Every year Locus Magazine, “The Magazine Of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Field,” publishes a year-in-review of the genre. This summation always includes a rundown of the circulation of the remaining speculative fiction magazines, sometimes referred to as the “pulps” because of the cheap wood pulp paper on which they used to be printed. In their heyday there were dozens of pulps — ranging from the mystery to science fiction genres — with circulations of 100,000 or more. But the medium steeply declined through the ’80s and ’90s, with magazine circulations for all the publications plummeting to well below six figures.

By the 21st century and the advent of the web, most of these once-great magazines — Amazing Stories, Argosy, SF Age — had died off, leaving only three speculative fiction magazines struggling to stop hemorrhaging readers: Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The figures displayed in this year’s Locus Magazine roundup were, as usual, not promising. Analog, the best performing of the three, had fallen to a paid circulation of 27,399, while Asimov’s dropped 5.2% to 17,581. But the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction saw the sharpest decline — 11.2% from the previous year — to a paid circulation of 16,489. Countless science fiction convention panels and online message board topics over the last decade have tried to pinpoint the cause of such catastrophic declines and learn how to stop them. Such discussions often lead to at least one person predicting the eminent death of the short fiction magazines, always seen lurking just around the corner.

But these publications began experiencing turbulence well before the proliferation of the web, so it’s apparent that their problems are in many ways different than the ones currently plaguing the newspaper industry — a medium that thrived until it was suddenly met with vibrant competition from the web. But science fiction magazines are struggling to stay relevant in the Internet age.

Brave New World

Gordon Van Gelder worked in book publishing before taking over as managing editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (typically referred to as F&SF) in 1997, a position he kept even after he bought the publication in 2000. F&SF began publishing in 1948, making it one of the oldest of the pulp digests (Analog launched a few years earlier, in 1930).

In a phone interview, I asked Van Gelder how editors reacted once it became obvious that the web would become a major force in publishing.

“When I was the editor and Ed Ferman was still publisher, we saw the first big webzine rolled out,” he said. “It was called Galaxy Online, I think. It came out January 1999; it was the first highly touted online zine, and I don’t even think it lasted two months. It had real money behind it, supposedly. It had real professionals, and it came and went in the blink of an eye. And I remember Ed Ferman talking to me about what we needed to do online, and it was clear that he didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

And like most print editors these days, he still doesn’t know. Speaking to him, it was evident that he felt some frustration with the subject. Unlike newspapers and most other magazines, which mostly profit by selling advertising space, the short fiction digests make most of their revenue off copies sold — think of them as miniature mass market paperbacks — and so Van Gelder is even more nervous than most editors about giving away too much content for free online.

“It’s so weird to talk about, because it’s sometimes frustrating,” he said. “The web is still so new, it’s still complicated, and I adore it. I do what I can with it, but it drives me nuts, also.”

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On the F&SF blog, print mags are promoted heavily

The magazine has taken some perfunctory steps to court new media, most notably by sending review copies to selected bloggers, launching a blog on its website, and offering some of its archived fiction online for free. But Van Gelder told me he has sent review copies to bloggers only “three or four times” and that the site’s blog is barely updated even once a month. Even the free fiction is only up for a month before being removed again, thereby draining away any potential that new readers could find the magazine via a search engine.

Van Gelder explained that his approach so far to the web has been scattershot, though some authors have figured out how to harness its power.

“I’ve been watching individual authors [promote online] and the three that have been successful at it are John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, and Charles Stross,” he said. “They immediately grasped what the Internet was about and they figured out that it makes much more sense to give stuff away and cause viral marketing than anything else. And it’s worked great for them. In all three cases, though, they’re writers whose work is very accessible to people who do spend a lot of time online. And you’re not hearing about the people who have tried these things and the attempt flopped.”

Online Forums Thrive

Sheila Williams, who has worked for Asimov’s Science Fiction for more than two decades and became editor a few years ago, claimed that the Internet “has not affected our sales in any way negatively.” Instead, she said, the downward trend can be ascribed to changes in distribution — both how and where the magazines were displayed in newsstands and book stores — which have effectively cut off the digests at the knees over the years.

Both Asimov’s and Analog (along with mystery pulps Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine) are published by Dell Magazines, a company perhaps best known for its puzzle magazines. In fact, outside critics often complain that Dell has let its fiction magazines fall by the wayside because it has concentrated its focus on crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

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Asimov’s online forums

One area where the remaining short fiction magazines have thrived is through their online message boards; for instance, Asimov’s has an extremely vocal forum community. But the editor said that despite this large surge in science fiction fans, very little of the discussion on the boards is about the genre or the contents of the magazine.

