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An untapped market?


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.


24 thoughts on “An untapped market?

  1. I like your alternative to the magazine idea. I think what the original article lacked was any sense of how magazine publishing works and why there have been many SF magazines in the past, but few have had longevity. It comes down to loyal readership and cash.

    With the way things are moving into e-books and online content both paid for and free, your idea is much more in-tune with the evolution of both technology and the reader.

    • The fiction playlist concept also allows readers to create playlists/anthologies for other people. The site could allow them to publicise them – “Fred’s favourite fiction”, for example. So readers could recommend stories to each other, or put together playlists of themed fiction.

  2. Glad the piece got you thinking Ian. I don’t agree with your analysis, but its good to see the discussion being had.

    • At least I attemped an analysis. There’s none in the post on your blog – no examples of badly-designed magazines, no definition of “the best writing”, no attempt at a solution for any of the poster’s complaints.

      • With all the respect that’s due, your analysis is twice the length of my original post. I do have examples and definitions which like your evidence is mostly circumstantial and subjective; including them would also have made the post much longer than the one I was asked to write. It was after all a blog post, and not a business plan.

        “Who’s going to spend £10 on a magazine because it “looks interesting”? ”

        Me and many many other people have and will again. Coilhouse magazine costs $15 without P&P. Comics regularly rely on looking interesting to attract new customers along with word of mouth.

        OK ignore the print distribution. That’s become a straw man at this point. I suggested digital distribution in the piece more heavily than print.

        “nebula” sounds like it has the behaviour of iBooks/iTunes, but just for SF/F. It could be interesting. It reminds me also of the comic stores designed for iPads/iPhones, but also for desktop computers.

        One idea was having ‘zines curated by a guest editor-in-chief on an issue by issue basis. In, say, a reprint ‘zine this could be the guest editor [insert famous author or public figure] presenting the stories which influenced them along with a detailed interview injected between the stories discussing influence and intertextuality.

        That could be a single object based ‘zine or a playlist in “nebula.”

        It is also a concept which can be explained in a sentence or short paragraph.

        A final point on design: look at the Whitechapel Remake/Remodel thread this week for “Weird Tales.” I expect a lot of artists both professional and skilled-amateur will be bringing their A-Game to this. The thread is less than twelve hours old as I write this, but expect interesting ideas to have emerged by Wednesday.

      • Will,
        But your average punter won’t spend $15 / £10 on a magazine, and the whole thrust of your post was that sf magazines need to expand their readership. A hefty price tag is the quickest way to limit the readership.

        Fair point on print distribution. I also think electronic is the way to go.

        The guest editor idea still ties the magazine into the concept of “issues”, which I think needs to be discarded. Allow celebrity guests to create playlist by all means; perhaps they can even pick stories off the slush-pile for their playlists. But the playlists should not be atomic – you don’t have to buy all of it at once.

        But no reprints. No recycling content from other venues. Why ask people to pay for something they might already have, or can get elsewhere for free?

      • “A hefty price tag is the quickest way to limit the readership.”

        I am thinking here about the effects of premium pricing.

        My logic is the following:

        Magazines are luxuries.
        Lower cost magazines are seen as less desirable than higher cost.
        Therefore it can be in a magazines advantage to price itself higher, but still at a reasonable cost, than the competitors.

        Lipstick is sold along the same lines. It is a low cost luxury, but you buy the most expensive you can afford because it is a status item.

        It isn’t intuitive but there are plenty of real world examples. Biscuits in supermarkets are another.

      • I’d have said magazines were whim purchases (except for those who subscribe to or follow the mag). Most are sold at airports and railway stations as reading material for a journey. That’s not going to work for an electronically distributed mag. Plus, for a premium price, people expect a premium product – not just something that relies on its price to signal quality.

      • Q: “Who’s going to spend £10 on a magazine because it “looks interesting”?”

        A: “Me and many many other people have and will again.”

        I think this is the problem that underpins the whole post. The fact that you and your friends would like such a magazine doesn’t mean there is an untapped audience out there.

        It is the same thing that drives publishers up the wall. People complain that publishers only publish generic tosh rather than edgy, experimental novels. Publishers point out that when they publish those sort of books, no one buys them. But I do and so do all the people I know so there must be a market for them, right? It is a mixed of confirmation bias and the inability to accept how little interest most people have in art.

      • I think what is required, if you are serious, is a proper market study. As Martin rightly points out just because you know ten people who would buy such a magazine at such a price does not mean it would have any other readers.

        Like any other business you would need to commission a proper market study. How many people would actually buy another SF magazine based on your specifications on a regular basis?

        The desire to and enthusiasm for is one thing, the practicalities are another.

  3. Ian, I like that idea as well. Since with many SF mags you get an assortment of styles and content it would make it easier to find what kind of stuff you like without having to read lots of other stuff first. That’s put it in the most simple of terms, but you get what I mean.

