The Pulps and the Electronic World

PBS’ MediaShift Web site has an article called “Pulp Magazines Struggle to Survive in Wired World,” in which I am quoted rather extensively (indeed, I have my own section in the article) about science fiction print magazines, their online counterparts, and what it all means in the long run for literary science fiction. You’ll not be surprised that I am not hugely optimistic about the long-term prospects for the print magazines at the moment, although you may be surprised to discover that I think their current situation has less to do with the Web than it has to do with what they were doing even before then (or more accurately, what they weren’t doing).

I have more thoughts on the state of the pulps than made it into the article, of course. I would share them with you now, but my wife just came through the door with dinner. So that’s what I’m going to do in the short term. Nevertheless I encourage you to check out the article, and I might come back to the topic later.

30 thoughts on “The Pulps and the Electronic World

  1. Perhaps the decline of the pulps can simply be expressed thus: there ‘aint that many readers who do short fiction no more!

    Honestly, if I’d not discovered Larry Niven and his short fiction in 1992, it’s very likely I’d never have learned to love the form, and would not have ever bothered to even have a subscription to F&SF, or Asimov’s; much less seek them out at the local Big Brick store.

    How many of our younger readers (younger being relative; for me, that’s anyone under 30…) are ever exposed to well-done short SF & F, as opposed to novel-length works? If I look around at the world right now, I see the “young people” gobbling up media SF & F on television and the big screen, with media tie-in fiction being very huge. A 30-and-under science fiction fan need never even bother with short fiction at all, and might not have even been exposed to any short fiction that piqued their interest.

    And if the number of people who even like or seek out short SF & F is declining and/or aging, no amount of marketing is likely to alter that; not unless we suddenly see a media tie-in paradigm shift that see Asimov’s or Analog doing Battlestar Galactica short fiction every month, or maybe Spiderman or Batman short fiction.

    The legal entanglements in such a set-up with by nightmarish, but unless there is some kind of carrot that can lead the young people to the well, as it were, I think the short SF & F field is going to keep having a hard time, and very well may become a pet project for big book publishers alone; as a way to seek out and develop “farm talent”, in the way Baen’s has been doing with its Slush forums, and Jim Baen’s Universe web-zine.

  2. And of course, OCD me only notices that you contracted “will” into “you’ll” instead of “not” into “won’t” (which isn’t even a legitimate contraction, IMO).

    And for that, I <3.

    Also, I’m curious to know what kind of dinner (i.e., MSG-loaded fast food? I’m an MSG conspiracy theorist – it’s in everything. Doesn’t stop me from eating fast food, though.)

  3. There are some good questions here.

    I think the biggest problem the pulps have is exposure. If no one knows about them, how are they going to buy them. Another is format: young people (and the best new readers to get are young people) are not attracted by densely packed layers of text.

    Take my case: I started on the pulps with the third issue of Asimovs which I bought new when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I’m forty-five now and still reading them. We need to get more people like my thirteen-year-old self interested because they’re the ones who’ll sustain the next thirty years or more.

    Unfortunately I felt the article as a whole was weak, and the author slighted Analog to build up F&SF and to a lesser degree Asimovs. Analog is the oldest surviving pulp, and has the largest circulation of the SF pulps but was dismissed as having “launched a few years earlier.” Eighteen years is more than just a few, especially in the magazine industry. There was also the categorization of F&SF as “one of the oldest” when in age it’s in the middle of a field of three for SF, the middle of a field of five for pulps.

    I don’t mean to dismiss F&SF, I still buy and read it, and I understand that the author wanted to focus on the magazine with the greatest drop, but it still felt dismissive.

    There was also the lack of any reference to Jim Baen’s Universe (which Sub-Odeon referred to above) which has been paying professional rates and in publication for the last three years using a mixture of free and paid content in combination with club memberships.

    Still, that doesn’t eliminate the crux of the problem. The magazines need new readers.

