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SF Mags' Positive Circulation Trends in 2012 Thanks to Digital

(17 posts)
  • Started 6 years ago by Mark Pontin
  • Latest reply from MattHughes

  1. Mark Pontin

    So, as he's done in years past, Warren Ellis has looked at SF magazines' circulation figures as laid out by Gardner Dozois in that worthy's most recent YBSF and added some commentary of his own.

    The original is here --

    Here's what Mr. Ellis wrote --

    'From Gardner Dozois’ summation of the 2011 field in his 29th edition of The Year’s Best SF, available from bookstores and Amazon in the US and soon in the UK.

    'ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION is doing very strongly in digital editions. Overall circulation is 22593, up by about 1500 units or 7.3%. 7500 of that overall number is down to digital subscriptions, and an average of 290 digital units sold per month on top of that.

    'That’s a terrific thing for them. A 7% increase in circulation is something of a turnaround. And suggests that the increase is down to new (or returning) readers, rather than a migration to digital from the existing base.

    'Their print subscriptions are at 12469. Their average newsstand sale is at 2334.

    'ANALOG is at an overall of 26440, which is a rise of 0.2% on the previous year. 4100 digital subscriptions, and an average of 150 digital units per month in addition.

    'This tends to suggest that in a couple of years’ time, ASIMOV’S numbers will be on parity with ANALOG’s.

    'FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION’s overalls dropped from 15172 to 14162. They don’t release digital figures.

    'INTERZONE’s numbers are clearly not available to Mr Dozois, as he has forever stated that INTERZONE circulates 3000 copies per issue. This is obviously nonsense. Either INTERZONE have found three thousand people who cannot die, or he just doesn’t know the numbers. Although the former explanation would further illuminate the mystery of how INTERZONE keeps on keeping on without any visible means of support. I have always had a fondness for INTERZONE, but I am (pleasantly) baffled by their economics. A recent post on their forum indicates that they’re looking at a format change that will put a spine on the magazine, shrink the page size a little bit – and add many more pages and more content. Which sounds a bit like a magic trick.

    'It still seems to me like a space ripe for disruption. Take a look at these reach numbers for online sf magazine CLARKESWORLD.'

    Ellis then links to one of his old posts that noted that CLARKESWORLD has a 'circulation' that theoretically is much higher than ANALOG'S, though how many _paying_ punters CLARKESWORLD has, Ellis notes, is anybody's guess. That old post about CLARKESWORLD and ANALOG is here --

    Posted 6 years ago #
  2. Chris DeVito

    Interesting . . . but it seems like there's a wide fudge factor in the digital figures.

    For a historical (if somewhat depressing) perspective, look at past circulation figures for sf mags:

    In 1974, the average paid circulation of F&SF was 52,355 copies per issue (street sales, 25,995; subscription, 26,360) (data from F&SF, Feb. 1975, p, 122). Now: 14,162 (plus digital???).

    In 1975, the average paid circulation of Analog was 110,742 copies per issue (street sales, 60,622; subscription, 50,120) (data from Analog, Jan. 1976, p. 149). Now: 26,440 (figure stated in preceding post).

    And a couple of defunct mags:

    In 1974, the average paid circulation of Galaxy was 47,789 copies per issue (street sales, 33,843; sub., 13,946) (Galaxy folded in 1980).

    In 1974, the average paid circulation of IF (aka Worlds of IF) was 50,353 copies per issue (street sales, 35,453; sub., 14,902) (IF folded that year, its last issue being the Dec. '74 issue). (Galaxy and IF were published by the same company; note that even though IF had slightly better circulation figures, the publisher chose to kill IF rather than Galaxy when times got tough.) (Galaxy and IF data from Galaxy, Feb. 1975, p. 158.)

    There's a fairly obvious downward trend, to put it mildly, in the circulation of the sf/fantasy mags. Any ideas as to why this is happening?

    --Chris DeVito

    Posted 6 years ago #
  3. Gordon Van Gelder

    That downward trend is pretty consistent throughout the magazine industry---check the comparable numbers for men's mags like PLAYBOY or for ladies' mags like COSMOPOLITAN. A few years back I read a piece in a trade magazine that said the only real successful growth area in recent years has been magazines like COSMO TEEN, i.e. YA versions of ladies' mags.

    Reasons for this downward trend include the consolidation of distibutors, the diminishment of outlets, and the growth of electronic media. This dicsussion we're having now probably would have taken place in a zine of some sort back in 1975 (maybe a semiprozine like Dick Geis's).

