Warren Lapine runs POD publisher Wilder Publications. Prior to that he ran DNA Publications, publishing or distributing magazines including Aboriginal SF, Absolute Magnitude, Artemis, Dreams of Decadence, Fantastic Stories, Mythic Delirium, and Science Fiction Chronicle.
Warren recently posted this article on Facebook, the main body of which was last updated in 2001. I thought it was an interesting snapshot of the way things used to be and asked Warren if I could re-post it here, and he kindly agreed.
I was going through my archived files and found this. It’s an article I wrote for the SFWA hand book edited by Hal Clement. The book was ultimately scrapped, though I do have two copies of the uncorrected proofs. The entire deal was done on a hand shake deal with the writers and just before it went to print one of the writers got greedy and claimed they’d been offered more than they had and it killed the entire book. At ay rate, I thought some people might find this article interesting. This was written when DNA Publications was at it’s Zenith and everything looked like it would go on forever.
I was quite pleased when Hal Clement asked me if I’d be willing to write about magazines for the new SFWA handbook, as he’s one of my favorite authors and someone I respect immensely. A lot has changed since the last edition of the handbook came out in 1995. There’s been a reduction in the number of professional magazines. We’ve lost SF Age, Amazing, Tomorrow, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. Beyond the folding magazines there were a lot of other changes: Dell, the publisher of Analog and Asimov’s, was sold to Penny Press; Gordon Van Gelder took over The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from Ed Ferman; and DNA Publications increased the number of magazines that it publishes (Absolute Magnitude and Dreams of Decadence) by purchasing Weird Tales, Science Fiction Chronicle, and reviving Fantastic Stories. The changes in the small press were simply too numerous to list.
Those were just the changes in the genre magazine players. The magazine industry has also seen a lot of changes that have affected genre publishing. The clearinghouse-type subscription services have all dropped genre titles, which has caused the genre’s top magazines’ circulations to drop from the 50,000 to 100,000 range to the 10,000 to 40,000 range. This may not be as bad as it sounds, since very little, if any, money was made from those subscriptions. More troubling was the collapse of the independent distribution system. In 1995 Absolute Magnitude and Pirate Writings were each distributed by as many as twenty independent distributors. At that time there were more than 400 independent distributors. That number has dwindled to less than 15, as bigger distributors gobbled up the smaller ones. The bigger distributors are much less likely to take genre magazines than the smaller ones were, which of course has also affected the genre magazines’ circulations. The number of Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores have increased while the number of independent book stores has decreased. This has been bad for book publishers, but not for magazine publishers, as the superstores stock more genre magazines than the independents that they’ve replaced. This has been a boon for the semipro magazines, giving them a larger and more reliable newsstand audience than ever before.
Electronic rights have become more important than ever before as webzines have begun to proliferate and Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF all have electronic editions. Still, the audience for electronic magazines seems to be a few years away. Thus far, no webzine has been able to supplant even the smaller semipro magazines, and none of the pro magazines with electronic editions has increased their pay rate to compensate writers for the purchase of the electronic rights. This is largely because they’re not making enough money yet from electronic sales. As the publisher of DNA Publications, I’ve turned down a number of deals with electronic publishers because none of those publishers could assure me that we could make even enough to pay my writers an extra penny a word for their electronic rights. I’m not comfortable with that kind of a rights grab and will not move into electronic publishing until there’s enough money to pay my writers for the additional rights. But electronic publishing is definitely something to watch. While I don’t believe that electronic publishing will ever supplant print publishing, I do believe that it will eventually become a viable publishing form.
Over the years I’ve been hearing more and more people dismiss the importance of the magazines in genre publishing. This is shortsighted and fails to understand the function that the magazines actually serve. As a field, we would do well to remember that genre fiction as we know it was born in March of 1923, with the publication of the first issue of Weird Tales. Two years later Amazing followed, and publishing has never been the same since. So magazines established the genre fiction field, the book side came along later. I know a number of people reading this are right now objecting to my stance because speculative fiction was being published much earlier than 1923. Indeed, what we would recognize as genre fiction has been with us since the very beginning of publishing, but it was in 1923 that genre fiction separated from mainstream publishing. Whether this was a good thing or not I will leave up to others to debate.
