Jul 23 2009 5:53pm

A New Future for Our Print Magazines?: Print on Demand

For quite a while there’s been a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing by fans of horror, fantasy, and science fiction concerning the waning fate of our short fiction print markets. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?


Fortunately, I’m not writing this to rehash the decades-old argument of why the print markets are dying and how to save them. I’d like to discuss an emerging technology that might have a hand in deciding the future of our print short fiction publications.

Print on demand (POD) services are certainly not new, but the quality has improved greatly in recent years. The small press book publishing markets are going through a bit of revitalization thanks to the high quality physical product and decent price-per-unit offerings from places such as Lightning Source, Booksurge, and Lulu. Granted, the interior content is a mixed bag depending on the publisher, but I always tell people the small press market is like any other—be sure to do your research before you part ways with your money. Trust me, it doesn’t take much research to find out if a press is reputable.

That’s the book industry. Using print on demand technology for magazine production at a reasonable price has only recently made an appearance for all the publishing entrepreneurs out there in the world.

One of the hardest decisions I had to make while publishing Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest was ending its print run and making it digital only. I made the decision because I grew tired of dealing with the middle men of the industry—the distribution companies. I found them to have unreasonable practices regarding trying to sell a literary journal to the masses.

I was going along my merry way, publishing Apex Magazine as a digital zine, until my senior editor, Deb Taber, said “Hey, have you checked out this new MagCloud service?”

Deb is like a demon speaking through the mouth of an animal—when she speaks, you listen.

I checked out MagCloud, found them interesting. I dug around at other magazine POD services such as CreateSpace and Lulu, too. Let’s just say the urge to bring my beloved Apex back to print was too much.

I made the jump.

Eventually, I went with MagCloud. They charge a flat twenty cents per page to print your zine. But the twenty cents per page includes full color (exterior and interior) and an inexpensive shipping cost to customers (approximately $1.50 per copy). The user interface is so simple it’s ridiculous (you upload a print-ready PDF and you get an immediate preview proof along with a free printed proof). CreateSpace makes a really nice product (see Shock Totem), but their shipping costs were a turn off. Lulu also does nice work, but they’re way too expensive.

The July issue of Apex Magazine was the first for us using MagCloud. We ended up at 32 pages with an 8.5" x 11" trim size (about 25,000 words of content), so I had to set the magazine price to $8.00 in order to make any noteworthy profit.

How was the end product? It’s a really nice saddle-stitched full color magazine. MagCloud uses HP Indigo printers and the colors come out sharp and bright. The paper quality is high (80lb gloss). The magazine is shipped from the printer in a clear protective plastic bag.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the physical product (naturally, the interior content rocks). Twenty cents a page is pricey no matter how you shake it, but I hope that if MagCloud gains in popularity, it’ll be able to bring down the price per page.

Final analysis? We’re still a few years away from magazine POD services making a real impact on our beloved print publications like book POD services have done for our books. In the meantime, it looks to provide a nice service to guys like me who simply have to see their publications in print and those readers who love the feel of paper underneath their fingertips.

1. GoblinRevolution
Hurray! I am glad to see Apex coming back as a print mag. While I can appreciate the reasons for going digital only, reading a physical copy is for me far more engaging and enjoyable than pixels on a screen. I, too, believe that POD is the future of dead tree products, although continue to fail to catch on year after year. Perhaps this recession will be the key to unlock that future.

I am off to the Apex site to subscribe again!
2. Nick Mamatas
The main issue is the very high cost of POD on a per-unit basis. Very few people are going to spend $8.00 on a 32-page magazine, and those that do are going to not want to leave it behind on a bus or plop it onto a coffee table, reducing the number of eyeballs exposed to the ads.
3. Steve Berman
I recently released the first issue of Icarus, a magazine devoted to gay speculative fiction through Magcloud. Yes, it's very nice to have full-color and glossy pages. Nick is right, of course, about the high cost. I have to charge $13 an issue and what do I tell bookstores who want to stock it? Is Apex going to turn away such orders? I think, if Magcloud remains this expensive, at best we can hope for maybe 100-200 orders a year. Can you organize an entire franchise around such an income? No. But tied to other income sources, it can be a good way to promote titles (as I do with Lethe Press and Queer Mojo books in every issue of Icarus).
Jason Sizemore
4. apexjason
GoblinRevolution: We don't have subscriptions available yet. I'm hoping that is something that MagCloud can implement soon. So much easier on me...

Nick: Exactly. Mind if I steal your summation and replace my last paragraph with that? :) A motivating factor to even produce $8.00 copies of Apex is to appease a contingent of our readers who just prefer print, no matter the cost. Unless we sell hundreds of copies, I'm certainly not going to gain much in net profit.

Steve: I sort of latch the POD zine to the way cheaper electronic versions of Apex. We're making way more money from those than with the print product. I'm not even going to approach bookstores to sell the magazine because that's just not of interest to me anymore. However, I do plan on selling a few copies here and there at conventions and signings and such.
Fred Coppersmith
5. FCoppersmith
I definitely think POD is the future, not just for zines but for much of publishing overall, but agree that the high price here is a real stumbling block, especially for smaller publications like my own print zine, Kaleidotrope. I doubt that less content and/or higher prices is the best way to increase (or even sustain) readership, even if it does eliminate the cost of the traditional print run.

MagCloud looks very promising, but that price really needs to come down before it's of any real use.
rick gregory
6. rickg
Price won't be an issue if POD technology becomes popular as a way to print books that a store doesn't normally stock, etc. However, I think you're more likely to see ebooks become the venue for lightly stocked or otherwise out of print books rather than having stores take a flyer on a machine priced in the high five figures which will only be of use if someone wants a book I don't have in stock.
Fred Coppersmith
7. FCoppersmith
POD is of more immediate interest, I think, for bigger publishers on their backlists, and for books they're more likely to sell directly (or through online retailers) than in brick-and-mortar stores.
8. Fran Friel
Excellent article, Jason. And even at 8 bucks, I'm thrilled that Apex is back in print (heck, folks pay that for a crappy "beach read" paperback!).

In addition to the print mag (which I can't wait to see--LOVE the cover), I noticed that Apex is also available on Kindle! Woohoo!
Julio Angel Escajedo Pastor
9. losrandir
It would be a great service if it was not limited to USA/UK/Canada. Same usual story...
10. Benjamin Solah
POD is really getting more and more popular. The magazine of the AHWA, Midnight Echo is printed with as both a print mag and an ezine and it'd be hard to see it possible to do any other way.

But I agree with losrandir, it'd be better if these POD printers had a printer in Australia to make the shipping costs cheaper.
11. lipmag
I believe Lulu has a printer in Melbourne...
Blue Tyson
12. BlueTyson
They do? Is there a different charge?
13. Steven Klotz
My print copy of Apex Vol III. Issue 1 just arrived. It's not as slick as the best glossy magazines, but much better quality than the pulp Asimovs and such are printed on. The paper actually seems to be a bit heavier than a normal glossy magazine, which makes it feel about as substantial as a magazine twice it's length.

Good color reproduction and great formatting. All together I'm pretty impressed. I'm not sure if I'd consistently pay $8 for the result, but I'll definitely grab future copies that contain a story I like.

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