    Posted 6 years ago #
  4. geoffhart1962

    Locus publishes an annual issue in which they plot circulation for the major SFF magazines, and their statistics seem pretty robust, given the limitations of such surveys. Most of the curves are showing long-term declines.

    Unlike many other commentators, I don't see this as people drifting away from reading SF. On the contrary, I see it as a sign of a flourishing market, with far more options (particularly free online options) than there ever used to be. Consider, for example, the fact that more genre books are being published each year than ever before. Hardly a sign of a dying market.

    That flourishing is particularly true for people with narrower interests. These include (just to offer two radically different examples of the larger diversity) people who only want to read really dark horror and don't get enough of it, or dark enough versions, from F&SF, and the huge and flourishing fanfic community, let alone specialist subsets of that community such as the slash community.

    So the real problem for generalist magazines like F&SF is how to attract a steady audience of people who like a wide variety when there are so many special-purpose alternatives clamoring for the reader's attention. Each of us has a finite amount of reading time, and within that time we need to prioritize. If someone can find two or three free online sites that offer their favorite things every day/week/month, versus only a couple times per year from F&SF, it's no wonder these people look elsewhere.

    Me, I'm a generalist. I still read both F&SF and Asimov's after more than 30 years of doing so because even though I don't like *all* the stories, there's always something I really like and several lesser somethings that take me out of my comfort zone and get me interested in new things. And a few stories I just don't consider publishable -- but that others loved. Different strokes.

    The quality of any magazine will never be perfect: The editor has to pick the best of what's submitted, and can't necessarily fill the issue with solicited pieces from the best of the best, unlike in an anthology. Plus, the better editors try to give newbies a chance to get their foot in the door. So no issue will satisfy everyone. Best you can hope to do is provide enough hits that the misses don't drive people away.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  5. AKAkarlb

    I put it down to a number of things: the decline of the newsstand, the flood of other outlets for SF (films, graphic novels, online, TV, original anthologies, et al), and the decline in the habit of reading fiction for pleasure.
    Newsstands were central when I started reading the magazines and books about 1960. I lived in Evanston IL., a close-in suburb of Chicago and a town in its own right, then the family moved to a small (6K population) town in Michigan in 1961. They were very different places but one thing they had in common: the newsstand was where you went to stock up on new reading, mags and paperbacks both (hardcover SF was still pretty rare.) And all the ones I went to had all the magazines that mattered: F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, Fantastic, plus a very good selection of paperbacks. Remember, this was Nowheresville, MI. I had enough money from a paper route – not a lot, about $3 a week – to buy literally EVERYTHING that was out there, and I did. There wasn’t so much of it, it was all in one place, and it was cheap: 50 cents a book or magazine.
    In terms of short fiction the magazines were where it was at. Period. You wanted to read SF, you had to buy the magazines. This was less true than it had been in the 40s, when the mags were all there was (no paperbacks and hardcovers), and less so than the 50s (paperbacks were starting to come in, plus the occasional hardback), but still basically the case.
    Nowadays there’s a flood of ways you can feed your jones. You buy the magazines if you want to, not because you need to. They’re much less central to the genre. And it’s a lot harder simply to find them, because the neighborhood newsstand is pretty much a thing of the past. The figures quoted by Chris DeVito and geoffhart, while incomplete, suggest to me that the decline in non-subscription (i.e. newsstand, etc.) sales has been far more precipitous than that in subscriptions.
    Finally, the habit of reading fiction, particularly short fiction, for pleasure has been in a slide for quite a while, I'm guessing since the 40s. Fiction reading has always been a minority taste, nowadays it’s more so than ever. TV, movies, radio, now the internet – all have chipped away at it.
    The specialist magazines like F&SF and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine are the hardy survivors of a once-numerous tribe, but there were once quite a number of popular, general interest magazines – things like Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post – that paid top dollar for good commercial fiction that Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class would find appealing. There was a big demand for it. When Heinlein cracked the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 he was ecstatic and so were his writing peers because that’s where the money was. That stuff is gone now and has been for a long time. When asked why he started writing novels Kurt Vonnegut once said something like, “Because all my cash cows were drying up,” meaning markets like these. Off the top of my head I can think of only two top-paying magazine markets for short fiction – Playboy and The New Yorker – that are still around. (I’m probably missing some).
    So I think the decline in readership has nothing to do with quality. When I read contemporary SF mags I think they’re just as good as they ever were, maybe better. I still buy them occasionally and I wish them well. And if digital helps them to survive and even perhaps to prosper, I say God bless digital.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  6. Mark Pontin

    What Gordon said and Karl elaborated on regarding the overall magazine scenario --

    Reasons are as Gordon stated: consolidation of distributors, reduction in outlets (look at those newsstand sellthrough figures on ASIMOVS, for example!), and the growth of electronic media -- to which I'd add the decline of magazines' revenues from advertising, which is of course related to the online media growth.

