Since Strange Horizons launched in September, the questions I've gotten most often are: How do you do it? How do you plan to make this work? Where does your money come from? Can I do it too? So here are a few answers. If you have more questions at the end of this editorial, please feel free to ask; I'll answer whatever I can. This article is directed at people interested in starting a magazine, but it will hopefully also give an interesting behind-the-scenes look to those of you who simply enjoy reading Strange Horizons.
If you want to start a magazine, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself some questions. Perhaps the most crucial one these days is:
Print or Electronic?
I can't speak to the needs of a print magazine, so I'm going to assume you're interested in an online magazine and move on. I'll briefly note that print has much higher startup costs, but in my opinion, a much better chance of showing you a profit someday -- though that chance is still mighty slim. Think hard about that when making your decision. With Strange Horizons, before anyone else got involved in the project, I knew I wanted it to be an online magazine. I spend much of my time online these days, and I read far more short fiction online than in print periodicals. It's a world I'm comfortable in, and it seems an appropriate world for a spec fic magazine. The people who joined me in shaping the magazine had similar interests, so that choice was relatively easy for us.
Pro, Semi-Pro, Amateur?
This next question relates directly to what rates you pay your fiction authors. It's sad, but true, that poetry, art, and nonfiction aren't given the credit they're undoubtedly due in spec fic -- so while you might decide to carry them, your reputation will likely be based on the quality of your fiction. (Unless, of course, you're an entirely nonfiction publication like Locus or Dark Matter Chronicles, in which case much of this editorial won't apply to you). How do you get quality fiction? By paying quality rates. Three cents a word is the current minimum rate for 'professional sales' by SFWA standards. You may choose to ignore SFWA standards, of course -- but be aware that quite a few authors, especially bright young things trying to break into the field, care deeply about SFWA's standards. If you want to attract them, you need to pay at least three cents a word -- and you need to pay that for every story you buy.
If that's beyond your budget, then consider semi-pro; Talebones is an example of an excellent semi-pro magazine, proving that it's possible to get good stories without paying pro rates. And if you're not able to pay anything, then you'll need to be purely amateur; be aware that that will cut down on the quality of the submissions you receive. Writers need to eat, after all. You may still be able to publish good stories -- but it'll be tougher to find them.
We knew we wanted to at least take a shot at becoming one of the best spec fic magazines out there, so it was important to us to be a pro market from the beginning. We started out paying three cents a word; effective January 1st, 2001, we're raising our fiction rates to four cents a word. We're also raising our payment for poetry to twenty dollars per poem, buying two (instead of one) poems every month, and starting to pay for nonfiction at twenty-five dollars per article and twenty dollars per review. We also now pay for illustrations, seventy-five dollars per illustration. Could we publish all this for less? Certainly -- we have been for months. But some extra money has come in over the holidays, and we believe that spec fic authors and artists are drastically underpaid -- so we're translating that money directly into a little more money for our creative talent. . .which will hopefully mean better material for you to enjoy. Writers may be able to survive on a crust of bread and stone soup, but it seems unlikely that they're doing their best work that way. Hunger pangs are distracting.
Thinking About Costs
If you're starting a magazine, you'll need to figure out where you want to spend your money. Are you paying yourself or your staff a salary? Are there server costs? Are you setting aside an advertising budget? How much will you pay your creative people? At Strange Horizons, our priorities are:
- paying our server costs, because otherwise there is no magazine,
- paying our creative people decently,
- spending some on advertising, so that we'll be read,
- maybe someday paying our staff. That last one's a nice dream, anyway.
We're all really here because the magazine is a labor of love.
Speaking of staff -- who is your staff? How many of you are there? How are you organized? We're a non-profit organization, with a staff of 25-30 volunteers. Some publishers might find that many people unwieldy, preferring to do most or all of the work themselves. But it's an awful lot of work, and since you probably won't be giving up your day job to do this, I can tell you that it's a lot easier with some good help. Many hands make light work, and the terrific staff here make my job of running it all a pleasure. At Strange Horizons, there are three people in each department, which means that if someone falls ill, or their net connection goes down, the magazine still goes up on time, every time.
