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Editorial - April/May 2009
by Gordon Van Gelder

IN MY editorial last month, I mentioned that the whole nature of what a magazine is has changed during the last decade. I've been giving a lot of thought to that subject over the past few weeks.

…which immediately brings us to one of the big differences. In those old days before the information superhighway ran through so many homes and offices, an editor might write an editorial on October 15, send the piece off for copyediting and typesetting, and the article would appear in print in January. Subscribers might send their first responses to the editor by the first week in February, in time for a new editorial to be composed on February 15…that's right, there would be a lag of four months between the first editorial and the first response to feedback.

By contrast, in the online world, an editor might write a piece on October 15, post it on their blog, and they could easily have a hundred responses by October 16. What's more, those responses aren't just traditional letters to the editor; they're notices posted online that allow for back-and-forth discussion.

Indeed, if past experience is any indication, an editorial posted online on October 15 will be thoroughly dissected and discussed by October 20 and it will probably be old news by October 24. Over and done with. On that info superhighway, things move fast.

Print magazines—even weekly publications—just can't compete with the Internet in such matters.

But what (if anything) is lost in the switch from print to electronic media?

Well, some might argue that the Internet is not friendly to the long, thoughtful, carefully considered piece. In fact, I'm one who would make just such an argument. I find it hard to read anything online that's longer than eight hundred words or so. And when I'm communicating online, I rarely have the patience to write a long piece when I can dash off something and then get feedback for it almost immediately.

But this observation is nothing new, and I'm sure veteran Web surfers are saying, "Yeah, so what? We heard all this before Web 2.0."

True. What I don't hear many people saying, however—and the reason I'm publishing this piece in print and not online—is this: the voices of people who do not use the Internet are lost. Practically every discussion that I read online assumes that everyone uses the Internet now and of course everyone in the future will use the Internet. And since these discussions are held online, no one disputes this assumption. The chorus would never claim that it won't be the one to carry the tune.

But I hear regularly from people who don't use the Internet at all. Some live in remote areas where they don't get any service. Others have health reasons like carpal tunnel syndrome or they get migraines from using a computer. And there are incarcerated folks and people who just can't afford computers, and there are stubborn folks who just don't want to go online, and there are people who have used the Internet and decided they don't like it, and.…

The whole world is not online, but reading blog discussions, I get the impression that people who are trying to determine the ways of the future tend to forget this fact.

On a related note, I posted on our blog back on August 21 about the free fiction we've published on our Website. The gist of it is that I realized I'd been running the experiment of publishing fiction reprints online without ever measuring the results. So I asked readers for feedback on four questions (most of which are leading questions):

1. When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?

2. Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?

3. Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free. If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you pay for them?

4. Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?

I also asked people to include their age with their responses.

Originally, I intended to reprint the entire blog post in F&SF, just to see how readers of our print edition value the online reprints. I'm still interested in hearing from readers on that count, but after the blog entry brought in 170 responses in one week, I was overwhelmed and never did publish the piece here in F&SF.

Those online responses were all over the map—dizzying, baffling, helpful, useless, hurtful, thoughtful, weird, provocative, and insightful. I did very little to solicit responses to the survey, so the respondents were a self-selected group of people, which made for some interesting results (including several comments from people who don't care for short fiction). Many of our respondents were directed to our survey by two or three writers who mentioned it in their blogs. Curiously, those writers themselves didn't respond to the survey, but a lot of other industry professionals did.

Anyway, I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to respond. In an overgeneralized and thoroughly unscientific way, here are the results:

1) Age of the respondents skewed heavily to people from twenty to forty.

2) People who read fiction online that they like are not averse to tipping the publisher if it's easy to do so, but they are much more inclined to pay money directly to the author.

3) Very few people are inspired to subscribe to publications based on reading a story or two online.

4) Most people wouldn't pay to read the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online and several people seemed angry or offended at the thought of doing so. As one respondent noted, "It's weird to have to pay to read a story I'm being asked to vote for," but I found it striking that no one drew a connection between questions 1 and 3.

5) The vast majority of respondents insisted that the prevalence of free stories online leads them to spend more on fiction, not less.

What was more interesting than any of these points, however, was the overwhelming (to me, anyway) prevalence of an attitude among the responses that publishers need to do more to cater to readers. Many people said they don't like to buy a magazine and then find they only enjoy one or two stories. Others felt there should be better ways to sample the contents of a publication before buying. Several people said they'd like to see an approach like Napster's where readers could select individual stories they'd like to read and thus assemble a magazine issue by themselves. And there was this post from Rose:

I'm in my mid-twenties, so I definitely missed the era where it was common to pay for short fiction in magazines. Every time I've ever been tempted to buy a story magazine off the newsstand a quick flip through the issue has sent me toward Vogue instead. But I do really like short story collections by my favorite authors and anthologies based around interesting topics, and I will pay for those. The difference, I guess, is that with real books I feel like I'm getting a better guarantee at quality and a more lasting value.
Do "real" books really guarantee a higher level of quality? Or is the difference that magazines strive to offer a wider variety of material while many anthologies are more narrowly focused? Consider these comments that Damon Knight made in 2001:
Avram Davidson said that an editor once told him, "Reading your stories is like eating one jelly bean after another." Magazines provide variety that a one-author collection can't give us. In a mag issue, ideally, every story is well framed by all the others; a Davidson story is more fun if it has a Varley story on one side and a Niven story on the other.

Mag editors strive for another kind of variety. One of the great Saturday Evening Post editors, but I forget if it was Lorimer or Hibbs, said, more or less, "I give my readers a magazine that is one-third what they think they want, one-third what they really do want, and one-third what they will want when they see it." He might have said, too, that some of the stories he published were of excellent quality, some mediocre, and some poor, corresponding to the intelligence and taste of his readers.

Does the approach that Damon outlined—the general-interest approach—appeal to readers in the digital age? Or has the Internet created a shift in reading habits? A reader wrote, "I find a magazine a highly efficient delivery vehicle for giving me a bunch of short fiction that I can read on the bus or the subway." But then he went on to say, "But I also realize that I'm a fifty-year-old guy and may well be in the last generation of reading newspapers and magazines."

I've got more questions than answers right now, but I plan to explore this topic further in future editorials. I hope to hear from readers with thoughts to share on the subject.

—GVG

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