    I can't stress that last factor enough. To an extent most people outside the magazine business tend to be naive about, the major glossy magazines' business model(s) has been based on the revenues they get from advertising, with _anything_ that _isn't_ advertising perceived almost dismissively as "editorial content." In this model, publishers see acquiring new readers as both a _cost_ and an investment i.e. one new reader for the circulation figures may, say, typically represent an investment of $250 by the publisher, which has to be balanced against revenues acquired from ads. Thence, when the circulation figures that magazine publishers can show advertisers decline, many publishers start faking circulation figures.

    In this context, for example, the NEW YORK TIMES is now being watched by those in the business with baited breath because in the last quarter it moved into being in the radically novel situation of being _primarily_ dependent on revenues from its readership, since ad revenues and distribution of the dead-tree paper edition have declined to the extent that paying punters are now its principal source on income. And this is the _leading_ US newspaper.

    Chris's reaction is interesting to me (especially as he's published his COLTRANE REFERENCE book, so I'd assumed he possesses journalistic experience). I'd tended to think that that everyone was aware, as Gordon, Karl and I are, that for the last decade all magazine circulation figures have declined. Magazines aren't going to go the way of dead tree newspapers in the US -- but the bloated editorial ranks and perks that, for instance, Conde Nast magazines have had are under some pressure.

    As Karl points out, the business model hasn't always been this way and probably up to the latter 1970s the newsstand-type sellthrough was the primary income source for many periodicals. But for the last three decades the advertiser-based model has been primary, so that newsstand/magazine rack shelf-space has become real estate that magazine publishers have increasingly had to shell out for. Thus, when some schmuck -- like, for instance, Jon Bromfield who used to make Gardner's life miserable on the old ASIMOVS forum -- opines that if SF magazines simply returned to publishing the good old Heinleinian stuff, their circulations would again begin climbing, the schmuck could not be more clueless. The required investment in magazine rack space is the cost of entry and it's simply beyond any SF magazine publishers; ANALOG and ASIMOVS have the advantage of being published by Dell, which publishes the puzzle magazines found on the bottom racks and therefore has some sway with distributors. Note, though, that down on the bottom racks with the puzzle digests is where the SF magazines tend to turn up (if at all), and in any case magazine racks are going away everywhere else but airports and supermarkets, and even there are diminished.


    What I'm trying to do here is put SF magazines' current rising figures via digital in their true context. A final overall point is that even in the 1970s the SF magazines' circulations via subscriptions and newsstand -- those 40,000-50,000 figures for GALAXY and IF, in Chris's examples -- were anomalously large. As Karl points out, most fiction magazines that sustained themselves by income from readers that actually wanted to read fiction for entertainment had started to go away with television's rise in the early 1950s (a high-water mark when Roald Dahl could comfortably live off four stories a year, and Kurt Vonnegut could sell two stories to the SATURDAY EVENING POST and quit GE and just about support himself and his family from writing). The SF mags are a strange evolutionary descendant of the pulps that any rational analyst would have expected to have vanished in the 1960s, and certainly not be surviving at all in the 21st century.

    And yet here they still are and it's because people actually want to read them, and digital is helping that. Given all this history, I would not be surprised if there came a day when the NY TIMES is all gone and the SF mags are still here.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  7. Chris DeVito

    Well, that's a lot to chew on.

    Mark: No, I don't have journalistic experience. I've worked in the bowels of publishing for a long time, doing grunt work, primarily in the textook field, mostly medical/surgical and nursing books (which came in handy when preparing the manuscript for the Coltrane Reference -- a truly massive undertaking), but in terms of writing and research, I'm pretty much an autodidact. The only "formal" training I have, if you can call it that, was attending Clarion in 1989. But I'm long out of touch with the field; I gafiated with extreme prejudice in the mid-'90s and have only gotten back into it in the last year or two. It was a bit of a shock to learn that the sf mags sell only a quarter to a third of what they sold back in the '70s, when I started reading them.

