May 8 2009 5:28pm

An Interview with Gordon Van Gelder

Far too early one morning at Norwescon, I met with Gordon Van Gelder, editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’m glad he did most of the talking, as he was far more lucid than I was. We spoke of editing, publishing and the relationship of online and printed fiction.

Jason Henninger: We hear a lot about the positives and negatives of the writing life, but very little about editors. What is it about being an editor that brings you joy?

Gordon Van Gelder: Yesterday at the Philip K. Dick Awards, one of the two winners was an author named David Walton whose novel came out through Meadowhawk Press. David was sitting at the banquet with a woman I didn’t recognize who turned out to be his editor at Meadowhawk. She was beaming more than David was. This was the first book they’ve published. She said to me, “You know, when that book came in, I can’t tell you I knew this book was going to win the Philip K. Dick Award, but I knew it would win awards. You have no idea how wonderful it feels to have David win this honor.” The radiant joy of her was just contagious. That’s one of the high points for any editor, when you see something in a work and you take a risk on it and publish it, and other people see what you saw. You just can’t beat that. It’s often better for the editor than for the writers themselves. Writers generally love awards, but sometimes they’ll think they should have gotten an award for a different work, or they’ll be cynical about it or see this or that flaw in the work. But the editor doesn’t usually share the writer’s neuroses over the book. For me personally there have been dozens of novels and stories that I can point at and think of how gratifying it was to find it in the submission pile and make it happen. It doesn’t matter if it wins an award, but it reaches out to people and gets through to them in a meaningful way. Just recently, I Googled an author I’d published back in 2000. I hadn’t heard more from her and I wanted to know how she was doing. I found a post on a blog that mentioned the story and how it helped her decide to get a tattoo. It’s just the nicest thing in the world to come across this and know that the story never appeared anywhere but F&SF but this total stranger was obviously affected by the story. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Getting readers and writers to connect. That’s the function of the editor and it’s extremely gratifying. Or when you find a new writer and you work with them and develop them and see their careers flourish. That’s really nice.

Henninger: Who are some of the authors you’ve helped to become successful?

Van Gelder: In books, the crime writer George Pelecanos. Watching his career take off has been great. There are plenty I’ve fostered. Brad Denton, Marc Laidlaw, M. Rickert, Laird Barron, John Langan. Paulo Bacigalupi’s got a story collection from Night Shade this year.

Henninger: Night Shade’s been putting out some nice stuff.

Van Gelder: Jason and Jeremy know what they’re doing. Part of what’s so good about Night Shade is they have a pretty clear vision of what’s going on in the field. They started out as readers and fans and didn’t get into the publishing side until after they were out of the service. Marines, I think it was. So they have a little more grounding than kids who come out of college with a literature degree and have no idea what to do. You know, guys who say “Yeah, I’ve read some science fiction, I think I’ll become a science fiction editor.” Some of them don’t have the market sense that Jeremy and Jason do.

Henninger: How’s F&SF doing?

Van Gelder: We’re still in business. I’ve been using this line for years, but in the current state of things, when I say we’re still in business, that’s a form of bragging. These are not happy times for the printed word. It’s rougher on magazines than on books.

Henninger: If a new author, someone who is trying to get known, puts up a bunch of stories on a blog or other nonpaying market, is this a good move, or are they shooting themselves in the foot?

Van Gelder: There is no one answer to that. It depends on who they are and what they want to do with their writing. The question you’re asking is essentially the same question people were asking thirty years ago, but then it was “Should I bother publishing my work in semi-pro markets?” There used to be a lot more semi-pro magazines. Some of them stuck around for 40 years, others went away after two issues. Writers had the same anxiety over this. “Am I really doing myself any good selling my stories to Unearth Magazine?” They fear that no one would read their work. But Unearth Magazine published the first work by Rudy Rucker, Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson. They lasted about two years, I think. It’s an easy example to point to. Nobody read it back then, but it didn’t hurt those writers’ careers.

I hate to dodge your answer, but I can’t give you a simple yes or no. In general, I think that if someone wants to be a career writer, it’s good experience for them to publish everything they can. If that publication is online as opposed to in print, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s a great idea for writers looking to make a career of it to self-publish on blogs or their own websites. Reprints are one thing but I think it’s important for writers to go through the publishing process, getting feedback, as opposed to just posting the stuff themselves. The only feedback they’re getting is from people just stopping by saying, “Dude, that sucks,” or “Dude, that rocks.”

Henninger: Same for vanity presses, I’d think.

Van Gelder: Vanity presses are a little more pernicious, since you pay them to publish it. I don’t know anyone who takes the work in vanity presses seriously.

Henninger: I interviewed John Scalzi a while ago, and the online part of his business has been a huge factor in his success. But that’s a real rarity.

