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Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Nov 9, 2007 in Blog, writing biz | 15 comments

Science Fiction Magazines Part IV – Starting from Scratch

Okay, I can’t seem to stop thinking about this, so I’m going to beat the dead horse one last time.

In the first three posts about Science Fiction magazines:Why Are the “Big Three” Dying?, Marketing in Meatspace, and Online Marketing, I wasn’t explicit about why I was focusing on marketing for the magazines rather than on their content mix. My assumptions were:

1) The editors choose what they like for the magazines, and will be uninterested and in fact probably unable to choose something other than what they currently choose for their content. Gordon Van Gelder, and Sheila Williams, and Stan Schmidt all have their individual tastes, and their content choices reflect their fidelity to those tastes. They choose stories that make them happy or satisfy them, and that’s that. I like pickles; I don’t like raw tomatoes. Sorry, it’s just the way it is. So I didn’t discuss what is right or wrong about their story selection, because I assume that this is essentially a pointless discussion. Instead, I focused specifically on how they might be able to advertise and promote their tastes.

2) The magazine’s general role. I see the big three sf magazines’ mission as being one of generally surveying the sf field. Of the three, Analog is probably the most focused in terms of providing a specific reliable experience, but they are all looking for a distinctive mix of stories: some thrilling, some happy, some contemplative, some sad, some funny, some techno-fetishistic, some sf, some fantasy (for those two that dabble in such things), some beautiful writing, etc. These are magazines with eclectic taste, aimed at an audience delighted by eclecticism. Just as its not my place to tell an editor s/he should have different tastes, I’m also not going to tell a magazine that it should have a different mission. I’m interested in how the magazines can succeed on their own terms, without readjusting their core aspects.

All of that said, there’s another way to grow an sf magazine.

Jason Stoddard alludes to it when he points out that steampunk, and cyberpunk, and epic fantasy all have their distinctive and highly enthusiastic fan bases. Unfortunately, the big three will never be able to satisfy a steampunk fan, simply because even if they put one steampunk story in every issue, they will still have six or eight other stories in the same issue that don’t do that steampunk tango. It’s very difficult for a generalist magazine to reach out to such targeted communities.

On the other hand, a new magazine, starting from scratch, probably could. There’s no reason a new sf magazine couldn’t be started that focuses heavily on, say… pimpled and testosterone-addled males in the fourteen to twenty-two year-old set. I’m picking this somewhat arbitrarily, but I’m also thinking about something I saw on Tobias Buckell’s blog about his experience in talking sf to a bunch of high school kids.

Some reactions that stuck with me were a couple students who were amazed that I was so young (aren’t most authors like, really really old?) and that I played X-Box 360 (discussions were had about Medal of Honor Airborne Assault and whether I’d played Halo 3 yet). Judging by the Halo comments, I should have talked about the sf-nal nature of Halo 3 and Larry Niven’s Ringworld, I would have engaged the audience a lot better. A lesson learned…

Halo is SF? Yeah, actually.

It says something about the state of the written sf market when we sf writers have a hard time connecting with the users of something as wildly popular as Halo. Technically, these users should be our bread and butter — and don’t tell me they don’t read. YA is doing just fine, and manga, too.

More and more, I think games like Halo are creating something I’m starting to think of as the New SF Vernacular. The visual mediums are becoming the definers of SF. We as book and short story writers, because of our long and hallowed history, may think we’re the real heart of SF, but what if that just ain’t so? What if we need to mosey a little closer to that corner of folks over there, instead of insisting those darn kids need to come over here?

In the past, the pulps defined sf. And they did it by targeting a youthful audience. If I hark back to the days of yore when boys thumbed through trashy pages filled with aliens and tentacles and ray-guns and girls in bikinis, I think that the new pulp tradition will have to take its queues not from the vernacular of print sf, but from video game sf. Before the pulps, there was Jules Verne, after, there was an SF section in the bookstore. These days, I think it’s games like Halo and Quake, manga, and Star Wars(groan of disgust) movies that are really defining sf in the minds of youth, and much of written SF isn’t well connected with this up-armored, visually eye-popping world that’s running parallel to our own. Kids know about picking up a plasma gun, and a low-grav space battles, but don’t know they’re playing in sf-nal space. That’s pretty darn interesting.

