SF/F Magazines Wait Out The Great Pause—Part 2: Short- and Long-Term Prospects & the Post-COVID Landscape

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by J. Scott Coatsworth

This article continues J. Scott Coatsworth’s interviews and compilation of information examining how SF/F magazines are faring during the COVID-19 crisis. Amazing Stories, Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Escape Artists, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine, Fiyah Lit Mag, and Strange Horizons responded to Coatsworth’s inquiries. Most of these responses were received before the current Black Lives Matter protests around the US. You can read “Part 1: Submissions & Supplies” here on the SFWA Blog.

How do publishers see the short term prospects for SF/F magazines, vs. the mid- to long-term ones?

Short-term, the responses ranged from bearish to bullish. Longer-term, there’s a lot of concern over the state of the economy, the political situation, and other possible issues that could impact spec fic magazine publishers.

Gautam Bhatia, Senior Articles Editor at Strange Horizons (SH), sees some upcoming pain. “Short-term, I feel like there’s going to be some financial hardship,” Bhatia said. “I see this happening for two reasons: (a) people have less disposable cash, so magazines based on a popular funding/fund-drive model may have more difficulty; (b) people who do have disposable cash may want to prioritise it towards relief efforts.”

Vanessa Rose Phin, the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, is worried too. “Our annual fund drive is in June. I have made a worst case scenario plan to keep the magazine running,” ve shared. “We have few measures of predicting what might happen, though the initial response of authors and editors donating to the drive is heartening.”

In the long run, no one had a crystal ball. Responses ranged from pessimistic to cautiously optimistic.

Fireside Magazine publisher Pablo Defendini thinks the crisis might cause some magazines to reconsider current ways of doing business. “In the short-term, I would like to see some rethinking or refining of the free-to-read-online model, and hopefully pivoting to more sustainable business models,” he said. “I know we certainly are thinking along those lines, and are currently laying the groundwork for some plans we want to implement in 2021.”

Editor Ira Nayman at Amazing Stories agrees. “This is likely to drive us more to the internet. It would also allow us to expand what we do,” he said. “Last weekend, Amazing Stories held the first AmazingCon virtual convention; we likely wouldn’t have even thought of doing anything like it if we hadn’t had to rethink how we interact with our readers in times of a pandemic lockdown. (For the record: AmazingCon was well received, and we are likely to do it again next year.) If done well, we could see a rebirth of the magazine.”

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’s (F&SF) editor C.C. Finlay disconnected the money issue from the writing. “Financially, that’s a publisher question, not an editor question,” Finlay said. “My impression as an editor is that we’re still in the Golden Age of Short Fiction, with more writers and more diverse writers with more training and preparation writing more and better quality stories than we’ve ever seen in the genre. It’s a great time to be a reader. I don’t see anything changing that in the short-term.”

Defendini echoed this. “Mid-to-long term, I think SF/F magazines will be fine. It’s still truly a golden age for short fiction, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.“

Beneath Ceaseless Skies’s (BCS) Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Scott M. Andrews, on the other hand, is more “concerned  about the long-term prospect of fundraising, for magazines that are funded by donations–like BCS and SH, both 501(c)3 non-profits.” Andrews is concerned by how long the economic downturn triggered by this pandemic may last and how it may affect donations.

Analog editor Trevor Quachri thinks it will all work out in the long run, however. “I think the chaos is going to shake up the field a bit for at least the next year or two—some people may have more time to write; others, less—but it will roughly balance out in the end.”

Bhatia concurs, speculating that if magazines can survive the short-term effects, they stand a chance. “As a reader-funded magazine, who rely on small donations, we’re keeping the faith that we’ll tide over this.”

Phin also notes how much of the SF/F magazine market runs on volunteers and pure passion. “Given that SF/F zines are often run by volunteers, you may see fewer people willing or able to put in any hours, as we’re all trying to find work, care for family members, teach our offspring, etc.,” ve explained. “It is exhausting trying to justify the arts and humanities as ‘useful’ right now to our politicians and potential employers, even as half the world is watching and reading and listening to art made by creatives.”

Marguerite Kenner, co-owner of Escape Artists (EA), is philosophical about the whole thing. “We kept ‘flat is the new up’ firmly in mind as we adjusted our budgeting and planning for the ‘New 2020’ at the start of April,” she said. “For example, our editorial budgets will be holding steady—no increase like we hoped, but no decrease as we feared. We plan to assess again in September, and continue campaigning for our next Patreon goal which will allow us to start paying associate editors.”

Kenner pointed out how this need to be frugal is nothing new. “Both EA as a whole and each individual team have become accustomed to doing the most we can with what we have at the time, and finding ways for money not being a barrier to progression. What we have to share in terms of resources, opportunities or skills we’ve always concentrated first in our own teams.”

But she’s concerned about what may lie ahead. “What we’re keeping a very close eye on is about six months out. It’s uncontested that lockdowns of some variety will continue through the summer and into autumn,” Kenner warned. “Where they start overlapping with an inevitable recession has us worried. Lockdown fatigue and ongoing unemployment is guaranteed to impact our donations: no artistic endeavor fares well in lean times.”