Van Gelder: I can think of two others: Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross. Scalzi, Stross, and Doctorow are the big three, in terms of figuring out how to make the internet really work for them. I salute them all. I like them all personally. I disagree with them all on different things, but I’ll disagree with everyone on something. Those three guys recognized very quickly, and very well, the marketing potential of the online world. A lot of people try to duplicate what the big three have done and it hasn’t worked, but nobody hears about the cases where it hasn’t worked. A lot of other people have tried to give away their work online and no one’s come and taken it. I know of a case where a publisher made an author’s work available for free online, his first novel. They gave it away as a Scalzi-esque promotion. As I understand it the novel sold less than a thousand copies. It didn’t do anyone any good to give it away. It’s easy to look at Scalzi’s success and say it’s so great to do online marketing but you don’t hear of the author I just mentioned. You also have to remember that the big three aren’t really out to do publishers any good; they’re in it for themselves. Most writers are, of course. I got into an argument with John about a year ago. He posted a story on and within a day was boasting—I think it’s fair to call it boasting—that his story had gotten more hits in a week on than Asimov, Analog and F&SF’s combined circulations. The number was like forty-two thousand. Maybe he wasn’t boasting. Maybe he was just saying, gosh, look at this number, but it seemed to me there was an element of bragging to it. I looked into it more closely and saw some of the comments on John’s thread, and some people were saying, “Well, I’m five of those hits because I couldn’t figure out how to download it and so I had to keep coming back.” I pointed out that John was treating each magazine sold as the equivalent of one hit, which is not how it works. There are many differences between having forty-two thousand hits and forty-two thousand sales. One of the big differences is that word “sale”. I said to John, there’s a big difference between paying customers and free previews, and John said, “Eyes are eyes.” Meaning, he doesn’t care so long as people are reading his stuff and he gets paid. Perfectly sensible from his point of view, but not from a publishers point of view. I could easily give away forty-two thousand copies of F&SF and lose quite a bit of money at it, and wouldn’t continue to publish for long.

I think it’s a disturbing trend, because essentially publishers are using short fiction as a loss-leader for selling books. Tor is John’s book publisher and published the short story as a way to attract attention of the consumers to John’s books. Perfectly good marketing, but not perfectly good publishing. could not sustain itself doing that. It has to live off the profits it generates from the sales of Tor books. I couldn’t do that with F&SF.

Henninger: Tell me a bit more about the difference in generating revenue between online and print. On the print side you’ve got subscriptions, newsstand, and advertising. Other than in a case where it’s used as marketing, how do you generate money from online publishing?

Van Gelder: Nobody’s figured that out yet. They’ve been trying for ten years now and very few people look at all the webzines that have come and gone and do a detailed analysis of what worked and what didn’t. I have yet to see one webzine really prosper based on web publishing alone. Strange Horizons gets by, and they’re probably the most successful one. I believe their entire staff is volunteer. I’m pretty sure they work off donations. The best business model I’ve seen is the one Eric Flint at Jim Baen’s Universe has set up. It’s a subscription-based website with some very smart marketing. I’ve seen several big failures. Galaxy Online, for example. Paid very good rates, well funded, had Ben Bova and Greg Benford. Several big names, professional editor running it and they just lasted a few months. I never heard exactly what went wrong there. As I said, I haven’t seen a really comprehensive analysis of it all.

Scifiction, the fiction arm of the SciFi channel was a big one, too. Paid great rates, real money behind it. But nobody was reading it. Everybody in the field that I knew was keeping an eye on it, wondering it would turn a profit or not. After five years they pulled the plug on it. Unfortunately I think they did more harm than good because it conditioned a lot of people to think that all online fiction should be free.

The thing that most of the people I’ve talked to don’t seem to get is that online is great for marketing but not publishing. If you can get people for very little cost to look at your goods, that’s great. If you can get them to pay for your goods online, you’re doing something almost nobody else has been able to do. The only current exception is the growing ebook market. But it’s still in its infancy, and it’s going to take a while to see how it turns out.

Henninger: In an ideal world where print fiction is doing great and online fiction is also profitable, what would their relationship be?

Van Gelder: I quote Eric Flint, who has been a pioneer in this area, “People don’t want print. People don’t want ebooks. People want both.” I thought that was dead on. The two forms complement each other. They’re not competitive. Ideally, I think people would love to buy one form and get the other form with it. You could have the copy on your shelf, but you could also read it on a Kindle or whatever.

I love the idea of carrying hundreds of books with me in one reader. That would save me so much back strain. But then, I hate the idea of being dependent on electricity. When the power goes out, I can still read a book.

