Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Nov 1, 2007 in Blog, Pump Six and Other Stories, writing biz | 13 comments

Science Fiction Magazines Part III – Online Marketing

My sense of the online sphere is that it remains a place of opportunity rather than threat for a print magazine. Over time, this may change, but the internet provides the best place to attract pre-qualified subscribers, to build a relationship with them, and then to convert them to paying subscribers. Unlike direct mail, this is an area where initial sunk costs continue to pay off over time, and where simple changes can have positive ripple effects far down the line. It also seems like the barriers to change are fewer than in completely revamping the way they do direct mail.

So, what should the sf magazines be doing to maximize the medium?

1) Website Look-and-Feel

In all honesty, their websites do need to be updated. This is just a packaging question, but it’s absolutely necessary. Perceptions are made and defined in the online space – for many users, their experience of your website is, in their minds, actually their experience of your entire product and organization. If you’re clunky, or confusing or poorly designed, readers transfer that impression onto your product and organization.

A magazine website should reinforce both for new and old readers that the magazine they subscribe to is exciting and interesting and worthy of excitement. As authors we spend a lot of time worrying about how good a cover we get with our books; for magazines, their website packaging is just as important. In many cases it will be the first, and sometimes only contact that a magazine has with a new, undiscovered reader. It should make a positive impression. We talk about sense of wonder a lot in science fiction — video games like Halo 3 actually do a great job of this with their snazzy tv ads and packaging — sci fi mags can have their websites become significantly more evocative and more enticing. I’m not saying they need a lot of high tech bells and whistles, they just need some exciting looking art. They pay artists all the time to create images for their covers, it wouldn’t hurt to put some of that look-and-feel excitement into their websites.

2) Prioritizing Desired Outcomes

The magazines need to prioritize what their websites are supposed to accomplish, first and foremost. Personally, I think their priority should be 1) acquiring new paying subscribers and 2)creating a relationship with their readers both paid and non-paid. Figured in terms of the real estate on the page, this means they need to be spending a significant amount of area on telling people where and how to subscribe and how great it’s going to be for them if they do. On HCN’s website, I had between three and four different places on the site where I would advertise either full subscriptions or else free trial subscriptions, enewletter signups and RSS feeds.

If you look at a consumer magazine site like Yoga Journal, one of the things you see immediately is the button and cover image that entice someone to subscribe and get two free gifts. Not only is there a button telling me where to go to subscribe, there’s an included (immediate gratification) reason to do so. If you scroll down to the bottom you see a massive embedded form and the opportunity to subscribe again. — and if you look at most other consumer magazine sites, you’ll see a similar mix of ads for the magazine along with embedded subscription forms. They devote a lot of real estate to their sell messages because that’s what they really really want. They’re providing other kinds of added value as well, but they’re solidly focused on their message — subscribe, sign up, buy — and its reflected in the layout of their site.

3) What are you selling?

After you’ve got a snazzy looking website and have prioritized that you want to sell or get the reader to do some action, you need to think seriously about what that action is and how you’ll entice them. In Yoga Journal’s case, they have a call to action (subscribe) and an immediate benefit for doing so (2 free gifts). In their case, these free gifts happen to be .pdf downloadable guides for things like “Yoga for Neck and Shoulders” and “Yoga for Back Pain” (not a bad come-on for someone who’s already looking at their site through a computer).

Now, If you look at something like the ad for Analog (wierd cross marketing if I ever saw it), it’s interesting because all it says is “Analog — subscribe now.” It should probably be something like “New Subscriber Special: Save 30% off the cover price and get Paolo Bacigalupi’s new story “Pump Six” FREE!. It sounds cheesy, but it works (even if you insert a better known author in place of my blatant self promotion :-)). And in the online space you can keep testing your messages and your offers to find out what works best for your reader type. With tools like Google Analytics you can aggregate a huge amount of information on how promotional offers perform, and keep refining the pitch.

4) The Beauty of Free.

It’s obvious and lots of people talk about it, but “Free” is super enticing. That said, there should be a quid pro quo. I don’t really agree with the idea of putting out every story for free online, unless you have the massive readership to create substantial advertising revenue, which I’m not really convinced exists yet and may never exist because science fiction and fantasy seem decidedly niche — but I am in favor of giving away 2 free trial issues to someone who’s willing to provide their physical address. By arriving at the site and signing up, they’re already pre-qualifying themselves as significantly more interested in the magazine than a general shmoe off the street.

