8/22/2010

The future of sf publishing (not)

I had a read at this article online that explores ways in which an untapped audience of potential sf readers might be persuaded to pick up a new publication with high-production values, modern design and bleeding-edge genre fiction; these would be the kinds of reader who don't identify themselves particularly as 'fans' of sf books, but might be the kind of people who attend, say, Comic Con or go to lots of sf movies or watch Stargate, read Batman comics, etc etc.

There are a considerable number of responses in the comments, enough so that I was forced to skim many of them (I have an outline to write). But a fair number of those I did read tended towards the negative, and a few went so far as to break down the actual costs of publication: paying the writers, the editor, the printing, the time necessary to break even, the percentage of cover price that goes to the distributors, etc, etc. The comments are all worth reading.

Here's my take on this:

1. It's been done. It was called Omni. It was a newsstand magazine first published in the late '70's with stunningly high production values. I loved it, although I stopped buying it in '87 when the quality started slipping. Before that it published some of the most cutting-edge fiction around, including William Gibson's first stories. So, yes, it can be done. But only if you have an sf-loving Bob Guccione sitting on top of a gigantic pile of ready cash made from a long and profitable career in porn.

2. It'll never work nowadays. Key words to this argument: 'Kindle'. 'Ipad'. 'Tor.com' and other online magazines that now publish some very high-quality and award-winning fiction. You don't need to be on a newsstand. Nobody does.

3: Personal anecdote here. Assuming I've read the argument right, there's an enormous untapped audience of people who are sf fans but don't know it yet. They play sf-flavoured computer games, watch sf movies, etc, but don't necessarily read sf.

Well, I have some - admittedly small - experience in small-press publishing. Way back - we're talking early '90's here - I was involved in a small-press publication filled with fiction and articles centered mostly but not entirely around sf. It was, looking back, a fairly decent little magazine. I got to meet some interesting people and interview writers like Kim Stanley Robinson when he'd just started out on the Mars books. Michael Moorcock rated the magazine, apparently, which still gives me a warm and rosy glow of satisfaction. It was a tiny, tiny publication, but a lot of thought was put into it by those involved in its production, not least myself.

I too made the mistake of thinking that 'large, untapped' audience was just desperate for really high quality fiction and articles. When the '95 Glasgow Worldcon was about a year away, the magazine had pretty much finished its run, but I explored the possibility we could put out another, larger glossy-covered publication, possibly a freebie with advertising in it to pay the cost of printing, especially for the Con. The contents I had in mind - both articles and fiction - were influenced to some extent what I was reading in magazines like Boing Boing (yes, it used to be a print publication and I still have copies), the very early Wired and even Mondo 2000, as well as the aforementioned Omni.

I went along to a pre-con meeting of some sort, wanting to talk to organisers there with networking in mind. There were maybe fifty or sixty people there. I spoke to someone I'd been told I should maybe talk to. He nodded seriously as I described what I had in mind, and he told me he knew some people I should talk to.

He introduced me to a gaggle of three or four frankly fucking huge women who also, I was told, had a publication. They showed it to me. It was a bunch of A4 pages stapled together at one corner. The cover showed a bunch of crudely dawn elves wearing Star Trek uniforms on snowmobiles circling a Christmas Tree. I learned their publication had 5,000 subscribers.

My publication had rather less than fifty.

That's the exact point I chucked in small-press publishing, because I realised I was essentially trapped on a tiny island with people who wanted to read interviews with Kim Stanley Robinson and read fiction which was, to my mind, genuinely interesting and thought-provoking (and if you read Interzone over the past ten or fifteen years, believe me, you'd recognise a lot of the names we published). That island, however,  was surrounded by a vast ocean of people posting each other stapled fanzines of elves in Star Trek uniforms. More power to them, I say, if that's what you want. But I didn't, not by a long shot, and I sensed the project I had in mind was not going to find favour with anyone I spoke to in that room. I had a sense I was not being taken seriously. The upside to the story, if any, is that all that experience of producing and editing and designing stuff led to me professionally editing and/or designing a few publications for a tiny Glasgow publisher whose one claim to fame is that one of their telephone salesmen went on to be a well-known Freddie Mercury impersonator. 

Which is my very long-winded way of saying, yes, you can create that publication and aim at that large, untapped audience of would-be fans going to comic cons or watching TV or going to see the new Star Trek movie. But only if it has lots of elves in ST uniforms. Then it'll be a surefire hit.

Did I mention the elves had little red caps on with white bobbles? I shit you not.
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