Norman Spinrad at Large: SAVE THE MAGAZINES!

It’s no secret when the remaining three SF magazines, that is, magazines still selling ink and paper editions, are in trouble when they are now referred to as “traditional,” one step away from “historic,” meaning on the edge of the Tar Pits. and by law they must legally announce their current printings annually for anyone who cares to read which are less than 25% of what they were at their heydays.

But why? And how did this happen? And who cares?  And who should care?

How it has happened, is easy enough to understand, namely the conjunction between SF fandom, online-only SF magazines, and Amazon.  Before there could have been any such thing as online magazines back when there wasn’t even any such thing as the internet the only way to read short science fiction stories was to buy paper sf magazines.  You had to buy these magazines at stores or newsstands or subscribe and have them delivered by post. Or at sci-fi conventions.

And if you wanted to write them and tried to publish them in a magazine, you had to print your stories with a keyboard, and mail them to one magazine at a time, along with a posted envelope your name and address included in case you didn’t make a sale.

So these sf magazines were mostly known by specialized readers who wanted to read science fiction and became science fiction fandom which the magazines could count on as a central audience.

I’m old enough to remember this and was one of the first writers to escape by turning to writing on computers and later escape from printing paper submissions thanks to emailing online.

And then there were two magazines, Playboy and later Omni.  Both of them were far ahead of the SF magazines in terms of sales and therefore in payments for stories, and therefore got first submission from writers. Playboy published a story an issue, and while it wasn’t always SF many of them were. Omni published one an issue, and it was always SF. And so both of them introduced SF to readers who were not buying the magazine for SF per se.  And then came Star Trek and then Star Wars and the conquest of Hollywood and vice versa.

And then online magazines.

Because they are much cheaper than paper magazines—no printing costs, no postal costs–there are more online-only magazines that I can count and the only way that the so-called traditional magazines can survive is by having online publications too, and so have they done. Good news for readers since they can make them cheaper and still make a profit.

What is more, it means that anyone can write can write and submit their stories for nothing and to many more magazines. Self-publishing is freedom!

For would-be publish writers.  But not for the magazines.  It means that they get much more slush pile submissions to handle without making more money and therefore can’t afford hiring more professional first readers so some probably have to sort to fans or outsource to robotic filters or both.  And while anyone can write stories and submit them to magazines freely, there are far more would-be writers than would-be writers with talent.

Enter Amazon.  The last time I looked, there were over 40,000 so-called sf magazines and books on sale on Amazon and counting.  Jeff Bezos has  declared that he is determined to “Make Amazon be publishing.”  And when it comes to distribution he has done it. Amazon has no production costs because it produces nothing. All Amazon does is distribute and sell the products.   When it comes to books and magazines Amazon pays writers nothing. and loses nothing even on what nothing sells at all.

But even that is not good enough for Amazon. It encourages many would be successful writers to pay it to be taught how to write salable fiction and sell it not just magazines but if that doesn’t work directly to the readers.

Or try to. When I worked at the Scott Meridith Agency which was a real agency, it also sold similar business to would-be writers. And what Scott told me was that if something was good enough to try to sell, he would do it. “But 90% of them are hopeless. No one can successfully teach talent.”

But there is a much more lucrative business than that for Amazon. Distribution of virtually all books and magazines, online, self-published, or “traditional” publishing.  Amazon, not the publishers, set its sales prices, and since it has no production costs on the books and magazines and only distribution costs on ink and paper, they can and do them sell cheaper and still make a bigger profit.

This has virtually killed even the major chain bookstores. But this does nothing good for the mom-and-pop stores trying to survive on diminishing working in trade who want to look around and buy link and paper. Which makes means that there are fewer and fewer stores and newspaper stands selling traditional magazines, making them dependent on their online versions, and particularly on subscriptions

And of course it is easier to have Amazon sell and distribute the email subscriptions than for single small magazines to do it themselves.  But suddenly and without warning Amazon decided not to do this for the SF magazines anymore.  They will finish delivering the subscriptions which they legally must but they will no longer sell new subscriptions.

Don’t expect us to do it for you anymore and hang by your thumbs.

Which is now what the three traditional SF magazines find themselves doing over the Tar Pits.

So what will be lost if they fall in?

In 1965, before I had published a novel I had only published a few stories and didn’t even know another SF writer, I was invited to the Milford Workshop by Damon Knight, its founder, just because one of those stories impressed him.  In the Milford Workshop, new writers like me met many of the established writers,  and all of us read one story to everyone the purpose being to enhance them literally.  But also meet a few editors. “No Chiefs, no Indians” as Damon put it.   Literature and business, learning and teaching.  I was there when Damon Knight went further and started the Science Fiction Writers of America, now the SFWA.