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
Hm. While Gordon's grasp of and Tor Books' relationship—and by extension the motivation behind our short story acquisitions—is (understandably) flawed, his commentary on the false dichotomy between print and ebooks is, I think, dead-on. The dead tree codex isn't going away any time soon, but it will certainly play a reduced role in the general public's reading experience in the near future.
Gordon Van Gelder
2. Gordon Van Gelder

My comments about are based on various assumptions I've made and I apologize if they're incorrect. Any corrections you care to make are most welcome.

---Gordon V.G.
Pablo Defendini
3. pablodefendini
No worries. It's a perfectly understandable and common misconception. The fact that we share a name, and a parent company (Macmillan Publishers), as well as being lucky enough to count on people like Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Irene Gallo as contributors means that and Tor Books are intrinsically tied in the SF/F community's minds, and that's to be expected. When naming the site, it was either go with something else and cover up (so to speak) the fact that we have such close ties to Tor Books, or just own it, and move on from there.

But the fact is that is quite separate from Tor Books on an operational level, and—without going into specifics—isn't tied into Tor Books' bottom line. Suffice it to say that does not live or die based on sales of Tor Books. The idea behind isn't to be a loss-leading marketing shill for Tor Books, it's for the site to be financially self-sufficient, and an outlet for fans of the genre, as well as a resource for all publishers. Part of my job in running the site, actually, is to reach out to those publishers and, after hopefully dispelling exactly the same doubts and misconceptions you outline above, helping them use this space to engage with our readers.

I hesitate to speak for PNH (who does all our story acquisitions), but I'm pretty sure that whether an author is published through Tor Books or not isn't really one of his main criteria when choosing who to publish on this site. A great example, actually, is Greg Van Eekhout, whose story we just published, and who's got a new book, Norse Code, out from Spectra this week. There's no 'win' for Tor Books there (there's no 'lose' either, though), but there sure is for Spectra, and I'm actually working with Random House in order to help them take advantage of whatever we can do to get the word out about Norse Code.

You do bring up a good point, though: in general, sites like this that publish free short fiction are rocking the boat and making life harder for publications like F&SF that make their money via subscriptions or fees. This is part of a larger trend in media in general, though, and hardly limited to the printed periodical market: be it Hulu offering TV shows and movies for free, ad-supported streaming; the New York Times dropping the paywall on its website; or Trent Reznor releasing his album on torrents, media consumers are expecting their media to be free as in beer. I'm mostly of the opinion that there are alternate ways to make money, despite what Rupert Murdoch would have us believe, and is partly an experiment in testing that theory. But that's just my opinion. Whether there is a solid, long-term, sustainable business model that's mutually beneficial to both publisher and author remains to be seen, in all honesty. The media landscape is changing rapidly, and I doubt we've arrived at the next plateau/status-quo just yet.
Gordon Van Gelder
4. Gordon Van Gelder

Thanks for your long reply, which is very helpful. It leaves me with a couple of comments, though.

You say that all of the fiction acquisitions for are done by PNH (who is a full-time employee of Tor Books) but you don't agree with me that the fiction on the site is essentially a loss-leader for Tor. You probably can't answer this question---not in a public forum---but I'm left wondering how can pay top rates for short fiction. Does the money come from revenue that generates by giving away its content for free? If not, I'm left with the conclusion that the online fiction is essentially a loss-leader for Tor Books.

(Not that I think this approach is necessarily a bad one to take. From the point of view of a book editor, this approach makes great sense. But as I said in the interview, it's a trend that disturbs me.)

My second comment: when you talk about the trend in other media, you're equating print with music and television. The problem is, they're not the same at all. Television has always been supported by advertising to an extent that has never applied to fiction (not even in the heyday of the slicks). And music is so different from print that comparisons between the two just don't make much sense to me. (For instance: most people listen to songs repeatedly, while they read a short story only once or twice.)

And as for the NY TIMES dropping its paywall, well, that's part and parcel of the same trend that I find disturbing. There were Congressional hearings this week that discussed giving newspapers tax exemptions or nonprofit status so they can stay alive. The government is talking about a bailout for the newspaper industry! So I don't look to the newspapers first when it comes to working models for publishing online.

The truth is, and I hate to say this, it looks to me more and more like the internet is doing more harm than good to professional print publications. I hope time will show me to be wrong on this count.

I agree with you completely when you say, "Whether there is a solid, long-term, sustainable business model that's mutually beneficial to both publisher and author remains to be seen." The problem is, I've been looking at this issue for ten years now and the situation appears to be worsening.

When I see things improving, I'll certainly say so. Until then, I'll continue questioning the wisdom of the approaches I see. Thank you for allowing me to question them here on and for encouraging a dialogue on the topic.

---Gordon V.G.
Blue Tyson
5. BlueTyson
Interesting interview.

If the power goes out, you can read a book. Only in the daytime, of course. In a New York winter, that is a few scant hours maybe? :)

No-one currently would be able to publish print, plastic, electronic, audio, video, or whatever, if powerless for any length of time, given current methodology?

