The rise of the genre ezine: Will it ever find a profitable model?

(Correction below)

If there is one major criticism to be made of the now-defunct online magazine Event Horizon, it’s that it was too ahead of its time.

Ellen Datlow, a former fiction editor for OMNI (a science magazine that was published under the same owner as Penthouse) and a veteran within the short fiction scene, collaborated with three former colleagues to launch the magazine in November 1998. It published original and classic genre fiction, held regular online chats with authors, ran interviews with writers, and published nonfiction columns.

It was among the first speculative fiction ezines to rise out of the primordial ooze of the internet — before the word “Google” became ubiquitous, before even the term “blog” was first coined — and make a stab at profitability.

“The idea was to sell advertising on the site plus brand Event Horizon Web Productions—our corporation, which produced several online conventions for EOS books and other online events,” Datlow told me in December. “We each put up a bit of money. I was the publisher and edited all the fiction. Rob Killheffer edited the nonfiction and created the look and feel of the website and worked on the back end of whatever needed to be done. Pamela Weintraub and Kathleen Stein worked at soliciting projects for our web production company and helped out with regular events such as our chat sessions, and sold advertising.”

But the site failed to find much in advertising, and the group didn’t have the time to chase down their few advertisers for payment. In July 1999, a mere eight months later, the magazine folded.

Datlow’s next position at the helm of an online magazine lasted much longer. Shortly after Event Horizon shut down, she was approached by SciFi.com (the online presence for the Sci Fi Channel) and asked to become the fiction editor for a new ezine they were launching. In 2000, SCI FICTION was born.

The ezine had a relatively simple format; every week, like clockwork, it published a piece of original science or fantasy short fiction and one classic reprint. The stories were then stored in online archives.

“This occurred during one of the tech bubbles when websites were paying ridiculous amounts of money for ‘partnerships’ that were in reality worth nothing,” Datlow said. “Despite such missteps, SciFi.com evolved into a wonderful, content-rich site with animation, Seeing Ear Theatre, SCIFICTION, SF Weekly…and other exciting components. There was advertising but there was no dedicated advertising department.”

This was because the website itself was the advertising. SCI FICTION and all its sister publications were a form of branding for the Sci Fi Channel. This meant that the owners could use it to promote its shows and at the same time expand its reach over another form of media.
scifi logo
Over the next few years the online magazine went on to become an award-winning juggernaut within the speculative fiction community. Because it paid per-word rates higher than any other genre magazine (both print and online) and was headed by a well-respected editor, it quickly gained street cred with popular writers. It wasn’t long before stories published in SCI FICTION made it onto the finalist ballots of just about every major SF award. In 2002 and 2005, Datlow received the Hugo Award for Best Editor, perhaps the most prestigious honor for someone within her profession.

But despite these accomplishments, in 2005 SCI FICTION met its end. In 2004, NBC bought the Sci Fi Channel, and Datlow told me that even though the fiction site was pulling in “good numbers,” it wasn’t performing quite as well as other sections of SciFi.com. Soon, she was informed that the ezine would close its doors forever.

Datlow told me about this decision through email — so it was impossible for me to pick up any non-verbal cues — but I couldn’t help but detect a degree of frustration in her writing. “What I think boggles my mind the most about the Sci Fi Channel is the squandered opportunity,” she wrote. “The channel had first look at hundreds of stories I published over six years. Surely, if someone had been on the ball they could have easily picked up some of the fiction for development in one of their anthology shows or have started a new show featuring stories from SCIFICTION.”

Whether this would have worked is unknown. Not only did the site cease from publishing new stories, its online archives were eventually wiped clean. You might still find them in a Google cache, but otherwise you’d hardly be able to tell that SCI FICTION existed at all.

The publication’s demise highlights an interesting question — one that has been asked at numerous science fiction conventions and online discussions: Has short genre fiction lost its ability to be profitable?

The field reached its apogee in the mid-20th century, when stories appeared mainly in pulp magazines. Its name derived from the cheap wood pulp paper on which it was published, it was not uncommon for a pulp magazine to have a readership in the hundreds of thousands. In high school, I read an anthology introduction written by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov (who died in 1992). I found the book in a used book store and it had been published sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, if I remember correctly. Somewhere within this introduction, Asimov touched briefly on the state of genre fiction, saying that a “successful” magazine had a circulation of at least 100,000.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the market today would laugh at such a number. According to Locus Magazine (“The Magazine Of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Field”), two of the three remaining speculative fiction pulp magazine have circulations lower than 20,000. Analog, which specializes in “hard science fiction,” isn’t doing much better, with a circulation of just over 23,000.

