I wasn’t going to write about this as I couldn’t honestly see that it deserved a response; but apparently others though it did. Rather than add my thoughts on the matter to the comment thread of the original blog post, I’m writing my own piece here.
“This” is a blog piece here about sf magazines. According to it, current sf magazines are badly-designed, do not contain “the best writing”, and cater solely to “extended fandom”. What they need to do is appeal to all those people who consume science fiction in all its forms. Not sf readers, because sf readers are “extended fandom”. No, sf “consumers” who watch films, play games, watch television series, collect action figures, etc., but don’t actually, well, read.
To do this, the next generation sf magazine needs to drag its design into the twenty-first century and publish only the best fiction.
A magazine needs to consider four areas in order to succeed:
I have to wonder if the poster was referring only to the Big Three sf mags – Asimov’s, Analog and F&Sf – when he complained about appalling design. He’s right in that respect – those three magazines are indeed boringly designed. They’re intended to fit into a pocket and be convenient, but that’s no longer a design criterion these days. However, there are a number of well-designed sf magazines currently being published, such as Interzone.
There are other design considerations. Gollancz have recently rebooted their SF Masterworks series, and the new covers are less science-fictional than the old ones. Not so long ago, they issued four space operas with modern abstract covers as a promotion. Do people expect sf novels to have spaceships on the cover? Do they expect fantasy novels to feature a hooded man? Do covers without spaceships encourage non-sf fans to pick up sf novels? It’d be interesting to find out, because it would have a bearing on the cover design of this new magazine. Should it be overtly sf, or not?
Or, how about sticking a photo on the cover instead, as SFX and the like do? Of course, it’d have to be Matt Smith rather than Alastair Reynolds. No one’s going to recognise Reynolds, even if he is a million-pound author. Unless we’re going to go down the author-as-celebrity route, and I’d rather not…
Our new magazine should apparently publish “the best writing”. So, does that mean award-winning? Mike Resnick, for example? Charles Stross? Kij Johnson? Paolo Bacigalupi? They’ve all won awards. But then, the Hugo Award, the genre’s biggest award, is usually given on the basis of a couple of thousand votes, which is only a small subset of the sf readership. Perhaps instead “best” means “best-selling”, as the magazine is after all intended to make money. So JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Urban fantasy… Which isn’t actually sf, but never mind. I suspect that “the best writing” will actually mean the editor’s definition of “best”… which is pretty much how it works for magazines now. Of course, in order to attract the best writers, in order to have a really good selection in the slush-pile, the magazine will have to pay top dollar.
It’s no good publishing the best magazine in the world if it can only be found in one hobby shop in Milton Keynes. It needs to be available throughout the country, on every high street. This doesn’t come cheap. For a start, distributors demand huge discounts. As do retailers. Forget that cover price, because that’s not the amount your distributors and retailers will be paying. And if you intend to make a profit after discount on each issue, then the cover price is probably going to make it too expensive for your average consumer. Who’s going to spend £10 on a magazine because it “looks interesting”? You’ll need to offset the cover price with advertising revenue. But you can’t find advertising unless you have circulation, and you can’t get circulation unless you can afford to distribute…
Putting copies of the magazine into high street shops is only half the battle. People have to buy it. It’s no good sending out 50,000 copies every month, only to received 49,900 of them back thirty days later. Which means you need a design that appeals – including cover art. And contents that appeal – familiar faces and names and topics. You need an affordable cover price – so you’ll also need advertising…
It doesn’t work. For a large readership, you need something which will appeal to as many potential readers as possible. And those who consume sf but don’t read fiction… well, that’s because they don’t read. So they’re not going to be attracted to a fiction magazine, no matter how well designed or distributed it is. Some people might buy it if they recognise its contents – some familiar names in there, some references to things they know and understand, such as films, games, television series… Not fiction, in other words.
If you have pots of money – you’ve just won EuroMillions, say – and boundless optimism, then perhaps it might be worth a punt. But the number of magazine titles has been shrinking over the years for good reason, and no amount of naive pronouncements is going to suddenly re-invigorate the sf print magazine market.
But all is not lost. Because I have an alternative idea. I call it a “nebula”, because it’s sort of like a cloud. It is not a print magazine, it is electronic. Actually, it’s not even a magazine in the traditional sense of the word. It’s more like a playlist. For sf short fiction. It works like this:
There is a web site, and available for download – in a variety of e-reader and audio formats – is a pool of carefully-categorised stories. Each story is priced low, a couple of pounds only, a micro-purchase. Readers can create their own anthologies, or magazines, or fiction playlists, by putting stories together. This is why they’re carefully categorised. If you like space opera, then you can just buy space opera stories. There’ll be facilities to subscribe to feeds letting you know when new stories have appeared in specified categories, or by particular authors.
The web site will also feature lots of non-fiction content – reviews, interviews, etc. It will be free. There will be no paywall. Publication schedules can either be monthly or ad hoc. It doesn’t actually matter. Content is only limited by the technology – so the web site could include short films as streaming video, colour comic strips, podcast interviews, etc. The micro-purchased fiction will fund the free non-fiction content; the free non-fiction content will pull in the readers and introduce them to the micro-purchase fiction content. The web site can feature celebrities, the downloadable stories can include “the best writing”. And, best of all, it’s the reader who defines “the best writing”, because they need only buy the fiction they like.
I believe a couple of flash fiction sites operate in a similar fashion to this, and Lightspeed goes partway towards the micro-purchase fiction model (but is still tied to a monthly publication schedule). Given sufficient start-up capital, the “nebula” idea might work. It meets most of the demands of that original blog post, without relying on starry-eyed optimism or outright fantasy.