Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Marketing the Big Three, Part 2

So, to recap: Warren Ellis posts the SF Magazine Sales for 2006, asking how (and if) the speculative fiction magazines can be saved. "Someone recently said to me, 'Well, what could you do to save them?' And I said, well, no-one’s asking, but there’s probably about twelve things that could be done. And they said, 'Well, maybe, but what I really meant was — why try? Why not just bury them and start anew?'

Cory Doctorow responds with SF magazines' circulation numbers in sad decline, in which he says: "If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions."

Then John Scalzi's "The Big Three" comes along to suggest it may not matter. "The big three can still be relevant, mind you; I suspect Asimov’s was essential in bootstrapping Charles Stross into being the decade’s pre-eminent SF writer when it published the short stories that would eventually become the Hugo-nominated novel Accelerando. Likewise, Tim Pratt’s Hugo win this year is going to do great things for him moving forward. That said, I can think of more prominent SF writers published since 2000 who have gotten along without the benefit of exposure in the 'Big Three' than who have been helped by them."

All of which prompts Paolo Bacigalupi to weigh in with five posts:
Science Fiction Magazines Part I - Why are the "Big Three" Dying?
Science Fiction Magazines Part II - Marketing in Meatspace
Science Fiction Magazines Part III - Online Marketing
Science Fiction Magazines Part IV - Starting from Scratch
SF Mags V - An SF Magazine for Girls?

Along the way, Paolo proclaims, "It says something about the state of the written sf market when we sf writers have a hard time connecting with the users of something as wildly popular as Halo. Technically, these users should be our bread and butter — and don’t tell me they don’t read. YA is doing just fine, and manga, too." Which leads him to propose a new magazine aimed at young male readers.

Then Homeless Moon offers "An Open-Source Speculative Fiction Magazine Model," which shifts the focus from marketing alone to online marketing which builds community. "What the Big Three have done effectively, and what constitutes a tribute to their longevity (which, in the big scope, is noteworthy), is build community. That is ultimately what online marketing exists to do, and represents a shift in the technology and approach to marketing as a whole. Saturation advertising has a provable low turnaround; high precision viral marketing is exponentially more effective (and I strongly believe that anyone running a small business today really needs to read that book I just linked). Get the viral going and use it to carefully cultivate a sustainable growing community and you generate an engine that feeds itself, markets for you, and brings in both business and revenue. The Big Three have lasted this long because of that construction of brand identity and community, to which subscribers develop loyalty and emotional attachment."

And then Homeless Moon lays out a very interesting plan for building a magazine from scratch, several excellent suggestions of which I'll consider further to see if they have any relevant applications for me and mine.

Meanwhile SpecLit weighs in with "Digest Blues: The Lament of the Big Three," which takes us back to the start a little bit when they argue that the digests have lost their relevance and make a case for a need to update their design. "What were once vital and important arbiters of taste in speculative fiction have descended into myopia. They are no longer the touchstones of the genre community. Instead, they are read by a decreasing number of entrenched fans."

While not as indepth as the discussions on Windupstories.com and Homeless Moon, the follow up post, Digest Blues, Part Two," is very interesting, in that SpecLit has done actual mock-ups of three alternatives to current Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF covers. The results, though hastily done and not meant as anything but examples, certainly demonstrate how effortlessly the look and feel of the Big Three could be brought forward without sacrificing their sfnal elements or going to great expense.

Of course, as all of this discussion is raging across the blogosphere the way things do, I can't help but feeling a little bit like everyone at the party is talking about someone who is standing right there in the middle of the room and didn't ask for the advice, thank you very much. Maybe the Big Three are fine with the way they are running things. (In fairness, two of the above discussions, again Windupstories and Homeless Moon, either shift focus to or focus exclusively on new models for new magazines, rather than strategies for the Big Three.) And F&SF publisher Gordon Van Gelder does pop up in Paolo's comment sections to make these points: "1) As far as I can tell, in all the discussions predicated upon the assumption that the SF digests are doomed, no one has actually addressed the question of whether the magazines are profitable. Everyone simply seems to have assumed that if circulation decreases, profits decrease. Not necessarily so. 2) I note also that everyone has lumped all three digests together, even though all three of us have differing markets and differing approaches. Some of the problems facing F&SF are different from the problems facing Analog. Naturally, the marketing approach for one digest might not work for another."

Which, interestingly, makes me think of this Newsweek article on Amazon's newly-unveiled Kindle, "The Future of Reading," in which Steven Levy makes the following point:

"Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public. Readers, of course, are already enjoying a more prominent role in the literary community, taking star turns in blogs, online forums and Amazon reviews. This will only increase in the era of connected reading devices. 'Book clubs could meet inside of a book,' says Bob Stein, a pioneer of digital media who now heads the Institute for the Future of the Book... Eventually, the idea goes, the community becomes part of the process itself."

Which, at the very least, means the party is going to go on talking. If Homeless Moon is correct, the Big Three are even enjoying a great deal of Viral Marketing right now, just by standing there amidst all this discussion pointed back at them. After all, as Mae West says, “It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”


Erin Hoffman said...

Mr. Anders, thanks very much for the trackback and very interesting commentary on my Homeless Moon post. By weird coincidence I just picked up a copy of _Live Without a Net_ last weekend, so I was tickled to see a reference to the new Homeless Moon blog on your site. I'm very interested in where speculative fiction can go with the technologies now available, and would be especially interested in what you are thinking of implementing at Pyr or elsewhere. I did in fact receive a very solid offer of funding, completely unexpectedly, so I may be venturing into turning my idea into reality sometime next year. It will be interesting to see where this all leads.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Erin
It's great to hear from you. I've continued to mull over your (and others) thoughts on this matter. Just read the big Manga article in the recent Wired, which has fed into my thinking as well. Re: your idea - would love to see how that progresses. As to LWAN - that's near and dear to my heart. Do let me know what you think when you've read it.

Mr. JM said...

A while back, on my blog, I created some "Mirror Universe" Asimov's, which actually got me thinking in terms of what it would be like if the magazine was actually like that.

You can see them here and here.


Lou Anders said...

Hey, J-M, thanks for sharing!

Mr. JM said...

You're welcome! :)

You know, I was reluctant to mention this, since what to do regarding the Big Three is a serious issue, but there's always the Pimp My Magazine option.


Ahem. Don't mind me.

Now back to the serious discussion at hand. :)