What not to do when starting an online magazine. (Part 1?)

At the end of Simon Owen’s recent piece on finding a profitable model for genre ezines, he made a point of ending with the number of dead markets listed on Ralan.com. That number of 649 has since moved up to 650.

A bug started buzzing in my head. His article was specifically about online markets, but that number actually combines print and online markets.  A quick bit of research identified 269 print markets and 320 online markets. The remaining 61 didn’t contain enough information to tell.

Ok, 320 dead online markets. It’s a big number, but it in no way demonstrates that the online magazines have cornered the market on failure.  Still, I wanted to get a better understanding of what had gone wrong with these online markets, so I looked at pay rates. A stunning 157 (nearly half) of these markets paid $10 or less per story. That’s just wrong on so many levels.  What were they thinking? Let me spell this out more clearly:

IF YOU ARE GOING TO START ANY KIND OF MAGAZINE, PAY YOUR AUTHORS SOMETHING REASONABLE.

The SFWA defines pro-rate as 5 cents or more. It’s an arbitrary baseline and probably long overdue for a change, but it is still something officially recognized in the field.  A number of magazines pay in the 2-4 cent range.  Not great, but at least they are making an effort.

PAY PER WORD, NOT WITH HOLLOW PROMISES.

I was shocked by the number of markets that stated they wanted to pay on royalties from subscriptions, donations, or shares of the advertising. Let’s be fair here. Tell them exactly how much they’ll be paid (in US dollars, not Monopoly money) before you print the story. If you can’t, think twice before you start your magazine.

Yes, I am aware of a few good zines that fly in the face of what I’m suggesting, but believe me, they are the exception, not the norm. You need to ask yourself, why anyone would sell me a story for that rate when there are other markets that pay better. If you can answer that question with an honest positive for the author, I’d love to hear it.  

When I looked at the “failed” online markets, I found three zines that occasionally paid pro rates and only ten that would qualify as pro-markets. The ten were: Dark Matter, Feral Fiction, Future Orbits, Getting It (erotic), Infinite Edge, Lenox Ave, SciFiction, Suck, Trabuco Road and Would that it Were (historical/ghost). These publications paid their authors well, but couldn’t, or decided not to, make a run of it. It seems to me that they represent a good group of people to ask about the potential pitfalls.

I know… Learning from the mistakes of others is simply crazy talk. But maybe I’ll do it anyway.

37 thoughts on “What not to do when starting an online magazine. (Part 1?)

  1. madwriter says:

    I followed the Trabuco Road editor’s online journal, and TR apparently surrendered due to personal circumstances in the editor’s life rather than being financially unsustainable in itself. Even more the pity.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      That’s unfortunate. I was very surprised to see Trabuco Road on the list of dead markets. I didn’t remember seeing any announcements about it. I hope that he is doing well now.

    • alankria says:

      So has it officially folded? Because he never contacted the authors still waiting for responses and there’s nothing on the TR website.

      • madwriter says:

        Ralan declared it dead five days ago; that may’ve been from lack of contact rather than an official announcement, though. The last I’d seen on BK’s journal was that he hoped to bring it back…but that was some months ago, and I don’t think even the journal is around anymore, I’m sorry to say.

  2. the_flea_king says:

    I agree completely. My only regret from running the Fortean Bureau (besides having to close it) was that I couldn’t quite get to pro rates. $100 flat, with stories under 4000 strongly encouraged was the best I could do, but I was paying for everything out of pocket.

    The problem with many zines is that they are published under similar circumstances–by an enthusiast, paying out of pocket. I could never find a revenue stream that would work. Traffic was never high enough to justify ads, and even after adding them, we never received a check from Google. Enough donations were made over the several years that we paid for one issue’s worth of content with them. And there was never any question about charging for the content. That’s a sucker’s game online.

    Short fiction online does not have much inherent worth to readers, I think. They enjoy it, and they’ll (sometimes) read it, but if it goes away, they’ll read something else and won’t lament the loss for long.

    I mean, nobody started a write-in campaign to save SCIFICTION. But every crap-ass genre show that gets canceled gets its own petition and save-the-show fanclub.

    • jtglover says:

      Short fiction online does not have much inherent worth to readers, I think. They enjoy it, and they’ll (sometimes) read it, but if it goes away, they’ll read something else and won’t lament the loss for long.

      That’s an interesting point, and I halfways agree. On the one hand, I’d go along merrily with books and magazines if the Internet went away. On the other, I can say that I like and read a few online fiction markets in the same way as I read some print magazines.

      I would suspect that online short fiction will eventually become something different enough from print short fiction to give it wings, though I doubt that by then it will look much like what’s being published online now. Maybe interactive, maybe much shorter — who knows?

