Online Didn’t Kill the Print Star

In the aftermath of Realms of Fantasy folding last week, publisher Warren Lapine is associating the failure of print magazines like Realms with the existence of free online magazines.

I’ve heard this same grumble trotted out by old-school publishers and writers before. I am biased, as the publisher of a SFWA-pro qualifying online magazine, but I have yet to see any argument that makes a solid case, with numbers, showing that there’s any truth to it.

Economic factors are stacked against all short fiction magazines these days, not just print ones.  The readership for short fiction was declining for decades before this.  On top of all that, it’s a time of great flux in all facets of publishing–readers are fundamentally changing the ways and places that they read.

It’s short fiction publishers’ responsibility to adapt to this changing landscape, not only in weathering the economic factors as much as possible but also in reaching the readership in the ways they want.

Online magazines are less economically risky because they’re cheaper to operate.  True, there is no ideal business model yet, but a bunch of free pro-rate mags are subsisting fine, some using for-profit models (Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Lightspeed) and others as non-profits taking tax-deductible donations (Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies).

Online magazines better provide fiction in the new ways readers have shown they want it:  as web pages to read at home or at work or anywhere there’s wifi; as audio podcasts to listen to during a commute or workout; and as e-books, available for instant purchase and read on dozens of different devices already owned by millions of readers.

The low or free price of online fiction also attract readers. The only hope of slowing or reversing the decline in the short fiction readership is making it as easy as possible for them.  Escape Pod reportedly has 20,000 subscribers, which shows that the audio short fiction ‘readership’ rivals that of the “Big Three.”  Asimov’s in 2009 had an increase in subscribers, the first year that’s happened in decades, and it was because of Kindle subscriptions.

Not that print magazines can’t adapt to these new challenges too–Asimov’s is getting new subscribers via Kindle, and Realms did offer PDF and Kindle versions, although at a higher price than Clarkesworld or Asimov’s or Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

But to blame the failure of traditional-format magazines on the existence of a new type of magazine that better handles the economic uncertainty, that better provides the fiction in the ways the readers want, and that is better retaining if not growing the readership, ignores the clear advantages of online magazines and the flaws in traditional-format ones.

The free online format isn’t a magic answer to all the problems, but it’s the best answer anyone has right now, until forward-thinking publishers develop something better.

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