#SFF2020: The State of Genre Magazines

Note: My report on the state of genre magazines is available free to the public. If you like my writings on genre issues, consider backing my Patreon. 

For the last few months I’ve been working on #SFF2020: The State of Genre Magazines, a detailed look at science fiction and fantasy magazine publishing in this day and age.

This report is available below and can also be downloaded in the following formats:

For this report I interviewed the editors, publishers, and staff of the following genre magazines. Many thanks to each of these people. The individual interviews are linked below and also contained in the downloadable Kindle, Epub, and PDF versions of the report.

Obviously these are not all of the professional-level digital magazines in the SF/F genre. For a more complete listing of professional-level genre magazines, including their submission response times, go here.

#SFF2020: The State of Genre Magazines

Introduction

Back in August I tweeted congrats to the fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies for achieving their fundraising goal. Which again, excellent news! But I then foolishly used that thread to try and demonstrate why BCS’s success was proof that science fiction and fantasy magazines were doing better than ever.

Spoiler: I was wrong. As multiple editors and publishers of genre magazines quickly pointed out.

Now don’t misunderstand. In many ways we’re living through the best of times for writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy short fiction. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America lists more than 25 professional-level magazines, likely more than the genre has ever witnessed at the same time. And Locus Magazine’s most recent analysis of the genre’s magazines found “70 magazines, 14 audio sites, and nine critical magazines.” 

And that’s merely English-language magazines. There are also many great magazines around the world such as XB-1, Galaxies Science-Fiction, and Fantastica. And the biggest SF/F magazine currently in existence is Science Fiction World in China, which reportedly has a circulation of over 200,000 a month.

In addition, the boon of e-publishing has lowered the traditional printing and distribution cost barriers to creating new genre magazines. This allows more people than ever, including marginalized and diverse voices, to create their own magazines without the need for a large company or trust fund to support their dreams.

But despite all this, times are still tough for many magazines. A number of high-profile and award-winning genre magazines have shut down in the last two years, including Apex Magazine, The Book Smugglers (although their review site continues), Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Shimmer.

And during this same time period Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld, has been speaking publicly about the many issues faced by genre magazines and warning that the short fiction market was “oversaturated when compared to the number of paying readers.” He believed this might eventually result in a market correction and said a big part of the problem was that having so many SF/F short stories available to read for free had “devalued short fiction.”

A Short History of SF/F Short Fiction Magazines

Before we discuss the current status of 21st century SF/F magazines, I want to take a quick look at the history of SF/F magazine publishing.

For much of the last hundred years, magazines were the heart of SF/F publishing. For example, Robert Silverberg described in a September 2014 column in Asimov's Science Fiction how when he first broke into the SF genre during the early 1950s, he set his sights on what at that time was the true measure of successful SF authors: short stories.

As Silverberg wrote, "Science fiction was primarily a magazine medium in the early 1950s, with only a handful of book-length works being published each year. The best writers of the field – and there were dozens of top-notchers at work then – wrote short stories, bushels of them, more than even the numerous magazines of the time could absorb.”

From the early 1900s through the late-1950s, publishing short stories in magazines earned authors far more money than novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway that he only wrote short stories because magazines paid so much for them that they supported his novel writing. Fitzgerald called this "whoring" because it was the only way he could earn enough money to write "decent books."

This pattern held when the first true SF/F genre magazines like Amazing Stories began appearing in the 1920s and ’30s. The Golden Age of Science Fiction which followed saw the establishment of major genre magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction (launched in 1930 and later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) and Galaxy Science Fiction (launched in 1950).

The reason authors earned so much from publishing short fiction from the early 1900s through the late-1950s is that magazines and periodicals were the main reading material of people in the United States and many other countries. During this period traditionally published books were expensive and out of reach of many people’s income, while pulps and other magazines could be purchased for a low price. 

However, this changed in 1939 when Pocket Books began selling mass market paperback books at affordable prices. World War 2 then drove a surge in demand for paperbacks which continued through the 1950s and supplanted traditional magazines in people’s buying habits. Add to this a general collapse of the United States magazine distribution market in 1957 with the folding of American News Company and the genre shifted from being driven by short fiction in magazines to novel-length fiction.

Despite this change, genre magazines continued to provide a critical market for SF/F short fiction, which did not usually sell as well in book formats as novels (although there was a boom in anthology markets in the 1960s and ’70s). During the 1980s the three biggest English-language SF/F magazines were Analog: Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov’s Science Fiction, each with around 100,000 in circulation, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, with a circulation of around 60,000. These genre magazines were frequently referred to as the “Big Three,” although other English-language magazines such as Interzone in the United Kingdom and Omni also had a strong impact on the genre.

