Science Fiction Magazines Part I – Why are the “Big Three” Dying?


There’s been a fair amount of talk about the die-off in the short fiction magazine markets. Interestingly, this is often played as indicating their loss of relevance either generationally (sf market is aging) or else technologically (The internet is where it’s at! All else will crumble and fall before it!) or else in the business model – (free content will triumph over paid content).

My perception however is that there are some specific things going on with the major sf magazines that heavily affect their success, and it doesn’t have much to do with the themes above. I’m riffing here based on my experience working at High Country News, where we spent a great deal of time worrying about expanding our readership and finding new subscribers online, and where we also had difficulty fitting into a defined niche. We also had concerns about aging readerships, which I see as being roughly parallel to the difficulties of being a general sf magazine. So I’m taking some of my lessons from my experience there, and also throwing in some of my own opinions.

I’d like to lead off by saying that sf magazines have been *the* thing that brought me success as a writer. I owe everything — my Hugo and Nebula Award nominations, and Theodore Sturgeon Award win, my readers, my agent, and a good chance at getting my novel-in-progress published — to the fact that I was able to build a name for myself in the short fiction arena.

I have a huge respect for what they do, particularly in helping get writers noticed who don’t fit into easy and marketable sf niches. If I wrote military sf, or high fantasy, or paranormal romance, I might never have needed the magazines, but because what I do is less easily categorized, the magazines have given me a huge boost.

Also, regarding magazines, its good to remember that even when a magazine is gaining in circulation, it is *always* losing subscribers. It’s just that they’re gaining back more than the number they lose. This churn affects the cost of maintaining a magazine’s circulation level. The higher the circulation is and the harder a magazine works to expand its readership, the more it costs to gain each new subscriber. This is a classic example of the economic concept of diminishing returns. The more you try to win over people who are only marginally interested in your product, the more you have to work (and pay) to get them, and the harder it is to keep them. When a magazine has filled its niche, it becomes increasingly hard to find new subscribers to replace the ones it loses.

For magazines, it’s good to go after the low-hanging fruit – the people who best match your demographic range, your overall philosophy, etc — these are your core markets. During the good and easy times, your core market comes and finds you — for example Yoga Journal, a health magazine, is experiencing phenomenal growth, thanks to major demographic trends.

My impression is that all of the major sf magazines came into existence during the fat days of short fiction. There were no video games, or twenty zillion channels of tv. There weren’t so many fun sf movies and sf series out there. The magazines were in a demographic sweet spot. Now they’re not.

Over the last several years, High Country News‘ circulation held steady or grew very slightly to 24,000 readers – not amazing, but still a relatively healthy statistic in a time when many news magazines are losing readership (flat is the new up!) – but that number hides the fact that there was quite a lot of work going on behind the scenes to keep replacing the subscribers who churned out of the system.

So, what’s going on with the big three? Are they really meant to death-spiral because of aging readership, irrelevance of content, the advent of the oh-so-sexy internet, and because no one wants to read short fiction anymore?

My personal sense is that the falling circulation isn’t so much a problem of the short sf market as much as it may be a problem of the internal culture in the magazines. Specifically, their lack of marketing.

Cory Doctorow has posted some thoughts on ways the magazines might leverage the internet for better marketing, and they’re good ideas, but there’s a lot more that could be done, much of it more basic than what he describes. If I haven’t bored you out of your skull already, stay tuned for Science Fiction Magazines Part II, tomorrow, when I talk about the basics of marketing in meat space.