In those days there were many magazines and books in which a writer could publish stories and learn the craft and enhance the literature from fellow masters, fellow would-bes, editors, and critics, and while there may have been completion, there was also fraternity.

Now there are three left. And that is what is in danger of being lost if they are gone. If they are not saved.  How, who, or what can and should save them?


Now the whole independent magazine industry is hanging above the same Tar Pit running around and trying to figure out what to do.

Well now the SFWA in the same danger.  But maybe the SFWA could just have an answer at least for ourselves, and it wouldn’t be the first time that the SFWA, at least the SFWA that once was, was looked by something larger than itself to lead the way.

The purposes of the SFWA were to defend the rights of the writers in the business and enhance both the public standing of SF literature and the art of the literature itself.  The price of literary freedom is taking care of business. Once the SFWA did that so much better than any other writers’ group in America. We won a loud battle against one of the greatest publishers in the US so thoroughly that we were accused by them in the New York Times as unfair bullies. We made another publisher force over money to a writer on moral grounds even though they had the legal right not to do it. When a larger group of writers tried to form a national writers semi-union, they asked me to tell them how, because after all, I was the President of the SFWA.

That is what the SFWA was.  That is what it should be now once more.  And the SFWA of now can easily afford to do it. And perhaps, not being the tough guys, but showing the way.  We can do this, we can afford to do it, and therefore we should.
SFWA is now a  legal non-profit corporation, meaning that it must expend enough costs so that its profit remains zero. Currently, it has at least 2500 members and rising at a $100 annual membership. Annual income $250,000.  But that is only part of its annual income. SFWA runs a Nebula Conference.  It sells SFWA tourist doo-das to fans at conventions. It sells SFWA clothing.  It sells SFWA mugs and cups. It sells various stickers. And it even sells shopping bags to carry it all. SFWA is now a brand name for hire like Micky Mouse or the New York Yankees.  The estimated annual profit of all this is almost $2,000,000.

This means that the SFWA has to spend $2,000,00 a year to remain a legal non-profit corporation. Time was that the SFWA paid only one executive secretary to do all the work, and she did it very well. Okay, SFWA is a much larger corporation now, but it would be holy hell if it were paying that kind of salary to a bloated staff.  So what it does is stay non-profit by giving awards to legally worthy entities.

To all sorts of such unities, some doing real goods, some self-worthy political outfits, and some to the aids and rewards to worthy and or needy members.  Doing good by taking care of business.

But somewhere along the line, the SFWA seems to have forgotten that its other central goal was to enhance the public standing of the SF literature and the art of the literature itself.  When I was a sick kid in bed for a few days I was given a bunch of SF magazines. Wow! I had never read any such literature! That was how I was introduced to the literature, and how I became what I am now, never even knowing there was any such thing as science fiction fandom until I had published my first novel.

Short stories and magazines have always introduced innocent readers to SF and have always had to be where writers began to learn the craft and then the art.  And then the literature. Where the editors had to also be the teachers.  How else? How where?

Without this core the literature would die into sci-fi as it is already in danger of becoming, and SFWA merely the brand for rent of an economically successful non-profit corporation.

The price of liberty may be taking care of business but the economic power it gains can and should be used for a higher purpose.   The SFWA can and must save the three traditional magazines, the core of the literary heart and soul of  Speculative Fiction, that Amazon has so coldly and cavalierly town into economic jeopardy.

The business problem is that they have long been dependent on subscribing to their online versions.  And now Amazon has pulled the plug on that and each of them is trying to replace their online distribution. But the magazines have never really been economic enemies and there is no reason that saving the distribution of one would hurt the others.  Far from it. E pluribus  Unium.

So I propose that the three of them unite their distribution together and create a distribution combine. Call it the SF Distribution Combine, call it the SFDC, not an enemy of the SFWA, but a part of the SFWA, one of the many tranches of the SFWA, perhaps even legally and formally either an operating cost of the non-profit corporation or a legal donation.

Initially, it would probably be an SFDC for the three magazines which would cost a limited capitalization, but if it proves to work, no reason that there could no be more magazines on line joining the SFDC. It might show the general independent magazine publishers how to do it.

To learn if we are fortunate, to teach if we are called upon to teach.

So let’s do it and fortunately, there will be a big online SFWA meeting at the end of September. And indeed the Board of a  non-profit corporation could legally do this itself without a vote by the membership, but I believe that such a fairly complex proposal should be presented to the full membership for discussion, and then voted in proper democratic spirit.

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