Monday, January 26, 2009

Magazine News: The Inaugural Issues

With the recent news that the election of Barack Obama helped Time magazine set a newsstand sales record, it should surprise no one that the inauguration of Obama would make even more publishers slap his face on their covers and hope for newsstand magic in these tough economic times. And so it is.

You expect Time and Newsweek to put the president's swearing in ceremony on their covers. But I was surprised to see Giant Robot (a magazine covering Japanese pop culture) do so, less surprised to see lifestyle mags like Life & Style (talk about a perfect monicker) and People (with what I think is the most beautiful cover of the bunch).

Feeling somewhat left out, my own magazine, the serious Commonwealth, also slapped Obama on the cover. But then we don't include stories about celebrity bed-hopping or giant robots (though, I'd love to have the latter). Instead, our cover story is about experts such as scientist Richard Muller, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, diplomat George Mitchell, and many others offering advice to the new president, who has so many items of business to balance (hence the cover image, right?). I hope this makes our newsstand sales go through the roof. :)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Queerantine Short Film

The above short video was made by Kerry O'Quinn and others in response to the hysterical pro-Proposition 8 advertisements that tormented Californians last autumn.

Robert Reich on the "Failed" Bailout

Economist (and former U.S. Sec. of Labor) Robert Reich says the federal bailout of Wall street so far has been a failure, with the money wasted and spent in unaccounted ways. He spoke at The Commonwealth Club's annual economic forecast on January 14, 2009, in San Francisco.
Above is a short (and, I know, not high quality) video excerpt from the event.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Esquire Splits: New Cover Trick

The February 2009 issue of Esquire magazine features yet another version of that Obama campaign poster we've seen sooo many times already, but they've got a twist: instead of a regular cover, instead of a cover with a fold-out ad on the other side, instead of the (thankfully short-lived trend of) covers that split in the middle, Esquire gives us a cover with a center window that opens to reveal a Discovery Channel ad.
Okay, to be fair, it also opens to reveal some quotes from the articles in this issue, but we all know the reason for it is to give an advertiser a new way to get their ad in front of readers' faces. No crime in that. That's why Hearst and most other periodicals publishers put out magazines.

It will likely only annoy those readers who like to save their magazines; the ad flap on the cover does have a bit of glue to sort of keep it closed again after it's been opened, but the flap will sooner or later fray on edges, become caught on the edges of other objects when the magazine is shelved, or tear off altogether.
For me, it fuels my notion that Esquire is a magazine whose editors are simply sick of putting out a magazine (and it's not a notion without real-world support).
By the way, Esquire is now offering one-year subscriptions for the price of six whole dollars. That's $6 dollars. That's less than the cover cost of two copies of the magazine (cover price $3.99 each). At that subscription rate, the magazine's publishing staff will have to get even more innovative selling ad space to make up the revenue.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

After Magazines Die: What Would the Next Issue Have Looked Like?

When a magazine goes to periodicals heaven, the news often strikes readers and staff alike with a sudden blow. They may have seen the writing on the wall -- falling sales, skyrocketing costs, the loss of irreplaceable editors or a publisher -- but the final decision itself is often a sudden one. I've been through the process myself, as a reader (anyone remember Epic Illustrated? my all-time favorite, Future Life? Comics Scene? Car Design?) and as an editor (Internet World, which was dearly missed, and another smaller publication that wasn't). Assuming it's a magazine I enjoyed reading, I'm often left wondering just what the next, never-to-be-published issue of the magazine would have been like had it been published -- had the publisher's axe been stayed at the last minute. Often, that issue is all prepared, ready to ship to the printer, when the bad news arrives.

So I've got a suggestion. With the recent popularity of digital versions of magazines, either current ones or resurrected ones, comes the possibility of publishers dusting off those old pasteboards or CDs or whatever media they have the unpublished "post-final" issue in, and making it available. Intellectual property rights seem to be working out much more easily these days than they were in the early days of the internet, when it was still unclear how to treat reproduction rights to articles and artwork created years before the Web browser caught on.
And surely those publishers can make a small buck off a property they never thought they'd see again produce a penny.

