Tag Archives: business

Subscription drives alone will not save the short fiction magazines

OK, first off let me make one thing perfectly clear – I do not want to see science fiction and fantasy short story print magazines die off. It is not a thing that would bring me any sort of joy.

Secondly, let me make it clear that Doug Cohen’s suggestion that everyone make a point of subscribing to a short story publication is well-meaning and good-spirited, and that I think anyone who can afford to do so should do exactly that.

(I recommend Interzone, myself, but then I’m biased!)

But I think that subscription drives are a short-term solution that fails to look at the long-term issues.

Where have the readers gone, and why?

Subscription rates are falling; this is undeniable. And the genre needs the short fiction markets to nurture new talent; this is also undeniable.

What we are missing are the cold hard facts. Why are subscriptions to short fiction magazines dropping? Subscription drives are an admirable thing, but until the source of the problem is located, it’s like adding more water to a leaking bucket. We need to find the hole and patch it.

Now, for all I know, the magazine publishers may well be hunting for the leak. I certainly hope so. I know some of them are looking at methods of patching the leak, too, if not already rolling out potential patches and strengthening. This is a good thing.

But what worries me is this; subscription drives may cause an unfounded short-term sense of security. If publishers look at the next twelve months and breathe a sigh of relief, they may not think ahead to the next five years. Beating the wolf away from the door is great, but it would be better to chase him back into the forest.

What should we do to save the short fiction markets?

I don’t have all the answers, sadly. Alhough I have my opinions on futureproofing the genre short fiction scene, which were not universally popular when I announced them, they are only opinions – and they are the opinions of someone who isn’t a publisher of short fiction magazines. In an absence of facts, all I can do is throw theories into the air.

So here’s what I suggest:

Follow Doug Cohen’s advice, and subscribe to a magazine if you can afford to do so.

But while you’re at it, or if you can’t afford to, or even if you don’t want to, get in touch with the magazine publisher and tell them how you feel.

Tell them why you weren’t subbed before, or why you lapsed, or why you’d like to subscribe but can’t (or won’t). Give these people some feedback, and help them find a solid path to a lasting future.

You can’t fix a problem simply by throwing money at it. We need to think smarter than that.

DRM – what’s dumb for music is dumb for books, too

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, I caught another slice of wisdom from Eric Flint of Baen Books on the subject of piracy (though not the sort with ships and cutlasses, mind) and the genre fiction market:

“You literally can’t penetrate the obscurity of the book market. You’d have to spend every waking moment reading book reviews—and even that wouldn’t suffice, because the book reviewers themselves, all of them put together, can’t keep up with the production of new titles.”

(Yup.)

“In short, the book market is just about as opaque as any market there is. I might mention, by the way, that this is not the least of the reasons that the fears of authors that they’ll get “pirated” are almost always just plain silly. With the exception of a tiny percentage of very well-known authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the real problem authors face is that only a very small percentage of their potential customers have even heard of them—so how likely is it that the ravening hordes of electronic pirates are out there plundering their titles?”

And a little further on:

“In the real world, the only authors—or musicians, by the way—who get “pirated” in any significant numbers are ones who are already famous and enjoy top sales. (And all the “piracy” is likely to do, even then, is simply boost their sales. See my next essay for a further discussion.) The great problem faced by all authors—musicians are in a very similar position—is the opacity of the book market. The entertainment market in general, actually, even movies. Compared to that problem, all others are fleas standing next to mammoths.

It is therefore absurd for an author or a publisher to support DRM, when DRM not only makes the market still more opaque, but—worse yet—it removes the best tool any author has today to penetrate that obscurity, at least a little.”

That is, of course, the O’Reilly / Doctorow “piracy as progressive taxation” argument, but here it’s coming from someone who knows the industry of which he speaks from the beancounting end. And the music industry comparison is timely, what with plunging CD sales and corporate panicking making headlines. They’re failing spectacularly; publishing would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Further evidence from O’Reilly, via Doctorow (ZOMFG! H4X! k0nsp1r4cy!), in the form of a case study of sales and download figures for a non-fiction title whose free availability became a Digg headline:

“…what’s most striking (apart from the huge scale mismatch, in terms of the number of people accessing the content through the free online version), is that when the downloads spiked in January of this year from about 8000 a month to nearly 30,000 after the book’s free availability was noted on digg, we didn’t see a correspondingly sharp decline in sales. Of course, neither did we see any evidence that free availability of the book spurred sales. And as noted above, there is a sharp drop at about the time the download data starts that is likely unrelated to the downloads, even though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that downloads had some effect.”

This is of limited relevance here – because popular fiction is a different kettle of fish to obscure geek tomes on the future of telephony, and because this is a case where a free, easy and perfectly legal source for the electronic version was made available. But even so, it’s worth noting that there was no sharp decline in sales.

Of course, the best way to nullify piracy, as Flint and O’Reilly have both said before, is to make the stuff freely available at source. Publishers have been reticent about this, which is probably no surprise – the economics of abundance is a pretty new phenomenon in creative works, after all – but the problems being experienced by the record labels should be sufficient impetus to start planning ahead.

