Image by ocean.flynn via FlickrOkay, 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.