The 21st century saw the emergence of a new generation of SF/F magazines which took advantage of online and e-publishing platforms to reach readers, including Strange Horizons and Sci Fiction, both launched in 2000; Escape Pod, launched in 2005; and Clarkesworld Magazine, launched in 2006. 

Initially these new magazines struggled.

“It was a very different world for magazines in 2006,” said Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld. “Online fiction wasn’t particularly respected. I remember having established authors tell me point-blank they wouldn’t publish online because it was the domain of ‘newbie writers and pirates.’ The year’s best anthologies and various genre awards rarely featured works from those markets.”

But over time these attitudes changed. And these new magazines also took advantage of innovative ways of promoting and financing their magazines, options which weren’t available decades before, helping create what could be called a new Golden Age for genre magazines.

The end result: There are more SF/F magazines today than at any single time in the genre’s history.  

Today’s Genre Magazines

While some of today’s genre magazines like Asimov’s and Analog may have begun as print-only, they now have significant digital audiences. And many magazines which emerged as online or digital-only in the early 21st century, like Clarkesworld, now release annual editions in print (along with other formats).

This is an important point to make – just as e-books have not come close to replacing print books over the last decade despite many predictions this would happen, so have print editions of magazines held on in the marketplace. As Sheila Williams of Asimov’s told me, part of this is due to many readers still preferring print editions. But she also added, “Print editions are much more visible. They do a lot of our promotion for us.” 

This last fact helps explain why today’s genre magazines span all possible distribution avenues, including releasing podcasts and providing online, e-book, and print editions. There is simply no single “correct way” for today’s genre magazines to reach their audience. And a magazine which limits its audience to only a single distribution channel may struggle more than those which branch out in many different ways to find their audience.

There’s also a myth about genre magazines which needs to be debunked, namely that more people submit to them than read them. This falsehood is often said about newer magazines which came of age in the digital era but is also sometimes used against all genre magazines. The reason for this slur is to imply that the only people who read genre magazines these days are the writers who publish and submit to them. 

According to Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, the editors and publishers of Uncanny Magazine, this myth is absolutely untrue. As they said in a recent tweet, “The number of submitters during a month we're open is about .05% of the number of readers in a month.”

The truth is today’s genre magazines have impressive readerships. Below are the circulations of all the genre magazines whose staff I interviewed for this report, plus Analog, F&SF, Interzone/Black Static, and Tor.com. All of this information comes from Locus Magazine’s most recent magazine survey, which covered the year 2018.

  • Amazing Stories published two issues in  2018 containing 17 stories. The magazine “gave out nearly 5,000 copies of  the first issue (Fall 2018)” at Worldcon76 and reported 30,000-45,000 uniques per month.
  • Analog published six digest-size  double issues containing 88 pieces of fiction plus nonfiction in 2018. The magazine had 11,401 print subscriptions and 8,788 digital, for a total of  20,189 subscriptions. Newsstand sales were 2,880.
  • Asimov’s published six digest-size  double issues containing 66 pieces of fiction plus nonfiction in 2018. The magazine had 7,109 print subscriptions and 10,578 digital subscriptions for a total of 17,697 subscriptions. Newsstand sales were 2,265.
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies published 26 issues containing 62 pieces of original fiction plus 21 podcast episodes in 2018. Their website averaged 76,000 uniques per month and 11,000 unique listeners for their podcast. 
  • Clarkesworld published 12 issues containing 56 original stories and 23 reprints plus podcasts and nonfiction in 2018. Their website had 42,000 unique visitors per month while podcast listeners were 14,000. They also had 3,800 digital subscribers and a flat 200-250 digital single-issue sales each month.
  • Escape Pod has an estimated audience size of 37,000, while all of the Escape Artists podcasts (which, in addition to Escape Pod, are PodCastle, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders) are downloaded over 365,000 times a month.
  • F&SF published six digest-size double issues containing 63 pieces of fiction in 2018. The magazine’s print subscription numbers were 6,688 plus 2,652 copies sold on newsstands; digital subscription numbers were not reported by Locus.
  • Fireside published two full-color digest-size print issues with 26 pieces of fiction and some nonfiction in 2018. Fireside published the stories first in print, followed by online publication. Unique visitors averaged around 10,000 per month, along with 600 e-book subscribers and a circulation of 1,000 for their print edition of Fireside Quarterly.
  • FIYAH! published four issues with 17 stories and six poems in 2018. They had 325 subscriptions, 497 downloads, and 1,385 average monthly visits.
  • Interzone and Black Static both released five bimonthly issues, with Interzone  publishing 31 total pieces of fiction and Black Static 28 pieces of fiction. Circulation figures were not reported by Locus.
  • Strange Horizons published 51 weekly issues with 50 stories in 2018 and reported about 40,000 uniques per month.
  • Tor.com published 30 pieces of fiction along with nonfiction and reported one million unique visitors per month.
  • Uncanny published six issues with 41 original stories and six reprints, as well as essays, poems, interviews, and podcasts. Uncanny had 1,600 subscribers and averaged 28,000 monthly unique visitors.

