Jun 10 2010 9:47am

Realms of Fantasy Subscription Numbers Dropping

Recently I got subscription renewal mailing from Realms of Fantasy. Included with the offer was a letter from publisher Warren Lapine exhorting me to renew my subscription or the magazine will have to cease publication. In respect to full disclosure, I have been a subscriber in the past, but I believe my current subscription is comped (i.e., complimentary).*

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what he’s saying. Lapine does mention that newsstand sales are up and that ad sales are up. But, the subscription renewals haven’t kept up and Lapine contends that the subscriptions are necessary for the magazine to survive. (you can read the letter in its entirety through Nick Mamatas’ livejournal)

Traditional newsstand magazines make the majority of their budget from ad sales, and then a blend of newsstand sales and subscriptions (with subscriptions holding the lion’s share) make up what’s left. With a fiction magazine, where most of the content is text, ad sales might not be as big a piece of the pie. They should be the largest piece of the pie, and if they’re not, then perhaps your pricing is wrong.

You look at something like Coilhouse or Wired and the magazine is just as much its visual aesthetic as its content. The people who read those magazines also like the visual aspect of the magazine. (See also Hi-Fructose or even Rolling Stone and Esquire) People like looking at the pretty pictures, it’s what makes them pick up a copy from the newsstand, and that’s missing in a fiction magazine.

That said, Realms of Fantasy has always been one of the more visually arresting magazines in the genre. It’s bigger than the digest magazine and features full-color interiors. Every story has a full-page illustration, and the nonfiction articles typically feature several illustrations or photographs. Visually, Realms of Fantasy should be closer to the magazines I mentioned previously than the other genre magazines. In this way, Realms of Fantasy should be able to pull in more advertising than its competitors and be able to bring in advertisers who avoid the other genre magazines. Just flipping through the issue shows more advertising and a broader range of advertisers than a place like Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Given all that, apparently it’s not enough. To quote from the letter, “Subscription renewals have been insufficient enough to support the magazine” and “we have decided to make the readership aware of the danger here, rather than simply close down the magazine.” All of that is good. Announcing the closure of the magazine would be shocking, and it’s better to try and get the word out to the community so there’s an understanding, a transparency if you will, about what’s happening behind the scenes.

The letter definitely made me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing my part. It also carried an underlying feeling that the magazine might be closing no matter if I renewed, which is the reason Mishell Baker gives for not renewing her subscription to Realms of Fantasy. I wish Lapine had come at this with a different tack. I understand the motivation. I understand wanting to put forward the honest truth about the situation and having that spur people to help. My own experience, as a publisher and as a consumer, has shown that putting forward a positive spin works better in most situations. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s more that everyone is struggling and getting another missive that requires dipping into constricted pocket books draws more ire than support. Editor Douglas Cohen offers up some rationale for why the letter came out in a recent post on the Realms of Fantasy blog.

I may not exactly agree with his assessment, but Nick Mamatas has an interesting post about Realms of Fantasy and its subscription concerns. I like how Mamatas focused on “were the alternatives really send the letter or shut the magazine”? (question mark mine) That is what Lapine says, regardless of what he meant or intended. I don’t think that Lapine meant to be taken so literally, but Mamatas suggests a number of things that could be done as a renewal effort rather than sending the letter that Lapine did. None of them are groundbreaking, and they could all be done, even in conjunction with each other. My favorite is including a survey with the final issue of a sub (for people who haven’t renewed) to find out why they haven’t renewed. In the comments, a former subscriber wonders why she was never contacted to see if she was interested in resubscribing.

I’m glad to see them exploring electronic versions of the magazine. They have a Kindle version and Cohen says “we’re currently exploring other avenues to make RoF available to an even wider audience.” Personally, I think this is the best thing they can do. Short fiction really lends itself to portable reading devices. I wonder how many people aren’t subscribing because they don’t want a paper copy.

I hope this isn’t a foreshadowing of an announcement down the way of Realms of Fantasy shuttering its doors again. It’s still, I believe, the largest magazine devoted solely to fantasy fiction. There are a number of growing magazines, mostly online, dedicated to fantasy like Fantasy Magazine, Black Gate, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (and that’s ignoring the many magazines that publish fantasy and science fiction), but Realms of Fantasy is still bigger than all of them. I know the tone of this post may not sound like it, but I don’t want Realms of Fantasy to close its doors again.

* I get comp subscriptions because I talk about short fiction here. I don’t ask for comps, but when I’m offered, I don’t turn them down. I’d rather get them electronically than get a physical copy. Sending me a physical copy is a copy you can’t get in the hands of a potential reader. I don’t need—nor do I want—to build an archive of paper magazines in my home. Starting today I’m instituting a personal policy to only accept comp subscriptions that I can receive electronically.

John Klima edits Electric Velocipede, winner of the 2009 best Fanzine Hugo Award. It recently re-opened to submissions.

