Nov 19 2008 10:08am

Waiting for the Mail: Science Fiction World

For some time now, people have decried the decline of science fiction and the science fiction magazine in particular. They would always point to the declining newsstands sales and subscription numbers of the larger science fiction magazines. Then people would talk about a science fiction magazine that had a circulation of 300,000 with an estimated readership of more than 1,000,000. People would declare, “It can be done! You can have a science fiction magazine with a lot of readers!”

The caveat? The magazine, Science Fiction World (SFW), is Chinese. I don’t know that you can compare the English-language genre market (with the largest circulation being that of Analog at roughly 23,000) to that of China. My initial feeling was that you had a market of a lot of people (more than 1,000,000,000; yes I could say “billion,” I just like typing all those zeroes) and not much by way of outlet for those with science fiction interest, i.e., no imported/translated/home-grown books/movies/games/etc.

But as I thought about that, it didn’t make sense to me. There were news stories about bootleg Harry Potter novels. And I know that even if US movies aren’t making it into China (and they are), there are a lot of Asian genre films being made. And many of them are more interesting than what’s appearing on our movie screens. As for games, well what I know about games is stunning in its ignorance. The most recent video game I’ve played was Disney’s Cars on the Playstation III while I waited for my daughter to get her hair cut (she played on the slide).

So as I looked, and found SFW’s website (and wiki and forum) which had an English-langauge section (without much information, but it did provide descriptions of their magazines). Better yet, I found a recent article about Science Fiction in China from this year. It seems that Chinese youth are energized about science fiction. Students, in particular, are reading the magazine and sharing it with classmates. It reminds me of what I think was happening here in the States in the 1940s and even the 1960s (I was not alive in either time). And while I’m sure there are students who are reading and sharing science fiction here, it’s not at the levels, or even percentages, that China is seeing.

I wanted to see the magazine. See what it looked liked. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. I tried looking at auction sites, at specialty magazine and comic book stores, but no one had it. SFW has an online store, but I couldn’t get a translator to work in realtime for me to know what was happening; and even if I could, would it get shipped to me? I eventually found a contact e-mail on the SFW website, and wrote to them. I asked if they knew somewhere I could purchase a copy. They wrote back and said they would send me a few sample copies. Here’s a small Flickr set of what they sent me.

My reasoning was that I wanted to see if the production of the magazine was different than that of similar magazines in the States. It’s not. It has shiny covers and newsprint interiors, similar to LOCUS or Cemetery Dance or even Asimov’s although SFW has a bigger trim size. So it’s not some slick thing that engrosses people with ground-breaking layout, lots of photos/images, slick paper that will hold up to multiple readings, etc. So if the production is the same as similar magazines in the States, what’s different? What is it that SFW is doing that isn’t happening here?

You could argue that the audience is different. It’s certainly bigger by sheer volume of population, but I think the tastes and interests aren’t all that different. I suspect that your average Chinese college student isn’t much different from your average American college student. They watch movies, do stuff online, play video games, eat junk food, drink too much; except Chinese students are reading a science fiction magazine where American students are not.

Do American students have that much more available to grab their interest, that much more distraction, than a Chinese student? I honestly don’t know. It’s been almost 15 years since I was in college, so I don’t know that I’d be a good judge of what an American college student is into and what they do for fun. The Chinese student does benefit from a relatively recent cultural revolution (1966-1976) where science fiction stagnated with authors afraid of being branded as “different” for writing science fiction. After the cultural revolution, there’s a resurgance of science fiction writing which should in turn lead to a swell in fans. You can read more about the recent boom in Chinese science fiction here (this is a revised version of a 2003 article by Lavie Tidhar from Foundation).

Culturally, science fiction in China has a better image than it does in the States. (You certainly don’t have writers so afraid of the science fiction label that they actively thumb their nose at an entire community of people.) You might even say that science fiction is considered relevant in China. So that’s one thing that’s different from the States.