As you can see from these numbers, magazines allowing online distribution of their stories for free tend to have lower paid subscription numbers than magazines which one must pay to read. However, the potential readership for online stories tends to be far higher than the readership of magazines with paid subscriptions. For example, each month Clarkesworld has 42,000 unique web visitors, 14,000 podcast listeners, and 3,800 digital subscribers. Asimov’s, by comparison, has 17,697 paid print and digital subscriptions. So a magazine like Clarkesworld which has a more online focus may potentially have more readers, but Asimov’s has many more readers paying to read their stories.

It is also worth noting the readership for most genre magazines increased in 2018 over the year before. Analog’s total circulation was up 9.9% while Asimov’s was up 10.6% and F&SF’s up 1.5%. Newer genre magazines also saw their circulations increase in 2018 over the year before, with Clarkesworld seeing a nearly 8% increase in paid digital subscriptions while their website had 2,000 more unique visitors each month and podcast listeners went from 2,000 to 14,000 in a single year.

Overall, these numbers show that people are reading and listening to genre magazines.

But supporting all genre magazines? That’s a different issue.

The Business of Genre Magazines

While today’s genre magazines may reach their audiences in similar ways, behind the scenes there are larger differences, especially with regards to how the magazines are funded and if they pay their staff or rely to a large degree on volunteer help.

First, there are the English-language SF/F magazines which are either part of larger publishing companies or privately held businesses with paid staff. These are Analog, Asimov’s, and the highly regarded British magazines Interzone and Black Static published by TTA Press.

In many ways these magazines follow a traditional, for-profit publishing model. Analog and Asimov’s, for example, are published by Penny Publications, which also releases many crossword and puzzle magazines along with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Analog and Asimov’s are published by a larger (though not huge) publishing company,” said Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s. “Being published by a larger company does have its advantages, though. While only one and a half people are dedicated to each of the genre magazines, we do benefit from a support staff of art, production, tech, contracts, web, advertising, circulation, and subsidiary rights departments. While the support of this infrastructure cannot be underestimated, Asimov’s revenue covers our editorial salaries, and our production and editorial costs. We contribute to the company’s general overhead as well.”

Williams added that other than the occasional college intern, Asimov’s does not use unpaid labor.

I’d also add Tor.com to this group of genre magazines, although it is unique from the above publications in being supported by a large book publishing company (Tor Books) that is part of a much larger media conglomerate. Tor.com also doesn’t sell individual issues.

The other general grouping of genre magazines uses a more eclectic model to finance their publications. The magazines in this group were created (or relaunched, in the case of Amazing Stories) since the start of the 21st century. Some of them are run like independent businesses; some are nonprofits. These magazines receive funding through various mixtures of paid subscriptions, back issue purchases, other revenue streams, donations and fundraising. And while some of these magazines pay their staff, many of them also require significant amounts of volunteer time to publish each issue.

FIYAH!, for example, is mainly sustained by subscriptions, with around 70% of their funding coming this route and the rest coming from independent donations, merchandise, and back issue sales. Fireside’s operations were initially funded by the magazine’s annual Kickstarter campaigns, then later by Patreon and direct subscriptions and purchases. The relaunch of Amazing Stories was also initially funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign. 

At the other end of the spectrum is Strange Horizons, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2000 on what was then called the “museum model,” meaning they run on donations and grants. Another 501(c)3 non-profit is Beneath Ceaseless Skies, where less than 1% of the magazine’s support comes from e-book subscriptions and the rest comes from donations.  

The differences in how these magazines fund themselves can result, ironically, in how freely available their fiction is to read online at no cost. BCS and Strange Horizons take a very open approach to publishing their fiction online, while magazines like FIYAH! and Fireside either publish their fiction in subscription-only magazines or first publish their fiction that way and later put it online.

