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A Conversation With Algis Budrys
An interview with A. John O'Neill
July 18, 1997

Algis Budrys
Algis Budrys
Algis Budrys may be the closest thing we have to a true renaissance man. He began his career in the 1950's with some of that decade's most memorable SF, including the classics Who? (1958) and Rogue Moon (1960), and his more recent fiction -- novels such as Michaelmas (1977) and Hard Landing (1993) -- has been just as hard hitting. In later years he devoted much of his energies towards criticism as an influential SF reviewer. In 1993 he launched one of the freshest new science fiction magazines of the nineties, Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, a Hugo award-nominee. In 1997, the magazine lived up to its name as Budrys pushed his child out of the nest and took it online, making it one of the first true commercial SF webzines. Budrys is the Guest of Honor at this year's World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio, Texas, LoneStarCon 2.

Tomorrow SF
Unofficial Algis Budrys Homepage
Algis Budrys hints on writing
Algis Budrys Speaks
LoneStarCon 2: The 55th WorldCon
The Writers of the Future Contest
Tomorrow SF (partial) Index

Rogue Moon


First things first. How do you pronounce your name?
"Al-jis Bud-ris. It's actually an abbreviated version of my real name, Algerdas Budrys, which is Lithuanian."

Okay. Let's start with a warm-up question. Did Science Fiction predict the Web?

Why not?
"I don't know why not. Science fiction didn't predict the home computer and it sure as hell didn't predict the Web. It just backs up my feeling that science fiction isn't really science fiction, it's technology fiction. It doesn't have much to do with science."

Excuse me?
"Science is a guy at a blackboard or staring into a cloud chamber. Technology is what's behind your new car or a new airplane -- and that's what ninety percent of science fiction is all about."

Robert Sheckley and
Algis Budrys, 1953
(Photo by Charles S. Harris)

If we can't predict something as big -- and as inevitable -- as the World Wide Web, does it reflect badly on SF? Has it failed as a medium?
"Why should SF predict anything? I know John Campbell [editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Analog from 1938 to 1971] went to his grave preaching that. Even though I admire the hell out of John Campbell, I feel he was talking through his hat.

"What science fiction does -- and fantasy, too -- is speculate about the nature of things. SF frequently turns to the past. All kinds of SF and fantasy is set centuries in the past. People forget that when they talk about SF as a medium for predicting the future. You're bound to predict a few things, but that's just coincidence. That's not what SF is for. SF is for speculating, not predicting."

Tell me about the magazine.
"It's a general magazine. It takes science fiction, fantasy, a bit of horror. We have science articles and columns. Cartoons, poems. It has a thriving section of ads for various products, such as my book on writing [Writing To The Point], my reading tapes [84.2 Minutes of Algis Budrys], and our back issues. We've got Forry's CD [Forrest J. Ackerman Museum of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy, Marlin Software, 1997] and sell it for much less than other places.

"The nice thing about it is it reflects my tastes and my tastes only. I don't have to have a committee meeting to change something. And it's one of the most recognized magazines in the field!

"I like it. I like it a lot. I hope it makes money, because if it doesn't it'll have to stop."

You put out twenty-four print issues before moving to the Web. What made you decide to chance a transition like that?
"Cost. Some of my distributors... well, all of my distributors lied to me. It was tolerable, up to a point. But one of them actually went belly up and that did it. I quit him before he went bankrupt -- by about three weeks."

"I just couldn't see it. You put out a magazine with a retail price of $5 and, if you're lucky, you get back a buck. And that just does not compute. So I decided to try the Web. We were supposed to start charging this week, but we haven't yet. One of our suppliers screwed up."

Your Internet Service Provider?

What kind of challenges did you find in making the switch?
"There were all kinds of things it never occurred to me I'd run into. There are all kinds of fees and every time I turn around there are more. I've gone to a secure credit card server to allow subscribers to pay by credit card, and that costs money.

"I'm paying my authors and artists the same as the print version, except I've raised my rates to five cents a word. I had to find someone to type everything in for me and a designer to help design the site. And, of course, I have my monthly ISP service charges."