Finlay is also worried about more turbulence down the road. “So much depends upon the economy, and whether this turns out to be a short-term disruption or something more long-term,” he said. “Ask this question again in mid-November, after we’ve had—or not had, as it may turn out—a second wave of coronavirus deaths, and more lockdowns, and national elections.“

Clarkesworld Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Neil Clarke has been speaking with other magazines about these issues over the last breaking month, and he sums things up nicely for the short-term: “The financial situation for most magazines wasn’t great before all this started. When ‘breaking even’ was the goal for many that weren’t even budgeting to pay for their staff, you have a foundation for trouble. The most financially stable publications are the three with print editions (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF) and with bookstores closed, that has cut off a source of revenue. Fortunately, it appears as though their print and electronic subscription copies are still flowing.”

For online mags, it’s a mixed bag. “Other editors I’ve spoken to on the digital side of things are reporting a mix of ups, downs, and washes with gains and losses in subscriptions as some readers have lost jobs,” Clarke said. “Several have mentioned that they don’t feel comfortable reminding readers to subscribe or promoting other revenue-generating activities while all this is going on.”

And the long term? “Mid-to-long-term is a big question mark. No one is talking about closing their doors just yet and many see what they are providing as an important escape from the daily news,” Clarke said. “A sustained drop in paid readership (or in some cases, the loss of an editor/publisher’s day job), would be a problem anytime. It’s just more of a significant concern now and in the months ahead.”

What other impacts is the crisis having on magazines in particular, and on the SF/F writing industry in general?

The crisis and accompanying disruption has been hard on everyone, and the staff at the various magazines are no exception. Kindness from writers toward the magazines they’re submitting to is also important now.

Rasha Abdulhadi, a Senior Fiction Editor at SH shared that, “[f]irst Readers (and even Senior Fiction Editors!) have definitely identified the impact of the pandemic on their work. Some folks find it hard to read as much right now either because of schedule or capacity, for some folks reading is a refuge.”

Phin echoed Abdulhadi’s sentiment, noting how ve is concerned about staff burnout. “There has been a great deal of strain, especially in [the] senior staff, many of whom alternate between fierce energy and depressive malaise—as so many of us have.”

L.D. Lewis at FIYAH is seeing an impact on their writers from both COVID-19 and the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. “As a space for Black writers who are enduring overlapping trauma that have impaired their ability to write, particularly for our current ‘JOY’ themed issue,” Lewis shared. “It’s the first time we’ve had to extend a submission period.”

Defendini has had to adjust schedules as the crisis has required additional emotional and mental resources. “One of our editors had significant life events all pile onto them during their editing stint for us, which also delayed things a bit, and another editor has asked for a bit more time on their deadlines due to ongoing pandemic-and-protest-related stressors,” he said. “Nothing that will affect our shipping dates so far. Since we work with freelancers, I add tons of buffer [space] into our production schedule in order to account for people working at their own pace, but there have certainly been alterations to the schedule. In short, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy reacting to unexpected changes over the last few months—canceling side-projects, reworking schedules, and refocusing on priorities in order to maintain the flagship magazine production on track for our subscribers.”

Defendini is also worried about what may happen over the next year. “I haven’t seen this happen yet, but I’m expecting that, as the economy worsens and the meager federal assistance tapers off, we’ll see a decline in subscription revenue, as people tighten their belts,” he said.  “Additionally, as a print publication, we rely on the USPS for shipping to our subscribers—recent reports of the USPS being in danger of going under are extremely concerning. Both these issues pose existential threats for Fireside as it exists today.”

EA sees a bit of a catch-22 for magazines, which essentially function as small businesses. “[W]e’re not in dire circumstances, at least by any of the criteria in programs we have access to. And we’re absolutely not going to apply for small pool grants in competition with creatives who are struggling to meet subsistence needs. But that also means we don’t have access to relief grants or credit lines,” Kenner said. “The only buffer available to us is hoarding cash. To hoard cash, we’d have to publish less or at lower rates. That risks shrinking our audience and our donors, as well as our professionalism and reputation. Maintaining the status quo is the most cost effective option for us, but we are absolutely cognisant of that situation being underwritten by largely volunteer labor.”

Asimov’s publisher, Penny Press, sent their staff home because of the lockdowns, but they are starting to trickle back. “The Connecticut offices are beginning to reopen following strict CDC guidelines,” said editor Sheila Williams “Some departments are better off working in the office, but schedules will be staggered and people will continue to work at home as well. [The] New York City office is still closed, but the editorial staff worked at home much of the time before the virus so this doesn’t affect us as much.”

Clarke also brought up an issue not unique to the publishing world in this unprecedented crisis, observing how anxiety levels are high and productivity levels are low. “It’s hard for most people to function and everything is taking longer,” he said. “We’ve had to be a lot more flexible in regards to deadlines and spend extra time on work-arounds for the myriad of little disruptions to our lives.”

What good might come out of all this?