However, growing populations and energy strains likely to have more power outages happen than in the past, so having some publications usable by candlelight is useful.

Mobile phones and laptops won't last long. Old Palms days or a couple of weeks, on charges.

Anyone used an e-Ink device by candlelight? Never seen anyone mention that! How about a solar powered or boosted version?

The media barons like Murdoch are finding it hard to deal with the fact that there just won't be as much advertising money around perhaps ever again, so they can't just lie back like Scrooge McDuck and wallow in it. They've also lost a large chunk of the public trust - and Murdoch has to take a fair amount of that blame, personally - so he's rather hopeful if he thinks people will pay him for that, certainly. Especially if the rest of the world can catch up to the places that have rather cheap mobile internet on fancy phones and read websites and feeds live on the go.

Publishing fiction is different to that, of course, not being in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers generally speaking. Although huge conglomerates gobbling up publishers will certainly be looked at with some suspicion.

There are some ads on though - so that presumably is part of PD et. al.'s plan - be part of the now much more efficient and directed ad market? Seeing ads now, one of my favorite bookshops!
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
I've read my Kindle by LED light and by normal flashlight, power being what it is on the island. My Kindle with wireless off can go for about a week without a charge. Also necessary due to power constraints on the island.

But just about any e-ink reader has similar benefits, since the display uses so little energy and the screen is very matte.

(If anyone hangs out on the Kindle forums, there are people in even more out of the way and power weird places than me.)

As for ad dollars; as Google shows in it's bottom line, ads can be lucrative; much of that depends on eyes and targeting. But you almost do have to be the ad company itself to really get the astonishing ROI. Still, there are more ways for high-profile websites and blogs to make money. Probably one of the guys to look at for this is ProBlogger, but he started way back when and worked very hard in arguably the right time. Still, he does make six figures by himself.

Does that work for companies, which almost always consume more than six figures in the year? Dunno. The things is that ways to spread the word have cropped up that no one believed would ever be so viral. Or how blogging has evolved since its early days. Or webcomics like Penny Arcade and Girl Genius. Though it is true that the majority if sites can't make it, there is still a combination of factors that make it possible.

There is always new stuff coming down the line. Heck, a lot of people thought that ebooks would never take off. Or that something like Twitter could exist. Less than a decade ago Darren Rowse was not yet ProBlogger. A decade ago, Google revolutionized how we find things in the web, in ways the older search engines never accomplished. And still a bit over a decade before, a little company called Amazon was still struggling to make money from selling stuff on the web; eBay, from allowing other people to sell stuff on the web.

It's hard to see down the road. Every entity I mentioned above made it through dint of effort and luck and timing (obviously not in their control.)

I don't think we've seen the last of innovations yet.
Gordon Van Gelder
7. Ellen Datlow
Hi Gordon,
On what evidence do you say that no one was reading SCIFICTION? Seriously, I'm curious because as far as I know people were reading it.

I have no disagreement that creative online content paying its own way has been a problem from the beginning but that's not the whole story behind the demise of SCIFICTION.

I've said this elsewhere but I'll repeat it here, SCIFICTION was not created to make money, but to be part of a site that was meant to be the nexus for science fiction in all media, which is whey there was audio drama, animation, web comics, fiction, news, games, and other media on the site.

The SCI FI Channel, and thus the website (originally called Dominion) was bought and sold to at least three different corporations during the six years I worked there. It started out as being symbiotic with the Channel but by the time SCIFICTION was shut down (a few years after the rest of most of the creative end was gone)the corporate heads of NBC-GE did indeed want it to make money.
Gordon Van Gelder
8. Todd Mason
I certainly read fiction in SCIFICTION, but always found the formatting somewhat less pleasing than that of your previous E-zine, Ellen, EVENT HORIZON. Inasmuch as I always print out ezines and read the printouts, unless there's a Lot of hyperlinks that are relatively integral to the work in quesiton, not something true of most fiction.

As magazines of all stripes (very much, as Gordon notes, including newspapers) grapple with these challenges without coming up, so far, with very many satisfying or cheeful answers, the boutique magazine industry of the larger little magazines seems to be semi-viable model, at least, that the remaining "commercial" fiction magazines are coming to resemble in circulation as well as content. As the traditional newsstands give way to those in big-box bookstores (for as long as we have big-box bookstores, what with the financial pressures Borders and Books-A-Million seem to be particularly facing), that 5-20K circulation model seems to be somewhat sustainable at the moment (though perhaps most of those magazines not associated with universities are still a wealthy someone's tax dodge or pet project), even as the B&N might be able to tough things out as as much a coffee-house and substitute library as a book and magazine seller per se. Even back in the late '70s and early '80s, UNEARTH was able to last almost four years...these days, with the surviving distribution centers (such as they are) at least as open to that kind of magazine as they have ever been, perhaps lean coterie magazines will be able to scrape by, at least. Certainly the equivalents of TIN HOUSE and A PUBLIC SPACE used to be published, when at all, by book publishers as loss leaders not too different from the way Gordon initially described, and the likes of ZOETROPE ALL-STORY still are (even if it isn't primarily a book publisher)...and even if A PUBLIC SPACE is a spin-off from the the foundation/fundraiser darling that has been THE PARIS REVIEW throughout its impressive existence.
Pablo Defendini
9. pablodefendini