So let's see issue #32 of Future Life, and issue #146 of Creepy, or #140 of Eerie, or issue #4 of Comics Scene 2000 (or issue #57 of the second series of Comics Scene or issue #12 of the first series of Comics Scene -- it gets complicated; don't ask)! Because in the digital age, old magazines never die; they can always find new life and old audiences.
What do you think?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Magazine News: Forbes Goes to Sofia

Boasting a launch circulation (estimate) of 30,000, the venerable American business magazine Forbes will begin publication of a Bulgarian edition in October of this year.

"What?" you say. Why is a print publication expanding in a global financial/economic crisis? Because global licensing of American publications is a booming business, one that keeps money flowing into U.S. publishers' coffers even when domestic ad revenue is flagging. Playboy, for example, has been struggling in the United States (especially since the Reagan administration helped target its advertisers and distributors, a hit from which I think the magazine has never recovered). It now publishes dozens of foreign editions, recently adding Lithuania to the mix. And you can find horror magazine Fangoria in Hungary, Esquire in China, or Hello magazine in Thailand. If you've got a brand, make it global, and let someone else do all the work of translating and gathering capital to float the magazine. All in all, can't see a reason not to do it.

Now, no one doubts that Thai readers want juicy celebrity news or that Lithuanian readers want stories of success and beauty. But are Bulgarians really eager for American business acumen right now?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Guess Elections Aren't Bad for Newsstand Sales After All

Time to be snarky: I recently tweaked a magazine distribution data executive who blamed a whopping 22 million copy drop in single copy magazine sales on the election (among other things). I said no, an exciting election (which this definitely was) should boost newsstand sales.
And it did. Folio: reports that Time magazine's Person of the Year issue and its commemorative special edition on the election victory (both featuring a certain White House-bound Chicago White Sox fan, broke the magazine's records for single-copy sales.

So the old line about how a magazine cover can't lose if it features a dog or children? Now add President Obama. (Who, by the way, is buying a dog for his children. Whoever puts that on their cover will be a millionaire!)

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Coffee Table Was too Crowded: Newsstand Sales Dive

MediaWeek reports that single copy newsstand sales of magazines declined from 266 million to 244 million in the third quarter (compared to the same quarter last year).

Writer Lucia Moses quotes Gil Brechtel, president and CEO of publishing data firm MagNet, suggests that the fault lies with higher gas prices, economic problems, and the election, which he thinks took people's attention away from reading magazines.

I'd have to agree with him on the first two, but big news events (especially complex, ongoing ones) don't decrease peoples' appetites for magazines; they increase them, just like the surge in print sales after 9/11. My guess – from a very non-publishing-data-firm background – would be that the election boosted some magazines, so the overall loss of 22 million in copies sold is actually better than it otherwise would have been.

Of course, I'd hate to be right.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hugh Hefner on Print Magazines' Uniqueness

In an interview on CNN with John Roberts, Playboy founder/editor Hugh Hefner made some interesting comments (and by "interesting," I mean that I agree with him) about the role of print magazines in this supposedly post-print world. He takes the view that yes, some people don't want to read magazines and – more important – you can't force them to do so. Here's an excerpt from the interview:

Roberts: Now in 1953, when you first launched Playboy magazine, you seemed to be the right publication for the right time. I know that you were very heavily influenced by the Kinsey Report, which had come out not too long prior to that. But 55 years later, is Playboy magazine still relevant? And if it is, how do you keep it relevant?

Well, I don't think obviously it will ever play the same kind of role that it played back in the 1950s and '60s. But I do think that a magazine of quality always has a place. Increasingly, obviously fewer people are reading magazines and fewer people are reading newspapers and books, but I think that part of that is a change that Playboy is always, is also embracing. We're very much involved with the Internet. We were the first magazine to use [the] Internet and have our own Web site. So I think that we'll continue to ... publish both the magazine and then publish through electronics.