Wanting to end things on a hopeful note, each of the magazines was asked to, well, speculate about the future. Consider it our own little bit of hopepunk:

Quachri sees hope in our community response, sharing that “[w]e’ve seen just what we can do collectively if we decide a goal is important enough, which is both inspiring and science-fictional in its own way.”

Kenner thinks the digital revolution in how we interact is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. “EA strongly feels that events pivoting to digital need to stay there. Or at a minimum, maintain significant presences in that space moving forward,” she said. “It’s naive to think barriers to participation will ever fully be eliminated, but we should all still try. Virtual events take a large step in that direction. Necessity is giving us the opportunity to invent a system of community participation with ‘access first’ as a foundational principle.”

(Side note: SFWA confirmed at their annual meeting that the Nebulas Conference in 2021, although hopefully once again an in-person con, will have a strong digital component, and will be a hybrid event.)

Williams also thinks some of the changes are here to stay and that’s a good thing. “Certain aspects of production have been streamlined in a way that will improve our workflow. I have some other plans in the works that might be a boon to the magazine, but they haven’t reached fruition so it’s too early to comment. Overall, we’re doing fine, and appreciate SFWA asking.”

Finlay sees changes that will benefit the retail market and the industry at large in the long run. “Barnes & Noble is using the shutdown to accelerate the renovations of their stores across the chain; independent booksellers are using the situation to expand the ties to their communities; publishing, convention organizers, and others are getting a crash course in the effectiveness of remote working; many writers are turning their energy to finishing new projects; people stuck at home are catching up with their to-read piles,” Finlay observed. “It’s a good time for anyone in the industry who feels like they need to make big changes to make big changes. Not all of those will be good, but some of them will be and will position people for success in the decade to come regardless of what happens with the pandemic and the economy.”

Clarke is hopeful for new reading habits and how readers view short fiction. “Right now, less than 10% of the readers that read online fiction support that publication financially,” he said. “It’s a lot to hope for, but any significant change to perception of the value of short fiction would have a significant impact for all involved.”

Defendini takes the wide view about the effects of the pandemic on the industry in general “I’m somewhat hopeful that the pandemic is finally revealing our society’s systemic failures in a way that is impossible to ignore, and will hopefully spur some action to lessen inequality and increase the social safety net (which I suppose would be beneficial to the SF/F magazine ecosystem, as more people have more resources to dedicate).”

Andrews thinks COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on speculative fiction. “I am very curious to see what the literature is that comes out of this event. The event is global and crosses all socio-economic levels,” he says. “BCS in late 2016 received more stories than usual featuring dystopian worlds or autocratic governments. I expect to see a similar reaction in writers’ work from this pandemic. Art and expression help us humans process events like these, and writers often absorb current events into their work.”

Ultimately, I think he’s right. We will look back on this time and the stories we produced as a microcosm of the moment. As Abdulhadi accurately put it: “As a poet and cultural worker, I feel how urgently we need now (and will, in the future, rely on) not art as refuge, but also as the historical and emotional record and the cognitive processing of realities and experiences that we still barely and unevenly understand at a factual level, much less what those facts mean and what we must do with those meanings.”

Phin takes the long view, noting the long tradition of speculative fiction functioning as ”the laboratory where the world does its thinking.”

“Doubtless we will see writers wrestle, as we long have, with the stratification of suffering,” ve said. “We’ll be thinking about what it means to cooperate globally, and the cost and forms of ignorance and hate. We’ll be thinking more about what it means to live in a small social pod–perhaps in a generation ship or in a Martian HAB, but it’ll be there. Maybe fashion masks will become a thing in fiction more often–or in life, who knows? Creative responses to crises are good.”

But in a sign of the times we’re in, ve put vees finger on something that I’ve been thinking for weeks: “What sustains me today is rage and the hope for revolution.”

These magazines are all survivors, often doing heroic work on shoestring budgets. What came through clearly from all these interviews was a determination to find a way to make these new circumstances work, and to take care of their staffs through all these changes.

Let’s just hope that the coming revolution brings a change for the better, one which will carry us all into a world that’s more Star Trek than The Handmaid’s Tale. Either way, these magazines will be around to tell the tale.

ADDITIONAL READING:
Neil Clarke on the Effects of COVID-19 in SF/F Magazines
Neil Clarke on Changes in the Slush Pile at Clarkesworld

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Scott lives with his husband Mark in a yellow bungalow in Sacramento. He was indoctrinated into fantasy and sci fi by his mother at the tender age of nine. He devoured her library, but as he grew up, he wondered where all the people like him were. He decided that if there weren’t queer characters in his favorite genres, he would remake them to his own ends. A Rainbow Award winning author, he runs Queer Sci Fi, QueeRomance Ink, and Other Worlds Ink with Mark, sites that celebrate fiction reflecting queer reality, and is a full member member of (and volunteer for) the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

This article was originally posted on
https://www.sfwa.org/2020/07/03/sf-f-magazines-wait-out-the-great-pause-part-2-short-and-long-term-prospects-the-post-covid-landscape/

You can read part one here

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