How to Save Fiction Magazines

Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:

i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.

These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.

Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?

He adds later:

But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.

Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in

I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.

...

If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.

Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?

Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.

Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...

Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.

Comments

hey

did you know weird tales is back?
http://www.weirdtalesmagazine.com/

I have yet to find a copy on the newsstands, but i haven't been looking very hard.

I still don't much care for short fiction outside a few select authors. But that having been said, do you remember non-nihil mea? I think i may rewrite it and send it on the rounds of these sorts of magazines.

Weird Tales has been back

Weird Tales has been back for a while, but the last time I checked it out it was dreadful. However, I see that Ann Vandermeer is the new editor so that might have changed. I vaguely remember Non-Nihil Mea. You should send it to me again.

Well...

...it's not my place to opine whether the magazine is currently dreadful or not, but I can say factually that this year we have very actively begun the process of moving away from the old-school genre fiction attitude and toward the need to produce a magazine that will be desirable to new readers in the 21st century.

Sounds interesting, I'll

Sounds interesting, I'll have to track down a copy and take a look.

Here's a question, and I mean this not accusationally but out of genuine curiosity: is it disingenuous for a magazine that was created in 1988 to claim to be the same organ that first published HP Lovecraft? Other than the name, what continuity is really on offer? Story Magazine used to do the same thing, claiming they were the same magazine that first published Tennessee Williams and JD Salinger, and it always puzzled me. Then again, is the New Yorker really the same magazine now that it was 100 years ago, just because there's been no break in publication? Obviously, there's different people at the helm and the aesthetic has changed (if not wildly). I think the idea of publishing a magazine that will be desirable to new readers is a good one; the expectation that anyone remembers Weird Tales from their childhood is a little far-fetched at this point, it just doesn't have the kind of name-cache that it did 50 years ago (unlike the New Yorker which precisely because of its continuing operation very much does have the same name-cache it used to). Looking toward the future and not the past is clearly the thing to do.

Eric -- it's a good

Eric -- it's a good question. It's actually the exact same scenario as with the magazine Vanity Fair, which originally ran from 1914-1936, and then was revived in 1984. Obviously none of the same people are involved -- so what gives these revivals the right to the name?

From a practical standpoint, I suppose the answer is: "A certain measure of success." The modern-day Weird Tales has now been publishing for twenty years; while certainly it's been no great financial triumph for its publishers, the fact is that a twenty-year-and-counting run is awfully rare for a small-press literary magazine, unaffiliated with any larger institution. Combine that simple-but-not-easy fait accompli with the fact that the people involved with the revival have all been knowledgeable fans of the original magazine, and what you've got is a magazine that a substantial number of readers are willing to accept as Weird Tales.

All that said: Those of us currently working on the 2007 revamp are trying very hard to go back even more explicitly to the SPIRIT of the 1930s magazine for our guiding principles, even as we try to make many of the DETAILS completely fresh and new and appropriate to a 21st-century readership.

Newstands

As the publishing editor of the new hybrid comic/straight prose magazine Murky Depths I would have liked to have seen it in the High Street shops but with a small budget and high production values it has proved impossible. The best offer I had from a distributor (and the high street shops only take copies from distributors) would have cost me £5,000 up front and £5,000 an issue. It just wouldn't have made business sense. Also Diamond, my big hope to break into the comic shops, turned us down on Issue #1. I think we're a bit of an enigma.

To promote any publication is a full-time job. When you're a one-man band balancing production and promotion you're in a catch twenty-two situation.

Well, I certainly hear that

Well, I certainly hear that last sentiment.

Diamond has gotten a lot harder to break into in the last few years. Have you thought about Cold Cut or Last Gasp?

But really, I cringe at the thought of putting out a print magazine in conventional form these days, even if Ellis does say their sales overall are up. The whole thing where they tear the covers off and send back to you any copies that don't sell gives me the willies. Have you thought about going online-only? What are you doing now to attract readers?

difficult to break in, definitely

Hadn't considered trying to break in with Diamond, but they don't sound like that great of a "win" from my comics friends... painfully unfriendly to shops, and often seem to almost sabotage "small print runs" with their no-backorder policy...

This is GUD's reaction so far, and we'd love to dialogue with folks.

Ideas to save fiction

Here are some ideas to save fiction:

1. Fiction magazines could win some really big lottery and then give away lots of cash with every issue.

2. Fiction magazines could find a cure for cancer and then use the moral and financial benefits of this great breakthrough to earn greater cultural credibility.

3. Fiction magazines could work up some scientific studies that demonstrate the performance-enhancing qualities of fiction magazines so professional leagues will ban athletes from consuming fiction magazines. A few good scandals — "A-Rod denies receiving sci-fi/fan-fic supplements"; "Vick confesses to taking slash" — and the fiction magazines have the underground appeal of mass-market prohibition. Can't go wrong.