SFW has something like 90% of the science fiction periodical market in China. I don’t know what would happen if there were suddenly only one or two science fiction periodicals in the US (and I include even things the size of my magazine Electric Velocipede in this thought exercise). Would their subscription/sales numbers increase dramatically or would people just walk away? I see over and over again (and this could be the vocal few) that the content isn’t interesting to them. Do we suffer from a glut of choice? Is it really that the level of interest in science fiction in China is the same as here, but that there’s so few places to get it that leads to SFW’s success?

That might explain things on a very simple level. However, if they don’t have the content, the fans won’t keep coming back. So SFW must be supplying high-quality content. And by merit of the fact of being the biggest of the few players in the field, they most likely get the highest quality submissions to chose among. I don’t know how easy it is to start a magazine in China, but again I’ll assume it isn’t any easier than it is here. So it’s not likely that SFW will face any real challengers to its dominance of the field any time soon. (And I don’t mean to paint SFW as a tyrant or some giant beast that crushes its opponents; they’ve worked hard to get to the top of the game and it will be difficult for someone to supplant them.) My initial thought is mostly correct: you have a large potential audience, and only a few outlets when it comes to short fiction. And as is apparent, the best of them gets the lion’s share of the readers.

Could you create a successful English-language science fiction magazine to rival the numbers of SFW? It would be difficult, and you’d need a lot of money (we’re talking millions). You’d have to fight: the general populace’s mindset of science fiction’s unworthiness; science fiction’s own pride at being a part of the publishing ghetto; and all the people who tried and failed before (or watched people try and fail). Of course you’d also have to fight for amazing content, and you’d have to have online/interactive components that update frequently, and on and on. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it is hard enough to look impossible.

If you have a spare $5 - $10 million lying around, I’d love to give it a try.

[Photo taken by John Klima; used with permission.]

rick gregory
1. rickg
A few thoughts in no particular order:

1) The demographics may be different in China. Does the population skew younger? If the readership is mostly urban, then we're really looking at similar sizes of overall population (remember China is still highly rural in pop. distribution terms)

2) How is reading viewed culturally? If a higher percentage of people read than here, that also increases the market size.

3) Do people read a magazine because books are hard to get/expensive?

4) Same question as #2, but for short fiction.

5) For US based magazines... how do people market them?

Example: I play WoW. There are 11m people who do, a couple million of them in the US. I've never seen an ad for any SF magazine on any of the fansites. Spread that to other MMOs and now other games. Why is that? Cost? Poor marketing? Inability to deal with a significant spike in subscriptions for logistical reasons?

Example #2: If you search Google for science fiction magazine there is ONE ad slot that's been bid on. ONE. For SF magazine there are zero.

Example #3: the terms science fiction has slightly more than one page of ads. traffic estimates for that term are 375 per day on Google Doesn't sound like much? that's 138,000 searches per year.

You can start an Adwords account for $5 on a credit card and bid a few cents per click. No impressions cost at all. Yet none of the US magazines are bidding on a couple of basic terms. Now get creative and bid on terms that potential readers might search for... author names, book titles, etc. Some of these might be trademarks, so you'd have to think about that of course. Then consider the content network - sites that have signed up for Adsense and on which your ad can be shown. Target those and you might see interesting numbers too.
Alexander Gieg
2. alexgieg
This is a wild guess, but I recall that science fiction does well commercially when the present isn't exactly good but people feel things are getting better and a bright future seems actually reachable, meaning they work as inspiration. Currently China fits the description.
John Klima
3. john_klima
@1 here are some additional thoughts and attempts at answers:

1) I'm pretty certain the demographic skews younger in China than it does here. There is certainly much more talk about 'graying readership' when it comes to SF magazines. Most young readers I know are novel readers (remember, I work in libraries so I have at lest some legitimate point of view). But to follow that up, why aren't these magazines trying get into the hands of younger readers? Certainly books are engaging younger readers, and there are a lot of genre books out there for younger readers.

2) I don't know about percentages, but the articles read indicated that certainly writing science fiction was encouraged by the government; and if writing is encouraged, it infers--in my mind--that reading is, too.

3) There is certainly a cost issue. Buying a magazine, going back to 1), fits within the budget of the readers better than a novel.

4) See 2).