      • wyrmadmin says:

        I think you’re going to see a gradual change in how the online markets portray themselves. Right now, we’re still very closely tied to how things were in print and we don’t have to be. They have the potential to become something much more involved with the readers.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      I think a lot of these failed markets started out of pocket with no real long-term plan to cover their expenses. Advertising is a great hope to many, but the reality is that unless you’re someone like Boing-Boing, you don’t have enough visitors to count on that as any sort of revenue stream. I think the same can be said for donations.

      Lots of good intentions, but unfortunately, that alone isn’t enough.

    • lonfiction says:

      won’t lament the loss for long.

      FB was by far my favorite webzine, and honestly one of the few that I miss now that it’s gone. You’re right in general about no one remembering short fiction webzines, but don’t go undervaluing the thing of weird wonder you created.

  3. jtglover says:

    It especially doesn’t demonstrate online mags’ failure when you take into account, oh, every other web enterprise that’s failed since 1993. Someone commented on the original piece that 90% of new businesses fail, and added to that should be the fact that we’re still dealing with a completely new medium.

    Even now, 15 years after Mosaic came out, people are still trying to figure out how to use the web, either as producers or consumers. And the confusion isn’t limited to the elderly — I regularly work with college students who don’t like or understand the internet. Likewise, literature existed before the printing press appeared, and yet it took a long time (subjectively) for printers to figure books out, on both a business level and a technological one.

    • sclerotic_rings says:

      Sadly, you could still make the same notes about dead markets in print media, and the argument of “the Internet is stealing away readers” is nothing but bollocks. The problem is that (a) too many readers are gunshy about buying subscriptions because they’ve bought subs to magazines that folded without notice a month later, (b) they discovered that the magazine was dead months or even years later, and (c) one bad or delayed issue guarantees that nobody will remember it by the time its next issue comes along. Combine that with the incredible arrogance of how “we’re the literature of the future! Worship us!” seems to be the primary promotion method for most genre magazines (the way the local Frumpy Fiftysomething’s Used Books and Quiet Desperation Emporium can’t be bothered to put books in order or clean up after the store cat but compensate by putting big “Buy Local!” signs in the front windows), and the amazing part isn’t that we see so many dead markets. The amazing part is that you have so many sufficiently delusional to start a magazine in the first place.

      • wyrmadmin says:

        the argument of “the Internet is stealing away readers” is nothing but bollocks

        It’s nice to hear someone else say that for a change.

        • sclerotic_rings says:

          Hell, I’ve been saying that for years. After all, the decline in SF short fiction readers can’t be because the magazines do a terrible job at promoting themselves, or that the covers do their best to drive off the readers not driven off with their incompetently written subscription flyers, or that the editors are too busy preening for WorldCon and World Fantasy photos to get issues out on time. Naw, it’s the Internet, or video games, or MTV, or that television thing…they’re all at fault, because it couldn’t be us.

  4. orrin says:

    This reminds me of a (sort of second-hand) story from back when I was still a member of the HWA. I was on board writing reviews and the like when R.J. Sevin was trying to start a horror web-zine-thingy called The Web of Horror. He was planning it as a “for the love” market with the hopes of moving up to paying contributors eventually, but a discussion on the HWA forums with (among others) convinced him to give it up until he could pay and pay well, and also made me rethink several of my own positions on what sorts of markets I should submit to, etc. R.J. went on to publish an anthology called Corpse Blossoms instead (which, I believe, paid pro rates).

  5. nomissnewo says:

    I think one things in my piece that I tried to drive home was the fact that there are relatively few people who have made a serious go at it. That’s not to say that many of these editors didn’t have best-case-scenario what-ifs running through their heads. But very few of these people put in the same effort as, say, the kind of effort someone opening a new restaurant would put into it. You know what I mean?

    So it’s only in the last two years or so, with publications like yours, Fantasy, Baen’s, and now (mumble mumble) with TOR, people are beginning to take it seriously. It’d be cool if every genre publisher had some kind of free ezine to go with it.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      The devil is in the details. You’re right. It does appear that there is a serious lack of long-term planning out there. I’m hoping to raise some of the issues they should be thinking of before they announce a new venture.

  6. onemoreshadow says:

    I think part of the reason you see so many e-zines go bust is because it’s fairly easy to throw up a website and call one’s self a publisher. Especially if you’re not going to pay your contributors. Web-hosting aside, you can put the whole thing together for free.

    My personal rule is that I don’t sub to non-paying markets (much less “4 the luv,” which is such a stupid term) unless they’ve got some really good street cred. If they don’t pay and the credit doesn’t mean anything, then I’m really just wasting my time (and my story).