As for the money issue, you're right, I can't really go into detail on a public forum (and that's a damned shame. I like transparency. I'd be happy to yap your ear off till I'm blue in the face on another, more private forum—maybe I'll see you at Worldcon!). All I'll say is that's money doesn't come from Tor Books, and does not march on Tom Doherty's orders. As I mentioned before, and Tor Books share a corporate parent, Macmillan, and they are the ones who pay our bills. Granted, this certainly gives us considerably more leeway than an independent print publication in terms of having a period of time in which to ramp up profit-making avenues for our online offerings—a straight comparison between and F&SF is hardly playing fair. However, as my boss constantly reminds me, isn't meant to be a loss-leader for anything, it needs to stand on its own two feet, or it gets the axe!

You go on to lament the fact that the internet is harming professional print publications. Well, I can't argue with that. That's certainly what's happening. I don't think this is as bad a thing as you make it out to be, though, if you're willing to adapt and experiment. The benefits of the internet far outweigh the benefits of print (think wider readership, lower distribution and production costs, wider options for layout and format, more automated systems for ad placement and billing, etc.).

As an aside, I think the same thing is starting to (slowly) happen with books. The printed mass market edition's day, in my opinion, are numbered (not the hardcover's, though). I say this as a printmaker and bookmaker in my non-professional life, and former art director for various indie print magazines—I have plenty of love for printed matter, but the reality is what it is.

The reason many print publications are faltering right now is because print is no longer the most efficient medium for disseminating and consuming information. As such, readers are moving away from it, and advertisers are moving with them. The printed New York Times, to haul out the same example, is hurting because print ad sales are slumping, and their very lucrative classifieds business has been gutted by Craigslist, among others.

By contrast, is thriving, generating ad revenue, and constantly at the leading edge of innovations in newsgathering and dissemination (for better or for worse, continues to be one of the most referenced sites on the internet), as well as advertising tactics and revenue generation. I have no hard numbers for this, but I would venture to speculate (ymmv!) that the printed edition is a huge loss-leader for them now, as well. The smart move for them would be to dump their paper edition altogether (maybe getting a Kindle for each of their subscribers in the process, as some have suggested that the NYT can afford to do), and go at it as an online publication. Now, the NYT can't to that right now, for various reasons (most notably, in my opinion, the agreements they probably have in place with pressmen's unions, delivery networks, etc. There will be a hell of a lot of attrition when—not if—the NYT goes digital-only).

But that doesn't mean other, smaller operations with less invested in the print format shouldn't be looking towards the future instead of clinging to the past. The readers are there, as Ellen mentions above, the interest is there, it's just a question of adapting to the new realities of the market. The soul of a publication isn't in its wrapper—print or online, dead trees or live bits, whatever—it's in its singular voice, its editorial acumen, its ability to be a tastemaker and curator of culture, and—increasingly with digital publications—its ability to engage directly and immediately with its readers and create a passionate community. I don't see that changing anytime soon, and call me an optimist, but I think that people do see value in this, and are willing to pay for it. Maybe not in the quantities they were forced to before (for lack of alternatives, mind you), and that certainly needs to be factored into any discussions, but I like to think that in the final analysis, outlets for creativity—be it film, music, or the written word—can be made sustainable and fair for everyone involved. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I didn't truly believe that.
Gordon Van Gelder
10. Ellen Datlow
That's one of the differences between publishing one's own magazine/webzine and working for a large EH we chose a format that would make it as easy as possible to read the material in several formats. And we could easily change it as we wanted (if we wanted to). Making changes from the belly of a behemoth is always more difficult.
Blue Tyson
11. BlueTyson
On the get subscribers Kindles note, PD - there's an interesting article about the Princeton Kindle trial of the new model. Says they print out 50 million pages a year, often students doing texts. So a $30,000 trial that could show them how to trim their printing budget 1% is worth it.
Gordon Van Gelder
12. Nick Mamatas
Much of the loose talk about magazines and print vs online ignores, I think, a number of essentials:

1. Most consumer magazines don't make their money on the cover price. They make their money on ads, and depend on the fact that more people will look at the magazine (and thus the ad pages) than will buy it. This is why ad cards generally use formulae like "paid circulation x 3= readership", and ad rates are based on the readership.