5) Marketing is fairly internal. Meaning, marketing is done mostly within the existing market. I actually don't know how much advertising the bigger magazines do of themselves. I certainly see book publishers running ads, but I can't think of the last time I saw a magazine run an ad.

Tying into your comment on WoW, I think the reason for this is primarily based on cost. Magazines make money by selling advertising. They typically (and this is all magazines, not just genre) don't advertise. I have no idea what it would cost to run ads on WoW sites or fansites. I think the logistics stifle a lot of magazines, too, since they are run by small staffs.

My magazine is very small (there's me and a new assistant) and I don't have time to find out what sites are out there and what advertising costs, or if there's a simpler, easier way to advertise...I just don't know and I unfortunately don't have time to figure it out.

I'm also not convinced that advertising in conjunction to WoW would lead to an influx of subscribers.

Before you go off on that, let me lay a few things out. First, I do not play video games. In fact, I actively avoid video games. Therefore, my Venn diagram of video game players and genre readers is most likely wrong. I will be happy to admit that I have this completely backwards.

Second, even if I'm right and there is only a small percentage of WoW players who actively read, a small percentage of 11 million is still a substantial number. 1% is still 110,000 people. And if 8% (which is the number that a REALLY good marketing campaign converts into sales) of those people bought a sample issue/subscription, that's still almost 9,000 people. And the number would likely be higher. And if I'm wrong...well. :)

I can only speak for myself, but if I added 9,000 subscribers over the course of a month...yes, that would be a nightmare to deal with, but I'd deal with it and figure it out. And even for the bigger magazines, 9,000 additional subscribers would be a significant increase on their overall number. The trick is, does that increase outweigh the cost of obtaining them AND keeping them?

As for the Google Adwords...I'm not sure how well those work either, similar numbers like above. It's something that can be tried out with a small initial investment. I agree with you that it's a missed opportunity.

The one sponsored link you're seeing for 'science fiction magazine,' it's from Amazon. It's not even from a publisher. It's certainly something I should consider myself, and if I consider it bigger places should, too.

Basically, Rick, you're right on target with your thinking.

@2 You're absolutely correct. Optimism--as Jetse would be happy to hear--leads to people reading more science fiction. As you say, people like to read about the future when they want to move into that future.

And I expect someone running a bigger magazine, or working full-time in publishing, to come along and help shoot holes in my arguments. :)
rick gregory
4. rickg

Thanks for the thoughts back. I'm not sure that advertising on game fansites would work or be feasible from a cost standpoint actually. My point was more that 'gee, here's a geek audience and if you want to attract them...' An even better place for a SFF magazine to advertise would be, well, here. Talk about an audience that is close to what you want... is read by people who read and read SFF. Advertising on goodreads, shelfari, etc might be worth it (if they allow it, I don't spend much time there).

I actually think Adwords would be the way to go though - it's fast, easy to setup, can be budgeted (you can set a daily budget) and you can turn things off if you start getting more subscribers than you can handle.

The bottom line is... do the US SF magazines WANT to grow? If so, they can't just market to their existing base, they need to reach out. They may find that they also need to change some things to attract/retain new readers and it's possible that they're not open to that.

Oh, BTW, feel free to PM me if you want any thoughts on Adwords. I've done it in the past and there are a couple of things to consider/do that can help. Don't want to turn this comment into an Adwords class though.
John Klima
5. john_klima
Rick, I don't know if I've got the whole PM through Joomla down right, so you can e-mail me at editor electricvelocipede com and give me some additional thoughts.
Jeff Soules
6. DeepThought
Came back to this again because I finally had an interesting thought to add--
Speaking of demographic distribution, I wonder if the One-Child Policy has any influence? If we're talking about most urban Chinese born after 1979, they'll be somewhat disproportionately male, and predominantly from single-child families. Do those factors play a role in determining interest in sci-fi? Is there any correlation (outside of stereotypes) in other cultural markets, like the US?
(Just random thoughts; I suspect that even if it were the case that these demographics influence interest, that wouldn't be enough to account for the huge difference in readership.)
7. rogerothornhill
Thank you for this post, John. Yet another reason why this site is bloody inavaluable.

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