Those of you who read Strange Horizons regularly know that the most interesting thing about us is the content that we publish, but I've found that when I talk to people who are unfamiliar with the magazine, what they're most interested in is the fact that we're funded by donations and grants. It's an unusual business model for a magazine, and one that's perhaps especially unusual for speculative fiction -- a genre that has been historically defined more in terms of marketing categories than anything else. We're paying professional rates to our contributors, but we're not requiring our readers to subscribe. We're not even selling our readers' time and attention to advertisers. We're giving all of our content away for free, and all we ask in return is that twice a year you listen to our fund-drive pitches and maybe help support our work.
It's a difficult model to explain to people. Some people think it's clever, but a lot of people are dismissive. I've been told that it's not a long-term sustainable model, that we're naive to think we can make back our operating costs this way, and even that our business model means that we're not really a legitimate publication. People tend to assume that if we're running a magazine on donations and grants, with an all-volunteer staff, we must be dilettantes.
Those readers who have been with us for a while know that this isn't true -- you know that we're very seriously engaged in this enterprise, and that we've been producing top-quality issues every week for over three years. I can see where the skepticism comes from, though, and I've developed a fairly smooth answer for the skeptics. It goes something like this: no one really knows how to make money on internet publications. Publications dependent on advertising have short life spans, and publications dependent on subscriptions only barely do better. Salon.com, arguably the queen of online publishing, uses both advertising and subscriptions and still loses more money each quarter than I've ever seen in my entire life. Speculative fiction has seen magazine after magazine spring up on the internet and then collapse due to a lack of funding. The most resilient and respected online SF magazine, SCI FICTION, is funded entirely by the SciFi Channel as an enhancement for their website. Other publications are funded out of the publisher's pocket as a labor of love (and are thus part of a venerable tradition in speculative fiction publishing). None of them are profitable in and of themselves. By sidestepping the question of profitability and relying on the community, we have in some ways ensured our continued existence.
That's an answer that tends to calm the naysayers, or at least quiet them temporarily, but it's ultimately unsatisfying. It's also not the real answer. It's all correct, but it's not sufficient. One thing to remember is that this magazine was launched in September 2000, and our business model was conceived some months earlier. At that point, it was commonly believed that not only could you sustain an internet-based business with no clear profit component, you could get rich off of it. Within a year the business climate had changed dramatically, but I still remember coming to California in the summer of 2000 and watching friends of mine get hired at exorbitant salaries to do ambiguous work for companies whose profit model could only be explained with a lot of vagueness and hand-waving. Many people genuinely believed that advertising would turn web sites into the modern-day equivalent of gold mines.
And in the middle of all of that internet-driven financial frenzy, we launched a non-profit speculative fiction magazine that depended on grants and donations to cover its operating costs. And we did it that way for a reason. From the very beginning, Strange Horizons was meant to serve multiple purposes, and one of them was to embrace the ever-growing diversity in the genre. We wanted to be open to experimental narrative styles, to authors and characters representing a wide range of cultural and racial backgrounds, to stories with edgy or adult or difficult content. We wanted to do things that no one else was doing, and the best way for us to do that was to free ourselves as much as possible from the pressures of the market. By not relying on corporate sponsors, advertisers, or subscription fees, we bought ourselves the luxury of being free to take risks.
There's another purpose we were meant to serve, though, and that's community-building. We take the idea of community very seriously, and it's built in to everything we do at Strange Horizons. Many of our tea parties and workshops have happened in conjunction with other publications, just to give one example, because we believe that building the audience for any speculative fiction publication helps the entire speculative fiction community. We have always been aware that we are part of something larger than just this one magazine, and that our contributors and our readers are also, at every step, our partners.
So that's the more satisfying, and in the end more complete, answer to the question. Why do we rely so heavily on donations? Because we're all in this together. We love what we're doing here, and we think you love it too, and we can't keep doing it without your support.
Copyright © 2003 Susan Marie Groppi
Susan Marie Groppi is an Associate Editor at Strange Horizons.
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