2. This is the reason that subscriptions are so much cheaper than cover prices for the same number of issues. Magazines are ad-driven. The idea that people have to waddle up to a cash register and pay for a magazine for that magazine to make money $5.00 at a time is just ridiculous.

3. Indeed, many magazines DO give away physical print copies: tons of trade magazines do this (try working in certain fields and getting the trades to STOP sending you their stuff) as do community newspapers, lifestyle magazines with a regional focus, alternative news weeklies, etc. These periodicals are for-profit and even in these days of flat ad revenues and Craigslist, are doing much better than print SF magazines by virtually any metric (profit, circulation, aesthetic appearance, size of paid staff, rates to freelancers) anyone might care to name.

4. The digest is not a useful vehicle, these days, to present ads to readers. That's why most magazine publishers have run screaming from the format--even stalwarts like TV Guide have abandoned the format. There's nothing particular about SF here, except that certain individuals like the digest format so much that they keep to it. Or will until such a day when someone presents compelling evidence that Astrology Sudoku Diet Tips Monthly really will sell better.

5. There is a long-standing example of free distribution of ad-driven consumer entertainment using wireless technology. It is called "the radio." No surprise, radio stations tend to be a) ad-driven and b) heavily focused on this or that demographic though there is c) still plenty of room for non-profit endeavors (public radio, college radio, listener-supported radio).

6. The magazine market is full of churn. Magazines come and go all the time. Interestingly though, entire categories of magazine tend to stick around. When an entire category has all but vanished, it makes little sense to point to one or another magazine within that category and announce, "FAIL!" SciFiction was shut down? What of it? So too were a dozen men's magazines and poker magazines in that period. Over the next eighteen months, we'll likely see most of the mixed martial arts magazines that have started up fail. That's the biz. But if every men's magazine or poker magazine or mma magazine has either failed or has a totally marginal existence (readership of under 50,000, let' say), well then something else is going on other than, "Magazines are haaaaaard."

7. Content in all categories is migrating online. This doesn't mean that the days of for-profit content are over, it simply means that inventory costs are now zero and printing costs are zero. Eyes do count in ad-driven media. Plenty of web endeavors do turn profits based on ad revenues.

8. There is nothing wrong with non-profit publishing. The lifespans of certain non-profit magazines (Harper's, The Nation, etc.) can be measured in decades; some are now over a century old. "Can't make a profit!" doesn't necessarily mean "Doomed to fail." Doomed to exist in perpetuity is more like it. (Oh, and those non-profit magazines STILL have higher circulations and better pay rates than the putatively for-profit SF digests.)

9. The secret is simple: publish something people will want to look at, so they will look at ads. If not ad-driven, publish something people will want to look at with sufficient cultural or political import that people will want to support it as a non-profit. Works for the world's religions, anyway...
Pablo Defendini
13. pablodefendini

Yup. And here's the link for the article floating the idea of the NYT giving out Kindles to its subscriber base.
Gordon Van Gelder
14. Gordon Van Gelder

I don't want to embarrass anyone in public; I'll tell you privately where I got my information. According to what I heard, the SciFiction readership was around semiprozine level. I know that's not the same as "nobody." I was speaking loosely in the interview.

I do understand that SCIFICTION wasn't designed to make money on its own. And I'm assuming that the same is true of the short fiction published on Tor.Com. Nor do I think, in and of itself, it's a bad approach to take. But here in 2009, four years after SCIFICTION cloesd shop, I'm not convinced that this approach of letting someone else subsidize the publication of free short fiction is a healthy approach. To me, it looks like it's often good marketing, but it's not necessarily good publishing.

Who knows? Maybe in five years it will look like a smart approach to publishing. In twenty years, maybe we'll look back at this decade and say, "How silly we all were back then to think that anyone 'owned' what they wrote---now we're enlightened and we know that everything everyone writes is part of the greater good and thus belongs to all equally."

---Gordon V.G.
Gordon Van Gelder
15. Gordon Van Gelder

When you say, "The reason many print publications are faltering right now is because print is no longer the most efficient medium for disseminating and consuming information.", I have to point out that fiction isn't information. It's entertainment.

Good post, Nick.

---Gordon V.G.
eric orchard
16. orchard
This is a tough thing. As an artist I've relied on the internet in order to reach people but as a reader I prefer printed media. I keep trying to guess where this is all going but expect more surprises. the idea of the two not being mutually exclusive really appeals to me.
Blue Tyson
17. BlueTyson

Magazines have non-fiction in them, however.

Also, it would seem pretty clear that the internet is quite popular for disseminating entertainment.
Gordon Van Gelder
18. Jason Stoddard
Coming from the evil advertising space, I concur with everything Nick Mamatas says about the print side of things.

