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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  1. Interesting idea ... oddly enough Stephen King did kind of a teaser thing like this a while ago (i'm talking maybe 7 years). Little different though, he 'published' chapters of a book in pdf format online as he was writing it, and then asked people to donate to give him incentive to write the next chapters. Can't remember how it worked out, but I know I never read the whole book. Short stories might work better though.

    Another concept from music that might work well with short lit is an Amie Street methodology ... new works are free for unknowns, or very cheap even for well known artists but as they are recommended and purchased by more and more people the cost increases until it reaches the top rate (.98 per song in the case of the music).

    Perhaps not a true meritocracy but pretty dang close for this imperfect world.

  2. You got referenced at SFSignal.

    There is (or was) a web-based/POD-based 'anthology' project that let you assemble your book - choosing illustrations and stories - I can't find the link right now (I believe it was a feminist/women writers oriented thing but could be disremembering), but that portion of your concept has been anticipated. I don't have a clue as to how successful it's been.

    Commission sales/bidding for stories is an excellent idea (I think). But, you can't have a "magazine" without illustrations. Would you do the same for art?

  3. Yes, I would do the same for art. In fact, if the kinks could be worked out, I think this is a viable model for comic books as well as prose fiction.

  4. I just linked to your post. It looks like a good plan except for one gap. How does the editor get paid? A percentage of the writers' fees? Is distributed editing (maybe vote up/down on commissions to get them on to the front page) possible?

  5. Yes, the magazine itself would get a percentage of the commission, which the authors would agree to up front. Probably 15% but that's just a guess.

    So far as voting, I think voting with dollars is pretty much the most explicit endorsement. Beyond that, the best of will probably be just a question of number of views. In my experience, actual consumption is a much more valid indicator of popularity than up/down votes, as the latter is only representative of the small slice of the audience that votes.

    And as far as editorship goes, there would be a very small editorial staff, but their main function would be to encourage writers to list pitches. Their "curator" function would largely be driven by getting good writers involved in the system, because the way this s going to work best is when people with existing audiences get involved. It's possible this kind of magazine could lead to the discovery of new talents, but it would require these unknown writers to scale back their commissions--at least initially--because no one is going to pay 25 cents a word for the unknown. If the editorial staff has a budget for it, they could underwrite a "new talent of the month" kind of thing where they either pay for or discount the commission on a budding newcomer, but that's a second-order concern.

  6. As far as Amie Street goes, I like their model, but I don't know if it solves the issue of the paltry pay rate for short fiction. There has to be a way for real, established SF writers to make good money from short form work. Also, while paying for music is becoming more acceptable to consumers, paying to read stuff is still a big turnoff online. I agree with Scalzi's notion that the only way to make money is to be--for the most part--free to the reader. Amie Street makes music free for the early-adopter zealots and requires pay for the long-tail lurkers. My gut feeling is that is a backwards model for prose fiction. Could be wrong, but that's my hunch.

  7. Here from Nancy's link.

    Writing is a creative thing and depends to some extent on inspiration. What if the writer found that by the time the money had come in, they couldn't write the story as they'd pitched it?

  8. It's an interesting idea, but it misses one of the most important roles the traditional print magazine plays: they're where most new writers break into the field (still). Asimov's and Analog have a "first published story" every month or two, and some of them are great. Few readers, if any, are going to pay for a story by someone whose name they don't already know. This model could postpone the demise of the magazines, but it could also speed the demise of the genre in general by limiting the gateways for new blood.

    Then again, I suppose some wealthy writers-to-be could pay their own commissions, and get their stories out without any editorial intervention whatsoever... But would that be much better?

  9. I dunno. As a earlier post mentioned, Stephen King did something similar with "The Plant" a few years ago, and it didn't work.

    I think this could work on a short-term basis for the handful of writers out there with a large enough fanbase to bring in substantial donations. But I don't think an entire website with regularly updated content could be sustained long-term.

  10. So if people pay for subscription to a magazine, would they pay for an online subscription service for short lit? Maybe have tiered plans, "all you can eat" at the top and "by the word" at the bottom?

    I do think the amie street model is workable; it fulfills the need for new artists to break into the market (if I see a story for .15 that's been recommended and highly rated by 5 people I trust, I'd definitely do that even if i've never heard of the author), but allow for established authors to set their intro cost ... if you like that author, you'll be willing to pay for it.

    For maximum revenue off the block you'd be sorely tempted to hook up with Kindle or Sony reader somehow though, which would force DRM crapistas on your back and essentially the kill the vital online aspect of the whole idea. But maybe that's just my cynical side coming out.

    BTW thanks mikea for refreshing memory on "the plant."

  11. There is a print-on-demand anthology builder out there, kind of like you describe.

    Anthology Builder

  12. What happens if they only get part of the way there? Will the money be returned? And will the transactions costs of doing that eat into the money elsewhere?

    I think it's a really neat idea, don't get me wrong, and deserves a trial - but I'm not sure it will work.

    And the people who will benefit, I suspect, are the people with a loyal teenage fan base - Stephanie Meyers could turn out auto-fanfic exploring the edges of her own work every week, I suspect, and do quite well.

    Those people without a strong established fan base - not so much.

    And, just thinking about it, legal issues may well play a part in killing it. What are you going to do if people offer to start selling actual fanfic?

    I could see the entire thing descending into wank and disaster within months, just from that alone.

  13. I'm in favor of anything that gets writers paid. Having written for both Analog and Asimov's SF(first story in 1978), and served as assistant editor for Baen's New Destinies in the early 1980s, I can tell you why we write for low-paying magazines.

    But not just any low-paying magazine. Getting published in Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, the late Galaxy and other "pro" SF/F magazines yielded all sorts of benefits. Free drinks and free dinners at cons, getting laid at cons, watching people who ignored you before at cons sidling up to get in on the conversation--and all sorts of other egoboo.

    You'll never get those fringes with literary mags that pay 5 or 10 cents per word. But writers got egoboo when the rate was a half-cent a word, and still get it.

    If you're an editor--look out! It's a whole new level.

    Anyway, anyone who gets published after payment using your idea could garner similar egoboo.

    In addition to the egoboo and small cash, where else are you going to get those weird (though professional) stories published? And then there's the fact that published short fiction gets you noticed and can help sell novels.

    Oh, yeah: Sometimes you get money for years after a story is published. My second short story was reprinted four times, earning twice as much in reprint as the original sale. And all I had ot do was sign the checks.

    Not incidentally, the first SF novel published online for free was Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, available on DELPHI 'way back in 1983! Before it was published in the real world.
    --Mike On the Way to the Web