readercon catchup #3

okay, i’ve got four panels left, and i’ll probably only get two, today [NOTE: make that one, unfortunately, but i’ve got to punch in a a quick book update and then get to work early today so i can leave early so i can meet my wife for an early show of Harry Potter]. so, without further ado (usual inaccuracy caveat applies):

The Future of Speculative Fiction Magazines, Part 1: Introduction / Print Magazines

this was obviously a standing-room only panel, with a number of major print magazine publishers and editors in this field, which caught me off guard. i think this is where i really understood how serious and unusual readercon is.

while this conversation obviously has been going on for years, this was my first panel on the subject and i heard a number of interesting points, not all of them in agreement, which was even more interesting.

Gordon van Gelder (publisher/editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) started it off, saying that print is downsizing, but not disappearing, and that anecdotal evidence from customers is that they like e-books, but they want print; this was roundly echoed by most of the panel throughout. Warren Lepine (longtime magazine/book publisher and new owner of Realms of Fantasy) went a step further, saying that the decline of his previous DNA banner was not due to the fiction mags (Absolute Magnitude, etc.), though they were an unfortunate casualty.*

Tom Purdom (writer who’s been selling spec fic for 52 years. seriously.) said that e-publishing is actually limiting, because it’s not as clearly shown to the casual audience, compared to books/magazines on newsstands, in bookstores, etc., but, importantly, for him the media is irrelevant. the core value of magazines is in the editors. Hildy Silverman (publisher/editor of Space and Time Magazine) followed with an important clarification: having problems and an inevitable end are not mutually inclusive items. branching out is inevitable, but her customers have been explicit in their desire for print, as well as their dislike of online material. John Benson (publisher/editor of Not One of Us) added that the move from print to online was inevitable, of course, but it will be incomplete; the printed word will remain, even if it’s in a much smaller scope.

Michael A Burstein (writer and recent editor for recent issue of Apex Magazine) described an interesting and perhaps telling anecdote about the SFWA Forum, which was a print item forever. when the idea of putting this online was first proposed, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. the powers that were heard and accepted this, with one note: all the responses had come in via email. a few years later, the powers that be decided to push the forum online anyway, without asking, and the readership hardly bat an eye, moving right over to the online service. this prompted another later conversation from the audience about whether there was a difference between getting news or information online and getting fiction online. it was agreed that the current environment was still largely news, but a generational change was in the offing.

Gordon referenced Eric Flint, saying that readers don’t want print books or ebooks, they want both, and John agreed, noting though that there are real and distinct differences between print and online aesthetics and functionality (page scrolling, dynamic content, ads), which need to be attended to. Michael asked about advertising, noting that it is harder to get entities to pay for ads online, because they can see exactly how little they make off it. Gordon said marketing works great online, but sales (ads) don’t.

this was followed by what seemed to me to be a powerful and fundamental point: content that appears online (i.e., in my web browser**) is almost universally expected to be free of charge, whereas people self-select themselves when purchasing a print mag. Warren added that when he picks up a print mag, he’s more likely to pay attention to and even purchase what he sees in the ads contained there. according to Gordon, who spent a large chunk of money hiring a survey company examine his readership, there is no sf demographic. it’s too broad. they told him the only thing they could say about all the readers is that they like stories of a fantastic or science fictional nature. which sounds like well, duh, until he explained that ours is unlike other niche markets (and sf/f is still a niche market) where the demographic is 18-35 year old men who like to ski, or some such. without that kind of specificity, advertisers are simply not willing to throw money into something anymore.

Warren responded to this, and seemed alone in saying so, that RoF was not dependent upon advertising. it was making more money on subscribers than on ads. it still took ads, because the money was good, but it wasn’t core.*** interestingly, no-one else said anything like this. in fact, Gordon actually mentioned the old saying: the way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large one. much head nodding, there.

the audience asked a number of questions, here, including the expansion of those existing, though minimal, web presences of these magazines and the lamentation of the poor quality of many of those web sites (Asimov’s was raised as an example of this); the inclusion of more ‘extras’ like DVD; and a gentleman just returned from India asked why there were no sf mags whatsoever in that country. with the single largest-selling English-language broadsheet (The Times of India) and the single largest-selling sf mag in the world existing in China (Science Fiction World – in Chinese, though), what about pushing print beyond the largely western world?

Warren and Gordon both answered that it was largely a question of getting local publishers to buy in, which was all but impossible, though Warren said his new deal with Amazon and Lightning Source meant that wherever they were, RoF was going to be, so as that progressed, so too would their readership.

finally, the audience asked a key question: can i just pay for an ad-free version? Gordon responded directly: the current submission price for F&SF is $35; would you pay $42 for an ad-free version? resounding yes from the group. Gordon seemed surprised and said then it might be possible.

Michael closed the panel out with a call to arms: if you like short fiction, if you like print, then you need to step up and buy in. buy submissions, pick up copies at newsstands. which made me realize i’ve let all my subscriptions lapse over the years, which makes absolutely no sense, given my attempts to get into these same. hypocrite. time to step up.

* i actually asked him about this in reference specifically to RoF and what caused it to go under. according to Warren, it was because the previous owners (Sovereign Media) had a business model of X number of magazines, run by X number of staff. they recently re-acquired magazine they’d had before and decided to bump RoF purely based on their business model, having zero to do with profitability, and that RoF had been doing very well. this was supported by his later statement that RoF used ads, but didn’t need them and was already in the black from submissions before ad revenue came in.

** i know, i know. see Part 2 for more on this topic.

*** see first footnote, above.