There's been a lot of discussion in the publishing world about the impact of e-books on publishing -- traditional publishers are worried that they'll go out of business, writers are worried that they'll be paid even less than the pittance they now earn, and readers are worried that they'll end up drowning in a sea of self-published books. I don't really know enough to feel comfortable talking about e-books in detail, but I know a little about online magazines -- enough to make some cautious generalizations and predictions.
Before I go on, two important caveats:
- I didn't even try to be comprehensive in this; the magazines I've mentioned are simply the ones I was familiar with, that I had time to examine briefly.
- These are very preliminary thoughts -- it's much too early to make any grand pronouncements about what electronic publishing will do to the speculative fiction genre overall.
If you're not very familiar with the range of electronic magazines out on the web, and with their history, I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to review my notes, which should give you a decent sense of the playing field.
I'm going to start by talking about some of the possible implications of online magazine publishing for publishers and editors, move on to implications for writers, and end with implications for readers and the genre.
From the publishers' point of view, I'd argue that there is great risk in online publishing, but also great potential.
The most immediate change in the game for publishers is that the initial financial bar is significantly lower with online publication than with print publication. It's possible to publish an amateur online magazine solely on donated time and material (as in the case of Planet Magazine), since you have no printing costs and web hosting costs may be negligible. At the other end of the scale from the amateur magazines, it's possible to publish a weekly prozine online for an annual cost equivalent to that of a single issue of a print magazine (counting only material costs, not including an editor's time). What that means is that the option of creating a magazine will be open to a much wider segment of the population. If you have access to a computer and the net through your day job, can afford $15/year for a domain name and $10/month for hosting costs, you can publish an amateur magazine on your lunch breaks -- and some people are.
We're seeing a proliferation of new magazines right now, and I expect to see many more in the next few years. The possibilities for creating income from these sites is very uncertain at the moment -- it probably won't be possible to make a profit in the way a print magazine can (see my January editorial for a detailed review of the finances of online magazines). Even if you're only trying to recover your costs, there are hazards attached to every approach. Those who are sponsored by other companies (often as loss-leaders) may be cut off abruptly, or may have their content dictated by organizational needs. Those who rely on subscription services are not likely to succeed, unless they add something else that people are willing to pay for (such as sex-related material). Those who are donor-supported will have to spend a fair amount of time on fund-raising, as any arts organization must. Those who are individually funded are subject to the fortunes (and whims) of the individual. New models are attempting to address these concerns, including such options as magazines in combination with more profitable ventures (print-on-demand books, e-books, print magazines, etc.), magazines that join together in conglomerates, magazines that charge micropayments, etc. New approaches are developing constantly.
It's impossible to say at this point which, if any, of these will be successful long-term. Many of the new magazines will swiftly rise and as swiftly die, especially if they're towards the more expensive end of the scale. On the other hand, that was always true of new magazines -- the average life of a new print magazine is about three issues. With the net, a new magazine experiment can be made much more cheaply and easily. This allows for incredible diversity; an individual can try three different magazines and models (possibly even concurrently) and see which one is most popular with readers, which one seems most likely to succeed. That bodes well for new publishers, especially if they keep in mind that the tests for a successful magazine online remain the same as for a print magazine: Do you offer good content? Do you publish regularly? Do you win awards? Are you going to stick around?
We're in a very experimental phase at the moment, but I predict that we're actually going to see some fine magazines shake out of this, and that they'll have very different approaches and tones from the traditional print magazines. The publishing/copyright world will likely be turned upside-down several times in the next decade, and we'll all need to remain open to the possibilities and aware of the changes taking place.
For the writer, the implications are mixed, but I think cautiously positive. (Keep in mind that this is meant to apply to magazine publishing only; it's not at all clear how well these arguments carry over to book publishing). Most of the negatives that I've heard associated with online publishing actually apply just as well to print publishing, interestingly. And there are a few real positives attached to online magazines.
The most obvious advantage is that there are many new markets. This is an especially good thing for new writers; far more of them will be published as a result. Of course, some of the new markets won't be around very long, and if they don't maintain archives, there may be no public record of the publication (although the writer can always download a copy to save). This is more of a sentimental problem than a practical problem, and it's important to remember that it's also often quite difficult to get old issues of a print magazine (especially if it has folded). It's also true that many of the new magazines will be poorly edited, if at all; many will be poorly designed, or publish so infrequently that they can't maintain readerships. These are common problems with new print magazines as well.
A related concern is that among the writing community, there is still a general lack of respect attached to online publication, although that attitude does seem to be changing. Some organizations are having trouble deciding how to judge e-publishing credentials, especially when size of readership has historically been a criterion for qualification or membership, but I expect those practical issues to be resolved within a year or two. It will take more time to establish which are the more 'respectable' online markets (but that's true of any new markets). Most established writers will stick mostly to the established print magazines for a while, out of habit if nothing else, although I believe that high-paying and award-winning online magazines will soon start attracting these writers. (Magazines which accept e-mail subs also tend to attract more overseas authors, who often spend a painful amount on mailing costs. Conversely, many writers are not yet familiar with the technical requirements of an online submission, and this may pose a temporary barrier for them.)