If they like the magazine, great, they’ll subscribe when the magazine bills them, but if they don’t right now, they can still go into a general list of direct mail marketing names, and they may turn out to perform down the road. The offer to sign up for 2 Free issues is a great way to get people to try out a magazine out, and in my experience, names acquired in this way performed significantly better than almost all direct mail cases. At HCN were seeing a 7-14% conversion rate from free trial offers when we billed after two free issues, as opposed to a 1% conversion rate on direct mail. Ultimately, it was a significantly cheaper way to acquire a new subscriber. Note how Yoga Journal mixes a soft offer (2 free issues) with a hard offer benefit (pay now and get a couple extra issues). This works really well. Really. I’ve tried it. It’s cool.

5) Relationship Building with Email Newsletters

Email newsletters work. Gathering the voluntarily submitted email addresses of potential subscribers is hugely important, because this defines a pool of people you can return to again and again for marketing. None of the big three magazines run an email newsletter. If they were to do one, an easy way would be to send out an email once a month, and include the TOC of the current issue along with enticing descriptions and also include one free complete story (quid pro quo – the readers get a free story, you get to keep trying to entice them to subscribe to read the rest of the stuff). This is a good trade both for a reader, and for the magazine. They get stories and a relationship with the editors at the magazines, you get marketing names. Pyr Books and Lou Anders do a good job of this. He interviews his authors, talks about different ideas that are in the zeitgeist, and unabashedly markets his products. And I’m happy to get his email newsletter.

The Good News:

The above ideas are just some of the basic tools I’ve seen used to acquire more subscribers, but given that most of them aren’t actually being used aggressively, or in some cases at all, it seems premature to assume that short sf market or the big three are predestined for death. If a magazine isn’t actively fighting for survival, its market almost inevitably shrinks. As I go through all the ideas above, plus numerous others that have been floated, it seems that there are enough low-hanging fruit for the magazines to start experimenting with a more aggressively entrepreneurial model. Frankly, there are so many possibilities, it’s mostly a question of picking and choosing what to do first.

Without knowing what exactly is happening under the hood at the magazines, it’s difficult to say what institutional barriers are actually causing their failure to reach out more aggressively, but at least at this point, it seems that there’s still growth potential, and circulation declines are not inevitable.


  1. Good stuff, Sir, and I agree so far.

    I also feel that the “Big 3” are utterly failing to compete on the magazine rack- the physical instruments of their magazines are not generally attractive and don’t compete with other non-genre magazines or even other digest sized literary mags. It seems almost that they think that each other are the competition rather than other periodicals.

    I am a periodicals hound. I know there are others like me. The racks at Borders and B&N are jammed with us when I am in the states.

    Also, is the old digest size itself still appropriate? I know many literaries have scaled up a skoosh as their readship has gotten more myopic.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Good to hear from you. I actually wanted to avoid talking about really big changes like redesign and trim size, but obviously if they want to succeed and be taken seriously on the newsstand and not only as subscription magazines, the digest format has to go. It’s wonderfully nostalgic, but the format is too easy to lose on magazine racks that aren’t built for digests.

  3. Does all this mean that an aggressive sf magazine startup could take advantage of the opportunities that the big three are missing?

  4. Great posts here and I think many will agree with you. The fact that you call the digest format ‘wonderfully nostalgic’ is a big alarm bell for a young reader/writer like myself. If the genre is meant to be about looking forward to the future and expanding the imagination, a magazine based on old-styles and techniques is not just not attracting new readers. In many cases it’s driving them further away, too. I do read the big three occasionally but if I didn’t know the writers involved were talented, I’d stay well away. SF magazines should be taking advantage of every possible advance in publication and media, otherwise their dedication to the future looks distinctly suspect.

  5. This is very interesting coming from a magazine person.

    The email newsletter thing, absolutely.

    The two best are Pyr and Subterranean, and Baen has a forum and updates/RSS too.

    Other major publishers range from ‘we are big fat losers and don’t have one or a website’ (DAW), through to cut and paste crappy marketing blurbs, in general.

    So, even as an advertising resister, when you get stuff you like and find useful, it works, as the former three have been the ones whose books I have been buying and/or reading recently.

    And on the magazine thing – the reason I subscribed to the ones of which you speak was a Fictionwise special offer, too, in part.

  6. Paolo—

    Just got home from World Fantasy Con, started catching up on online stuff, and found your posts. Lots of good stuff here—thanks. I haven’t read it all closely, but I recognize many of your comments from discussions we’ve had in the past.

