What the Future May Bring

With Realms of Fantasy shutting down last week, lots of writer and industry blogs have been speculating yet again what will happen to SF/F magazines, which have been declining steadily for twenty years and now face the same rough economy as everything else. The big wildcard in this for the last ten years has been online publishing. Everyone sees tons of potential in it, but no one knows yet how to make online fiction work as a business.

I’m an amateur musician, so my analogy for online publishing is the situation that digital/online music was in ten years ago. There was no business model because there was no market of paying consumers yet. Then Apple launched the iPod, providing easy and popular hardware for playing mp3 files, and that created a market of people who were willing to pay 99 cents for songs. Apple covered that side of things as well with their iTunes online store, and the combination of widespread hardware and an online store changed music forever.

For magazine publishing, I think if or when e-reader hardware becomes as common among readers as iPods became among music fans, then profitable business models for online magazines will take shape.

The seeds of this model are already out there. I’ve had e-reader fans contact my magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, asking about ebook versions. Unlike web fiction, ebook files a reader can amass, store, and read whenever they like. These e-reader users are willing to pay a couple bucks per issue, even for stuff like BCS that’s available free on the web. There aren’t enough of those consumers yet to make a business model work, but when the hardware becomes more ubiquitous, there will be.

I also think audio fiction will be a significant part of the future. Escape Pod, the SF short fiction podcast, has about 20,000 subscribers, nearly double that for each of the big-three digests. I think most of those people are commuters with iPods, who perhaps wish they had time to read print fiction but don’t, and during their commute they are a captive audience for audio fiction. But unlike music mp3s, podcasts are almost always provided at no charge, so the business model there might have to be advertiser-driven.

One of the roots of the decline of magazines is the declining readership of short fiction–readers just aren’t as interested in short stories as they were thirty years ago. But one of the hidden benefits of ebooks and audio fiction may be that both those formats work very well if not better for short fiction than for novels. So it may be that once these new formats become common, they will attract more readers back to short fiction.

So are we at the nadir of a decline, or are we at the tiny start of a huge renaissance in short fiction that will all be delivered electronically? Or both? Only time will tell. But like a great speculative fiction story, it will be a lot of fun to find out.

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