Science Fiction Magazines Part IV – Starting from Scratch

Published:

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.