And the options are there – even Google, those filthy copyright-infringing bookscanner types, are holding out a hand to publishers by offering them the chance to have branded portals to the content of theirs that Google makes available:

“Publishers can tailor the index of their search engine so that only books published by them show up in the query results, Google said Friday. As in the main Book Search site, these result pages give users the option to link to online shops that sell the listed books.”

Sure, Google gains from this. They’re not stupid. But publishers stand to gain, too – and while playing King Canute as your business dwindles might be a glorious stand for what you’ve always believed in, it’s ultimately an empty display if you’re in the business of getting good reading material in front of the eyes of readers. Go with the flow; it’s easier to adjust your stroke if you’re not swimming against the tide.

Norman Spinrad and the victimisation of genre fiction

In between giving some awards to a whole bunch of stuff I’ve never read, the SFWA held some discussion panels over the weekend of the Nebula ceremonies. GalleyCat has a run-down of one that featured science fiction editors and other notables discussing the ‘market problem’. As I wasn’t there (I guess my complimentary tickets got lost in the mail or something), I have no idea how balanced the report is, but taken at face value it suggests that Norman Spinrad has a serious case of victim syndrome on behalf of the genre:

“After some of the other panelists spoke, Nielsen Hayden rexplored the notion that the hardcore SF fan who had long constituted the genre’s target audience was gradually being replaced by a young reader who delves into all sorts of popular culture, only some of which is science fiction and fantasy. Bantam senior editor Anne Groell ran with that ball, talking about her own experience seeing fantasy titles cross over to romance audiences. “There’s a lot of freedom in how you can cross genres today in ways you couldn’t before,” she said, to which Spinrad countered that he believed it was harder for established SF/fantasy writers to make that crossing than writers from other fields who added fantastic elements to their writing. “Science fiction creates a floor,” he insisted, “but it also creates a ceiling.””

So, any thoughts? Is the genre a box? If it is, have genre authors created that box for themselves, or are they being picked upon by the cruel and merciless chain book stores and amalgamated publishers who care only for quick profits?

Stuff to look at

No substantial blogging from me tonight, I’m afraid; deadlines beckon, and I must heed their imperative call.

So, here’s some stuff for you to read in the meantime:

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Jeremiah Tolbert has been looking at genre fiction magazine business models, and has come to a conclusion that I’m inclined to agree with:

“I am not sure that the [paid] subscription model is working very well anymore.” [my insertion]

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Meanwhile, E. E. Knight takes the highlighter pens to a classic Rudyard Kipling story to examine the use of action verbs in defining character. Great analytical technique, one that I plan to steal.

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And finally there’s a feminist science fiction blog-carnival at ‘Words from the Center, Words from the Edge’ – which I haven’t read yet, but will find the time for over the weekend, circumstance willing. Then again, there looks to be over twenty posts on sf literature alone, plus more on comics, TV and film … I may have to cherry-pick. If you pop over and spot any winners, please let me know.

And now, back to reviewing CD singles by obscure bands that neither you or I have ever heard of …

Buying free eBooks

SF Signal have been running a poll on the ‘do people buy books after reading the free electronic version’ question, and they’ve posted the results up.

Have you ever purchased a book that you first sampled as a free eBook?

No. Why should I pay for it when it’s free?
11.7%
   (12 votes)

No, because I did not like (or finish) the book
2.9%
   (3 votes)

Yes. I prefer to own the books I read and/or I prefer real books over reading on a screen.
41.7%
   (43 votes)

I don’t read eBooks.
43.7%
   (45 votes)

(103 total votes)

While it’s a valuable set of results, I can’t help but feel the methodology was a little flawed. I don’t know much about sociology and the designing of questionnaires, but I think the questions should have been separated out:

  • First asking “do you/have you read ebooks”, then
  • asking those who answered ‘yes’ whether they’ve ever paid for an ebook,
  • whether they bought a physical copy of the specific book they read for free, and
  • whether they bought other works by the same author on the strength of the free material, or from a sense of wanting to pay for something that they didn’t necessarily have to.

Then follow that up with the question about the totemic or practical value of the book as media platform.

Obviously, these results aren’t entirely transferable beyond the arena they’ve been gathered in – specifically genre fans, and more specifically blog-reading genre fans – but it’s still interesting to note that less than half of the respondants have never read an ebook, and only a little over a quarter of those that have read them decided not to pay for it, for whatever reason.

Pricing is going to be an issue with the ebook format, and it’s possibly the one thing holding development back. And I’m not talking about ebook reader hardware (although Charlie Stross made some great points about the problems with that), but the pricing of the actual files themselves – Tobias Buckell has some thoughts on that, and he brings the perspective of a young author at the start of his career arc, enabling him to say what might be unpalatable or less obvious to an older professional:

“Other than Baen’s rational approaches, no ebook program has made sense to me, and as an author, looking over the money made by ebooks by Baen authors, my opinion is that the inability of publishers to price ebooks properly and utilize them is probably costing me money that could be being made.”

That’s the argument of someone who loves their craft, but who also treats it as a modern business. We’ll be hearing more like this, sooner rather than later.