These three are considered the lucky ones. Most of the others had all died out before the end of the 20th century.

Many have blamed this demise partly on the internet, saying that many of those readers — like the readers of most newspapers– were flocking to the internet. But if this is so, why is there such a noticeable lack of profitability online? Other than SCI FICTION, no publication that has appeared on the web could even be remotely compared to the magnitude of the pulp magazines that were published 50 years ago.

So will the genre ezine ever find a profitable model?

***

To answer this question, we must first consider the growing number of genre ezines spread out across the web. Many of these sites pay writers — some at decent rates — even if they’re not necessarily bringing in significant income. A few of these publications have at least succeeded at breaking even — not an easy feat.

Perhaps the most noticeable example of this is an online magazine called Strange Horizons. According to its editor, the ezine was a collaborative effort between several genre writers who grew dissatisfied with the short fiction that was being published at the time. So they spent a few months creating an organizational infrastructure and lining up funding, and in late 2000 the magazine officially launched.

The fiction published in Strange Horizons tends to be literary in nature, different from the plot-oriented science fiction that often appears in the pulp magazines. I’ve also noticed that the themes in its stories are often politically left-leaning (it’s not uncommon to read a piece about gender roles and the characters in the stories are more diverse).
strange horizons logo
The ezine certainly found its niche; over the last few years it has developed a large following, and many of the stories published there have been nominated for awards and reprinted in numerous year’s best anthologies. What’s more, the group behind Strange Horizons has been able to sufficiently monetize the site so that it can pay its content-producers competitive rates.

Susan Marie Groppi is the magazine’s current editor-in-chief. She joined its editorial staff not long after they launched the publication, becoming one of three fiction editors. A few years later the former editor-in-chief, Mary Anne Mohanraj, stepped down and Groppi took her place.

A little over a month ago, I asked the editor to explain the ezine’s funding mechanisms. “We rely almost entirely on donations,” she told me. “About half of our annual operating budget comes from regular reader donations–most of that comes in during the fund drives, but we get a significant amount of money from out-of-season donations as well. We get another couple thousand dollars a year from small organization grants and from things like the Amazon Affiliates program. The rest of our budget is drawn from a few private donors who have asked to remain anonymous.”

These anonymous contributions can sometimes be substantial. A source familiar with the magazine told me that a single anonymous donor gave as much as $5,000 during at least one fund drive. Whoever it is, the person has deep pockets. Either way, Groppi said that the amount given by the smaller donors is significantly increasing, to the point that the magazine relies less and less on its bigger backers.

The result? An ezine that pays its writers competitive rates and is arguably the most widely-read publication of its kind.

But all of its behind-the-scene editors are unpaid. They read through writer and artist submissions as volunteers and any increase in fundraising often goes into upping the rate they pay their writers. Not only is Strange Horizons not profitable, it doesn’t attempt to be.

A website called Futurismic has implemented a surprisingly unique approach by being centered around a blog that is updated daily. I say “surprisingly” because relatively few of the ezines I visited while researching this article use blogging on the sites themselves. Many of the editors and staff of these magazines have blogs, but they’re typically hosted off-site, a decision that I think truncates the effects blogs can have on driving traffic to the sites.

Futurismic has over 1,200 RSS subscribers, and as far as I can tell the fiction and columns are published in the form of blog posts, something I would consider an interesting approach. Paul Raven is the site’s nonfiction editor, and he told me that it’s his job to keep the site flowing with fresh content in between the publication of short stories and articles.

Futurismic used to have ads to support it – from Pajamas Media, ironically enough” — Pajamas Media is an advertising network that is typically right-of-center, with a few exceptions — “which meant people often found it confusing when our content was leaning to the left. I’m not privy to the figures, but I believe the ads made enough to pay the writers for their fiction, keep the hosting bills paid off, and pay for incidental expenses.”

But because of what he mysteriously labeled “technical problems,” the site went a period of time without being updated, causing the traffic to go under whatever bare minimum was required by Pajamas Media. Though the website is updated daily, it hasn’t published any fiction since 2007. Raven said that once the site is publishing new fiction again that they would likely try to offer advertising, though he wasn’t privy to the exact details. Interview questions sent to the publisher of Futurismic were not answered.