Roberts: The new Steven Watts biography [of Hefner] is a fascinating, very fascinating look at your entire career, from your roots all the way up until the present. And he says, looking back over it, that "the key to his approach was that he edited Playboy for himself. Aiming it at his own tastes and values." Was that also a key to your success as well that you approached this with such a personal passion?

Hefner: I think so, but I think that is one of the things that makes magazines unique. They do speak with a personal voice. And I think it is one of the things that makes magazines special.

You can read the transcript of the entire interview here, where you'll also find a link to the video.

I made some similar comments in response to some recent statements by Esquire's editor, David Granger. The pool of total print readership may drop (might not, though; might shift to different people, though; for example, recent reports about thriving newspapers in Germany and India), but there's a role for quality magazines that it would be foolish to ignore.

Mr. Hefner has always had a clear-eyed view of magazines, unlike many of his competitors and unlike many of his critics. When Playboy was coming down from the highs of its 1970s circulation spike, he did not panic or overreact; his reaction was reportedly (I believe this was in a tale told by his daughter, Christie Hefner; if I've got that attribution wrong, my apologies) that Playboy's circulation will be whatever it naturally is; if one million people want to buy the magazine, it'll be one million; but there's no reason to pretend that it was supposed to be what the circulation was in the 1970s when it was arguably the most important cultural publication in the country.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ziff Davis Now Paper-free!

Publisher Ziff Davis Media has effectively exited the print publishing world with its closure of the print edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly, according to a Folio: news alert. In November 2008, the company announced that it would stop publishing its once-hefty PC Magazine and made it web-only.
Ziff has a history of being a leading tech and consumer publisher, but it also has a history this decade of being almost constantly on-the-brink financially, so I don't think this is a case of my warnings yesterday coming true. But noteworthy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Magazine News: Writing off $25 billion at Time Warner

At the magazine I edit, I'm paring expenses to the tune of $600 off this photography budget, $1,200 off that production budget, $400 off the staff lunch budget. So I'm – what's the word?? – gobsmacked at the news that Time Warner is writing off $25 billion of the value of its new- and old-media properties. I could buy a lot of staff lunches with even just 10 percent of that.
Time Warner's new-media property is AOL, once a raging behemoth of popularizing the Internet revolution, but it soon turned into a big anchor around the neck of Ted Turner's fortune.
The old-media properties include Time, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and about a zillion more. Each has long been a leader in its respective market niche.
Despite the mind-boggling number of $25 billion, it's really indicative of the loss of value of many media properties, from Playboy's stock drop to Starlog's circulation plunge. And on and on.
It's getting very ugly out there. And my fear is this: Those laptop "experts" who spout off about what everyone else should do in their industry will use this to pound away at anyone they deem "out of touch" enough to still be in the print industry. The Atlantic web site even has someone predicting the end of the New York Time's print edition within the next few months.
There are a lot of people who think print is useless, but I think they're overplaying their hands, because there's still benefit to having a hard copy that one can read while sprawled on a couch and that is – to use a current term – persistent; it's there on the coffee table or next to the bed or wherever.
But my prediction is that they, and the people in financing who rely more on trends and crowd-mentality than on common sense and perception, will use the current recession/proto-depression to kill off as many magazines (and newspapers) as possible, unaware of what's being lost in terms of marketing tools, deep pockets for investigative reporting, and personal reader identification with the hard-copy "product."
I hope they are wrong. I hope they are ineffective. But short-sightedness tends to win out.
Anyone want to fund my awesome new magazine idea?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hundreds of Jobs Slashed from McGraw-Hill