Magazines have always been where the action is. New movements and innovations can always be seen in the magazines first. Both Cyberpunk and the New Wave were born in the magazines. A magazine editor’s job does not hang on the performance of a single story. A book editor’s often does. Why is this? Should a magazine editor take a risk that doesn’t pan out, it has little effect on the magazine’s bottom line. Most of a magazine’s distribution is presold in the form of subscriptions and as long as the subscribers like most of the stories in a given issue, they will return. This allows the more traditional stories to support the risky and innovative stories. As a magazine editor (Absolute Magnitude), I’ll allow myself one risk per issue. That means I may take a risk with every single issue that I publish. No book editor could ever do that. Books are not presold, an audience must be built for each book and if a book fails to sell the editor who purchased it has cost their publisher money. If a book editor fails to make money consistently, they’ll soon find themselves out of a job. As a result of this, book publishing tends to be more staid than magazine publishing. All of the real growth in genre fiction has come from the magazines. If the magazines were to disappear, genre publishing would become much more conservative than it is now and would, I believe, eventually stagnate and die.
Magazines have also traditionally introduced us to the stars of the future. While it is possible to sell a novel in today’s market without ever having sold a single short story, it is still relatively rare. Again, new writers don’t have a built-in audience. This makes the selling of their books problematical for book editors. Magazine editors have a built-in audience and can publish new writers every time out if they are so inclined and if they can find that many good, new writers. Without magazines, genre publishing would have a lot less new blood and the more quirky, new writers would almost certainly disappear.
I won’t go into the basics of submitting to a magazine as there are numerous other places that writers can find that information. If you’re planing to write for the short fiction markets, I would recommend subscribing to a magazine that has market lists, the best of which are Scavenger’s Newsletter, Speculations, and Science Fiction Chronicle. This will help you keep up with the ever-changing magazine market. The average semipro or professional magazine gets between 500 and 1,000 submissions a month. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but there are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of a sale. You must remember, selling a story is not a matter of statistics. Your story does not have a one in one thousand chance just because there are one thousand other stories in the slush pile along with yours. Editors are not pulling manuscripts out at random, really we’re not, we’re reading them and making editorial decisions. In reality more than 90 percent of all the stories in any given slush pile have absolutely no chance of making a sale and a smaller percentage have a 100 percent chance of making a sale. The bottom line is it’s the quality of the story that makes or breaks the sale, not the quantity of the submissions.
To get yourself out of the 90 percent group there are few things you can do that many writers don’t. You can pay close attention to a magazine’s guidelines. If a magazine says no fantasy, they mean no fantasy. The number of stories that come in to Absolute Magnitude that violate my guidelines is just stunning. The second thing you can do is read the magazines. While the guidelines are a good place to start, nothing can give you more insight into what an editor buys than reading what they’ve purchased. I’ve heard a number of writers say that they won’t buy a copy of a magazine until they’ve sold to it. The reasoning is that they support the magazine with their submissions rather than their money. Most editors wish that writers would stop supporting them with inappropriate submissions. Going to conventions and meeting the editors can also be helpful. Should an editor have the space or money to only purchase one more story, they’ll probably go with the story from the person they’ve met. It’s only human nature. If you have professional credits, always list them on a cover letter. No matter who you are, never assume that the first reader will have heard of you. Also, never include a synopsis of your story in the cover letter. Writing a synopsis and writing fiction are two very different skills and a bad synopsis can prejudice an editor against a perfectly good story.
To many it may look as though the genre magazines are in the final stages of their decline, as the largest genre magazines have all been shrinking year after year. I don’t see it that way. The collapse of the independent distributor system has hurt the book industry more than the magazine industry. Many racks are no longer available to paperback books that once were. As a result fewer paperback books are being sold. This has of course driven up the price of paperbacks and caused some book companies to publish more and more of their books only in hardcover and trade editions. Magazines on the other hand have been able to keep their prices quite steady for the last five years. As the difference in price between a magazine and a mass market paperback grows, I suspect we’ll see an increase in the newsstand sales of magazines.
Publishing has changed, and magazine publishers must change the way that they do business to keep up with today’s markets. DNA Publications has been able to grow by at least 10 percent per year every year that it’s been in existence; this has been accomplished by getting better deals with distributors and printers because they publish seven magazines, and increasing circulation numbers by offering deals when readers subscribe to more than one magazine at a time. Ironically, this is how the pulps used to do business. Perhaps the magazine of tomorrow will resemble the magazine of yesterday more than it does the magazine of today.