Friday, November 21, 2008

Reverse Radiohead: The perfect Web 2.0 magazine...only better

Digitage Web 2.0Image by ocean.flynn via Flickr

Okay, so, with a deft assist from the sterling crew at SFSignal, my proposal for a Web 2.0 sci-fi magazine got worked over by some really smart folks: Lou Anders, Gabriel "SF Gospel" Mckee, Alex Irvine, Ian "SF Scope" Strock, Pete Tzinski, and Alan Baxter, among a few others.

The criticisms I received--and none were mean-spirited--helped me refine the business model I was proposing, and (hopefully) come up with something better. The advantage is that the new magazine concept is less a departure from traditional magazines than the first one. Here's how it breaks down:

Establish an editorial staff that accepts completed, queried stories from authors. Select from those stories the most promising and entertaining queries, and write a compelling synopsis of the work. Using a top-of-market word rate, place a "price" on each selected story. List the synopsis and the price on the magazine Web site, along with a Paypal account and a 30-day deadline. Readers can donate as much or as little as they wish to get the story published, but if at the end of the 30 days the minimum commission is not met, all donations revert to the readers, and the author is free to query the story elsewhere. If the commission is met by the deadline, the story appears online and is thereafter free to the reader, as is the expectation of most online content.

I've called this model a Reverse Radiohead, a slight variation on the ransom model used by other publishers.

The magazine makes money by earning 15 percent of all story commissions (this would be factored into the word-rate price). Authors get a top-market word rate--equivalent to novel work, if not better--and faster query turnarounds than most print mags can offer. Readers get a direct voice in what the magazine publishes, and they can vote with their pocketbooks.

As I said before, this readily complies with the 90-9-1 rule of online participation. The heavily invested one percent of your audience pays the freight of the 90 percent that just want to read stuff for free. I'd also extend the long tail value of the magazine catalogue by allowing readers to voluntarily donate to the author of a favorite story even after the minimum commission is met (the magazine would keep its standard 15 percent). This also gives authors an incentive not only to prefer this magazine, but to keep promoting readership on the site well beyond initial publication--because it could earn them money. It's like a radio/TV royalty check, only on the honor system.

As I mentioned in my initial pitch, I'd build in all the banners/buttons/badges necessary for fans and authors to promote a story and/or the magazine on their own sites (and Facebook, and Twitter, etc.), perhaps even donating directly through there.

Further extending the long tail, I'd co-opt some equivalent of Anthology Builder, so that readers can design and buy a customized print-on-demand physical version of the magazine, which would again pay a direct royalty percentage back to the authors (and the magazine). This brings in all the "I don't read off screens folks" but frees the magazine from all the print hassles.

Finally, since such a system will (like all systems, only moreso) favor established authors, the magazine will underwrite the word rate of at least one "newcomer" author each month, so as to encourage a flourishing of new talent into the writing fraternity.

Granted, all of this assumes you can build enough buy-in and buzz from authors and readers to get the system jump-started, and it still relies on on having a competent editorial staff to screen out the dregs and the trademark-violating fan-fic from amongst the submissions. But I think this magazine model can work because it exploits some of the central advantages that online mags have over conventional print. First, there is no printing and distribution overhead, since no physical magazine is printed (save on-demand, which is self-sustaining). This is a cost center that cripples most magazines, and we can take it right off the bottom line.

But in addition to having no physical product, the "ransom magazine" will have no physical constraints. Plenty of authors have written really great stories that have been turned down by print mags simply because the publication didn't have enough physical space to accommodate the work. An online magazine that doesn't have a set physical layout doesn't have this constraint. Even the online mags in publication today have a rather constrictive limit, simply because they either offer a PDF-printable version, which falls into the same layout trap; because they require their editors to make the final publication call, which is constrained by the time and bandwidth available to the staff; or because they have to pay for the stories on spec, which limits their publication to the number of words buyable with their cash on hand.

By offloading the cost and choice of publication directly to the readership, the magazine could theoretically pay more for stories and still offer a greater number of stories than any print competitor. Moreover, a ransom magazine could have very clear measurement of what stories, subjects and authors get the most readers and the most profit, giving them a decided business intelligence advantage over print magazines. That constantly overworked editorial staff could make smarter decisions faster by knowing what has sold in the past. And beyond the sale, what has been most read, and shared, and linked back to.

It's even conceivable that such a Web 2.0 magazine could also become a directory of record for authors, as they could create profiles on the site touting their backgrounds and bibliographies as a means to encourage fans to underwrite their submitted stories. The same business intelligence mentioned above could also document the relative popularity of each author and story, which leads to all kinds of intangible social media benefits.

Now, if only I can find some willing investors and that aforementioned team of crack editors, I'd chase this idea in a heartbeat. Feel free to volunteer for either role in the comments.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Building the perfect Web 2.0 sci-fi short fiction magazine

The second issue (Winter-Spring 1950), with a ...Image via Wikipedia

So two things happened today that morphed into yet another business idea I won't pursue. The first is that PBS MediaShift published what is merely the latest in a long line of online eulogies, from various sources, bemoaning the slow death of the Big Three Sci-Fi magazines. Second, fantasy-horror author Cherie Priest spoke to me on Twitter.

This, of course, got me thinking about how to save short-form science fiction as a print medium.

The Big Three--Analog, Asimov's, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF)--have a collective circulation of less than 50,000 readers. The subscriber list for my Geek Trivia e-newsletter is 20 percent bigger than that, which is to say 50K is a dangerously low readership number if you're going to shell out the money required to put your fiction onto bundles of dead trees and physically ship them to people. If my sorry ass is outperforming you, then you're in trouble.

Now, the point of the MediaShift article isn't the usual "they didn't adapt to the Internet" screed, as the Big Three have been steadily bleeding readers for 20 years--before online competition was a real issue. The point is that these are iconic magazines that are dying because they refuse to adapt. They aren't, as Warren Ellis puts it, "designed to be wanted." They're stuck in a 1950s mindset, and it's killing them. That's the first strike.

The second strike is that SF magazines don't pay writers enough to be worth writing for--largely because of high overhead. Which is why so many online fiction venues have popped up, some free-to-read, some not. Heck, even Amazon has gotten into direct short fiction sales, acting almost as a publisher rather than a retailer. The Internet is putting pressure on the Big Three's business model thanks to lower overhead. But these online venues certainly haven't taken the world--even the sci-fi Internet world--by storm.

Which brings me to Cherie Priest. This morning, Wil Wheaton pimped one of Ms. Priest's latest short stories, "Tanglefoot," in his blog. The story is published in Subterranean Magazine online, so it's free for anybody to read, anytime. As soon as I read the two-paragraph pitch about a magical steampunk alt-history of the U.S. Civil War, I not only wanted to read it, but to share it with my fellow Cherie Priest-loving friends, most of whom don't and/or won't read fiction online. So, since I cyber-stalk Ms. Priest (amongst a host of other geek luminaries), I reached out to her via Twitter and I asked where I could snag a print edition of the story for my friends. Her response was quick and apologetic:

"Thanks, dude - but I'm afraid ... well ... you can't. It's a Subterranean exclusive. Next year, 2 books in this world, though."

"Tanglefoot," you see, is an online loss leader for some yet-to-be-published works from Cherie Priest. Even though I can order a print copy of Subterranean magazine, I can't order one with this story in it.

Which is where my idea comes from, courtesy of an old idea I called Ransom TV.

Start an online genre magazine that commissions writers to write stories, and then lets fans pay for the commission. Think of it as a reverse Radiohead album release. In this case, Cherie Priest writes the pitch for the short story, which is listed as a commissionable project. There is a price listed for the commission, and fans are given a Paypal account into which they can donate to get the story written--as much or as little as they want to pay. The faster the commission is met, the faster the story is published. Under this system, writers can earn a decent word-rate for short fiction, because the writers set they word-rate. We also harness a little wisdom of crowds on the selection side, turning the audience into the editor.

Once the story is paid for and published, it's free to be read. Period. No restrictions. If you're a cheapskate (like me) you can just hang out and wait for someone else to pay the freight. If you're a total fanboy (like me) and would pay good money to see a great pitch from a favorite writer fulfilled, you'll donate a fair amount to speed the cause. Moreover, if the site gives you badges, banners and buttons that let you promote the story commission on your site (and does the same for the authors), and combines that with some "ask your friends to donate" e-mail/Facebook/Twitter interfaces, every fan becomes a promoter.

As John Scalzi reminds us, writers shouldn't write for free, but readers generally shouldn't be required to pay online. That said, 37 Signals suggests that paid is the new free, because ad-supported models aren't generally workable except on huge economies of scale. Under this system, you get both. The fanboys pay for the content that the casual readers consume for free. Zealots pay for the lurkers. It totally complies with the 90-9-1 rule.

But that, my friends, is only half the battle. The other half is the custom magazine. I don't want to limit my readership to just the techno-savvy. I need to be print-accessible. The easy part there is making every story a downloadable PDF.

But what if I want something nicer than a desktop printout? What if I want an issue of Subterranean with "Tanglefoot" in it?

Well, I'd combine our PDF system with a print-on-demand service like Lulu, and design a magazine-assembly system that let you "shop" for stories in the catalogue and design a custom anthology that you could have printed. My contracts with the writers would pay them direct royalties for any physical copies printed, so they make money on the back end. (I'd also give them badges that let them promote their printable versions.)

Now my readers can build a just-for-them one-off magazine from my catalogue, have it printed and shipped anywhere. There would be a nominal charge, but we're used to paying for phsycial goods. And if we're feeling really crazy, we could even do a quarterly "most popular" or "editor's choice" magazine, print a modest run ourselves, and actually distribute it to book stores and newstands. Sounds nutty, but I think there might be an audience there.

Anybody else think this could work?
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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sci-fi convention 2.0

Wil Wheaton (left) meets Tim O'Reilly at the 2...Image via Wikipedia

There's a pretty decent argument to be made that the Internet is killing the midsize and smaller science fiction conventions of the world. Unless the convention is local--and sometimes not even then--why haul out to spend a weekend with 500 or so fans and maybe one sci-fi/fantasy author or artist when you can stalk 500 geek stars from the comfort of your RSS reader? The only cons worth going to now are those that have a critical mass of stars and attractions: Comic-Con, PAX, DragonCon, Origins, GenCon. Right?


Yes, the Internet has made one of the primary reasons to attend cons disappear--once upon a time, the only way to connect to fellow fans and creators was in person at cons, but now you've got more geek friends in you World of Warcraft guild than you ever met at Mid-South or APolloCon. Except that chatting online and actually hanging out with people are still two very different experiences. And despite our reputations as introverted, girl-fearing basement trolls, geeks are social creatures, too, and crave real-life human contact. Mostly.

The problem with fandom in the Internet age is that most conventions refuse to adapt to Web 2.0. They work against the Internet, rather than with it. For example, I can conjure up a list of dream convention Guests of Honor--something I've done before-- strictly from my Twitter follow list. Social media makes reaching these people easier, not just because I can ping them in Twitter easier than I can penetrate their spam filters, but because by following them, I know how to approach them--what their interests are, what their preferences in terms of con attendance are, and a sense of their availability. Plus, I can appeal to their vanity by namedropping any of the recent projects they've pimped on Twitter. That's so much better than a blind e-mail.

And that's just one social media tool, making no mention of Facebook, Pownce, MySpace, or any other buzzword-compliant online community.

If I were to get any decent number of the people I tweet-stalk to attend my convention, they'd all Twitter and/or blog about it whilst attending, instantly creating a digital megaphone of free publicity for my con, which parlays into the next year's attendance and a desire for other guests either to officially attend or just hang out of their own accord. (This is especially true of the non-television and film folks, who tend to make more use of conventions as chances to promote their work.)

Since I know the Profilactic guys (name-dropping!), I could probably arrange for a credential-neutral signup system that let participants in any online community connect. More to the point, I'd invite the Profilactic team, along with geek-centric Web 2.0 people like Jake McKee (he's got serious Lego street cred). If PenguinCon can combine sci-fi and Linux, why can't my local ConGlomeration combine sci-fi and Web 2.0? Why not let the artists and the engineers comingle, to everyone's entertainment and benefit?

Cost is the general answer, of course. The Convention Committee pays for airfare, room, and a meal per diem to guests, and in the case of those that require it, an appearance fee and/or accomodations for the guest's family. Thus, most cons can only afford two or three guests, so attaining critical mass of several really cool guests means many of the celebs must pay to bring themselves, which means the con needs to be big enough for it to be worth their while to attend as a promotional expense, which is a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

Except I seem to recall that physical attendance is no longer a barrier to participation in the Web 2.0 age. Yes, I know this contradicts the "actually hang out with people" angle of my earlier statement, but what if you could do big-screen multiparty video-conferencing at our Convention 2.0, with panel sessions involving a mix of live and online attendees, Jedi Council-style? Maybe I can't afford to bring Charles Stross to the states, but if I can get him on a panel discussing space opera sci-fi with, say, John Scalzi physically in the room, that's worth signing up for, right? Or maybe having Internet-friends (with each other, not with me) Warren Ellis and Wil Wheaton discuss music and comics and blogging, with only Wil in the room? Who wouldn't want to get in on that? And if we made the conference virtually accessible, so you could buy a cheap online pass to the virtual sessions, wouldn't folks buy a few of those. We could also archive the recorded panels for free distiribution after the con is over, pimping out the coolness as a viral advert for next year's party.

This is just me spitballing, of course. The video conference expense and tech resources may end up costing as much as a couple of guests, but if those resources got us ten big-name panelists instead of two, and those panelists had an online presence that pimped us to the masses for free, isn't that a net gain? Besides, I'd love to finally meet the guys from SFSignal, or put a voice to Rich Lovatt after conversing with him on and off for a while now.

But most of all, as a guy who loves to read literature about the future, it would be nice if my fandom finally starting embrcing the futuristic tech of the present. If sci-fi conventions want a future, they're going to have to.
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Eight easy ways to save American politics

The House Financial Services committee meets. ...Image via Wikipedia
Despite a rather unremarked history of very close contests, the process of selecting a U.S. President is not all that broken. (Yes, Gore loyalists, the system works more often than not.) The same, however, cannot be said of U.S. Congressional elections, due in large part to so-called "congressional stagnation"--namely, 90 percent or more of all Congressional incumbents are typically reelected, leading to a less responsive legislative body manned by career politicians whose main aptitude for their positions seems to be winning at the polls, rather than effectively executing the office.

This is not to say that Presidential elections couldn't use some improvements, or that all Congressmen are electioneering savants that secretly and exclusively want to fleece the American public -- but the entire system could stand some serious revision. Below are eight basic suggestions for improving all federal elections in the United States, with the overall goal of getting better, more effective leadership in both the Executive and Legislative Branches.
  1. Instant Runoff Balloting, which would aid primary contests more than final elections, given the dominance of the two-party system, but could nonetheless help third-party candidates become more of a legitimate part of the electoral process, rather than simply serve as protest votes or, worse, spoilers. Instead of simply voting for one candidate in a election -- a zero-sum game -- voters would rank their top three choices. Higher rankings earn more "points" and the candidate with the most points wins. This solves the problem of two relatively popular candidates splitting the mainstream vote, and the least popular third choice winning. (Academy Awards fans will remember that this sort of voting anomaly allowed Marisa Tomei to win an Oscar in 1992 because Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright split the voter base. Tomei, though a fine actress, is no Redgrave or Richardson. Range voting would have denied her an Oscar, but it probably should have.) Party Primaries would be much more competitive and representative under this system, and would undo the skewed "momentum" advantage that winner-take-all voting systems bestow on early primary victors. Speaking of which...
  2. Balanced Presidential Primaries would unshackle our Presidential election process from the undue advantage of "traditional" first primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. (If you wonder how corn subsidies stay in the Farm Bill despite rampant evidence of their detriment, at least some of the blame goes to the undue influence of the Iowa Caucases.) Instead, the country would be divided into primary groups such that an equal percentage of electoral votes is awarded every week or so between January and May, with the order of primaries shifting with the population and demographics to ensure representative diversity. Imagine, a contest that is decided progressively, rather than by who Iowa farmers and New Hampshire libertarians like best.
  3. Anonymous Campaign Donations, which is the primary facet of the so-called Ayres-Ackermann plan, AKA Voting With Dollars. The basic conceit here is that any campaign finance law based on funding limits or disclosures is just another loophole for creative accountants and lawyers to skirt. The simpler, easier, more effective solution is to anonymize donations, such that candidates don't know who is funding them, or by how much. You can't buy nights in the Lincoln Bedroom if a candidate doesn't know whether you've written them a check, and more importantly, a candidate can't owe a donor who has no proof he gave a massive donation to a campaign. Limit enforcement to the anonymization process, and quid-pro-quo influence peddling becomes almost impossible. Suddenly, campaigning will again be about garnering votes, not dollars.
  4. Computer-Generated Districting, wherein voting districts are determined by computer algorithm (there are several candidates), ignoring party affiliations of the population. This removes the notion of human bias and prevents incumbents from indulging in gerrymandering. Imagine that: Candidates running to represent a cohesive geographic and demographic group, rather than the boondoggled collection of neighborhoods most likely to reelect them.
  5. Universal Federal Term Limits, which has been tried more than once--notably by the famous Republican Contract With America in 1994 -- but getting Congress to limit itself is a tough proposition. Put simply, under this system, a House member would be limited to three terms, and a Senator to one. Gone are the notions of a career politician, unless that pol has done so well in one office as to merit running for another one. This would also have the beneficial side effect of removing the meaningless President Pro Tempore of the Senate from the Presidential Line of Succession. The Pro Tem is not an elected position, it's just someone who has gotten really good at winning his or her home district and is thus the longest serving Senator. At least Speaker of the House has some legitimate leadership duties, and creating a commensurate Senate position (or a better title for Senate Majority Leader) who would go into the Succession lineup is a net good. Moreover, Congressmen and Senators would have to seek office for the purpose of accomplishing something besides reelection.
  6. Ban Congressional Earmarks, which is to say Congress can only direct the amount of funding given to federal agencies, rather specify in which ways the money is spent. This cedes a great deal of power to the Executive Branch, because the Executive staffs the heads of these agencies (though most Executive jobs are held by non-partisan "lifers" that want to see the work done right and well; politically appointed agency heads set policy and priorities). Still, any agency head that would be spending this money would have to pass Senate confirmation -- so few ideologues would get through -- but the nationally responsive office of the President would have due influence on national spending, without the pork barrel requirements of bridges to nowhere or namesake libraries wasting our money and holding up more legitimate legislation. Ironically, this would have the effect of depressing spending not just because there would be fewer pet projects, but because Congress's sole fiduciary power would be in holding money hostage to ensure that the President and his cabinet agreed to spending guidelines. Any change that saves money is a good thing.
  7. Require Highest-Cost Reimbursement of all Lobbyist Gifts. Right now, Congressmen have to pay for any service or item given to them by lobbyists -- like, say, golf trips or airplane flights -- but they don't have to pay them back at market value. For example, a Senator can fly on a private jet but only pay for first-class commercial airfare, or might get a "member" rate an an exclusive golf course rather than an at-large rate. This can amount to thousands of dollars in "free" benefits, which is a primary advantage for lobbyists. Requiring that all gifts be paid back at the highest available market rate -- enjoy your Spring Break hotel rate, even if it isn't Spring Break -- will see such lobbyist contributions refused in record numbers. If lobbyists can't buy attention, they'll have to get by representing voting blocks. What a novel concept.
  8. Ban Fundraising During Congressional Sessions. The number of votes missed by our representatives because they were out fundraising is staggering. Moreover, Congress is only in session about 150 days a year, or less than half the time, so it's no great hardship to require that Congress limit its fundraising to that majority of time the members aren't directly tending to America's legislative business. This would also compress the available fundraising window, which would make fundraising itself more competitive, which would suss out the more viable candidates -- a net good.
All of these suggestions are designed to create a more responsive federal government, one which is hostile to career politicians or entrenched interests. No plan is perfect, no balm cures all diseases, and few if any of these are ever likely to occur. That said, if we want a better government, we'll need to create it, and that starts with a plan. Here's mine. What's yours?