  4. 3 Sub-Odeon:Speaking as one of those twentysomethings that doesn’t do short fiction I think it has less to do with the lack of media tie-ins and more just the general theme of the material being put out. I’ll read story summaries and reviews of issues on occasion. Nothings really piqued my interest enough to plunk down for a year subscription. In my very unscientific survey I kept noticing how bloody depressing most of the short stories were. I’m not saying that they’re all downers but a lot of them seem to be. If I want depressing I’ll watch CNN.

  5. Man, that was a frustrating read, if only because I so very much want F&SF to succeed, and I just don’t think they’re going to take the online plunge. Sending out review copies for bloggers was great, and I love it when they put stories up for free. But, dammit, they should just get an intern to post stuff to the blog every frigging day (and by “intern,” I mean “enthusiastic geek who will do this for free”), buy some ads Penny Arcade and some WoW forums and court those new readers. There are nerds everywhere, and they would be willing to part with their hard-earned cash if you just threw some good stuff their way.

  6. For what it’s worth at least the last three or four years of F&SF is available online at Fictionwise, and they do offer electronic subscriptions. (Mine lapsed recently but I should renew it soon.)

    In fact you can get subscriptions to all five magazines mentioned in the article from Fictionwise, as well as Interzone.

  7. jmnlman@6

    Analog tends to have more positive stories than the other two. Yes they may be a bit old-fashioned, but you tend to have less depressing endings.

  8. I know this next is futile. I knew it’s a linguistic battle long since lost. I know I probably shouldn’t say anything. But I’ve spent the last four years of my life researching and reading the pulps (for a book), and I feel compelled to say:

    F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, etc, aren’t pulps. They aren’t printed on wood pulp. They’re just digests. Or, better still, why not just call them genre fiction magazines? Not pithy enough?

    AFAIK, Ellery Queen’s subscription numbers aren’t much (if any) better than F&SF’s. This isn’t a problem just with sf.

    I know, I know. Your subject was why the magazines’ numbers are down, not about the pulps, and I’m just nitpicking your use of the term “pulps,” a term which has come to mean so much more than it once did. Sorry.

  9. Hey Jess, I made sure to note that they’re called pulps because of the paper they *used to be printed on*. I definitely think that term has stayed despite the fact that they’re no longer printed on pulp; the term is somewhat colloquial.

    Thanks for your feedback, and feel free to comment in the comments section of the article.

  10. By that standard they haven’t been pulps for most of their existence. The change in paper from the thirties issues to mid-forties was noticeable.

  11. I wish the article explained what exactly the circulation changes were that hurt the magazines. Because you know, both Van Gelder and John mentioned it. There is probably a lot more to the problem, but if it’s a major contributor to the magazines’ decline, it’d be nice to get an explanation of what happened.

  12. Blue Tyson:

    It’s more accurate to say the average sf novel shipped 75k copies as paperback originals. Whether all those novels sold was another matter entirely. Also, the distribution model was drastically different then than it is now.

    Note also that even in those days the vast majority of SF writers didn’t make enough to be full-time writers. The number of SF writers living solely off their fiction has always been a very small percentage.

  13. I’m somewhat disappointed with the article and also with Subterranean Press. I sent this email:

    I assume from the archaic “sold out” references and the postage cost that most (all?) of what you’re selling is deadwood editions. Do you sell any modern content, and if so how do I find it? I’m quite fond of reading but these days mostly read on my liseuse or if I must, buy second hand deadwood editions (and frequently scan them before
    reading).

    I commented on the article in place to the effect that I am a subscriber to two of those magazines via Fictionwise.com but prior to that my exposure was through cheap second hand copies of the deadwood editions. Which may be why there’s not much money in the old-school magazine publishing business any more.

  14. I think the article started heading in the right direction of where the magazines need to go. And John, you nailed it on them being on the defensive and not getting new readers.

