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Updated July 28, 1997

"Online Fiction: Are We Ready?" by James A. Bailey

This update, I'm starting to list original stories published in online "magazines." In order to keep things managable, I'm only including publications that pay "pro" level rates for stories of over 3 cents/word. To the best of my knowledge (and I'll gladly be corrected), that only leaves Omni, TomorrowSF, and the new Infinite Edge. There's a fourth, Mind's Eye Fiction, but it's a special case and I'll get back to that one.

Omni has been around for years, and for fiction, is still by far the best-paying market for short stories ($1300-2000+ per story) in the genre. It made the transition from print to electronic about 2-3 years ago, first moving to AOL, then the WWW. From what I understand, propping up the print circulation to keep advertisers happy drove them deeply into the red.

Going online eliminated almost all of the physical production costs, but it also completely eliminated subscription income (visiting the site is free). But there's still staff/office overhead to take care of, and I don't believe enough advertisers have yet made the move with them to make up the difference. Still, Omni is part of a larger publishing empire, so they're willing to take a chance that electronic publishing will eventually be profitable. If so, being a pioneer in the field puts them in a great position to take advantage of the Internet's potential.

TomorrowSF also started its life as a print magazine, moving online earlier this year when problems collecting money from distributers put them in a cash bind. Now the only significant expense is paying the authors for their stories.

However, a reliable revenue stream is also a problem here. The announced plan was to shift the subscription format to the electronic version -- $23/year would buy access to the site for all the fiction and features. But when I checked the site for this piece, The subscription rate had dropped to $10 for 6 issues (which should equal a year). It's still too early to tell whether people will buy on to this deal (the site has been free since January), so I have no idea what the future status of TomorrowSF will be.

Another entry in the seepstakes is Infinite Edge, an e-zine planned from the start to be low-overhead so that any revenue could be turned over into new stories for the readers (see interview with Senior Editor, Mike Totty). The money is supposed to come from advertising, but so far, getting sponsors has been problematic. It's still too early to make a call on its succes or failure yet.

The other attempt at presenting online fiction, like I said, is Mind's Eye. Its unique "pay-as-you-go" approach seems to be fairly successful. However, they mostly acquire reprints, though sometimes from "name" authors. The original concept for this publication is that you can read the first half of a story for free, then if you want to finish the rest, you pay a small amount to Mind's Eye (with a cut going to the author), or navigate an interactive ad (so that the sponsor pays your bill).

The obvious advantage is that the biggest cost (payment to the author) isn't incurred *until* somebody actually pays for the priviledge of reading the entire story. I don't know how much total revenue is produced, but Mind's Eye has been around since late '95, so it seems to be self-sustaining at least.

So are we, the readers, ready for online fiction? Probably only in small doses. The biggest problem is reading it all from a computer screen. Sure you can print it out, but I already have boxes and boxes of stuff I've printed to read, then can't decide whether to keep or not -- seems like a waste to even recycle it all. I also like the visceral aspect of collecting SF magazines. I like having piles of mags around, new or old (are you getting a good picture of the mess around me?), to peruse at my leisure, in bed, on the sofa, wherever.

However, not everybody is like me, so eventually, the right kinds of readers will find their way to these e-zines. The problem then becomes one of attracting cash. The WWW is particularly suited to the kind of interactive information that people interested in a product find useful, but just how valuable is a "hit" anyway? Is a 1-in-a-hundred followup to a banner ad enough? Everybody is still trying to figure this out.

In the end, that's why we need these first e-zines to test the waters. Eventually, somebody's going to figure out how to make money with online speculative fiction, and that can only be a good thing for fans. There will always be a place in the future for old-fashioned paper zines, but new options will bring fresh blood to the genre.

One thing's for sure, it will be an interesting ride while we discover the nature of this new beast.

Jim Bailey [7/28/97]

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

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