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Updated May 7, 1997

"What's Happening to the Magazines?" by James A. Bailey

When I opened the February issue of Locus and started looking at their 1996 Year in Review section on magazines, I was shocked. The circulation numbers for the major pro SF/F magazines are not just eroding like they have been for the last few years, they're plummeting! Double-digit loses for the three digests, Analog, Asimov's, and F&SF as well as for the new, slick SF Age. Realms of Fantasy was the only one to pull its circulation up, and they is probably at the expense of its sister mag, SF Age (Locus only considers magazines selling more than 10,000 copies as pros for its survey).

What's happening here? Do people not want to bother with short fiction anymore, are the magazines getting stale and tired, or are there external factors at work? I don't really know the answers to these, but I'll try to take a look at the questions here. One of the things that surprised me, coming from completely outside of fandom's scope even just a year ago, is that to some extent, short stories aren't that big of a deal. I had been led to believe from my reading that short fiction is a major driving force in the SF/F field. I guess reading a lot of Isaac Asimov's reminiscences will do that to a person.

However, I found out differently. Oh, there are many short-story aficionados and the short form is well respected, both by readers and writers, but it's far from being the center of the SF/F universe. So, all right, I'm over that bit of naiveté -- not everybody subscribes to 14 magazines -- I can accept that. But still!

Analog's circulation has gone from 100k to 60k since 1988, with a drop of 10,000 in just the last year. It still holds on as the most popular SF fiction magazine, but how long can the core Analog fans hold out? I'm hoping that with Analog's (and Asimov's) sale to Penny Press, this trend can be reversed. Dell didn't seem to do too well with the fiction digests, and I've heard that they were somewhat neglected in the bustle of the competitive periodical market.

There's something special about an "Analog" story, especially when it's running on all cylinders. On the other hand, I've noticed a strong negative reaction to this very characterization -- the "soulless" nuts-n-bolts story is too common for some people's tastes (I must admit to noticing this myself). It will be interesting to see if Stanley Schmidt can broaden the appeal without turning off the regulars.

Asimov's suffered the biggest drop of the bunch, losing 14,000 readers! I think the loss of Isaac Asimov was a bigger factor than most people realize. My own opinion is that the magazine lost a large part of its personality when it lost his editorials and responses in the letter column. The addition of Robert Silverberg went a long way toward correcting this, but it's still not the same.

The stories have remained top notch, usually dominating the award ballots, but in a way, I think this gives Asimov's a bad image for some people. Is it too literary? I've heard the idea expressed, and I often find myself putting off reading the newest issue because it feels too much like a chore. I don't know whether that feeling is justified, I usually enjoy the stories once I get started, but all it takes to not send in the subscription renewal is a small stack of issues never touched. The impression in people's minds may be more important than the reality.

Fantasy & Science Fiction suffers the same problem, but to a lesser extent I think. Kristine Kathryn Rusch had been on a binge of editorial writing before handing over the reigns to Gordon Van Gelder. She mostly discussed the importance of the entertainment value in fiction -- if you have a message, you have to first get the reader to keep turning the pages. I have to say that I did largely enjoy the stories I read in F&SF last year, and rarely did the "burden" of unread issues feel that heavy.

Still, they lost 6,000 readers last year. However, F&SF is privately owned and runs on a very low overhead compared to the its corporate cousins, so hopefully this won't cause a panic. The change of editors may perk interest as people try it out to see what, if anything, is different. KKR left behind about a year's worth of material, so Gordon Van Gelder's presence won't be felt strongly until next year.

Realms of Fantasy, from Sovereign Media, appears to be doing well as it attracts fantasy fans. Good presence on the newsstands as well as the slick appearance should slowly draw the attention of the legions of fans that buy works by Robert Jordan or Terry Brooks. The problem is that short stories just aren't seen as a populist medium -- too many negative vibes from being forced to read "literature" in English classes. I see a magazine like this as our Trojan Horse to sneak into the hearts of the masses.

The same goes for Science Fiction Age. I'm really surprised that it's not the #1 SF fiction mag already. The mix of stories and feature articles makes it very easy to have around for either browsing or serious reading. Although it's probably the top market for writers looking to sell their stories (SF Age pays the highest rates among the print fiction mags), the overall quality doesn't yet match the digests. There is a growing number of high-caliber stories, though, and although I can't put a name to it, SF Age has developed a distinctive style that may attract a core audience of its own.

So, are the top pro magazines in trouble, or are they just settling into a lower level of support against the ever-growing competition for our attention from all sources? Probably a little of both. A common refrain I hear is, "Oh I used to subscribe to X magazine, but I don't have time to read it anymore." I also find it rare that anybody has more than 3 or 4 subscriptions (I'm still adjusting to the fact that this is normal, even for big fans).

A mild part of what I'm doing with this site is trying to show people that there's reason to perhaps pick up an additional subscription. If a person can see that Y magazine is actually printing stories from favorite authors, maybe the reluctance to subscribe will disappear. This can work with both the big magazines and the smaller ones as well. A lot of "big names" sell to the smaller markets, but people don't know they are missing those stories until they see an index like mine. Likewise, maybe a few reviews by other readers can give a person some idea of whether shelling out the price of a sub is worth it.

All I can say is that I think the magazines out there deserve our support. I'm not saying throw your hard-earned cash at something you won't enjoy, just that you should spend a little time looking around the field to find something you'll like. Surely one of the many publications out there is worthy of your attention. Look for just one more magazine to add to your list. Or browse the tables of contents for a back issue or two that will likely interest you -- all of the publisher will be more than happy to sell leftover stock, it's bonus money to them.

The other big way to help them out is to tell a friend. Word of mouth is always the best form of advertisement. There are a lot of people who have never been exposed to good, fun short stories. The SF/F field is full of them. Get somebody new hooked and that's 2 or 3 more subscriptions for the field. A strong short fiction market helps us all, even those who read only novels, since it give new writers a place to cut their teeth on the ideas and wonders of SF/F. It would also be nice to be able to pass along the tradition and art of a thriving short-fiction world to the next generation. In no other genre is the short form such a vital part of its existence. I'd like to keep it that way!

Thanks for listening to me ramble.

Jim Bailey

(Send comments on this, or anything else to: jbailey@sff.net)

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