Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:
i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.
These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.
Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?
He adds later:
But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.
Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in
I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.
If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.
Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?
Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.
Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...
Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.