme that “the magazines are dying” doesn’t convince me. Sure, it’s easy to assume it and it may even be self-fulfilling—but when I point out to people that James Gunn predicted in 1976 that the SF magazines would all be dead by the year 2000, they just shrug and say, “Well, he was probably just off by a few years.” And they’ll probably do the same thing in 2050.

    2) “As regards training readers to think all their fiction comes free, well, for the generation below mine, it

  11. Bill got it.

    To add to the discussion, the question isn’t whether there’s enough online advertising $ to monetize the content, because there IS. I do this crap for a living. I know. With pulling in $5-7MM in ad revenue a year and BoingBoing at $1-1.5MM per year, the money is there.

    The question is whether we can put together enough eyeballs to pull the advertising money. In my opinion, with text alone, it ain’t gonna happen. Here’s why:

    However, here’s a model that has a good chance of working:

    Can I point to seventy-three sites using this EXACT model and say they’re making money? No. And “nobody was making money on the internet” in 1996. And “nobody has ever done that before” when the Wright Brothers took off. And . . . you get the picture.

    Look at those numbers in the first link again and try NOT to justify the need for extreme action.

  12. The average reader age (both mean and median) for F&SF is 40. At least, that’s what it was when we did our last survey a few years ago. It was up from the previous survey, but as I recall, the increase was very slight—less than a year, I think.

  13. Apparently, teens are buying books at the fastest rate in decades. Or so I was told by this article. I’m not sure whether it’s a fluke (or a cousin of the Onion) yet.

    Also, in response to the apparently common feeling out there that people will not read stories on-screen, I can vouch that thousands upon thousands of people read fiction online, on LiveJournal and on sites like I certainly do. I’ve read stories almost exclusively online for going on 8 years now. I rarely buy a fiction book, but I do spend a couple of hours a day reading fiction websites and journal entries.

    There are reasons why this activity is under the radar. Most of the works I see online are derivative works, fanfiction. Clearly, fanfiction is at best a semi-legal activity, and as such isn’t, and can’t be, marketed. The people who practise it are very non-U for most science-fiction fans. In turn, the writers and readers are very cliquish and mostly write for friends in their LiveJournal communities or on members-only web groups. (There are more reasons but I guess that’s enough for now.)

    I’m not proposing as a solution to anything, mind you. Just pointing out that thousands of people read fiction online regularly.

  14. It’s been pointed out to me that the Fictionwise and eReader logos are at the bottom of the home-page for F&SF. (What an as**ole, I hear you say.) However, I have to say that these logos:

    1) are off the bottom of the page (at least on my browser). It’s well-know to usability experts that people often don’t scroll down. (eg “…scrolling is always a key consideration. Users generally don’t like to scroll.” )

    2) look far too much like advertising for me to bother paying attention to (ie banner blindness).

    3) violate usability guidelines on consistency. The option to purchase an electronic version should be incorporated into the main menu system, and should _look_ like the other items on the main menu system, to ensure that the visitor sees and processes this along with the other options.

    Now, if I miss these logos, and I’m aware of usability issues in general, what chance for other visitors?

    (In case anyone thinks I’m moaning, I do genuinely want to help improve the sales of F&SF and the other mags by my suggestions.)

  15. I’m coming way late to this discussion, but I did want to mention something about online advertising:

    Automatically contextual advertising, like Google’s, works great for certain kinds of nonfiction material. Unfortunately, it’s not so obvious what kinds of ads are most appropriate and relevant for placing next to a work of fiction; the ads are likely to be relevant to the topic of the fiction, but that may not be something that the readers actually want to buy.

    Ads that are relevant to your readership but not directly relevant to the content of a specific story are more like traditional print-magazine ads, the kind of thing Gordon is talking about. I suspect there might not be enough money in online versions of those ads to support a magazine, but I really have no idea.

    …Beyond that, I start to head into areas where I really have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll stop there.

    Fascinating topic, though; thanks for the post.

    …Oh, and btw, I highly recommend Fictionwise. I’ve bought various magazines there, including F&SF, in both mobile format for reading on my Treo, and PDF for reading on my computer screen. Good stuff.

  16. All really interesting posts!

    I find all of it kind of amusing in a way particularly the stuff about the modern readership going for the free internet route rather than ‘stumping up the cash’. It puts me in mind of a colleague I used to work with when internet cafes had their first big boom in London (Way back in the early 90’s lol). One comment he said has always stuck with me… “If your making a website, running an online business, whatever, it’s the free s@$t that gets me in, if there’s no free s@$t, there’s a little cross on a button at the top right corner of the screen, it’s called the ‘can’t be arsed button’ and I use it all the time…”

    Speaking as a myspace user, it’s not only because it’s free, flexible and powerful, but also because it was cleverly marketed and constantly passed around by word of mouth and the media.

    Is science fiction such a niche market nowadays that to pass word of mouth is a difficult, disparate task?

    Maybe the new Doctor Who will turn the generations upcoming into real geek heads like me…

    One can only hope…

  17. I think thi artical is very hard to read and it took me about 2 days to read it- I am also a very good reader. I personally think that this is an extremely long piece of writing. However, this piece of extremely long writing does have some intresting facts which I somehow can take in. Mabey a handy tip… DON’T WRITE SO MUCH NEXT TIME!!!
    This is bella dunnings quote on this enormously outstandingly long pice of vast work.

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