Folio: (the indispensable magazine industry publication) reports that BusinessWeek publisher McGraw-Hill eliminated 375 jobs in the fourth quarter.
The article notes, "Through the first nine months, McGraw-Hill’s net income was down 21.7 percent to $683.5 million, compared to the same period in 2007," and "revenue was ... down 5.1 percent."
Take $683.5 million out of most companies, and something w).ill have to go. One can only feel bad for the employees who were laid off.
And in a bad-irony way, one can only wonder what thoughts were going through the heads of the BusinessWeek staff as they prepared the December 22 issue (see cover image above).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Shrinking Circulation: The Latest Wallops

The report last month that Newsweek magazine was considering cutting its circulation by up to 1.6 million may have sounded counter-intuitive to most people. But in these days of high printing and mailing costs and ever-heated competition from online sources, slashing the number of copies of magazines that are printed, distributed, and often just destroyed is not a crazy idea.

But yes, 1.6 million – more than half of the magazine's circulation – is a huge cut. But it follows rate cuts (which also mean reduced advertising fees for the magazine) in recent years from Playboy, Time, In Touch Weekly, Life & Style, TV Guide, and others. It's the name of the game, unfortunately.

This topic is also in my mind because today I picked up the newest issue of Starlog magazine (see my extended thoughts on Starlog's market position) and looked at the annual U.S. Postal Service Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation. For those of you non-magazine folks, that's the little data report that each magazine must print once a year laying out the details of circulation and mailing, such as how many total copies are printed, how they're distributed, what percentage of circulation is paid circulation, etc. As a magazine editor, I've written up my share of these reports, and I know the Post Office is very picky about how they're filled out. It is not uncommon for them to send it back to the editor and have them correct relatively minor problems.

(Side story: About 10 years ago, I contacted the editor of a major British science fiction magazine to ask why they were calling themselves the largest SF magazine in the world when their reported circulation was clearly below that of the market leader at the time, Starlog. He replied that all they had to go on was Starlog's word in the Post Office circulation filing, and there was no way to know if that was correct. I thought then and I think now that that was a silly response, having dealt directly with these circ statements and knowing they're not just hot air.)

Starlog's average total paid circulation for the past year, as stated in this year's filing, is a mere 27,868 (or 22,863 for the most recent issue; these circ statements require both types of reporting). For the past few years, Starlog had reported nearly 100,000 circulation in both categories (even that was down dramatically from the heights in the 1990s; the March 1997 issue of Starlog lists circulation figures of 257,862 and 255,920 for those categories). In the magazine's more than 30 years of publishing such Post Office circulation statements, I've never seen it much below 100,000.

So if I obsess over this particular magazine even amidst a steep decline in print circulations throughout the industry, chalk it up to a long-standing relationship with the magazine and a desire to see it remain alive and relevant. It can.

But another challenge is the drastic changes in newsstand distribution that has resulted in vastly fewer magazines receiving good distribution (for just one example, see Wal-mart's decision last year to drop 1,000 – yes, 1,000 – titles from its stores). Distribution problems are longstanding. Back in the early 1980s, the publisher of one of my all-time favorite magazines, Future Life, wrote that "We estimate that about 25 percent of all magazines are never put onto the stands at all, but go immediately into the wholesaler's shredders." The publishers, advertisers, and readers are of course paying for those destroyed copies as part of their costs to get the remaining copies.

The answer, I still believe, will be a mixture of continued traditional distribution of printed magazines and the increased distribution of the magazines through digital means, which will allow the readers (or even innovative newsstand operators) to print out the magazines themselves and not have to pay for destroyed copies.

But until that time arrives, it's going to continue to be a brutal atmosphere for print publishers, especially smaller ones in competitive market niches. Here's to hoping they hang in there and be creative.

It's Official: Bush to Replace Cheney

Okay, hear me out on this.

According to the schedule of events for inauguration day, January 20, sometime between 11:30 am and 12 noon EST Joe Biden will be sworn into office as the new vice president. However, Barack Obama doesn't take the oath until 12 noon. In between those two oath-takings, there will be a musical interlude performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma (does he play at every big event these days?), Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill.