    This subject came up a lot at WFC, it was the online subject d’jour. A few points worth noting:

    1) As far as I can tell, in all the discussions predicated upon the assumption that the SF digests are doomed, no one has actually addressed the question of whether the magazines are _profitable._ Everyone simply seems to have assumed that if circulation decreases, profits decrease. Not necessarily so.

    2) I note also that everyone has lumped all three digests together, even though all three of us have differing markets and differing approaches. Some of the problems facing F&SF are different from the problems facing ANALOG. Naturally, the marketing approach for one digest might not work for another.

    3) All the discussion I’ve read online has presupposed that online and internet publication is the way of the future. There is no feedback in this conversation from people who don’t care for electronic media. (Anthony Grafton has an interesting and relevant article in the latest NEW YORKER about why Google’s attempt to digitalize libraries won’t do away with books.) At WFC I made this point about internet users telling other internet users that the internet is _the_ way of the future and two different people said to me, “The teens I know don’t even use the internet. They text each other.” I have no idea if that’s truly a trend these days.

    Might post more after I get some sleep and I get caught up from the weekend away. Regardless, thanks (again) for the free marketing advice.

  7. Would marketing in countries with large populations interested in reading short works in English might also help increase readership?

    What about product placement in films and television programs?

    I don’t want to see these publications go away. I want hardcopy, and I want them to keep coming every month (or thereabouts–the “double issues” etc). Hardcopy is best for reading in bed and bathroom :-)

    The cover for the Jan/Feb 2008 Analog is marvelous. Same for the most recent F&SF cover that arrived in the mail last week (was that December or January?). Pretty covers help. Placement of product in the stores would also help. I often have trouble finding the big 3 among the magazines at the usual big-name book stores… what if they were instead placed in the F&SF section with the ‘latest releases’ novels and anthologies? What if they were also placed with the graphic novels and the movie/television spin-off novels (eg Star Trek)?

  8. Responding to Ken E.’s question about shelving magazines in the F&SF section of bookstores: it’s been suggested many times over the years, but no chain bookstore will do it.

    (As for product placement in films or TV, that would cost a fortune.)

  9. “Hardcopy is best for reading in bed and bathroom :-)”

    Yes, that is still true, but it’s getting less and less true all the time. Due to mail service problems here in Malaysia (my Analog subscription kept getting lost!) I now subscribe via Fictionwise, and read it on my cell phone using a program a student of mine did for his Final Year Project

    I must admit that at this point in time, I still wish I had the hardcopy. But I can see in the near future how this wish might go away.

  10. Hi Gordon,

    I’m happy to hear that you’re not going to be begging on the street any time soon. :-) Still, speaking personally, I would be so much happier if the circulation for F&SF stabilized or rose.

    Also, regarding differences in the magazines. I hope that most of the ideas I’ve laid out are general enough that they could be adapted for any of you successfully. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and maybe everything looks like a nail to me because all I’ve got is a hammer, but I think most of what I’ve written up could be used.

    Re: the internet. I’ve deliberately stayed away from suggesting changes in the magazines’ publication models (put everything online today! everything should be FREE!, etc., etc.), and tried to focus only on ways to use various tools to help your current model grow.

    And finally, I’m always happy to provide free advice and completely unsolicited advice, and to generally kibbitz from the sidelines. It’s soooo much easier than actually implementing something.

  11. While in the short term magazine profitability can be maintained in the face of shrinking circulations, in the long run, this means cutting payments to sf writers to the extent that few quality writers would want to write for magazines or raising the cost per issue so high that even more subscribes lapse.

    I started reading Asimov’s when I was about 14. How would your typical 14 year old today know about magazines even if they were already reading sf novels? They wouldn’t. I’d bet even many adults who read sf fairly regularly wouldn’t know. Obviously, this is not the only factor. Remember that anthologies almost never do as well as a novel, so there must be less willingness to read short stories. But even with this, you can’t make a sale if people don’t know you (the magazines) exist.

    Nice conversation. It got me to renew my Analog subscription.

  12. Hi,

    Mainly short term magazines may be help full but they are not up to the mark. The concepts are not too awfully difficult to understand and not nearly as complex which are available in the market. You can’t make a sale if people don’t know your magazine exist.

  13. Some interesting points there. I started reading ANALOG in 1965 – this was before Star Trek and when Doctor Who was still a new show! I’ve continued to buy the magazine ever since, and also buy F&SF and ASIMOV.

    Now as to whether I read them or not…. well, that’s another matter. Oh for the days when I could read six novels a week!


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