Feb 22 2010 12:01pm

Internet Review of Science Fiction Closing and Some Short Fiction Thoughts

The Internet Review of Science Fiction (IRoSF) has published what likely will be its last issue. Starting in 2004, IRoSF started publishing a mostly monthly online issue of reviews and columns. Each issue could have interviews, con reports, reviews, spotlights on an aspect of the field, and more. While I didn’t always agree with their opinions, I always found the writing to be excellent.

Now, after almost seven years of content, IRoSF is suspending publication. The usual culprits crop up: lack of funds, limited time, the need to stretch one’s self creatively in a different direction, and so on. (the first two are outlined in Bluejack’s penultimate editorial which also gives a nice history of IRoSF for the historically inclined, the last one is interpreted by me)

I, for one, will miss IRoSF and its intelligent writing. I will also miss it for selfish reasons. There are fewer and fewer places that provide reviews of short fiction, and IRoSF was one of the better ones. I don’t know that many new subscribers were coming from IRoSF’s reviews of Electric Velocipede, but I could tell that the reviews always sent people over to my site to look things over.

With IRoSF suspending publication, it got me thinking about where people find out about short fiction. Maybe people are reading reviews in places like IRoSF, or Locus, Asimov’s, or Tangent, or SF Signal, or SF Site, or SF Revu, or Infinity Plus, or some other place. Perhaps they find stories in a year’s best anthology and seek out the publication from there. If they’re like me, there’s a lot of word of mouth that directs them towards sources of short fiction. It could be that people are just searching for short fiction and then reading one of the excellent magazines online. And, I suspect that many people just wait for either the Nebula or Hugo Awards nominations to get announced and then they read those stories if they are reading any short fiction at all.

However people are finding short fiction, I saw a pair of interesting posts using the Locus Recommended Reading List as a barometer of reading habits. First, Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine (a Hugo and World Fantasy nominee last year) wrote about short stories. In addition to providing a number of facts about the publications the stories came from, Clarke also created a chart showing the trend of recommendations based on delivery medium (i.e., print, online, and books). There is a clear trend of print magazines losing ground as the main source of short stories. To follow up this up and show essentially the same trend, Sean Wallace of Prime Books did the same thing with Locus’ recommended novelettes.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a year or two of increased magazine recommendations could throw these charts asunder. Also, the Locus list is not necessarily representative of fan reading at large and could be skewed through the tastes of the list’s compilers. Additionally, both Clarke and Wallace work on Clarkesworld Magazine (an online fiction magazine) and Wallace publishes Fantasy Magazine and the forthcoming Lightspeed Magazine, both of which are online, which makes them hardly impartial or unbiased in this matter.

Nonetheless, I think short fiction is eminently suited to online reading and also works very well for electronic readers. I think the online magazines are here to stay and are publishing just as interesting stuff as their print counterparts. Heck, look at the recent Nebula Awards nominations for 2009 and you’ll see a number of online magazines with stories on the ballot. Clarkesworld Magazine has two nominees in short story and has a nominee in the novelette category.

Now they just need to win one.

John Klima is the editor of the Hugo award winning Electric Velocipede.

N. Mamatas
1. N. Mamatas
Given that all sorts of other content is migrating to online distribution, it would be absolutely remarkable if short SF were for some reason an exception.

I was sad to see IROSF go, but they spent the first couple of years toying with registration (pretty much foolish except for porn and certain important financial information) and went to finally putting ads on their front pages far too late.
N. Mamatas
2. Catsongs
Whenever good writing suffers -- as in "goes away" -- it's a sad day for all concerned.

In hopes, as media channels change, good writing "finds a way" to survive and thrive...
rick gregory
4. rickg
But can ads really support such an endeavor past the 'it pays for hosting, beer and pizza' level? It takes reasonable traffic for ad income to amount to anything more than that.

At some point people need to stop making sadfaces when things like this go away and realize that they will go away if they're not paid for. Ads can be a part of that but for most sites some kind of subscription really needs to be part of the revenue mix. Put bluntly, if soemthing has value to people, they need to pay for it. If they won't, well, how much do they really value it?

Perhaps the iPad and its successors (Apple and non-Apple) will provide a new channel for this. Perhaps not. But it's naive and wrong-headed to expect writing that people used to pay for in physical form to migrate online and all of a sudden become free and to stick around. If an effort doesn't make money it will always be dependent on the good will of the people who do it and when they want to do other things with their time they might well have to drop the activity that takes up time but provides little or no return.
N. Mamatas
5. N. Mamatas
But can ads really support such an endeavor past the 'it pays for hosting, beer and pizza' level? It takes reasonable traffic for ad income to amount to anything more than that.

Yes. Happens all the time. It likely will not happen as regards a small journal that is focused on essays about science fiction (a niche of a niche!), but that's the same as it ever was. It's not like there are analogous print publications that make more than pizza money for any of its owners.

Put bluntly, if soemthing has value to people, they need to pay for it. If they won't, well, how much do they really value it?

Except that there ARE plenty of venues where ad-driven revenue works just fine. Most consumer magazines don't depend on their cover price for a majority of their revenues, and most major cities have free publications of various sorts that are ad driven and distributed via free pickup. Online magazines and even bulletin boards around this or that topic make money from ads and from secondary sales of branded merchandise or packaged print content (that is already free online). Radio and broadcast television have profited via the give-away-content model for decades.

At some point, people who want to start magazines, whether online or print, will have to do something like investigate how magazines actually work (and how they do not) before launching one. Fan and semi-pro endeavors do crash on the rocks a lot, though really not all that much more than the usual run of consumer mags (there is a ton of churn in the periodical market, after all). A lot of the failures can be avoided though if people chose as their models something other than either a) pulps, a model which hasn't worked for decades or b) wishful thinking.
rick gregory
6. rickg

Online ad rates are significantly less lucrative than print versions and other media outlets though, and ads are done differently in some - there aren't really any full page or half page ads online and the typical site has far less advertising in proportion to its content than most mainstream magazines do.

Print and broadcast media also routinely reaches tens or hundreds of thousands - how many magazines are viable with a few thousand subscribers? How many radio stations? Combine the smaller audiences and the lower ad rates and I'm not sure that ad-supported online publications are viable for sub-10,000 unique visitor sites. Part of the mix, sure, but not the whole thing. Not unless they want to run it as a labor of love, in which case none of this applies.
N. Mamatas
7. N. Mamatas

You're jumbling a large number of unrelated issues together, probably because you have simply started with a conclusion and are looking for facts to hang it on to avoid a reconsideration of your opinion.

Online ad rates are less lucrative than WHICH print and other endeavors? IROSF vs The New Yorker? Of course. Is it at all an appropriate comparison? Of course not. Are there viable print formations with a circulation in the four or five digits? Yup, a very large number in fact. (Rather more viable than the cover-price pulp mags with similar circulation numbers, btw, which depend largely on crosssubsidation or very low overhead.) Ditto small market radio—many of which are profitable despite having audience numbers too small to be measured by Arbitron.

And of course there are analogs to full/half page ads in the online world—interstitials, streaming video ads, wallpaper, etc.

If the audience numbers are too small for ads to work, you're certainly not going to be able to run that same magazines via online subscriptions and finger-wagging and pretend blunt talk won't make it so. IROSF was around for seven years and didn't even think to run ads for five and a half of them. That's the long and short of that story.

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