02 November 2007

How to Save the SF Magazines

Paolo Bacigalupi, who used to work for High Country News, takes some lessons learned from his previous employment and speculates about the ways science fiction and fantasy magazines could save themselves from their ever-declining circulations. Paolo's thoughts appear in three blog posts: Part 1 (overview), Part 2 ("Marketing in Meatspace"), and Part 3 ("Online Marketing").

I don't have any great knowledge of marketing, so I will defer to Paolo and others on that, but I do hope the magazines are able to survive, partly because I respect the history they represent and partly because I like the idea of monthly magazines full of fiction being able to survive in our world.

But honestly, I only pay money to subscribe to one of them. I receive subscriptions to some others because once upon a time I reviewed them more frequently than I do now (I certainly still read them for Best American Fantasy), but for the others, when it comes time to make selections for BAF, I rely on recommendations from reliable readers for good work from them. I used to subscribe to a few of the magazines, but with one I realized I hadn't finished reading a story they published for an entire year, and another became so incredibly ugly that I found myself unwilling to read it -- the binding was so tight it made holding the magazine open difficult, the pages were crammed with small-print words on cheap paper with tiny margins, as if the whole thing were produced on a Mac 128K. I hated everything I read purely because of how it was presented, and so I stopped sending money to that magazine. (That you may now be having trouble figuring out exactly which of the possible magazines I'm talking about says an awful lot in and of itself...)

The magazines I subscribe to and read are ones that are either useful to me or ones that, when they arrive in the mail, I am usually tempted to put everything else aside and sit down and read them for a while. When Interzone arrives, for instance, I always tear the packaging open and look at every page, then at least skim all the nonfiction. The fiction isn't often to my taste, so I usually save it for later, but the design of the magazine is always so eye-catching that it simply gives me pleasure to flip through its pages, and the nonfiction is eclectic and rewarding more often than not. This is a magazine that feels like it was produced to appeal to people who are alive right now, rather than to the denizens of 1950.

The other magazines I at least skim immediately are Harper's and A Public Space. Harper's I love for the diversity of material it offers -- it's rare that an issue completely bores me -- and I would now never think of letting my subscription go, because subscribers get full access to the entire Harper's digital archive. It's not an expensive subscription, and it comes with 150 years of material. The best deal I know of in publishing.

A Public Space is beautifully designed and intelligently edited, with a range of writing of all sorts: nonfiction, poetry, fiction. Inevitably, there are things I don't read, things that don't interest me, things I don't like ... but it doesn't matter, because the variety of material and the pleasant design of the magazine causes it to maintain a strong grip on my attention.

None of what I've said here about my preferences and predilections has much to do with marketing, but it does have to do with the content delivered after the marketing has done its thing. It's hard to get me to subscribe to a magazine, yes, but it's even harder to get me to renew a subscription. I doubt I'm alone in this, particularly these days when there are so many other ways to find entertainment and fulfillment than by reading magazines.

(I'll have more to say about various lit'ry magazines that excite me in Monday's column at Strange Horizons.)