Being on Time
Timeliness is an important consideration. Whether you're quarterly, monthly, weekly, or other, it's critical to set a schedule and stick with it. Century has published some of my favorite spec fic -- but I don't subscribe to it, because it drives me nuts not knowing when the next issue will show up. This is unfortunately true of many of the small press magazines, and while there are often good reasons for the delays, the net effect is that they lose readers. That effect is magnified online; readers are tired of Web sites that come and go, updated infrequently and erratically. If you can set a schedule and stick to it, over time, that will win you loyal readers. And if you can afford to publish at least weekly, I strongly recommend it -- less frequently, and you'll lose too many readers who wander away to more frequently updated sites.
Which brings us back to money. Publishing fiction every week is more expensive than publishing every month, or every quarter. Think carefully about how many stories you can afford to buy in a year. Think about the length of those stories -- if you pay by the word, length matters, even online. It's tempting to think that because we're not constrained by print costs, we can publish as much as we like -- but more and longer pieces will cost more in author payments, and will eventually cost more in bandwith charges too. Plan for that. We budgeted for an average of a 4000 word story every week, for a year. That works out to $6240 per year at three cents a word. Add in minimal server costs of $120 per year, domain registration at $15 per year, and an advertising budget of about $500 (which will buy you very little), and you have a minimum of $7000 per year to publish a weekly professional spec fic magazine online -- with an all-volunteer staff. Before we even started drawing up guidelines for Strange Horizons, we made sure we had $8000 pledged, just in case. You can cut costs by publishing shorter work, or publishing less frequently, or going semi-pro (paying for stories, but paying less than professional rates). . .but as discussed earlier, you may lose quality and/or readers that way.
Where Do I Get the Money?
So that's how much you need -- but where does the money come from? That's the big question online. Here are some possibilities:
- Charging readers for access: This is the equivalent of the cover price of a print magazine, really, and it may seem reasonable to ask readers to pay it. But the plain truth is that people aren't willing to pay much, if at all, to read fiction online. While micropayments (tiny payments, e.g. a quarter cent per story, easily deducted from a credit card or bank account) may eventually address this, right now I'd argue that charging for access will likely kill your magazine. (Optional payments may be a way of bringing in some additional revenue, but be careful not to expect too much. Research what happened with Stephen King's attempts in that line before you try this approach -- and remember that you're not Stephen King). We knew from the start that we would be entirely free to the readers, and would remain so. That's also in keeping with our mission goals, which I'll talk about in more detail at the end of this.
- Advertising: Plenty of print magazines subsist primarily on advertising revenue, and it's tempting to believe that online magazines can do the same. But I ran Clean Sheets for two years before starting Strange Horizons, so I knew just how difficult it was to make money from advertising. Ad money on the net comes and goes; it's very erratic, and often requires you to place ugly banners all over the place for very little return. I knew I didn't want to go through all that again here, and when we discussed it, the rest of the staff agreed. Think hard about whether you're going to get enough money from advertising to justify intrusive banners; research ad rates over the last six months and watch how they've fluctuated. You've probably noticed the small square ads on Strange Horizons -- we do trade small ads with other sites we like, in order to help boost readership, and it's possible that we may sell those spaces in the future -- but if we do, they will remain small and unobtrusive. When it's hard to find what you want to read because of all the advertising, I think you lose readers, especially online. I'd strongly advise against expecting advertising to be your primary revenue source.