Futurismic is at least as much a blog as a zine, at the moment even more so, and that’s what’s kept our name on the market for so long,” Raven said. “Without the blog, this long fiction hiatus would have killed us off stone dead. I think bolstering the fiction with other content is a good move, but it has to be the right stuff. Futurismic’s fiction remit is quite precise…and so our blogging fits to the tastes of those who like the same stuff. Our content wouldn’t work at, say, Fantasy Magazine, or even Asimov’s. And vice versa.”

In other words, fresh content is better than no content. Many of the ezines I visited are published on a monthly — or sometimes even quarterly — schedule, meaning that weeks go by without new content. As many mainstream monthly magazines are learning — The Atlantic comes to mind — it’s almost impossible to develop a loyal reader base online when your publishing schedule is so spread out.

For instance, an ezine called Abyss & Apex publishes on a quarterly schedule. Several of its editors have blogs, but they’re hosted on Livejournal and other off-site platforms. Wendy Delmater, one of its editors, is a friend of mine, and I asked her last month how traffic is driven to her site. Like the others I interviewed, she acknowledged that links from blogs and online message boards brought in a substantial percentage of the magazine’s readers. But a brief look at the website shows that there isn’t much new content published in between issues. Many of the readers have to wait up to three months until the next batch of stories are put up. In internet time, that’s an eternity.
abyss and apex logo
When I asked Eric Marin, publisher of a genre ezine called Lone Star Stories, about online publications such as his attracting links, he seemed to recognize this challenge that editors will have to overcome if they want to achieve profitability. “In order to garner serious ad revenue, an ezine has to have a lot of visitors [and] downloaders and high-value linking,” he said. “To gain both, an ezine needs funds to spread the word about itself. If funding does not exist for heavy-duty, long-term marketing, ad revenue will not arrive in sufficient amounts to keep the ezine afloat for any length of time.”

***

It’s worth pausing for a moment to note that most of the ezine editors I interviewed for this article have day jobs, and if I had bothered to ask them to categorize their editorial practices within the larger framework of their lives, the word “hobby” would have surfaced. More than half of them don’t even attempt to bring in revenue; they’ve accepted the fact that any payment given to writers would come directly out of their own pockets.

To date, there have been few serious entrepreneurs who have tackled this profitability question. A cloud of pessimistic realism has overcome many in the genre, and discussions seem to focus more on the decline on the pulp magazines and how to reverse it rather than the rise of the ezines.

When we talk about advertising, the value of a website is often based on its niche. Advertisers, in their eternal quest to get maximum efficiency for their dollars, tend to seek out forms of media that are frequented by the demographic they’re trying to reach. This is why advertisements in Wired Magazine tend to be focused on technology and the ads that appear on a political website like Daily Kos are often sponsored by special interest groups.

Here lies the difficulty for short genre fiction; it fits into such a specialized niche that it can often be difficult to monetize.Add to this the fact that many of the subscription-based ezines that have emerged — where the stories are hidden behind a pay wall — have failed to gain much traction, and you can begin to appreciate the hurdle that these editors must overcome.

In my research for this article, I came across two online magazines that had found a way to confront these problems. Both used a revenue strategy very similar to the one employed with Event Horizon and SCI FICTION, and that is single-sponsor branding.

***

If you’ll remember, the people behind SCI FICTION didn’t make many serious efforts to find advertisers because the site itself was a form of advertising for the Sci Fi Channel. Brett Alexander Savory, editor of a dark fiction publication called Chizine (disclosure: I’ve had a story published there), once tried the traditional routes of finding advertisers for his site.

“From ’99 to ’01, I tried the trolling-for-advertisers schtick, but it wore me the fuck out,” he told me in December. “I don’t envy anyone in that position.”

Savory, who by day works at Scholastic Canada as a Senior Editor, launched Chizine in 1997, and back then it was called The Sick Fuckers Club, a name that he recognizes now “wasn’t exactly the most professional name we could have come up with.”

After trying unsuccessfully to search out advertisers, he eventually reached an agreement in mid-2001 with a book publisher of dark fiction called Leisure Books. The way the deal was set up was that Chizine would advertise for Leisure’s titles almost exclusively, and in return the publisher would cover all the magazine’s costs.