“The forum is great,” Williams told me. “We have one of the most active forums in existence for the science fiction publications. But mostly they get on there and argue politics; we call it the basement. There’s a section at the bottom that consists of a big chunk that’s very conservative and a big chunk that’s very liberal and they go at it tooth and nail. And they hardly ever talk about the stories. There are a handful of dedicated readers that talk about the stories, but they are the minority. What I have seen in the past in the ’70s and the ’80s, there were dozens of letters coming in a month. We don’t get the letters anymore. I think back in the ’80s we had more correspondence coming in on the stories than I see in the comments on the forum.”

Like F&SF, Asimov’s has dipped its toes into the new media pool, often releasing its non-fiction or award-nominated stories online. Williams also mentioned diving into the magazine’s decades worth of archives for content to place exclusively on the Net, and the staff has recently begun to experiment with podcasts, something that Williams said she wants to do more frequently. She asserted that the magazine has begun to expand through e-book sales, both with Fictionwise and Amazon’s Kindle. Though she didn’t offer specific sales figures, she did say that Asimov’s often ranks high within the magazine category for the Kindle.

John Scalzi’s Method

While speaking with these two editors, they both frequently cited the opinions of blogger and novelist John Scalzi. The science fiction writer is widely known for his success in using the web — most notably his popular blog, The Whatever — to promote his books. Scalzi has been outspoken on his blog about the state of science-fiction magazines, sometimes sharply criticizing their marketing strategies.

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John Scalzi

Scalzi told me the web wasn’t really the main problem for the surviving pulp publications.

“The problems with the pulps — the big three — has very little to do with the advent of the web, though they could have done a much better job of positioning themselves when the web was younger,” he said. “I think the major thrust of their problem has been that all the pulps have seemed to be content to work with what they have in terms of subscribers and readers, as opposed to being very active about acquiring new readers.”

It’s this constant state of defense, he said, that made them more vulnerable once the web had matured and publications across the board began to face increased competition online. Like Williams, Scalzi attributed much of the decline in speculative fiction magazines to changes in newsstand distribution, but noted that other publications had still managed to thrive despite these changes. The sci-fi mags, he argued, did not adequately adapt to the new landscape. He compared it to America Online in the ’90s when it quickly began losing its market dominance.

“And then people started migrating to the web, and AOL started doing a bunch of me-too initiatives,” he explained. “It was member retention. They were like, ‘Look we’re doing this too, so you don’t have to leave us.’ Eventually people went ‘Yeah, there’s other stuff out here, and it’s cheaper or it’s free or it’s more interesting,’ and they leave anyway. What eventually happens with those retention efforts is that perhaps they delay the inevitable for a little while, but eventually the inevitable is inevitable. It eventually comes.”

And now that the economic recession means nearly all media outlets will have to struggle to bring in revenue, Scalzi said it may be too late to save the medium — or at least save the print magazines.

Publishing Science-Fiction Online

Over the past year, Scalzi has been involved in two projects that are attempting to profit by publishing short fiction online — Subterranean Magazine and Tor.com. Both sites fall under the umbrellas of print book publishers — Subterranean Press, an indie company, and Tor, one of the largest publishers of science fiction. They have so far used the free content on their sites as a form of branding for their book authors. By paying for and posting quality fiction and non-fiction for free (they’ve published both by Scalzi) they are essentially acting as loss leaders to attract science-fiction fans into their communities.

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Though Scalzi seemed uncertain whether this strategy would ultimately work, he said that it would take a long-term investment before such an endeavor could become a success. He noted that most publishers who tried to launch profitable short fiction e-zines in the past have failed because they expected immediate returns.

“When you start a new magazine you work on the assumption that the first five to seven years you’re going to be in the red,” he said. “Because you’re building an audience, you’re building a subscription base, you’re building advertising, so that 10 years down the road you’re making money and it becomes a profit center…Now the question is, has anybody done something similar to that? Because everybody thinks that you put a website up and then suddenly it’s going to be brilliant and everyone will link to it and it’s going to make tons of money in advertising. That’s just wishful thinking.”

In this sense, he argued, if the print science-fiction magazines are going to manage to survive in the current climate, they can no longer just dip their toes into the water — it’s sink or swim.

When I brought up both Tor and Subterranean to Van Gelder, he didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that these sites may be where the industry is heading.

“It’s probably going to be a successful strategy; it’s the only strategy that’s worked in the last 10 years for launching a new magazine,” he said. “If it winds up in the future that every magazine is funded by a book publisher, then it’s not the worst thing in the world. And it could be that that’s really the future of the digest magazines, or fiction magazines in general. I don’t know, because I don’t think we’ve figured everything out yet.”

What do you think? Is there a successful way for science-fiction magazines to survive in the digital age? How? Should they transition online completely or publish in print and online together? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.