Sunday, March 8, 2009

Economics of Periodicals Publishing: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

For six decades, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) has published short fiction, and is well regarded as one of the finest of the SF publications. So, how does one react to the news that, starting with the April/May 2009 issue currently out, F&SF has reduced its frequency to bimonthly?

One reaction certainly is sadness at seeing a great old magazine come out less often. It's a treat for the reader to have a favorite magazine hit the mailbox or the newsstands every month, so any cutback leaves a feeling of emptiness.

Another reaction might well be happiness and relief that the magazine is still around; it hasn't given up the ghost; it's just reduced frequency and added pages. Yes, the digest-sized magazine now boasts 260 pages (including covers -- I always count covers; why not?). That's a lot of pages for its short stories, book reviews, contests, editorials, cartoons, and more.

A third reaction is probably a mix of the above two, and that's where I am.

In addition to its high-quality fiction, F&SF features occasional editorials by its perceptive publisher and editor, Gordon Van Gelder. In the current issue, he notes that print magazines offer something that the internet does not: the ability to present long-form articles and fiction.

...[W]hat (if anything) is lost in the switch from print to electronic media? Well, some might argue that the internet is not friendly to the long, thoughtful, carefully considered piece. In fact, I'm one who would make just such an argument. I find it hard to read anything online that's longer than 800 words or so. And when I'm communicating online, I rarely have the patience to write a long piece when I can dash off something and then get feedback for it almost immediately.

Good point. It's one I've more or less made here (and here and, with Hugh Hefner's help, here).

The technology that is moving readers and publishers to the internet and undercutting the business model of publishers is not all one-way, with only bad news for print magazine lovers. I've said before and I'll say again: The technology is already developing (and, with printer-makers' help, already in use in exciting ways) that will make it easier, not harder, for print publishers to launch new titles, revive dormant ones, and thrive in this world. It's the technology for printing and digitally distributing that are the newest game-changers, and it might just prove to be a savior for small magazines.

Whether those publishers put out their new online/print/digital hybrid magazines weekly, monthly, or bimonthly will increasingly be a matter of talent and timing, not postage and distributors costs.

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