Online Magazines, Fiction, and the Locus Poll

I have a certain interest in the state of online genre magazines and the recent Locus Reader’s Poll has provided me with some data to chew on.  I’ve been looking into the magazine and short fiction results for the last two years and discovering that things are better than most people would have us believe.

This year, twenty-six magazines made the cut and ten (38.5%) are online. As expected, the “big three” took the first three slots, but in fourth is Strange Horizons.  The only other online magazine in the top ten is Baen’s Universe (#8).  Last year, SciFiction had fourth place and Strange Horizon’s had eighth, so online magazines appear to have held rank in the top ten despite the loss of SciFiction.

Of the ten online magazines that made this year’s list, only three of them (Strange Horizons, Baen’s and Clarkesworld) are fiction markets.  Last year, there were four (SciFiction, Strange Horizons, Infinite Matrix and Infinity Plus), but two of those are no longer around.  Online, non-fiction seems to have the upper hand in terms of number of ranking venues.

In both years, the top twenty contained seven (35%) online magazines.  Three of these are fiction markets (15%). The representation of online stories in this year’s Locus Awards for short stories (6%), novelettes (10%) and novellas (0%) is definitely lower than the percentages the magazines themselves represented, but it’s not that bad considering the overall quantity of stories produced by each market.  The novella category is a bit of a standout. They just aren’t all that common in the online magazines.

A few magazines are quite visibly absent from the final (magazine) poll results.  Flurb had the third place novelette in this year’s poll, so it was definitely known to the voters. I also find it hard to believe that Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show sailed below the radar of so many.  Perhaps having to pay for IMS hurt it, but that certainly didn’t hold back Baen’s or any of the print magazines.  Infinity Plus (#21 in 2006 and a ten-year veteran) also did not place.  What happened?  Bad stories?  Bad marketing?

Despite losing the granddaddy of online genre fiction venues, SciFiction, it appears that the landscape is quite healthy.  There are many strong venues and new markets are popping up with what appears to be an increasing regularity.  (More research for another day.)  Several of the newer markets are paying “pro” rates or better. Time will tell if these have sustainable business plans or any degree of marketing savvy.  

Take it for what you will, but this year, Subterranean Magazine (#10) switched from print to online and I know of at least one more print magazine in the top fifteen preparing to do the same.  Is this a blip or a trend?  Who knows, but it will be exciting to watch.  It should definitely have an impact on the poll next year.

What do you think?  Polls are popularity contests.  Will online fiction start growing in popularity or merely hold its own?  How about the awards and year’s best anthologies?  Will we see more online stories represented?  When will the big three start entering the picture (in full, or more likely, in part) or will we have a new big three to replace them?  On a different note, should Locus break out fiction from non-fiction in the magazine category just like they do for books?

4 thoughts on “Online Magazines, Fiction, and the Locus Poll

  1. jtglover says:

    I’m not an editor, and frankly I rarely read fiction online, but here are two thoughts. Make of them what you will. (And please forgive the length; I’ve been thinking about this since you posted yesterday.)

    1) Everything having to do with purchasing online mediates against the sale of whole issues of magazines. People are used to going online and customizing, selecting, and buying precisely what they want. While the people who buy short fiction magazines may buy into the idea of online magazines, I am (vaguely, perhaps wrongly) under the impression that their number is shrinking, even as the population of online shoppers is growing.

    If publishers can somehow generate something like iTunes for fiction, there may be money to be made in a different way than selling whole issues. I’m not talking about audio files per se, though the popularity of the big podcasts is relevant, but a way to make it possible for readers to buy the new Charles de Lint story for $0.99, or to easily locate and purchase every werewolf story published in July. While I think there’s a difference between an issue of a magazine and an album, perhaps it would be productive to make it possible for readers to locate what they want by some method other than by scouring through every website of every online mag and looking to see what they’re offering this month or quarter.

    Magazines publishing short fiction still generally conceive of themselves as offering a sort of imprimatur, whether they’re doing it on dead trees or online. Are they? Do readers tend to read all the stories in an issue of a mag just because it’s Magazine X, edited by Editor Q? Maybe they are, but I think that’s more a thing of the past than the future. (For the record, I do happen to like the idea of reading an entire issue, but I think I/we are in the minority.)