So, for my thought exercise in SF magazine revitalization (with a monty-haul unlimited budget and unlimited business connections, of course :-) ), I’m thinking that I want to go after young males who speak a different sf-nal lingo than I grew up with, and I’m going to go and meet them on their turf, instead of wishing that they’d come and meet me on mine. Introducing…

Armored Magazine

I can already see the body-armored marine on the cover, with a spatter of blood on his faceplate.

Armored Magazine would be a combination of military sf short stories, action and shooter game reviews, and geek technology articles. Sort of a cross between WIRED, Popular Science, Baen Books, and Maxim, all with an SFnal and young male pimple and testosterone focus… and lots of things would get blown up. I’d make the magazine a standard format glossy color though-out, and I’d be targeted at the boys who play Halo3, Quake, Half-Life and other shooters. The fiction would be comprised of a couple of blistering adventures per issue. In terms of placement, I’d look to place the magazines in gaming stores and package them as free trials with Xbox 360 goodie bags… you get the idea. The main thing, though is that the focus of the entire project is on a consistent, reliable experience. Every month, readers would get another super-charged dose of large guns, wide-screen space opera, cool new tech, and things that explode. Consistent product for a targeted market with a clear selling point. In this case: Shit Explodes, Dude!

Between subscriptions and advertising, I think it would work. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t provide much of a market for the kind of sf that I write, so I’m still cheering for the big three.

15 Comments

  1. Dude, I think you’re totally on mark. Why? Because the first thing I thought was ‘I’d so subscribe to that magazine.’ LOL. This would be my dream magazine to write to.

  2. So if that kind of mag is targeted at your teenaged boys shoot like shoot-em games, what kind of mag should be targeted at teenaged girls who also like gaming?

    One of the biggest complaints I see over and over, one I’ve voiced myself, is that women writers aren’t getting enough coverage in the Big Three. Not they’re ignored, mind you, but all one has to do is take a look at the ratio of women writers to male writers in F&SF for a year or so and you can’t help but wonder what’s happening. YES, the editor may be drawn to stories that are more often penned by men, which gets into personal tastes, which is beside the point of your post.

    My point, though, is that this hypothetical magazine would be get another mag that targeted the male demographic, and while not ignoring the female demographic (I’m certain there’s girls out there who love shoot-em-up games), it certainly wouldn’t invite them over either.

    So my question is, what kind of magazine could be started from scratch that would target the female demographic? Women are into gaming too (for the record, I’m not), particularly RPGs. Granted, from what I hear, the whole gaming genre is very male-centric, but still…there’s a market. So I’m curious, on the basis of thought-experiments, just what kind of mag would do attract the girls as the hypothetical Armored Mag would attract the boys?

    Not trying to pick a fight or anything. I’m just genuinely curious. ;)

  3. Hi Shara,

    Great to hear from you. I’ve got a bunch of different thoughts about this, mostly because it opens up whole other lines of inquiry, so I’m going to set aside the general state of sf, and the sex mix of the magazines to hold tight to the original topic of selling sf short stories. I don’t dismiss the topics, and I take them seriously, but I want to stay focused on the idea of selling magazines for the moment.

    So, that said, I know that the _Armored_ concept isn’t PC. It’s not intended to be. Instead, it’s intended to focus an sf magazine at a definable market niche, and go after it with a vengeance. The concept isn’t about saving sf or broadening the discussion or making space for all voices, in fact, it’s painfully relentlessly deliberately exclusive.

    Why did I choose boys in that age range (yet another magazine targeted at the male demographic)? Because even though I don’t really understand those boys completely, I understand them enough to have a sense that I know how I – emphasis on me, personally – might go about attacking that demographic with a magazine. _Armored_ isn’t a call to arms saying that all sf shall henceforth be military sf with big guns, it’s a thought experiment using the tools that I have at my disposal, and which, based on what I’m seeing in gaming shops, would sell.