Many of Today’s Genre Magazines Wouldn’t Exist Without Volunteers

“I wish more readers and writers realized how tenuous the financial situation still is for magazine publishing in our field today,” said Scott H. Andrews, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “I know that that fact seems counterintuitive because short fiction is currently thriving, with dozens of new indie zines launching in the last ten years, hundreds of great short fiction writers, and innovative new formats for short fiction like e-books and audio podcasts. But many zines use staffs that are mostly or all unpaid volunteers, and those ones that do pay their staff still as far as I know are paying their editors far less than novel or freelance editors get for the same amount of work, or they're paying the staff but the head editors are contributing their work for free.”

Andrews estimate that he volunteers about 30 hours a week to create BCS – and that means 30 hours every week across the magazine’s entire eleven years of existence. Andrews also estimates he has written at least 25,000 personalized rejections to writers!

This high degree of volunteer time is typical of many of today’s genre magazines. While the SF/F genre has a long history of relying on unpaid volunteer labor, doing so can also push people to the point of exhaustion.

“Everything you see from us, from our website, to our social media, to our amazing covers and magazines, to our voice and vision, all of that was built and is maintained on volunteer labor,” said Troy L. Wiggins, the executive editor  of FIYAH! “As awesome as that is, it’s also worrying. The prevailing business model we have in this field, our overreliance on volunteer labor and crowdfunding is dangerous and, as we are seeing from these recurring conversations about the health of the field, unsustainable.”

In addition, the ability to donate many unpaid hours of editorial work to a magazine is a major privilege and gatekeeping factor on who can work for a digital genre magazine. This excludes many people from working on SF/F magazines and likely contributes to the staff of many magazines not representing the larger demographics of both the genre and world.

“Generally, working for no pay privileges people who can afford to volunteer time,” said Vanessa Rose Phin, editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, “and devalues the work we do as editors. I'd like to think that at SH, we have partially balanced the former by making our staff so large and so international that no one need put in many hours, and folks can cover for you regardless of time zone.”

Mur Lafferty, co-editor of Escape Pod, said they raise enough money to pay everyone but their associate editors, and they’re working to address that. “Counting the labor from first read to final post,” Lafferty added, “we'd estimate a total of 5-6 hours per published story. Of that, only 15 minutes is currently unpaid, and we're working to change that.”

And while this may be counterintuitive, a magazine becoming more successful doesn’t immediately lessen the need for unpaid volunteer work. For example, Uncanny might be one of the most successful new genre magazines of recent years, having won four consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine along with many individual awards for stories and editing.

But as Uncanny’s publishers and editors Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas tweeted, “Uncanny has grown steadily in revenue, our expenses have grown at about the same pace. Publishers/Editors-in-Chief work about a combined 80 hours a week to make the magazine. We aren’t paid for this. This is why Uncanny remains a semiprozine. We LOVE this work, & think it’s important. But it’s unpaid labor.”

To clarify, the Uncanny staff are paid, just not Lynne and Michael. And they do have an ultimate goal of also being paid even if they’ve not yet reached that point. 

Obviously not every genre magazine survives only through significant amount of volunteer time. The “Big 3” of Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF pay all their staff, as does Fireside

But without large amount of volunteer assistance, it’s a stark fact that many of today’s genre magazines wouldn’t exist in their current forms.

“Estimating using a salary of $15/hour for the work our staff does,” Scott H. Andrews said, “we would need a $45,000 increase in our annual budget to pay all staff a living wage.  That's double what our annual budget is to pay for the stories we publish.  To cover that, our monthly donations through Patreon would have to increase by 7000%.”

Is Devalued Short Fiction the Problem?

Many of the editors and publishers I spoke agreed with Neil Clarke’s idea that the online publishing of short fiction at no cost had devalued these stories in the minds of genre readers. Their responses on this point are very detailed and full of nuance and can be found in their individual interviews at the end of this report.

However, in many ways this devaluation is already baked into the 21st century genre magazine cake, especially since so many of the biggest and most high profile magazines long ago set a “free online fiction” model as the example of what success looks like for new genre magazines.  

“If you're one of the most prominent, highly respected outlets in the field and you're offering free content or functioning on volunteer labor or employing a crowdfunded approach to cover operating costs, the 10, 15, 20 zines who come after you are going to take that as gospel,” said L. D. Lewis, FIYAH!’s art director, web master, and POB coordinator.

And as Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas noted, there are also larger forces at work. “We understand why Neil would say this,” they said, “but we think the SFF short fiction magazines are just caught in the same market forces as newspapers and other types of magazines. As the Internet flourished, readers have received a great deal of their shorter reading content for free. This is the case for Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, etc., to the New York Times and everyone’s local paper.”