So, until Obama swears his oath and officially becomes our next president, is Biden technically the vice president to George W. Bush? Considering the poor service rendered by his chosen veep, Dick Cheney, for the past eight years, those five minutes might just be the shining highlight of his presidency.

I know, according to the Constitution, the presidential term of office begins at 12 noon on January 20. But since Cheney has stated that he rejects constitutional authority and does not believe the vice presidency is a part of the executive branch, then perhaps that little stipulation doesn't apply to him, either, and he'll be five minutes short of completing a full two terms in the Old Executive Office Building.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Starlog and Fangoria: Still Growing in One Area

Horror seems to be the lively side of the science-fiction/horror duo that is Starlog Group. What I mean by that is that while Starlog gives ground unnecessarily (see my long post describing Starlog's challenges and suggesting remedies), Fangoria is growing and innovating.
First, there's the announcement that the company is relaunching its late-80s, early-90s horror movie magazine Gorezone. Gorezone concentrated (and reportedly will concentrate) on harder-core horror than Fangoria.
Second, the company announced the release of digital versions of the entire run of the newspaper-format horror publication The Monster Times, which was published by a different company from 1972 to 1976. Apparently a complete rights purchase has been made, because the announcement also promises new Monster Times content (whether in print, online, or both is not specified), focused in a more "family friendly" direction.
These two moves (in addition to the beginnings of the digitization of the Fangoria magazine archives, an ongoing weekly radio program, a lively web site, original videos, and comics) demonstrate that the company believes money is to be made from this magazine franchise.
All the power to them.
I just reiterate my belief that there's a lot of money and opportunity to be mined on the science-fiction side of the company. Magazines are only as dead or as weak as they make themselves.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Starlog: Quo Vadis?

The beginning of the new year is as good a time as any to address the matter of my long-promised review of Starlog magazine. But instead of reviewing a recent issue of the magazine, I wanted to review the magazine as a whole, as a brand.

I know that if someone had proposed to review any of the magazine brands for which I've worked, I'd have a mixture of curiosity, bemusement, and a chip on my shoulder. For the editors and publisher of a brand such as Starlog, you could probably add "weariness," because people are always airing their opinions about the magazine and how it should be run.

That's the burden of being an iconic magazine in its field. Playboy gets the same treatment. Whenever Playboy Enterprises reports a quarter of bad earnings, the blogosphere fills up with people saying the company should ditch its print edition, ditch its executives, adapt to the Internet age, etc.

And so it is with Starlog. For more than three decades, this magazine has covered science fiction films, television, books, plays, theme park attractions, comics, and much more, and at its height (arguably in the 1980s, but possibly in the 1990s) it was the flagship of a small but thriving publishing group that produced titles on everything from horror to teens to movie tie-ins to baseball and wrestling (and astrology and cars and cat calendars and soap operas and military history and women's magazines and bodybuilding and obviously much, much more). For a lot of that time, Starlog magazine dominated a field that included weaker competitors such as Fantastic Films, Cinefantastique, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Movieland, Sci-Fi Universe, Questar, and others.

But in recent years, it has fallen behind, both technologically and competitively. I'll write more about the competitive landscape below, but first let's take a look at Starlog-the-brand's many aspects and how it's doing with each.

In Print
The May 1980 issue of Starlog was the first edition of the magazine I ever purchased. Even now, without thumbing through a copy to refresh my memory, I can recall most of the articles in it. (Interviews with two of the new actors in Galactica 1980; a report on a backyard production of Alien; an editorial reviewing Galactica 1980; a column by David Gerrold in which "Harlan Ellison," "litchi nut," and "sex" all figured prominently in the lead; and on and on....)

That issue made me a lifelong reader. But being a reader from "way back when" doesn't make me qualified to critique a magazine, for which a small merry band of individuals spend a lot of time writing, editing, designing, and marketing. As a professional editor myself, I respect their work and dedication, but I offer this constructive criticism of Starlog magazine today in the hopes that they're listening.