    To be flat-out honest, I know absolutely nothing about girls and young women in the same age range, so I can’t even hypothesize how to target them. I’d be lying if I said I knew how. I don’t know what girls in that age range play with, what they do, what they like, what they care about. I don’t know what books they read, what manga they like, what tv shows they watch, what they text message about. Nothing. Zero. Zip. And frankly, if I went out and started interviewing them, people would probably call me a lech for even trying to talk with them.

    So I don’t have a good answer for what the aggressively targeted female version of Armored would look like. Would it take it’s queues from some sort of manga that’s popular? Or from Goth culture? Or would it walk away from sf and lean towards fantasy? I can’t say. The one thing I can say, is that if it wants to sell copies it needs to meet its audience on their terms, rather than telling them to be something else. Maybe there’s an exploding market for sf with girls and young women readers, or maybe you have to go after them with fantasy instead, because the tropes work better. I get the feeling Fantasy Magazine might be leaning in this direction.

    So, to turn it around to you Shara, or others who read the blog, what would an aggressively focused sf (or f) magazine aimed at a female demographic in the 14-20 range look like? I’d be really interested in seeing ideas.

  4. Hey, thanks for answering! And I see you’ve devoted a post to the topic, which is awesome. After I left that comment, I started dwelling on the subject myself, and like you, I got the impression that a short story mag that leaned towards teenaged girls would probably have more to do with fantasy–urban/paranormal fantasy, to be exact, than SF.

    Which leads into another can of worms about feminist issues in SF, and like you, I agree one would want to tailor a magazine to the public that’s out there, not convince them that YOUR way was the way to go. So as far as SF goes in that regard, I have no clue. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of responses you get. :)

    But I agree that tailored magazines have a better chance at making it. Your thought experiment would be a good business model, and would also promote a healthy amount of debate about that kind of SF, which can be a good thing. There are women writing military SF, but I don’t know if that military SF reflects the stuff we see in video game or manga culture (probably because neither is a culture I’m a part of).

    Anyway, thanks for the food for thought. :)

  5. Armored Magazine already exists except it’s a weekly anthology comic and it’s published in the UK. It’s called 2000AD. An anachronistic title, I know, but it did start in 1977 when the creators had no idea that it would last so long. It’s the home of Judge Dredd, whom you might know from the film starring Sylvester Stallone. Surprise, surprise, it’s currently owned by Rebellion, a computer game company that also publishes the monthly sister mag, ‘The Judge Dredd Megazine’. (Yes, that’s Megazine, not Magazine.) The latter contains the film/media/games stuff; 2000AD is mainly comic stories.

    I think they both aim at a slightly older market than you’ve suggested in your posting. I don’t know what the circulation of 2000AD is now but I think it’s well above that of any of the big 3 US SF magazines (though, similar to them, it has had circulation problems now and then over the years). I imagine that the big 3 SF mags in the US aren’t really part of the national consciousness. However, 2000AD is still part of the national consciousness in the UK. It’s often referenced by (and said to have influenced) bands, comedians, artists, films etc.

    If you’re interested in more, take a look at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000AD or
    http://www.2000adonline.com/

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that there is a market, in the UK at least, for a magazine that does some of what Paolo has suggested.

  6. According to a recent BBC online article on 2000AD sales were only 20,000, though I wish they had explored this a bit further . . .

  7. I used to read 2000 AD as a kid, but for OTHER characters than Judge Dredd. I disliked him because he was such a heartless legalist. His robot was more human than he was! (There were other stories in 2000AD at that time than Judge Dredd’s.)

  8. Paolo—

    I don’t know if you know this, but SF writer Marc Laidlaw was responsible for much of the game HALF-LIFE. Warren Spector is also an SF fan and fairly active in SF fandom. There’s a fair amount of crossover between SF and computer games. However, whenever I’ve tried marketing to the computer game world, the effort has flopped.

    But I actually came over here to share something else. I got this tidbit from an online business-to-business newsletter about publishing. I don’t know who “the Eyeball” is, but I thought his/her point was worth sharing:

    ——————————————————————————–

    Let Them Play

    The Eyeball applauds magazine brands that are reaching out to social networks with widgets and other branded extensions. It is important for these brands to go where the kids are. But the Eyeball’s daughter tells him that she expects more from a widget than another news feed. When Teen Eyeball surfs the Web she and her friends gravitate to destinations most of us have never heard about, but appeal to kids because they help them add emoticons to chat session or wrap their Sims game characters in new clothes. The upshot is that young people are not looking to embrace your brands. Sorry, but get over it. Any magazine that truly feels that Teen Eyeball and her posse want to “align” with a voguish print brand are just delusional at this point. They want things that enhance their ability to communicate with one another. What these kids want is assets, wallpapers, skins, emoticons, video oddities, — stuff – they can use to express themselves.

