Comparing eyeballs to eyeballs

Caught via Hugo-award winning and NYT bestselling author John Scalzi (and congrats on both counts there), the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Gordon Van Gelder, posts about the fate of short fiction online and asks for comments and feedback from readers regarding it.

His basic premise is the fear that if you start giving stuff away, no one will pay for it. Not just in the case of a specific author but rather in the case of publishing overall; if magazines start allowing readers to read online and for free the stories they print, no one will want to buy stories anymore. Which strikes me as quite a slippery slope of an argument, and I worry he’ll lose control of his toboggan.

I tend to understand his fears, though, I think, because really, it makes a lot of sense. I’ll note that since I started offering Entrekin as a free download, the downloads have shot way up though the sales have remained pretty steady. But it also makes sense in other ways.

I’ve been neglecting my other two blogs lately (writing and prepping for teaching tend to make me laser-focus), but had I been keeping up, I would have pointed to Tor.com, the new website of science fiction/fantasy publisher TOR books. So far, I’m quite stunned by its execution; in range and scope, I think it’s rather amazing, and exactly the sort of things publishers need to be doing more often. Free stories. Free novels, even. Forums for readers. Reading is not just about words on a page; it’s about community and culture, and in one fell swoop, Tor has realized the combination of the two. It’s damned near perfect, and I can only imagine it will get better.

When Tor.com posted Scalzi’s short story, “After the Coup”, the story managed nearly 50,000 hits in two weeks, a number that is, approximately, equal to the number of subscribers to three of the biggest science fiction/fantasy magazines combined. When Van Gelder pointed out that all those subscribers pay, whereas TOR.com readers are getting a freebie, Scalzi apparently responded he was “comparing eyeballs to eyeballs.”

Which puts it pretty well, I think. Because in neither case is either number a certain count of readers. One might hope, I guess, that a subscriber would read an entire magazine, but I don’t think I ever have; every magazine I’ve ever subscribed to, there’s usually one article each issue that’s a stinker.

In fact, Tor.com’s implementation seems like the perfect execution in an online world: a publisher gets behind an author, and gets first-look rights at what that author creates, which it can post on its website for an industry-standard fee. Readers can view it free, authors get paid, and publishers get free marketing (New! Exclusive Junot Diaz story! Only at Riverhead.com!).

Used to be that publication made sense, if solely for purposes of distribution; there was no way to get a lot of books to a lot of people without having the kind of operation only a major publisher could implement. Nowadays, though, sites like this seem to indicate that nearly 1.5 billion people in the world have Internet access, whereas something like 90% of books sell fewer than 1000 copies. Which seems to me to indicate that there’s a giant disconnect between content creation and content distribution, if only because so many Internet users read. Blogs, e-mail, news . . . it’s really just a giant database full of information and content.

I’ve read Seth Godin claim that books are really just souvenirs, and I’m not entirely sure about that one way or the other, but I do think that magazines and newspapers well could be. They are holders of information, but certainly no longer the best method of delivery of that information. I’d say I’m reasonably informed about global news, but I literally cannot remember the last time I actually even saw a newspaper, much less picked one up or read one.

Van Gelder notes:

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

But when was the value of any fiction ever determined by the price people are willing to pay? All of Shakespeare’s work is public domain and available free, online, and what’s more, no one has to pay to produce or perform any of it.

What I think Van Gelder really means, though, is that we may be coming to a point where writers no longer need a short fiction marketplace (and I realize this is another slope of the slippery type, but still). In Japan last year, 5 of the 10 bestselling novels were distributed neither online nor by book but rather to readers’ cell phones. No mistake, the industry as a whole is changing markedly, and I think most professionals within it will learn to adapt to new ways of doing the business of getting good content to interested consumers, which is really basically all publishing actually is, anyway.

Personally, I’m still mainly surprised that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction still only accepts queries by traditional mail. No electronic submissions.

I mean, seriously, what’s up with that?

(though they do accept payment for sample issues through PayPal. Interesting that)

3 thoughts on “Comparing eyeballs to eyeballs

  1. LISA NOYES

    Yesterday Chad’s sister came home with a big giant stack of papers, clipped at the top, like a manuscript. When in fact it was an actual novel. She was able to print the whole thing from online, and it was free. She did this from work, no less.

  2. MADELEY

    I find it absolutely incredible that a magazine centred around a genre that is associated so strongly with embracing technology and extrapolating the future of technology can’t cope with electronic submissions. Electronic communication has stopped being a novelty in the business world and has become a fundamental operating necessity, and with good reason. This kind of policy at best makes a venture look antiquated (and is that really the vibe you want for an SF magazine?) and at worst unprofessional.

    That’s the kind of thing that’ll kill outfits like F&SF. Getting skittery about whether you should give the odd story out for free strikes me as the proverbial deck-chair arranging.

  3. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Lisa: I bet that’ll be occurring more often in the years to come.

    @Madeley: exactly. But this plays into a theme that keeps popping up on this blog. Given that electronic communication is the way of the future, really, who needs magazines in the first place? Furthering the slippery slope thing, perhaps, but forget about killing outfits like F&SF and consider whether we even need them anymore, anyway. Strikes me that Van Gelder is less worried about “devaluing short fiction” than he may be about continuing to make money as a magazine editor/publisher.


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