The magazine remains timely, including coverage of all of the big -- and many small -- science fiction media projects. They get the big interviews, they ask the good questions, and they stay on target, which is reporting on the films, books, and television programs; thankfully, they do not do what so many other film publications do and report on the bedroom details of the actors or directors. If you want that, there's plenty of such reporting elsewhere. Instead, we learn about projects that are of wide interest and others that are targeted at niche-audiences, which is a great way to attract new readers and retain older ones. (If you're the magazine where readers can be sure of getting interviews with every star of a small WB fantasy-oriented TV series, that makes it a must-buy publication for the show's fans.) It also features excellent film historians Tom Weaver and Will Murray, who provide frequent must-read articles.

Editor David McDonnell is a well-known comics fan (having worked on three different iterations of sister publication Comics Scene) who gathers a large number of one-panel comics for each issue of Starlog. There are also book reviews, DVD previews, a monthly overview of changes to science fiction television programs, short updates on upcoming media programs, and photos of science fiction and fantasy celebrities at public appearances. All well-and-good.

The drawbacks of Starlog are not in what is there. McDonnell and his team produce a slick magazine each month (10 times annually, down from 12 a few years ago, but that's par for the publishing world these days), and reading it will keep any science fiction fan well-informed and entertained.

No, the drawbacks are what is not in Starlog. First, there are no editorials or columns, either of which (preferably both) can give a magazine personality and, perhaps more important, can give readers a reason to buy a magazine even if they're not particularly interested in the articles blurbed on the cover. The examples are many: David Schow in Fangoria in the 1990s; David Gerrold in Starlog in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s; Harlan Ellison in Future Life for the second half of its short life; Howard Cruse in Comics Scene's first iteration. Or -- in the non-Starlog Group world -- the late Asa Baber's column in Playboy, William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, and many other examples. The reader doesn't have to agree with everything or even a lot of what the columnist writes, but the reader does have to be served a column that is provocative and interesting. A good column doesn't have to be more than a page or two in the magazine, so it's not taking up too much real estate. But it should help sell the magazine and help define its character to readers who pick up the publication for the first time.

Editorials can be even shorter in length, but they accomplish a lot, as long as the editor or publisher writing it is allowed to say things and not just highlight articles in that issue. Editor McDonnell has written tons of these over the years for all of the magazines he's edited, but he currently does not. Nor is there a publisher's letter in Starlog, as there used to be when Publisher Kerry O'Quinn really set the tone for the magazine in the 1980s. The magazine needs an editorial voice, something to show that the magazine has a voice of its own, to help point readers to things not covered in the magazine, to give the magazine a personality with which the reader, one hopes, identifies and thereby makes it more likely that the reader will continue reading.

The other thing missing from the magazine is more difficult to define, but I believe it to be very important. That is a sense of the calendar, something to make the magazine the reader's guide through the year. This can be done best with annual special issues, such as anniversary issues, seasonal previews, and other special features or editions that don't appear each month but which give the reader something to look forward to (and a reason to plan on buying the next issue of the magazine). I remember well how much I anticipated each July's special anniversary issue of Starlog back in the 1980s. No, my life wasn't so empty that this was all that I looked forward to; but it was something that in the context of my reading and purchasing of magazines was very important. Not only does this sense of the calendar help sell the magazine, but it helps define the genre for the reader, and that makes the magazine that much more of an indispensible buy.

The Design
With the redesign of Starlog's longtime logo a couple issues ago, there was an assumption by some people that the magazine would itself undergo a redesign, but none has been forthcoming so far. None is called for, necessarily, because the publication's designers do a good job, and covers have been quite good of late. (Any magazine that has published more than 370 issues is going to have some great covers, a lot of good covers, a ton of so-so covers, and more than a few boners. Starlog is no exception.)