    • Roy Gray has pointed out that TTA offer individual stories for $0.99 from Fictionwise, which is partway towards my nebula concept. The nebula is not simply a publication platform, but also the enabling mechanism to allow people to tailor their reading choices, and broadcast those same choices to others. Anyone can create a top ten of stories from those published by the nebula, and then publicise it on the nebula site – or elsewhere, even.

  4. But then, the Hugo Award, the genre’s biggest award, is usually given on the basis of a couple of thousand votes,

    More like a couple of hundred.

    • I was trying to give it a positive spin 🙂

    • On the wider point about the future of magazines and the idea of nebulae, I think it is likely that there is going to be a radical shift in the way we consume (and pay for) fiction at some point in the future. However, I think this will need a critical mass behind it and I’m not sure SF is able to provide that. Comics seem a more likely candidate.

      • True, but comics require a more sophisticated platform than text.

        Feedbooks, Smashwords, Scribd, etc. are all proving the viability of micro-purchase/free unmoderated text content for download or reading online. The nebula concept offers a moderation/validation framework for something similar – validated by either the editor, a friend (via their playlist), a celebrity guest, a specified category, etc. It also gets away from the “front page problem” most fiction download sites suffer from – i.e., people rarely look further than the front page. (I put a story up on feedbook recently. While it was in the “new uploads” section, it averaged 100 downloads a day. As soon as the month was up and it was no longer new, it dropped to 10 downloads a day.)

  5. On the cost of magazines: I have to say that for someone like me £10 is a hefty expense especially monthly. I couldn’t even afford to keep my Interzone subscription this year or my maintain my own domain so to ask me to pay that monthly for something is asking too much no matter how great it is. You can argue that it might be well worth the price and it might be, but if I don’t have £10 to spend on additional food/drink per month I’m certainly not going to spend it on a magazine.

    Would I spend that much even if I had the cash? I’m not too sure about that.

    • I think you’re right. Whenever people talk about the possibilities of electronic publishing for writers, they forget that there is actually a relatively small pool of people who actually read (though that’s recognised well-enough here). Then away from that, even fewer of those are readers in the sense that they’d seek out books and become fans of authors. So, by making more and more stuff available, you’re more than likely just punting it to the same people, whose time is finite.

      I have seen people point to the fact that people get access to more music with electronic distribution. The thing is, though more people probably listen to music than read, I suspect that for many it’s just background noise; they don’t really engage with it. Even the worst book forces you to engage with it in some way. And that’s what makes it harder to expand the audience. Thinking is hard.

      Having said that – I actually quite like @iansales’ idea!

  6. Is sf a special case? I’m not really aware of there being *any* magazine market for short fiction – women’s magazines (a much reduced range than twenty years back as they merged) may have a short story, glossies an occasional one, probably by a name, the Guardian does its annual summer reading issue of Weekend, but aside from that? Well, yes, mutter, cough, pornography, some times to go with the pictures.

    One problem with buying InterZone back in the day was, even if WHSmug did stock it, where dd they put it? With the comics? With the computing magazines? (If they were around then – more likely with gaming zines. Or the various electronics.) Borders used to have literary sections – mostly how to write magazines – but I don’t recall seeing any general fiction magazines. Paradoxically perhaos what we need is several fiction magazines – each of the companies to produce one. That is, if it is to be wedded to the print model.

    • Helen Simpson manages to make a living selling short fiction to magazines – and collecting them into a book every five years. Having said that, given the plethora of online magazines and the new penchant for small press themed anthologies, I suspect the genre short fiction market is bigger than it has been for a number of years.

      The problem is finding readers for all that fiction.

  7. Following on with the whole “is SF a special case” thing, why limit the “nebula” to SF at all? Why not call it something like and open it up to every genre? Of course then your staffing needs would explode.

    I know this is getting away from the whole amazing-ground-breaking-SF-quest thing, but in terms of long-term sustainability…

    • No, it doesn’t have to be limited to sf, but the original discussion was specific to sf magazines.

      There are a number of flash fiction sites which do something similar – i.e., provide a large browsable selection of short fiction (under 1k words), which can be delivered daily as email or a RSS feed, etc. Feedbooks allows users to create a “bookshelf” of the fiction on there they intend to read / are reading. They can download the contents of their bookshelf to their e-readers. Neither Feedbooks (and its ilk) nor most flash fiction focus on genre specifically. Part of the nebula idea is the taxonomy function… Damn it, I’m going to have to introduce it, although I think it’s one of the dumbest ideas to appear on Web 2.0: tagging. Readers tag stories in the nebula, which then allows others to create storylists by tags.

  8. Don’t know if anybody’s mentioned this already, but there’s a very promising new SF/F/H market called Spectra Magazine which launches on September 1st. It’s digital only, and retails at £7.99 for six (monthly) issues, which seems a sensible pricing policy for picking up casual readers.

    Interestingly, the owners have avoided some of the high start-up costs for a venture like this by paying the authors a fixed percentage of all revenue generated in a six-month window.

    See for more details.

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