|A Conversation With Paul T. Riddell|
|An interview with Rodger Turner|
| December 2000 |
You've had quite a varied career including a brief stint at doing film columns for SF Site. Now you are working at SCI FI magazine. How did this come to pass?
As for the writing part of things, I started down the dark path toward journalism in high school (my father wanted me to pick up a career with a better reputation among the general population, but the yearly quotas for crack dealers and child pornographers were already filled), but actually started writing for the genre as a film critic for the late and unlamented New Pathways back in 1989. I quit after two issues because the editor wouldn't let me say bad things about the Batman movie, and went on to a succession of publications such as Fuck Science Fiction, Film Threat Video Guide, SF Eye, and New Blood, most of which went under shortly after I started. Dave Truesdale of Tangent was kind enough to let me run amok for a few years, and it was partly because of that exposure that Scott Edelman decided, against all better judgment, to hire me to write the "Rant" column when Sovereign Media bought Sci-Fi Universe in 1997. When Sci-Fi Universe shut down in 1999, mostly because of the glut of genre-related movie and TV magazines (to steal from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- I don't look at it as dying; I look at it as leaving early to avoid the rush), the "Rant" column moved to SCI FI, and now I get the opportunity to bore nearly a quarter of a million people to tears every two months.
That's the strangest part: turning on Farscape on the SCI FI Channel and seeing ads for the magazine running on the Channel. The crew at SCI FI is smart in that they don't mention my column (for fear of causing uncontrollable rectal bleeding among 40 percent of the audience), but it should be interesting if they start mentioning contributors. "We run articles by outstanding writers such as David Brin, Jodi Berls, and Dan Perez. And we also run a column by some unrepentant dork out of Texas, but that's because we have to give equal time to the feeble-minded."
Besides, another thing to consider is that science fiction, no matter how good, is reading matter to an audience that increasingly prides itself upon being functionally illiterate. Sure, we can make films for the fans, but those fans are a statistically insignificant portion of the general movie-going or television-watching population. The idea is to cram butts into as many seats as possible, and most of that audience wants nothing more than pretty pictures and safe clichés. Ergo, when $100 million could lead to either an adaptation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Star Wars: Episode Two, and The Return of Jar Jar Binks will make ten times what Snow Crash would, no matter how insulting the script or numbing the direction in Episode Two, can you really blame the folks willing to pony up $100 million for the safe bet? Sure, you can mention that Snow Crash would become an instant classic, but the studios will just remind you that The Wizard of Oz and Blade Runner and Brazil were disappointments when they first came out, and having these films declared classics later didn't do a whole lot for the careers of the execs backing them.
I'd have more faith in the E-book industry if anyone could argue that a readership for E-books is out there, willing to pay for someone's sterling prose. However, remember that a relatively tiny portion of the planet's population has access to the Web or even to a computer that could read out E-books (remember also that half of the people on Earth have never used a telephone), and that even those willing to buy E-books still have to find the right one. Also, until publishers realize that they cannot justify charging print rates for an E-book without good reason, such as selling E-books with added incentives (the way film companies sell DVDs with outtakes and commentary from the filmmakers), they're doomed.
The biggest factor hindering E-books is that they're being sold on a medium where the audience demands anything not existing in physical form to be free. I started researching this right after Harlan Ellison started hunting down the guy who was scanning his books and stories and offering them on Usenet in PDF format, and found that the argument was "Well, I bought this book used, so I deserve an electronic version for free." Never mind the logic that says that the reader is owed a free copy of something previously bought just because it's in a new medium (just because I bought a lone copy of X-Men in 1977 doesn't mean that I get to see the movie for free): so long as more people feel that it's all right to crack encrypted E-books because they're entitled than those willing to pay for them, then E-books will never become as successful as the printed ones.
The other factor is the inevitable backlash going on right now against the big book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The indie bookstores that survived the shakeout of the early 90s did so because they rediscovered such esoteric concepts as customer service and the need to promote themselves, so more bookbuyers are giving up on the potheads and burnouts manning the counters at Borders and going back to the indies. Because the indie bookstores saw the favors the big publishers cut for the superstores (in particular, where most publishers were offering deep discounts to Barnes & Chernobyl that they had no intention of making to indies), they're more favorably inclined toward working with indie publishers, who were similarly shut out by the superstores. I have a feeling that most customers in the superstores in five years are going to be the people who otherwise would buy their books at the grocery store, and indie bookstores and publishers are going to be doing quite well gathering an audience who wants more than piffle by Monica Lewinsky and Piers Anthony. Seven years of almost nothing in the skiffy section at Borders other than the latest Michael Crichton or the latest Star Trek novel is enough to make anyone slightly less than friendly.
Now, Warren Lapine has been doing wonders with DNA Publications: sure, some smartasses in the genre may argue that the magazines that he bought weren't worth buying, but the simple fact is that he's making a profit by consolidating the day-to-day operations of all of these through a single organization so the editors can concentrate on editing instead of taking care of subscriptions and wrangling with printers. At the same time, he and his crew are really working toward getting more genre publications in the hands of people other than the folks who can afford to go to a convention. He's talking about sending copies to school and public libraries, where the librarians don't have the budget to buy genre magazines, and generally getting teenagers hooked on SF. I don't know if it'll work, but if I were expected to bet, I figure that Warren's efforts will yield more genre magazine readers than the current efforts by Asimov's, which consists almost solely of sending Gardner Dozois to conventions to bore people to death.
Trust me on this one: magazines don't have an excuse to run teasers of material in the print edition, and in fact having a complete run of stories and articles from the print edition on the site is enough to get people to buy the magazine on the stands. (Yes, they're able to get the articles off the site for free, but people still have this thing about having hard-copy editions in hand so they can show friends and neighbors.) At the same time, regular readers of the print edition aren't going to bother going to the Web site unless they're given a treat in the form of online-only material. Magazine sites full of teasers are usually dead sites; if Steve Brown at SF Eye had used his site as an augmentation of the magazine, keeping people interested in the magazine between issues, it'd probably still be in print today. Or maybe not.
Of course, keeping a Web site interesting and lively is nearly a full-time job as well, and the biggest problem I've been having over the past two months is with the number of genre-related sites that have burned contributors beyond all redemption. That's the main reason why I insisted on a budget to pay contributors: I can't pay much, but I can pay, and that immediately beats the plethora of sites where the editor/publisher promises pay at some time in the distant future and then never delivers. (I won't name names: it's just that I've worked for a few in my time.) I won't rewrite writers without permission, and I pay, but so many have been burned by online venues that they're gun-shy of anyone seeking submissions. And that's a shame, because I know that the Web has produced an incredible variety of good and entertaining writers. Maybe things'll get better once more Web publications start paying print rates, but until then...
Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."
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