One result of the devaluation of genre fiction is it hampers the ability of genre magazines to increase the amount of money they can charge or solicit for their content. So while genre magazines have a strong audience base, relatively few in that audience pay or donate to support what the love.

Mur Lafferty of Escape Pod estimates only 1% of listeners actually donate to support the podcast, and I saw similar numbers for many other magazines. Based on my research and conversations, it appears most genre magazines which don’t require a subscription or purchase to read their fiction are supported by well under 10% of their total audience.

As Uncanny’s publishers and editors said in a tweet, “We love all of our readers, but like most online magazines, the vast majority of readers aren't buying subscriptions or supporting via Patreon or Kickstarter.”

An added concern is that if your magazine relies on donations, you also run the risk of tapping out your fundraising base.

“In my observation,” said L. D. Lewis of FIYAH!, “the people who contribute to zine crowdfunds also contribute to crowdfunds for individuals in emergency situations. There are a lot of emergencies or people in general need, just within the SFF community and funds are finite. If you’re supporting your four favorite zines every year, donating to three medical funds, two Kickstarters, a moving fund, and also taking on costs associated with at least one fandom-related convention every year, it’s not sustainable for a lot of readers, especially the marginalized ones.”

And there’s also the issue that established genre magazines tend to soak up much of the available fundraising out there, as noted by Vanessa Rose Phin of Strange Horizons

“SH has it easier than newer zines because we're known,” Phin said, “and we can't help noticing that big branches tend to soak up most of the rain. What we really want to see is a large, diverse market, not a tiny market narrowed to a few giants.”

What’s the Solution?

Genre magazines don’t exist within a SF/F vacuum. Genre magazines are supported by and help support larger genre-loving communities. As many magazine publishers and editors told me, it’s very hard for a genre magazine to exist these days without being a part of a community of SF/F fans.

“Fans have always built communities around the things they love,” said Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld. “What’s changed is the tools we’re using for communication have allowed interactions to be more frequent, interactive, and engaging.”

Genre magazines also help nurture new writers, many of whom go on to publish novel-length works and create beloved video games, films and TV shows. And despite the issues mentioned earlier, creating a magazine or helping edit a current magazine remains one of the more accessible entry points for diverse and new voices to influence and challenge genre trends and conversations. 

“When I first started writing and submitting,” said Troy L. Wiggins of FIYAH!, “it seemed to be that the SF/F field was content to ignore black SF/F writers, even when they said they were hurting. Like, people heard you yelling about your pain, but little was actually changing. The aftermath of the #BlackSpecFic report definitely contributed to our being here, but there was always a need for a space that centers black speculative genius in conversation with the rest of the field, that showed that ‘hey, we can do this as well as a Clarkesworld or an Analog, and our work is just as brilliant.’”

Obviously the biggest thing which would help genre magazines is if more of their audience supported them, either through paid subscriptions or donations. Currently well under 10% of each genre magazine’s audience does this – if that percentage simply doubled, many of the pressures faced by genre magazines would lessen significantly.

As for the devaluation of genre short fiction from being published online at no cost, this is difficult to correct unless all genre magazines agree to change. If many of the most prominent SF/F magazines continue to provide stories for free, there will be pressure on all other magazines – and on any new magazines – to do the same.

That said, it’s possible norms and expectations on this among readers and audience members could change. Many non-genre newspapers, magazines and online publications no longer provide all their content for free, with paywalls increasingly restricting what people can access online. A number of non-genre magazines and publications are also experimenting with new subscriptions models. As more people get used to yet again having to pay or subscribe to read their favorite newspapers or magazines, it’s possible this change in expectations will filter down to genre magazines.

It’s also possible more promotional coordination among SF/F magazines, or co-operative business models, could benefit all genre magazines, ideas expressed by Steve Davidson of Amazing Stories and Troy L. Wiggins of FIYAH! in their individual interviews.

All that said, perhaps the first step to helping is for the readers and listeners of genre magazines to understand the true cost of publishing what they love.

Uncanny doesn’t exist without its community,” said Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. “We don’t feel that this is anything new to magazines. If you look back in SFF history, a thriving community of readers in the letters’ column was there all the way back to Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. All of the ongoing digests (Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF) are still known for having dedicated communities of readers. For a magazine to succeed, you need readers who are invested in the vision and content of your magazine.”

The same could be said about every one of today’s SF/F magazines.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 98 exclusive posts
8
Images
95
Writings
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 98 exclusive posts
8
Images
95
Writings
Tier Benefits
Recent Posts