The magazine has lots of color, but it long ago learned the advantages of letting the color photos speak for themselves without needing to overload the reader with colored backgrounds to the text. One of Starlog's strengths has always been that it is a readers' magazine; even with a lot of sharp color photos in each issue, most of the magazine is text, and that plays to the strength of print publications in the Internet age: You get a headache after reading text on the web for too long, but a print magazine is something you lie down on the couch or sit in a chair and put your feet up while you read for extended periods, which gives the reader more commitment to the magazine and the brand.

Starlog has never been at the forefront of the Internet revolution. Sure, one of its editors had a Compuserve address in the 1980s, and it (along with sister publications Fangoria and Comics Scene) had a presence on the early MSN network in the early 1990s. But when the World Wide Web exploded and became the obvious platform for communication and dissemination, Starlog lagged, relying on its print presence and only belatedly creating a web site.

The web site the magazine has had for much of this decade has been underfed in terms of content or even attention. And, as of this writing, the site has been down ("Under construction and coming soon") for a couple months, following the purchase of Starlog and Fangoria from its previous, bankrupt owner.

There's no e-mail newsletter, no podcasts (video or audio), no blogs. Before the site went on hiatus, there was an online forum, as well as short reports on news of the day, excerpts from print articles, and an online store. Missing was any regular presence of the print publication's editorial staff, as well as anything substantive.

In brief, Starlog has missed the boat -- and a great many opportunities to promote its brand -- by ignoring or giving short shrift to the Internet. I believe that has to change, and I have some ideas below on how that can be done cost-effectively.

Competitive Landscape
In the early 1990s, there appeared within a very short timespan several new newsstand competitors to Starlog. My thought at the time was that, though Starlog remained strong and a favorite of mine, competition would be good for it and would perhaps impel it to step up its game. But the competition proved unworthy; Sci-Fi Universe, published by the Hustler group of magazines, remains the only magazine I've ever seen to publish an interview with provocative writer Harlan Ellison that is boring. The magazine died an early death, unbemoaned. Sci-Fi Entertainment and Cinescape offered nothing new, trying to play in Starlog's yard but beating it only in terms of color pages, not in quality or new ground broken (to mix metaphors).

But the real competition has come from England, where the economics of magazine publishing clearly are different from here in the United States. SFX magazine (which usually manages to cover part of its logo so it looks like "SEX") offers lots of pages and attitude, but it has no connection to the soul of the SF fan the way Starlog did in its early years and still occasionally today. In the past couple years, Sci Fi Now and Deathray have emerged from England, both of them, like SFX, at nearly 150 oversized pages, all color. In terms of paper quality and quantity, energy, and attitude, these magazines have raised the bar in a way that Cinescape and its sisters could never do.

How has Starlog reacted? In the past decade, the magazine has gone through one bankruptcy and another implosion (which saw the former Starlog Group close something like a dozen of its other magazines when financing ran out in 2001). Most recently, Starlog has cut its page count from 92 pages (including covers) to 84.

How should it react? Here are some thoughts.

My Suggestions for Starlog
First, don't stop doing what the magazine and its editors, writers, and designers are doing well, which is offering that broad coverage of science fiction media past, present, and future.

But much more attention needs to be paid to a basic magazine need: Advertising. Time and effort need to be spent to increase the advertising. Even if the mag's circulation has dropped from its peak, it's still a good vehicle for advertisers to reach readers.

Second, address the lack of "a sense of the calendar," as I call it above. Do something special for the anniversary issue each and every year. Have a couple special articles (featuring a special layout/design), a self-lauditory editorial (that's not as selfish as it sounds; any such editorial is doing two things: It does praise the home forces, but it also praises the readers as being a part of this great enterprise, and lets the readers know they are part of a very special breed of readers and thinkers), maybe a bust-the-editorial-budget special report on some aspect of the science fiction universe.