It's possible that the increasing numbers of online publications may make it difficult for writers to keep track of them all, especially if they are going up and down quickly. But as usual, market reports are very helpful in keeping track of what has always been a volatile market. Many writers also have understandable concerns about protecting their copyright online. I haven't time to cover this at length here, but my best judgment (after several years of publishing my own fiction online) is that most writers are likely to make far more from online publication than they're likely to lose from copyright infringements. See the Speculations Rumor Mill for extended discussion of copyright concerns, particularly their Internet Piracy topic.
The most serious potential problem for writers is at the prozine end. As discussed earlier, the costs of publishing a online prozine are relatively high, and the potential for survival of these magazines is still uncertain. It is possible that none (or very few) of the online prozines will survive for long, but this alone would leave writers no worse off than they are today. There is a possibility that the online semipro and amateur magazines could end up hurting the readership of the print magazines to such an extent that the print magazines die -- leaving writers in the cold. That last seems an extremist position to me, however, and quite unlikely.
One more strong positive, in addition to the increased opportunities for new writers to be published at all, is the creation of new possibilities that this shift opens up for writers working on the edge of the genre. Given the likely increase in new magazines (and corresponding increase in open slots for material), minority writers, writers who are creating troubling material, writers who work with slipstream fiction, poets -- all of these people are more likely be published. This also allows already publishing writers to stretch themselves, expanding their repertoire and skills. I expect to see much more diversity of material, and much more cross-genre material published (as well as more niche publishing). And that leads to some fascinating implications for readers, and for the field overall.
Since online magazines are generally free to the public, tremendous possibilities have been created for increased readership. Readers can sample magazines without any cost -- this is likely to bring in novel-only readers, readers from outside the genre, readers who had previously only subscribed to one print magazine, etc. Especially exciting are the possibilities for low-income readers; if they have access to a public library net connection (assuming the libraries remain relatively censorship-free), they can read their favorite online magazines regularly. Also, without the problems of newsstand distribution, it may be much easier for readers to find the online magazines than the print magazines (though DNA Publications may serve as an example of how a significant online presence may lead to increased print magazine sales and readership). This increase in availability is likely to be very good for the field overall; if we're lucky, increased readership of short fiction may even lead to greater respectability for the genre as a whole, and may also possibly increase novel sales.
Readers will be finding a greater variety of material, both in magazines and in authors, than has been historically available, as discussed earlier. I'm seeing development of niche markets, targeted at specific loyal readerships, which may be more likely to survive than general-interest semi-pro or prozines. At the same time, I also see far more genre-blurring; there is still work that is clearly SF or fantasy, but there seems to be far more slipstream writing published than has been traditionally available. The new variety of material (some very difficult to classify) may make it harder to decide which magazines to read, at least initially, but good pay and/or good editors will help to separate the wheat from the chaff. Reviews on other sites may also help readers with the sorting problem. If I'm correct in predicting a greater diversity of voices will be published, then this has the potential to do the field tremendous good, opening up a space for minority speakers -- and hopefully also bringing more minority readers into the genre. The proliferation of amateur and semi-pro publications especially will offer a vast field of play practically unconstrained by market considerations; the net at its best, perhaps. (See the Open Source movement for more on this type of concept.)
One difficulty with all of this lovely optimism is that many readers still find it uncomfortable reading for very long on-screen. This is less of a concern for short fiction than novels, but should still be taken into consideration when projecting future readership. As well, while readers may have the option of free use of library computers, their time on those machines may be limited, or such computers may not be available in their area, particularly outside the U.S. So readers who are not already online for other reasons are faced with paying for connection time; many readers also suffer from slow connections, which are especially frustrating with graphics-intensive sites.
I've also heard some concern that there's only a finite amount of good writing, and that more markets means that the good writing will be divided among them, and thus be harder to find. I find this implausible, and would argue rather that good writing engenders more good writing. In my more hopeful moments, I believe that we are seeing the birth of a renaissance in speculative fiction, with ideas sparking off each other. Ideas are being transmitted to and adopted by the readers much faster than they once were -- there was a time when it took years for a new idea in speculative fiction to trickle into the minds of most readers. The rate of change is steadily increasing. The advent of the internet has added more possibilities for dynamic interaction among magazines and readers, with quick movement from site to site, as readers follow threads and links (both within genre and cross-genre). There's also far more internationalization; it's much easier for writers to publish in countries other than their own, making for fertile cross-pollination of ideas. And online magazines are also likely to be far more timely (since they aren't constrained by printer schedules) and potentially more flexible than print magazines.
One final note -- a wonderful thing about online publication is that it provides a way to leave material up and available long-term fairly cheaply. Traditionally, short fiction has disappeared, becoming almost completely unavailable unless it becomes anthologized. This change seems a very good thing for readers, for writers, and for the genre.
In the end, my conclusion is tentatively quite positive. There will be chaos and uncertainty during the transition period, but if the funding concerns can be addressed, then I expect there to be several important pro magazines online within a decade, and a host of solid semipro and amateur magazines. I believe that this will create a greater diversity of voices, and facilitate dialogue between individuals and communities. It is my hope that although circulation has gone down significantly for the print magazines in recent years, the developments online may help counter that trend. In fact, I believe we may soon see a real renaissance in short fiction -- and therefore in the genre as a whole.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief for Strange Horizons.
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