“They’ve been really great,” Savory said. “Basically, I create banners for their horror line and they give me cheques to pay the writers and editors. They have zero hand in the editorial decisions, too, which is wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better set-up.”

Because of this agreement, not only does Chizine pay its writers above professional rates, starting in 2008 it will begin to pay its behind-the-scenes staff, something almost unheard of with publications of its kind.

The creators of Clarkesworld Magazine tried a similar approach. Neil Clarke, the owner of an online bookseller called Clarkesworld Books, initially launched the magazine as a way to drive readers to purchasing books from the website. “The whole thing spun out of a conversation with [Prime Books founder] Sean Wallace at Readercon,” Clarke said. “The business model was flushed out shortly afterwards. It was decided that each issue would include two stories, paid at a professional rate, and that one of them would be solicited.”

The two brought in author Nick Mamatas to slush through the unsolicited fiction submissions and in October 2006 they published the first issue.

In 2007, Clarkesworld Books mostly closed (it still has some inventory it’s selling off), but the magazine continued to come out, this time promoting a new publishing venture headed by Clarke called Wyrm Publishing. “We receive our funding through sales of signed chapbook editions of each issue, an annual anthology…secondary sales through Clarkesworld Books (when it was still open), donations, and advertising/affiliate programs,” he said. “At present, our advertising space is used to promote Wyrm Publishing projects.”

This trend is beginning to catch on. Prime Books has launched Fantasy Magazine, and though my questions to Wallace were mainly focused on Clarkesworld, it appears that Fantasy implements a similar business model — the theory that readers of free short genre fiction will turn into buyers for genre books. The ezine uses a blogging format, regularly invites readers to “blog for a beer,” and both it and Clarkesworld offer RSS feeds.
fantasy magazine
So will this business model work? It’s hard to say; with the exception of Chizine, these publications are relatively new, and I wasn’t given access to any actual income figures for what these magazines are pulling in. And when I asked Mamatas, who reads submissions for Clarkesworld, about the probability of ezines becoming profitable, he gave a sobering reply. “I think it’s important to note that most fiction magazines in the print world are either university-backed non-profits, labors of love, or the least successful of a cross-subsidized bundle of properties that are kept around because fiction copy is much cheaper than non-fiction copy,” he said. “In the periodical trade in general, churn is also very high. Magazines come and go all the time, regardless of their subject, market, or demographic. The magazine business is ultimately the business of selling people disposable content. The challenge of the ezine isn’t all that much different than the challenge of any other magazine, except that if anyone knew what the “best bet” was, they likely wouldn’t try it out on SF ezines when they could launch another massive slick with 75% ad pages.”

To underscore this point, let me leave you with a telling figure. Ralan.com is a website that tracks short fiction markets for writers, mainly in the speculative fiction genre. In a section of Ralan called “dead markets,” it lists all the genre magazines that have folded and ceased publication over the last few years. Many, if not most, of those listed are genre ezines.

The number of dead markets listed?

649.

***
CORRECTION: In this article, I state that Event Horizon was published for eight months before it folded. It was published for an entire year. I regret the error.

10 Comments

  1. Paul Raven Says:

    I wasn’t trying to be mysterious about our technical difficulties – I just didn’t think you’d want the details! :)

    Anyway, as you may have noticed, the game is afoot at Futurismic – spooky how the announcement came on the same day that you published this piece, but we’re going to publishing fiction at Futurismic again starting 3rd March. Will it be profitable? Who knows. But it will, if nothing else, be damned good fiction!

  2. Erin Hoffman Says:

    This is an excellent overview of the state-of-the-biz in online genre magazines — very well organized and with a lot of pertinent details about these I didn’t know. Thanks very much.

  3. N.E. Lilly Says:

    Great article, and pretty comprehensive too.

    No Jim Baen’s Universe? No Intergalactic Medicine Show? Both of which should have been included in your exploration of profitability.

    Sure 90% of all markets have died, but 90% of all new businesses close in the first year.

    What about the smaller ‘zines that have popped up recently? SpaceWesterns.com (discolsure: I edit this), Spacesuits and Sixguns, Raygun Revival

    What about the new markets that have only just opened. On Ralan’s (between Jan 14 and Feb 6) 8 new markets were added – 6 of which were webzines, and 1 of which is a podzine.

