Whither Goest Thou, Print Short Fiction?

stacks of magazines

Recently, Tor.com user GUDsqrl posed this question in the comments section of a previous post of mine:

“So is paying to publish fiction and trying to recoup at least some of those costs by selling copies shortly going to be dead? Is all short fiction to be free?”

In my opinion, GUDsqrl has a vested interest in this question, as I believe he is part of the team (all of the team?) that publishes GUD, a literary genre fiction journal. I don’t know a lot about them, I must confess. They’ve only had a handful of issues come out so far. They look well designed, and they have some interesting authors, so we’ll see what the future holds for them. I’m sure that’s at least part of why GUDsqrl asked his question.

This is one of those questions along the lines of how many grains of sand make a pile? It’s all based on the interpretation of the individual. Generically speaking, I think short fiction will be around for the long haul. It’s too well appreciated by the field to go anywhere. It may radically change, but it will be around.

For the purpose of this post, let’s discuss some different levels of print magazines and how they work or don’t work.

[more after the cut…]

First, let’s talk about what I do with Electric Velocipede: publishing a magazine and selling copies/subscriptions of that magazine and nothing else. I don’t use any of my personal money for the magazine. It’s all money that either the magazine generates, or that I make from freelance publishing work.

At the level I’m at–about 150 subscribers at two issues a year–there aren’t enough subscribers nor enough issues to really generate any decent income through that avenue. Normally, a magazine has a steady stream of subscribers who need to renew. This in turn creates a steady stream of new money.

Traditionally, most newsstand magazines survive on advertising. They use their advertising revenue to pay for 75 – 90% of the costs of running the magazine. I do charge for advertising in the magazine, but that typically covers just the authors’ payments. I don’t reach a wide enough audience (yet) to justify charging enough in advertising to cover all my costs.

I do almost all of the work on the magazine myself. I’m at a saturation point for the number of issues I can get out in a year. This directly restricts the number of subscribers I have needed to renew at any given time. A subscription to Electric Velocipede is for four issues, i.e., two years. So twice a year I have a small amount of people needed to renew. And obviously, the more often I publish, the more often people need to renew.

I think I’ve said this before, even 20 new subscribers would make a big difference for me, much less a few hundred new subscribers. And a few thousand new subscribers? That would radically change things.

So let’s consider magazines like Asimov’s or Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) or Realms of Fantasy or Weird Tales. Now we’re talking about thousands of subscribers. Then you should have enough people constantly needing to renew (and if you’ve got good content, the bulk of them will renew) which will provide you with money to keep going. Each of these magazines comes out at least six times a year, which subsequently generates more renewals. Also, if you’re reaching thousands of people, you can charge more for advertising. In the best scenarios, your advertising income pays for all your production costs.

Of course, all your total costs are higher (personnel, shipping, printing, etc.), but your unit costs all go down. It costs less per copy to print a few thousand than a few hundred. It costs less to mail a lot of copies versus a few individually. You may even be able to hire a fulfillment service who mails lots of things and gets an even bigger discount on mailing.* In theory, the more copies you make, the easier it is to make money on each issue.

And this trend continues as you add more and more subscribers. Of course, the bigger you get, the more likely it is that you’ll need employees to keep on top of things. But, you should be able to afford help if you have 50,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 subscribers.**

As a new magazine, it’s very hard to hit thousands of subscribers unless you have some sort of backing. Many of the magazines I mention are part of a larger publisher which helps make certain costs (printing and shipping being the biggest, but also the salaries of the production people) a smaller percentage of the total costs of running the magazine. But how many places are looking to start a new fiction magazine?***

F&SF is one of the few (only?****) places when it comes to bigger, print-only genre magazines. And F&SF has a history of almost six decades behind it. It came into being when fiction on the newsstand was big business. I think these days you need more than just fiction to get a magazine out on the newsstands/to subscribers with any sort of respectable numbers. So this probably isn’t a viable option when starting out.

So what if instead of thousands of subscribers, you have other products you sell that help alleviate the cost of publishing a small magazine?

The quick example that springs to mind is Small Beer Press with Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW from here on out). Small Beer publishes interesting, high-quality books that help keep LCRW running. They do have a nice-ish amount of subscribers which helps, too. Having Kelly Link as part of the staff helps, too. And they co-edit the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror with Ellen Datlow, which puts their names out in front of a bigger audience than LCRW does.

This seems to be working for Gavin and Kelly at Small Beer. And if it’s not working, they’re not talking about it.

There are a lot of different scenarios in which people are publishing short fiction, some more successful than others. But I definitely think there’s a reason why a lot of print publications, particularly new ones, are moving online. The costs in running a print magazine are high, both in money and time. And costs keep rising. My printing costs have doubled from two years ago. My shipping costs are up 10 – 15% from last year. Moving online would get rid of those expenses.

The problem with going online is that you still need some sort of revenue. You need to pay for your internet space. You need to pay your contributors. But if you’re not selling something, where does the money come from?

And…that’s a topic for another post.


*Let me know if you want a really boring discussion on shipping.

**I don’t think there are any English language magazines that have a subscriber base in the millions, but who knows? It depends on whether you consider the Victoria’s Secret catalog a magazine and its recipients subscribers. I know I get one of those every few days… Science Fiction World, a Chinese science fiction magazine, has a circulation of about 300,000, with a pass-along rate of 3 – 5, giving it a total readership of about one million.

***If you are, let’s talk.

****I’m not sure what Interzone has for subscriptions, and they’re not part of another publisher.

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