    Quality e-zines like Clarkesworld and ChiZine are few and far between compared to most other electronic publications which are clearly being churned out by amateurs with a rudimentary knowledge of HTML and, usually, no business plan whatsoever.

  7. sclerotic_rings says:

    Heh. No offense, but that’s crazy talk. The genre thrives on publications, including some famous ones (remember Science Fiction Eye?), with editor/publishers who make promises that they’ll pay “when we finally become successful” and then do their damnedest to prevent that from happening. After all, why should they have to share any of the revenues when they can find other hungry writers willing to work for free? More importantly, we all know that people only read genre magazines for the editors, and paying writers makes them think that they’re anything other than a means by which the editor gets more accolades and attention.

    Sorry, this is a particularly sore point with me, because I drank that Kool-Aid far too many times during my writing career. In the case of Science Fiction Eye, I’ve never seen an editor before or since that went to such lengths to keep a magazine from becoming successful (after a gushing review in Wired and the subsequent rush in subscriptions, he took a 2 1/2-year break between issues), but I’ve seen the same exact thing happen with print and online venues. If I had a nickel for every time I had to deal with an editor who gave me the sob story or guilt trip about how “I’m not a well-heeled trust fund baby, so I can’t pay, but this’ll get you exposure,” I’d have about $6.35.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      🙂 I’m on your side on this one. So in addition to my publisher tips, I’ll add the first writer’s tip: Step away from the Kool-Aid.

  8. horrorofitall says:

    Finding revenue streams is tough. Hell at HLQ, right now, I’m funding it myself and I have funds to make it work for a few years. But I would love to find a revenue stream that would fund it. I think I’m in the same boat in terms for looking for ideas.

    I think online fiction can work. But finding that right combination of innovation and revenue is tough.

  9. gryphart says:

    Sounds very similar to my opinions about art submissions for the same zines…. I’ve mostly stopped even looking at the submission pages for them, since I can only think of two that pay even as well as an average piece of RPG art (which is saying something.)

    Royalty-only payment is an insult, and it floors me that so many people are still willing to go for it.

    • wyrmadmin says:

      Do artists have an organization that recommends or has guidelines for what kind of payment should be expected for art? If not, what do you consider respectable?

      • gryphart says:

        We do indeed – the Graphic Artist’s Guild puts out a yearly handbook for general price guidelines. Of course, most of those guidelines are intended for medium to large companies, so the sums quoted are often well beyond the bounds of what small publishers can afford (and beyond what I can realistically demand, as a fairly small player in the illustration world.)

        My personal rules are a minimum of $200 for full-page color interiors and $400 for covers. The GAG guidelines, by contrast, usually indicate $1500-6000 for covers.

  10. ex_benpayne119 says:

    I feel strongly that magazines should pay the authors. However there are very few venues that can afford to pay pro rates. I know and love many magazines that don’t pay pro rates (Lady Churchill for example) and will happily support internet publications that don’t.

    I think the reasons for “failure” (itself a relative term… I wouldn’t term a market as having failed just because it’s closed) are fairly similar to the print market…

      • ex_benpayne119 says:

        I guess in those examples they work because they have a clear identity. More generic mags can have more trouble I guess…

        But in general I’ve never been a pay-rate junkie… partly because here in Australia we’ve never really had pro markets, and partly because I’ve never seriously considered earning a living from short fiction as a viable possibility.

        My choices as a reader and as a writer are based on the market itself rather than its pay rate. I honestly have no idea what Clarkesworld and Fantasy pay, and I would read and submit to them whether they paid ten bucks or a hundred. The key is being published somewhere I enjoy reading.

        But I may not be representative, I don’t know.

        • wyrmadmin says:

          I think those magazines have their editors as particular strengths. They’ve developed strong reputations and are well-respected. I don’t know that it’s a feat that could be reproduced today.

          Thanks for the compliment! Can’t speak for Fantasy (I don’t remember the exact rate), but Clarkesworld pays 10 cents per word.

  11. nihilistic_kid says:

    Dark Matter, Feral Fiction, Future Orbits, Getting It (erotic), Infinite Edge, Lenox Ave, SciFiction, Suck, Trabuco Road and Would that it Were (historical/ghost).

    Let’s see: FF didn’t really have a model other than, “Hey, I got some money in the bank.”

    GettingIt was actually an online magazine of non-fiction with the occasional fiction feature, run by R.U. Sirus. The idea was that VC money would fall like rain. It didn’t. (This was back in 1998-1999). I published two articles there.

    LenoxAve went belly-up due to personal situations, though it was also an out-of-pocket gig. I published a story and an interview there.

    Suck was another dot.com-era project; it published humor pieces, and actually got some VC funding, but it tanked along with the stock market.

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