    My suggestion on getting new readers? Look at what the readers are watching. There’s a whole generation of sci-fi and fantasy fans watching *stuff*. Use that for your new base. The magazine people should talk to the media people. I think you could do wonders if during off-season the magazines are printing legitimate, licensed shorts (episodic, if you will) of Battlestar G, or Stargate Atlantis, Heroes or hell, even Pushing Up Daisies.. whatever works. That would open the doors to new readers and writers alike.
    IMHO.

  15. I like “deadwood”, actually I like hardcovers. (there is difference between an electronic copy of something and actual paper, being able to read on a plane and not worrying about batteries and ‘turning off electronic devices’ etc.

    I don’t buy “pulps”. They are relatively expensive, not a particularly pleasant reading experience (quality of paper, printing etc) and content is hit or miss. Short fiction IS something I enjoy, there are plenty of “Year’s Best” etc. collections that I purchase.

    How can SF/F periodicals be more successful? – I can’t speak for the entire market – but when I am looking for a magazine , I expect color illustrations, engaging stories, readable text etc. I come to this blog because John posts on a number of subjects that I find interesting and has a ‘voice’ I find enjoyable/engaging (plus it looks like I’m working) Since I haven’t even looked at a pulp in a while, I’m not sure if they offer this:

    1) articles by SF writers and/or other relevant people about topics that relate to SF – but not just about the new releases of books? something like “Climate change and future sci fi settings, climate experts chime in” or “Current research shows how teleporters might work” or “Political messages in classic scifi”

    2) 1st chapters of books not yet released accompanying reviews of said books

    3) Short stories by authors I care about set (See Johns OMW universe story at Subterranean press)

    4) Color illustrations, ink that doesn’t stain my fingers

    5) special offers on purchasing books revied in the issue or by featured artists or something – How many $5 magazines would they sell if they included a $5 off coupon to barnes and noble or whatever?

  16. @Adam@#7: Nailed it. The arrival of a new edition of a magazine should feel for me, a 25-year-old, like the arrival of a new manga volume — reviews everywhere, value-added content inside, contests and discussion and all manner of participation available.

    I wrote a 2,100-word story this Saturday. I like to think that it’s complete, and fun, and full of just enough humour, tech, and violence to make me and others happy. But learning how to write something that short has taken me about two years. And looking at things like pulp sales stats, I have to wonder why I worked so hard to learn to write things in a “saleable” format. (My answer would be that I saw something I believed to be quite difficult and set out to achieve it, namely gaining control of my wordcounts.)

    Conversely, online readers actually want longer works. If you check out comments at Tor.com and Futurismic (or even Futurismic’s submission guidelines, which has a fantastically huge wordcount limit), the readers love digging in and savouring a real feast of a story. So it seems like a question of economy: it’s tough to print pulps with multiple authors and long blocks of fiction, because then you’re selling anthologies and not magazines. It seems the only alternative is to emphasize what magazines do best — re-brand them, not in terms of how similar they are to other formats, but in terms of how unique they are. I’ve been persuaded to purchase manga volumes solely on the basis of a strong review, and I know I’d feel the same regarding magazines too.

  17. I wonder how much it costs to produce a single copy of Analog or Asimov’s, as opposed to a single copy of a paperback novel? How difficult would it be for a publisher like DAW or TOR or BAEN to begin producing quarterly or even bi-monthly “short story paperbacks” that are not “Best of the Year” anthologies, but rather novel-sized-and-shaped short story collections? Using a standard short story editorial process? (ergo: open slush combined with high-end submissions and by-request pieces from the pros) Use the existing marketing architecture for novels to “flow” such novel-like collections to the Big Brick stores.

    Or perhaps I have simply re-invented the theme anthology?

    Anyway, I think a lot of the problem is that the people who would read SF&F short material, are never looking for it over in the magazine shelves. They’re over in the SF&F shelves checking out books from their favorite authors. If the books publishers did “short story paperbacks” and made sure the names of the big authors were prominent on both cover and spine, and these paperbacks were where the other paperbacks are, I bet the sales would go up.