Weighing in from the interactive side of things:

Fact is, content online is going to be free. Nobody's gonna change that. It didn't start with Sci Fiction or self publishing or the NYT. Even the $45,000/year competitive analytics services we've used in the agency now have free competitors. As in FREE. As in, the most sensitive, important, and valuable content (from a business POV) is starting to become free. They're moving to a new business model, based on giving away the content and selling custom services.

Now, I know that model doesn't help publishing in general, but it is emblematic of what we're looking at: entirely new business models, driven by entirely new ways of distributing content, with entirely different economics.

From what we've seen, making content pay online is one of three games:

(1) Ad-supported monetization. And yes, Virginia, this *does* work. Ask Gawker and all the other big blog publishing networks, who are busy chewing their way through multiple niches (tech, gadgets, cars, you name it.) The catch is that this requires traffic that is much higher than print SF is likely to ever get. All you have to do is look at the Quantcast numbers for ad-supported destinations like io9 and boingboing versus, Futurismic, and Strange Horizons.

(2) Virtual currency and the selling of virtual goods. You would not believe the amount of money people are willing to pay for stuff that doesn't exist, from a valentine heart image to send a friend on Facebook, to more significant 3D virtual goods in MMOs. While this isn't entirely relevant to publishing, a model based on virtual currency given as a reward for engagement or activity and redeemable for real product might be part of the mix.

(3) Selling a select, valued product to a niche community--and doing everything you can to foster that community. And this absolutely applies to publishing. There is a market for books. There is a market for ebooks. It can be reached and engaged. Micro-target specific interests, especially on the social networks. Give them a reason to engage. And keep in touch with them. I'm talking foundation-level online marketing here. enewsletters, deals, contests, special limited offers, founder's clubs, supporter levels, etc. And yes, I know, this is yucky marketing stuff.

And yeah, there are other models: all-you-can-eat music downloading for a monthly fee (which could be relevant to publishing on the ebook side), resale of used virtual goods, (no, I'm not making this up), and half a dozen more that are even wackier. We're heading into an interesting space, but I have no doubt that there will always be a market for story.
JS Bangs
19. jaspax
As a reader, I vastly prefer online content to print, first because it's free, but also because I can put anyone that publishes an RSS feed into a single reader, where individual stories are organized, sorted, cached, etc. Online reading merges much better with my general strategies for finding and consuming information and entertainment. Plus, the depth and variety of fiction I can get online compares favorably with what I get from the print mags.

As a writer, I feel more or less the same way. More sites means more places to submit, more editors who might like a story, etc. Most online venues don't pay pro rates, but no one is supporting themselves with short stories anyway, so this doesn't matter overly much. The only reason for a writer to write short stories is for the love, the reputation, or to drive up sales of their novels. All of these things are, in principle, independent of pay scale and profitability

A final point is that profitability may soon be an irrelevant question, because the cost of running an online magazine is so low. You can run a semipro ezine for a few hundred dollars a month, which is well within the hobby budget of a dedicated amateur. If the short fiction publishing market is "doomed" to be dominated by people who are willing to lose money on it... that doesn't strike me as the end of the world.
Dave Robinson
20. DaveRobinson
I'm one of those people who like the digest format, though I haven't bought one in a while: these days I have e-subscriptions to Analog and F&SF so the physical format is irrelevant. On the other hand, advertising would be much more intrusive and hence annoying in an electronic format than in print because you can't flip past it the same way.

A new physical format would be worth a try - and full-size glossy is the only format I've never seen Analog/Astounding try. The early pulps were huge - especially Wonder Stories - and they worked perfectly well. While the larger trim size has been tried a few times over the last few decades, I think only SF Age and RoF have gone the full glossy route. They should give something a try - even if it's just pushing the current electronic subscriptions.
Gordon Van Gelder
21. SWS
Ballet and opera were once huge entertainment and even money-makers. Now they only exist thanks to non-profit support by lovers. I think that the SF/F print industry is in a very painful transition from profit-based to non-profit based. If magazines accepted the role, correctly became 501c3 and start building endowments and wealthy patrons, they could very well be better off. Non-profit does not mean nobody makes money.
Gordon Van Gelder
22. Berry Henderson
Baen's, Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Subterranean come to mind as markets/venues that have married print output with online offerings as liquid models. Strange Horizons, though nonprofit, has also managed to hold on. And, rate-wise, they all offer enough to compete with and/or outpace the Big Three.