    The same thing has happened in many fields with the distribution of content from academic journals to full-text databases — so that a scholar can find useful content quickly, without having to scour every publication or publication’s website in his/her field. Pleasure reading is not the same thing as research, but I think the principle of customization (selecting stories by authors P, Z, and D to appear in one’s RSS reader, for instance), given a chance, has the potential to carry online fiction sales far beyond what’s possible by tying batches of content to separate sites. Still want to publish stories in hand-selected batches? I’m in favor of it. Just have a notation in iStory that stories A, B, C, and D are from the October issue of Rayguns and Plasma Shields.

    2) Online self-publishing brings all sorts of problems along with it, but some seem to have done all right with it. I’ve really been impressed by how well Caitlin R. Kiernan’s () Sirenia Digest has done, and I think a few other authors have done similar things, to say nothing of Stephen King’s “The Plant.” I don’t know the numbers, of course, but it sounds like Sirenia Digest has been a success as far as Ms. Kiernan is concerned.

    Fresh content is delivered to readers’ inboxes on a regular basis, and they’re willing to pay fairly well for it — more than most short fiction mags cost in dead tree format. It may also be true that she’s marketing to a loyal readership, and that it’s hard to compare that to a magazine aiming for thousands of copies (or hits) per issue; I don’t know. However — this method of publication wins right out of the gate because the reader doesn’t have to go looking — it comes right to the inbox. At $10/issue, each issue having (as I understand it) two vignettes/stories, that’s a whopping $5/story, compared to $1/iTune. Something is going right there, and I think it’s having found a way to market her stuff very effectively to the audience that’s willing to buy.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      I think what Caitlin is doing is an excellent example of how the traditional publishing model can be revised to fit this medium. In fact, there is no “right” way to do publishing online. No one has set the pace or become the standard. There are a lot of models that are working for people.

      Baen’s is probably the closest to the traditional magazine model. They take subscriptions, publish regularly, and seem to be making a pretty good run of it. Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show also requires payment to read stories, but the majority of online venues mentioned in the Locus poll do not require payment. This means they are working on a very different model than the print magazines in the same poll.

      For Clarkesworld, our first year is very much like a serialized anthology. At the end of the year, we’ll publish a book. In the next year, we’re going to add some things, but that core of two stories a month and a book at the end of the year will remain.

      As for iTunes for fiction, you have Fictionwise and Audible (to name just two) doing some interesting work out there. Amazon is still pushing their little venture into electronic publishing. No one is making huge waves yet. People still prefer paper, but that’s largely a what you’re comfortable with thing. I’ve been observing how students write their papers for the last 20 years. The technology is changing the way each new generating reads, writes, and proofreads. (another topic for another day)

      I agree with you 100% on the academic journals. I’ve watched that market get beaten over the last 10 years. Will it happen to fiction? Maybe. The academic journals were insanely expensive and that hastened the changes. Most online magazines aren’t incorporating RSS feeds or being aggregated, but I think that will be changing. The catch there is how they will sustain themselves if no one goes to their site. SFScope has been doing teasers in their feeds that take people back to their site. That makes the most sense.

      • jtglover says:

        I think one of the really exciting things about magazines publishing online right now and for a while yet to come (five years? ten?) is the Wild West atmosphere, and that anything can really happen. The two story format for Clarkesworld gives it a nice selectivity, and it presumably means you don’t have to, at this point, drop or alter your standards in any way. Even in a slow month for submissions, there’s going to be at least one slush standout, and of course one good pro piece.

        As to payment models, I’ll be interesting to see where it all goes. Google (to make an extreme case) doesn’t charge its users, and they seem to be getting on all right, but can mags do it? If enough advertisers can be convinced of the readership, maybe so.

        Most online magazines aren’t incorporating RSS feeds or being aggregated, but I think that will be changing. The catch there is how they will sustain themselves if no one goes to their site. SFScope has been doing teasers in their feeds that take people back to their site. That makes the most sense.

        Ah… clever. I wonder if some sort of built-in advertising will wind up being relevant here, a la the ad splash pages on Salon. If RSS feeds do happen, and if readers find a way to set up alerts about new content from specific authors or of specific types, I’d think that would work nicely. I’m thinking of setting up alerts for, say, all new Steampunk stories, or for all new Charles Stross stories, or what-have-you.

        • wyrmadmin says:

          The big problem with using RSS feeds for what you are describing is that there isn’t any standard tagging in use to properly identify the content. The academic journals had librarians to press the issue. Unfortunately, I don’t see them getting involved here just yet.

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