Amy Sisson
1. amysisson
Like you, I began getting a comped subscription with the new incarnation of the magazine, and I don't even review short fiction. I do review books, but.... I suspect that so many people in the field got the comped subscriptions and that many are waiting to see if they get re-comped. Then, with the letter, many people will be hesitant to re-sub because they fear throwing away money on a publication that seems doomed for cancellation.

There's also the fact that many readers and writers have to choose one or two publications to subscribe to, so with Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, LCRW, Sybil's Garage, Electric Velocipede, and so many other worthy pubs, how do you pick? And SFWA dues are due at the end of the month....

All that said, though, I've decided to renew RoF. It just doesn't cost that much, and it adds to the field for us all.
Jon Tallis
2. Jon Tallis
Realms of Fantasy has always been one of the more visually arresting magazines in the genre.

Forgive me for being blunt, but I can see a clear correlation between your headline and that dismal cover. It's an often wonderful read, but if I was browsing a newsstand my hands would keep right on going.
Tex Anne
3. TexAnne
I'm not paying money for a magazine that has a half-naked woman on every. single. damn. cover.
Jon Tallis
4. Mary Arrrr
I think not wanting a paper copy is a big part of it. I've cut way back on my magazine subscriptions. It's just easier not having them come into the house. I'm not even getting knitting magazines anymore!

Actually, Interweave Knits is exploring new models: they sell paper single copies through bookstores and yarn shops (which often sell out), paper copy subscriptions, individual pattern downloads online, annual CD-ROMs, and now electronic downloads of the issue from one year ago. And the downloads are MORE expensive than the paper copy subscription. But that is how I buy them, because it simplifies my life.

I think magazines really do need to look at this sort of multiple versions and revenue streams to reach customers. I bet there are lots of people who would like to support them - but don't want more dead trees arriving on their doorstep.
Jon Tallis
5. N. Mamatas
@3 That cover is of a semi-naked man. Realms has faced some criticism for its covers, but recent covers haven't featured naked women.

For me, the issue is DESIGN—the cover in the OP looks hopelessly cluttered as the background is too busy, the font choice is poor, and the text is spilled all over the place. But subscribers are likely not being overly influenced by design.

Probably, it's just the economy continuing to sputter along and PR gaffes that are hurting subs.
rick gregory
6. rickg
It also carried an underlying feeling that the magazine might be closing no matter if I renewed.

Well... yes. If you and Mishell and a few people don't renew it might close. However, every person not renewing because of that fear pushes things in that direction. "But even if I renew it might close and then I'd be out my fee" is true... but frankly, $20 isn't a lot of money and losing some part of it isn't that material to most people. If it is material to to someone, they should of course not renew.

I read the letter and what I took from it was "hey, when RoF closed a year ago the community rallied - there was a lot of apparent support. If the community *really* cares, you guys need to do more than talk, you need to put some money where your words are."

What Warren doesn't do is answer the obvious question - what's the runway here? If they don't get enough renewals by July 1 they close? By August 1? End of 2010? What's enough renewals? 500? 5000?. And, if people send in renewals but it's not enough and he closes ROF what happens to people who sent a renewal fee but never got an issue? Being transparent is a good thing. Being semi-transparent just sows confusion.
Douglas Cohen
7. DouglasCohen
John, thanks for posting about this.

I know some folks feel we should have more electronic options besides Kindle. As of yesterday, we do:

I know some folks also have problems with the design & layout. Our next issue (currently in production) will be the August 2010 issue. There is a new graphic designer for this issue, so hopefully his approach will go over better with those currently unhappy with this department.
Jon Tallis
8. crotchety old fan
All I can say (having gotten the same letter) is that from an historical perspective, the pattern looks something like this:

interruptions in schedule lead to change in schedule (monthly to bi-monthly)

leads to selling to another entity that has a different plan

leads to reduction in subscriptions due to 'uncertainty'

leads to desperate attempts to 'fix' the problem

leads to shutting down

Not all of the steps are gone through in order or even visited in every case, but the pattern is a long observed one (and not just in genreville).

In many respects it echos the 'wounded animal' syndrome. Fear of "contamination" prevents help and support from materializing exactly when it is most needed.
Tex Anne
9. TexAnne
Nick: Oh. The hairless, oiled body fooled me, especially since that's the kind of pose you see half-naked women in all the time. What I thought was a boob is, apparently, a giant pec. It's still a really ugly cover.
Melita Kennedy
10. melita
The magazine just started showing up. I assumed it was because I used to subscribe to SF Chronicle or Absolute Magnitude (the latter was either a subscription shift from another magazine or it was publishing author(s) that I liked). The biggest reason to renew for me is the book reviews which is one reason why I got SF Chronicle. I have several reasons why I haven't renewed. Note: not necessarily in order of importance!

First, I generally prefer novels over short fiction. I have been trying to read at least some of the stories, but haven't been wowed by any. Second, way too many other reading materials enter this house every month. Third, I find the overall tone too new-agey (the nonfiction articles) and not necessarily that well written. Fourth, been there, done that. I felt the unannounced suspension of Chronicle to be poorly handled. Issues just stopped coming. Because I'm hearing reports that Lapine is planning to start up more magazines, it does look like history is repeating itself.

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