    —Gordon V.G.

  9. Gordon Van Gelder said:

    >However, whenever I’ve tried marketing to the computer game world, the effort has flopped.

    Perhaps GvG needs to get into bed with a games company to bring in some investment, like has happened with 2000AD and The Judge Dredd Megazine. For a few years, they were run by successive publishing companies who had no idea what an SF magazine was useful for, then they were bought by Rebellion, presumably to help spin off games.

    The difference is that Rebellion owns the rights to all material in the magazine whereas the SF magazine publishers don’t. I can imagine that there might be room for partnerships somewhere, though.

  10. Gordon, my personal sense is that F&SF and the gaming community is not a good overlap, so it wouldn’t perform well. F&SF is general, interested in a broad range of fiction, and often cerebral in content; gaming, not so much. Try selling Carol Emshwiller to gamers. There’s just not a great product mesh. The marketing solutions for an F&SF or an Asimovs are not the same as the solutions for something like the _Armored_ thought experiment. I’d expect that both initial subscriptions and conversions would be low from this segment for F&SF.

    I think the biggest challenge for the big three is that they are not intensely defined. Because of their interest in a broad mix of stories, it’s much harder to define your niche and audience – High Country News had this problem as well, because we weren’t an entirely environmental newspaper, and also weren’t national, we were only focused on the western states, so we had to go hunting for other ways to find our readers.

    This difficulty in defining a definite direct mail audience is also why I think online marketing has a lot of potential, because it allows readers to prequalify themselves by arriving at your website, these are readers who are already interested generally in your content and so its worthwhile to try to bring them in and convert them. And these same readers are often people who you can’t really profile easily through direct mail.

  11. Hi Paolo. I know that you have other things on your plate right now, and very much hope that the difficulties are just a medicine reaction and nothing more serious. Hope you have better news by the time you read this. But since I posted this today, thought I’d drop a link here and also just mention directly that I found your posts on the magazine situation and this one in particular very insightful and enjoyable to read.

    http://homelessmoon.com/wordpress/?p=112

  12. I am so into subscribing to Armored Magazine that I don’t want to believe it’s not real.

    I’m really enjoying these posts on the whole Big 3 issue. And it’s nice to see various heavies – oh, wait. it’s just GvG – from them chime in.

    If I ever win the lottery, I am coming to your house n my blimp to pick you up so we can discuss your being the editor of Armored Magazine.

  13. I was looking at this entry again, and wanted to comment on this section:

    It says something about the state of the written sf market when we sf writers have a hard time connecting with the users of something as wildly popular as Halo.

    I’m not so sure. It’s risky to generalize about a group as large as Halo players, but I suspect that a lot of Halo players also enjoy games like Grand Theft Auto. It doesn’t follow that a similar percentage of SF readers would also enjoy crime fiction. What is most salient about Halo and GTA is that they’re games featuring a lot of shooting; the worlds in which they’re set contribute to the players’ enjoyment, but if the gameplay were unsatisfying, the settings wouldn’t be enough to attract a lot of people no matter how well realized they were. Given that written SF doesn’t provide any gameplay at all, I don’t know if Halo players are the natural audience for written SF.

    I’m not saying that there’s no market for fiction that targets gamers; I think the Halo tie-in novels have been quite successful, and a magazine that tried to emulate them might do well. But I don’t know that it necessarily reflects poorly on the state of written SF that Halo players aren’t automatically drawn to it.

  14. I (as a young sf-reading woman) would totally suscribe to Armored magazine – as long as there were women in armor (and defined be the armor, just as how Master Chief in Halo is defined by his armor) kicking ass with the men in armor. Instead of selling sex and explosions, you could sell sheer badassery and explosions – Samus and Ripley instead of Charlie’s Angels.

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