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.


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