    And finally, what about the changing form of the zine: EscapePod, PseudoPod, etc.

  4. Jennifer Pelland Says:

    Helix (www.helixsf.com) is another online magazine that’s running solely on donations, but unlike Strange Horizons, they pay the authors based on the donations that came in during the quarter that their story/poem was on the main page. It’s managed to get stories on the preliminary Nebula both last year and this year, which isn’t bad for a new magazine.

  5. Kaolin Fire (GUD Magazine) Says:

    Good article. I hadn’t realized there were so many ezines going the single-sponsor route. GUD Magazine is currently doing the “deep pockets, maybe things will pick up” rain dance.

    Our attempt at content generation between issues is to do book reviews (and we then raffle off those books to commenters).

    It’s definitely tough to keep people coming back when we only publish two issues a year. I spend a lot of time on social networks and the like doing promotion. One thing that keeps our traffic up is that we only accept submissions through the website, and we do our editing and editorial communication largely through the site as well.

    We’re also trying hard to make our content as un-”disposable” as possible. We want people to buy every issue, regardless of when they find us. We print on paper that should last dozens if not hundreds or thousands of re-readings, while making cheaper e-versions available for the “want to read it on the screen” crowd. But the “read it on the screen” crowd still seems to be much smaller than the folks who want to hold paper in their hands… or we haven’t figured out how to attract them (perhaps they’re reading all the free content online).

  6. Jordan Lapp Says:

    I’d just like to bring your attention to Every Day Fiction, an online magazine that specializes in flash. While it’s not exclusively genre stuff, we aim for about 50% sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

    The reason I’m commenting here is that we have a different profit model from what you mention above. We post one flash fiction story every day and allow RSS subscriptions, or we can e-mail a story to your mailbox. Currently, we have approximately 1100 subscribers (600+ RSS, 500+ e-mail).

    Our format allows for some unique profit opportunities. In addition to Google Adsense and a yearly anthology, we can also go through Feedburner to place ads right into our RSS feed, or we can syndicate our stories through several social networking sites. We’re also looking at putting together a daily “podcast” and selling ads for that.

    Also, by mixing our genre/non-genre content we can do several things. First, we aim to attract non-genre readers to sci-fi/fantasy/horror through exposure. Lure’m in with contemporary, then expose them to genre. Secondly, we archive our stories by genre so readers can click on the sci-fi category, and EDF becomes a sci-fi magazine.

    We’ve only been around for five months, but already we’ve attracted a huge number of subscribers. Consider checking us out at http://www.everydayfiction.com

  7. Robert Nagle Says:

    Good article (again). I blogged about it for teleread . Great anecdotes. It’s funny because I’m working on an ezine now as we speak…and I know it’s a major time sink. I think the hardest problem is not monetizing but just convincing people to read online creative writing in general. You really didn’t address the possibilities that ebooks offer for monetization. The ezines haven’t really done that (although Baen publishers has some zine-to-ebook things going on.

  8. CV Rick Says:

    How do you feel about the podcast models for short fiction profitability? I’m familiar with Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and James Patrick Kelly who has put a bunch of his fiction in audio form.

  9. Business funding Says:

    Hi Robert, That’s a nice comment. I agree with you that Simon has not talked much about the e books offered monetization possibilities. That is a very fetching and interesting topic most of the people would be looking for. Try this out Simon.

  10. betsy dornbusch Says:

    Great overview of the market. We, too, run an ezine. While our hits are not stellar, they’re steady for a tri-annual. We finance it ourselves, and while it’s too much work to call it a hobby, it’s definitely a labor of love.

    I think the hardest problem is not monetizing but just convincing people to read online creative writing in general.

    My feeling is that we are on the cusp of readers seeing the value of short fiction on the web, but right now people:

    a) won’t pay because there’s too much free content available

    b) don’t trust the quality of online fiction. There’s a lot of unedited junk out there passing itself off as quality fiction, from blogs to actual paying markets.

    Fact is, this leading edge reader can barely get through my print magazines at home, but I read fiction and non fic online, sitting at my desk at lunch or in the evenings before bed. (Mostly while putting off work.) I don’t think I’m so odd. As connection technology improves, people will view the internet more and more as a venue for mainstream entertainment. Ezines just have to figure out how to catch that tailwind.


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