- Affiliate sales: You'll have noticed that we have a bookstore with links to Amazon and Powell's. When readers click through from our site and buy a book we've linked, we get a small percentage of the sale; we get a smaller percentage even if they buy a book we didn't list (or computer, or whatever), as long as they started with our site. Affiliate sales do bring in some money, and of course, that's directly tied to readership -- the more readers you have, the more you're likely to make from such sales. That can be a significant amount -- one of the Clean Sheets readers bought her med school textbooks starting at our site, and spent enough that our percentage bought a month's worth of fiction. But affiliate revenue is erratic, hard to predict, and will likely be very very small for many months. A funding source to consider, but not one that will have much impact on your budget for quite a while.
This is all sounding pretty discouraging, I know. You can't charge the readers, you can't make enough from ads or affiliate sales -- where does the money come from? Your own pocket?
That's one approach. Plenty of the early zines were mimeographed and distributed regularly with costs borne by the publisher. If what you want to do is simply publish a good small amateur magazine, a few hundred dollars annually would do it. Even a semi-pro probably wouldn't cost you very much, and if you think that you'd be willing to spend a thousand or two a year to publish a semi-pro magazine, then your magazine could soon be competing with Talebones -- and that's good company to keep. Lots of people spend more than that every year on their hobbies; a spec fic magazine isn't a bad hobby. A professional magazine will cost you closer to $10,000 a year, though. Can you manage that out of your own pocket? If you can, that's terrific -- if not, then you may want to think about whether you're willing to ask other people for money.
The Museum Model
When we looked at the numbers, it seemed clear to us that a traditional print magazine money model just wasn't going to work here. There was no real income to offset the expenses. So when we started talking about creating this magazine, we explored other possibilities. The one we settled on is what I think of as the museum model. Strange Horizons is a non-profit organization. We started with $8000 pledged in donations from people who love science fiction and fantasy, who wanted to do something good for the field (and maybe put a little more bread in the mouths of those starving writers). We're applying for IRS tax-exempt status; that's a slow process, but if we get it, future contributions will be tax-deductible, which will hopefully encourage more people to donate.
This all sounded a little odd when we first started talking about it -- a non-profit magazine? -- but when we did some research we found that some of the literary and mainstream magazines we read, including Ms. Magazine, were also non-profit organizations. Part of our purpose in creating Strange Horizons, as stated in our Articles of Incorporation, was to ". . .increase public interest in speculative fiction, to explore and expand the potentials of the genre, to bring readers the best of the established authors and to foster the work of emerging authors of diverse perspectives and backgrounds." Those are the kind of goals that seemed very consistent with a non-profit philosophy.
The difference between for-profit and non-profit really comes down to a question of what your goals are. Either type of corporation can run a magazine, and even theoretically pay salaries. If it's important to you to try to make an actual profit off your online magazine, then you don't want to go the non-profit route. But if your main goals are to publish some good stories, to create a beautiful magazine, to do good work in a field you love. . .then there's nothing in there incompatible with a non-profit model. And what that model gives you is a good reason to ask others who care about the same things, who want to help you create that magazine, to put some of their own money into it. They'll know that the money they're putting in is going directly to supporting the magazine, to helping the field. This museum model may or may not work for you, but it gave us our first year's operating money (some from staff, and some from outside donors), and if we do a good job and the readers like us, it'll hopefully give us operating money for many years to come.
I can't say what model is best for you, of course. There are so many factors that play into this -- I haven't even addressed design and navigation, for example, which are crucial aspects to consider if you want to attract and retain readers. Accessibility is an important consideration, and multi-platform functionality. As well, the net is constantly growing and changing. What's true today may not be true next week, or even tomorrow. But if you're thinking of starting a magazine, or if you're just interested in what goes into creating a magazine like Strange Horizons, hopefully this editorial has at least clarified some of the factors for you. And if you enjoy something online, whether it's this magazine or some other site, I hope you can take a moment to think about what you can do for the site. It could be volunteering some time, or donating money, or just telling a friend about what a great site it is. You could tell an author how much you like her work, or tell us what we could be doing better. It's your contributions that keep us going, after all, and if it's our magazine, it's also yours.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.