As a reader, I prefer book in hand but love to read short stories online. When the price of a throwaway copy of a magazine is too near the price of a mass market paperback, well, I'm not going to buy the big glossy or the digest-sized copy. I came to Stross, for example, not via Asimov's but his website. Read some of Accelerando, then went straight to Amazon. Similar thing happened with Scalzi and Tobias Buckell for my reading pleasures. Granted, they had to work hard to foster their bases/communities, but anyone who doesn't think writing's *work* is fooling him-/herself. Regarding magazines, if I had to weigh a subscription against free, well, guess what? I think online magazines offering a community-based bit of interactivity (Fantasy and, well, pull me in more. I like having short stories archived in perpetuity (or as close as possible) rather than fat stacks of old magazines. I tend to throw them away after a while no matter how good one or two stories out of a whole TOC were.

As a writer, I'm just not as vested as I once was in submitting to the Big Three simply because, well, a goodly chunk of the TOC is going to default to standard bearers with room for a few newbies. That's fine. It's part of the business, and it's a competition not just for the great story but for the *space* on a printed page for the same, but with postage rates (and hikes!), tossing scratch out just to get rejected gets old. Tossing a few pixels down ye olde bandwidth pipe, not so much.

But I ramble and digress and am thinking aloud besides.
Greg van Eekhout
23. gregvaneekhout
Just in case there was any lingering doubt about's mission to be an expansive and inclusive SF resource rather than just a tool to promote Tor Books, I'd point to's cooperative effort with Suvudu (Random House) to post previews of my forthcoming novel, Norse Code. I'm not a Tor author. Excerpting my novel online was something initiated by As the writer, I'm obviously thrilled. As a reader, it seems to me a logical extension of Tor's old website, which maintained lists of links to a large number of writers, publishers, and publications that had no direct connection to Tor.
Gordon Van Gelder
24. Laird Barron
" The only reason for a writer to write short stories is for the love, the reputation, or to drive up sales of their novels."

With all due respect, not true by a long shot. I've sold a paltry eighteen stories, most while working a day job. Those sales have paid for every convention, including plane tickets, drinks, meals and taxi fare, that I've attended; paid for several thousand dollars worth of computers, ditto car repairs, and more than one mortgage payment. I can't support myself with short fiction, but I've supplemented the hell out of my income selling stories.

So, no. Pro rates are important and short fiction does benefit those of us who haven't written a novel.
Jason Sanford
25. jasonsanford
I agree with Laird: While pro rates for short stories won't support your family or allow you to quit your day job, they do add to the overall bottom-line.

However, I wonder if the worm isn't beginning to turn with regard to short story markets. As more people purchase kindles and e-book readers, I suspect the demand for short fiction will increase. After all, the decline in short fiction over the last two decades was driven by changes in how magazines were distributed. As fewer newsstands and bookstores carried SF/F magazines, fewer readers both discovered the magazines and subscribed. But with e-books able to download content so easily, the distribution model once again favors the magazine format, albeit not in the printed editions we're so familiar with. I'd bet money the coming years will usher in a short story renaissance b/c of the current and pending changes in how people access stories.
Gordon Van Gelder
26. AP Jansen
While I certainly wouldn't generalise my own experience, I have personally found that there is a significant degree of complementarity between online and print media.

I've been reading science fiction and fantasy novels since the "golden age" of 12. I reached my mid-20s without ever having read a speculative short story outside of "Flowers for Algernon" (a set-work at school) and an Anne McCaffrey anthology.

I had no idea there were all these outlets for speculative short fiction until I stumbled upon 'Strange Horizons'. From there I discovered 'Fantasy Magazine', 'Clarkesworld' etc from seeing where authors had been previously published. I also discovered the existence of anthologies and the print magazines. In the last year (since these discoveries)I have purchased nine anthologies and taken out a subscription to 'Interzone'. At the moment, I am reading the latest issues of the Big 3 to decide which suits me best and take out a subscription.

I would never have bought any of these anthologies or taken out any subscriptions without the existence of online venues. I like short stories, but I simply never knew they existed to the extent they do. I'm perfectly comfortable reading online (even at novel length) but I also enjoy reading books (and having them on my shelf). So, rather than the existence of free short fiction causing me to spend less on print, I've spent more than I ever would.

I have not made any direct contributions to online venues, I'll admit, but this is more due to the rates involved in currency conversions (and a certain hesitancy about making lots of small payments over the Internet). When one of my preferred online venues publish print versions, I am happy to buy them from Amazon.

While one case is obviously not generalisable at all, as a member of one of the more internet-inclined generations I feel it is interesting. My mixing of physical paid-for products and free online products with regards to short fiction is entirely analogous to how I treat other media - news outlets, TV series, movies and music - as well as to what I see my peers doing. So while I think all entertainment industries are having to shift their distribution mechanisms, the end may not be quite as nigh as it sometimes seems.
Gordon Van Gelder
27. Laird Barron
Jason: I hope you are correct. That would be nice.

AP: "...the end may not be quite as nigh as it sometimes seems."

I guess I'll stow my sandwich board sign and get dressed. ;)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment