Image via WikipediaSo 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?