    Whether or not this would actually prove to be a profitable venture, is anyone’s guess. My hunch is it would have to be a “literary philanthropy” project by the book publishers: neither a huge money maker nor a huge money loser. Something done for the sake of keeping short fiction alive and healthy, and to also allow a conduit for new writers to break into the field in the traditional model: short fiction sales first, then graduate to novels.

  18. Jason Mitchel @ #22,

    The last magazine that I remember doing much of what you described, was Science Fiction Age. Sadly, that market did not live very long, and Scott Edelman is now editor over at Sci-Fi’s “Science Fiction Weekly” on-line news, reviews, ‘and fun stuff’ web site.

  19. I remember Science Fiction Age; I believe it was related to Realms of Fantasy. I know the two magazines had a very similar design and trade dress.

    Yes it was bright, glossy and colorful. It was also much harder for me to read than the pulps. I read it for a while then went back to reading the pulps. A few months ago I picked up an issue of Realms of Fantasy – big, glossy, color illustrations – the works.

    I couldn’t read it.

    I’m not talking about the stories, but the presentation killed me. They did things like thin white lettering on a black background for two pages in the middle of a story and I couldn’t make out the words without straining. Also, the large floppy format made longer pieces of fiction harder to read.

    The pulps are a better size and layout for extended reading.

    Color’s a definite possibility – but I don’t think they can sustain the increased costs for too long unless it does bring in more customers.

    I’m not anti-color (I spend way too much on comics and graphic novels) but I don’t know that glossy and bright is the way to go.

  20. 26: Analog and Asimov’s recently moved to a somewhat larger form factor. Sheila Williams’s editorial stated that the total word count hasn’t changed. I don’t remember if they said one way or the other, but this is surely a cost saving move. (i.e., maybe it’s cheaper to publish fewer, albeit larger pages.)

    She also mentioned in her editorial that Analog and Asimov’s were the size they were because they saved money by sharing presses with TV Guide. Of course, those savings went by the way side when TV Guide moved to letter size format.

  21. John Chu@27

    According to Stan Schmidt at Analog it was a cost issue, and the new version does lose some word count. My Analog subscription is electronic so I haven’t noticed it, but he was clear on that.

    I’m actually more worried about F&SF because it neither has the backing or economies of scale. (By having all four other mags in one house they can share print costs which should help some – especially since I think they’re now the same trim size as some of the puzzle books).

    One thing that might help is if more of us read or subscribed to them. I recently subscribed to all three – and while Asimovs and F&SF lapsed I’m planning to take F&SF up again and maybe add Interzone.

    Just something to support the market.

  22. Two months ago I was writing an article about British magazines for Galaxies magazine in France. The decline in circulation of the SF magazines was part of the article. I have been reading lots of articles about the decline. There was much question of the competition between print magazines and the Internet; some complicated financial staff about marketing and also about young people preferring comics, video games,… to SF short stories.
    I don’t doubt all this.
    I just think that one of the true causes for the decline, are the stories published in SF magazines. They are certainly very well written. Unfortunately, they are not always champions of originality as they keep repeating too much the same subjects. And jmnlman is not the only one to complain about the fact that the stories are very pessimistic; not really the kind of thing you need to relax and escape your everyday problems.
    I think that the reason why some e-zines are so successful, might be that they publish more original stories (Strange Horizons and FLURB have actually some really excellent stories).
    Also, not all of the print magazines have a problem. Apparently, Albedo One in Ireland seems to do quite well (its stories are original too) and a new British magazine called Murky Depths seems to have lots of success among young people (in MD there are short stories of SF/dark fantasy as well as graphic short stories).
    I really think the most important factor for a success of a magazine are the stories.
    I apologize for my English. I am sure that there are faults in my text, but English is not my mother language… I did the best I could.
    Congratulations to Mr Scalzi for this forum, there are always excellent subjects to discuss and people in the forum are very pleasant.

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