Other options could include devoting a portion of the December issue to a year-end review, which also lets you devote a good-sized article in January to a new-year preview. Both can be produced with little extra cost (i.e., time-willing, they could be staff-produced and not require freelance talent) and can even draw in the sorely lacking reader involvement (in October, tell readers to write in with their top-10 lists of the year, with a selection to be printed in the December issue, or with a tally to be taken and published, along with selected comments on the best/worst/whatever science fiction films/tv/books that make the collective list. Free content, but it lets the reader become a part of the magazine and maybe even see their name in print -- a not-to-be-dismissed plus) and it can be a fun use of two or three pages.

For several years in the mid-1908s, Starlog produced an annual end-of-summer issue that included reviews of the summer's movies. The theory they offered was that by then everyone's had a chance to see the movies for themselves, so they weren't straying from their mantra of letting the readers make their own judgements. Starlog could revisit this type of an issue, perhaps making the special section a collection of reviews by science-fiction writers, readers, and its own collection of the top genre journalists. With the dominant role that DVDs now play in the success of a film or television program, having a review issue that comes out after most of the big films have made their debut but before they have hit DVD (and before the new TV season gets really going) could be perfect timing.

If not those ideas, then something needs to be done to have a schedule in the year that offers the reader a map of the genre year and milestones along the way. Make them a part of that calendar, and make the magazine their official guide through it.

Other ideas for the print magazine would be (as I noted much earlier in this review) the addition of a regular opinion columnist and and monthly editorial. And the publication of the occasional episode guide wouldn't hurt, either. (Will they miss the boat by not doing a complete episode guide when the new Battlestar Galactica ends this season?)

But it's on the online front where Starlog can do some exciting but cost-effective things to build brand loyalty, market the magazine (and its related publications, such as Fangoria), and get the reader involved with the magazine in the weeks between the release of each new print edition.

First, produce a free weekly e-mail newsletter that people go to the web site to subscribe to. Sell banner ads for the e-newsletter, and come up with newsletter content that can be produced relatively easily but is still valuable to the reader. Some ideas: Short synopses of the next week's science fiction TV programs; release date in the next week of any science fiction, fantasy, or horror film, a short opinion piece (first paragraph only in the newsletter; link to the web site for the full article), an excerpt from an article in the current or upcoming issue of the print magazine, reader letters, a couple noteworthy reader posts from the bulletin boards, and maybe an original news report. I'd enjoy writing something like that. More important, I'd subscribe to it and read it, and I think thousands of other science fiction fans would, too.

Second, add a blogger or two to the web site. One could be an omnibus staff blog, as Playboy does with its editorial team. In that case, no one person is tasked with writing a blog posting every day, but every day still sees a new posting from one or another editor from a variety of perspectives and on a variety of topics. Another blog might be a movie and TV program review blog. Coming up with topics for possible blogs is not a difficult challenge.

Third, add audio (and, even better, video) podcasts. With the technology available today that ships with any new Mac, you can create audio and video podcasts and distribute them through your web site and/or through iTunes. Do movie reviews, short excerpts of talks with science fiction creators, and genre news -- it's a free or low-cost way to produce and distribute great content, and it again serves the bottom line of getting people involved and invested in the brand, helping sell the online content and the print content, which all cross-promote.

Fourth, take some of those brands that keep getting resurrected as special sections of Starlog magazine (Future Life, Comics Scene, Fantasy Worlds) and relaunch them as web sites. It'll keep your foothold on the title and logo, and it'll also let you cross-promote all of your brands to the betterment of all of them.

The Future of the Magazine
I don't know the source or sources of Starlog's current lethargy. I think I've pointed out that it has many current strengths and behind-the-scenes talent, not to mention a valuable brand name. Whether it's a lack of manpower, a lack of editorial vision, a lack of direction from the company's executives, or something else, it's simply not an excuse to let things go undone and let markets slip out from under them.

I write this article as both a longtime Starlog reader and as a publishing professional with almost 20 years of experience. I hope it's read by other readers and fans with sympathy for a great title, and by Starlog staff with an eagerness to break new ground. I'll be their biggest cheerleader.

What do you think? E-mail me or leave a comment on this blog. Thanks.