What do they run?
"About $55, roughly. But bear in mind I never pay retail price. (laughs)"

There are plenty of aspiring editors who see the Web as the ultimate launch pad for their own dreams, the first true public-access medium. What advice do you have for them?
"To really sit down and make up a realistic list of costs. It involves a lot more than most people think. And they better be ready to lose money for a while. I don't know anything that's a success right off.

"And you'll undoubtedly find you've made mistakes. Leave yourself some room to recover. For example, we had a cover -- a very pretty cover, as a matter of fact. But a cover isn't as important on a Web magazine. In fact it slows down your access to the content. A cover is very important to a print magazine, it's its primary medium of advertising [itself]. But the Web is a whole new ball game."

What about advertising revenue? Is there real potential there?
"Theoretically, yes. We're starting to carry a few paid ads, but we don't know yet. A magazine I won't mention is complaining loudly about not being able to sell ads and they should be [able to]. We may end up the same way."

Tomorrow SF had a sizeable subscription base, people who signed up to get a print magazine. How many made the switch with you?
"All but about thirty-five. Now, once we start charging, that may change."

Do you have a feel for what percentage will stay with you?
"Let's say I have one thousand subscribers. Probably ninety percent will stay."

That's a pretty high number. What makes you so confident?
"Well, they've already been given plenty of opportunities to drop out or apply for a refund. Those who've asked were given the option of a refund or a subscription to Aboriginal SF, which was an offer Aboriginal made to us. But in any case there weren't very many. I don't know exactly what that means, yet."

What other advantages of a Web publication are there? What about the kind of user info you get from your server logs? Is that useful in selling ads?
"I hope so. Hits are a meaningless figure. But there are smaller numbers which do have meaning and we've got pretty good numbers. We're using those to attract advertising and we hope for the best."

How have your writers responded?
"I don't think it's made any difference. I hear from them all the time about how great a story looked. I don't know what that means either. But I'm glad."

Has your readership changed?
"I don't know if it's drastically different. I think it's younger. I don't know if it's smarter, but there's a hipness to it. The guy who picks up a magazine is as likely to be a retired person as not. He's not likely to take up computers. My readers now are more engaged with the world."

So what's the future of online fiction? Will it just mirror print, or will it evolve and eventually include (for example) interactive elements?
"I don't know. Personally, I probably won't go interactive. I try to bring to the reader an honest story, with a decent full color illustration and let it go at that. I imagine that a younger guy might try and go that route, but it's not for me."

What's it going to take to get everyone interested in doing their leisure reading on a computer screen? A trim laptop by the pool?
"I think laptops are important. I got mine recently and it's already made a difference in how I look at the world. Sitting at home with an array of computers in front of you is a different experience from being able to crack open a laptop and, bang, there you are. You can be sitting beside a pool or in a meadow under a tree... which is what I think a lot of writers have wanted. In the next generation, computers will be much more portable, with better screens and the ability to patch in to the Internet wherever you go. Laptops are beginning to break you loose from that and that's important."

Do you still have time to do any writing?
"Yeah. I'm writing a couple of novels."

Anything you'd like to give us a peek at?
"Not really, I'd just as soon wait until they're ready to pop."

"I'm doing one thing that's fairly interesting -- selling duplicate manuscripts of my various existing books. I will happily sell you a Who? manuscript or a Rogue Moon. I also have Michaelmas and Some Will Not Die. The cute thing about Rogue Moon is that I'm going to call it The Death Machine, which is what I've always wanted. I don't know what Rogue Moon means."

Are these reproductions of the original manuscripts?
"No. They're "fake" versions, with the typos fixed. Michaelmas, for example, has never been printed with the typos fixed, including some crucial typos. The hardcover was full of typos. The Bantam paperback had 61 typos removed, but it was still shaky. I painstakingly went through the paperback for Brian Thomsen at Warner just before they reprinted it and they lost the book. So they went out and bought a copy of the paperback, repeating all those typos, and introducing more. The British book club edition is by Algis Budry. The book has been cursed. My version will be the first with them removed -- as many as possible, anyway."

Will there be an excerpt on the Web?
"(Laugh). I'm thinking about it."

Anything you'd like to close with?
"Wish me luck."

Copyright © 1997 by A. John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the Founder and Managing Editor of the SF Site. He is a recovering biblioholic.

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