    Gordon: I still have all my old copies of Geis's Alien Critic/SF Review from the '70s. Lots of interesting stuff there, I'll have to go through them one of these days.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  8. Chris DeVito

    OK, I resisted this for a whole day, but the whorish urge to shamelessly self-promote is too great and I'll burst if I don't point out that The John Coltrane Reference (which was mentioned upthread) will be out in paperback in December for a piddling price (all things considered) and is now available for preorder on amazon for the handful of you who might be interested:

    Cheap at twice the price, and a great xmas gift! (Supposedly there will be an e-book, too, but the publisher hasn't given us any info on that yet, and I don't know if it'll actually happen.)

    And in case anyone is wondering why I bother to mention this here, please believe me when I say that there's very little money in writing books about jazz and ANY possible sale is a help. Seriously.

    Plus I love Coltrane's music and try to work it into pretty much any conversation I get into. (Listening to Live at Birdland as I type this!)

    Posted 6 years ago #
  9. Mark Pontin

    Feel no shame about promoting good work.

    Anything much in there about how McCoy Tyner -- who was astonishingly young when he joined Coltrane and still already had the quartal harmony (stacked fourths) thing going on -- came to develop his style?

    I think I saw an interview with Tyner once where he maybe mentioned that when he was a kid Richie Powell, Bud's brother, had lived around the corner and had been doing it somewhat. There are also hints of the stacked fourths in early Bill Evans -- or for that matter in Bartok.

    But, overall, it seems like Tyner just came out of nowhere -- well, Philadelphia -- with his thing already going on .

    Posted 6 years ago #
  10. SHamm

    Denardo Coleman was younger!

    Posted 6 years ago #
  11. Mark Pontin

    Well, yeah, Coleman was (had to look him up) and so was Tony Williams, for that matter. But they were drummers.

    In other words, no integrated, personal theory and practice of harmonic (and hence melodic) construction involved in what they were doing. That's what is interesting about Tyner: his approach represents the same sort of novel, personal system that a "serious" composer puts together for himself/herself. Tyner's youth when he did it is somewhat secondary.

    As far as youth in jazz piano goes, Keith Jarrett might have been younger (e.g. nineteen) when he started playing with Art Blakey. At five, Jarrett was on a TV talent program hosted by the swing bandleader Paul Whiteman and gave his first formal piano recital at the age of seven, playing works by composers including Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Saint-Saëns, and ending with two of his own compositions.

    Jarrett had absolute pitch from the start, apparently. But you can't say his playing derives from one particular compositional approach; he takes from pretty much everything and it's his phrasing that is singular.

    Heh. Billy Preston ain't jazz, but he was pretty talented and below is a clip of him, aged eleven, appearing on the old Nat King Cole Show. By the age of fifteen, Preston had been on the road with Ray Charles and Little Richard --

    Posted 6 years ago #
  12. Chris DeVito

    Mark Pontin: Sorry, but I don’t think anything in the Reference will illuminate Tyner’s early development. My musical training is limited (though I like to think I have a pretty good ear), but I don’t hear much of the stacked-fourths style in Tyner’s recordings with the Jazztet in late 1959 and early ’60, or in an audience tape of the Coltrane Quartet from June 1960 (a few weeks after Tyner left the Jazztet and joined Coltrane’s group). What do you think of Tyner’s playing with the Jazztet?

    Posted 6 years ago #
  13. oblomov

    Mark: Re Interzone's numbers, I'd imagine the magic behind their economics has something to do with their being published in a social democracy, where creative types and their endeavors are not entirely subject to the will of the hamster wheel.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  14. Mark Pontin

    Social democracy? Are you confusing the UK with Sweden or some such?

    I have a UK passport as it happens. I find some of the British social scene -- especially the centrality of the City (so corrupt and deregulated that the US bankster kleptocrats could regularly say they were going to move their operations there, till they got their way in the US) and Dave Cameron and his gang of public-school looters -- even more distasteful than what's going on here in Yanksville.

    Still, point taken and INTERZONE may have found some equivalent to the arts council funding that in days of yore Mike Moorcok's NEW WORLDS enjoyed.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  15. oblomov

    fair enough - specifics of the current political scene there aside, you get my meaning.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  16. Mark Pontin


    And I confess that during the 'jumping and jiving doctors and nurses of the NHS' segment of Danny Boyle's nutty pre-Olympics fantasia, I felt my heartstrings tugged. In 1948, when the U.K. instituted the National Health Service, the capitol was bombed-out, the country was in hock, and basics like food and clothes were heavily rationed. The British went ahead and did it anyway.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  17. MattHughes

    One of the differences I notice between North America and Britain (and Ireland where I'm housesitting now) is that in cafes, on trains and buses, on park benches, wherever you go, you'll see people reading newspapers. You'll also see newsstands selling several different national newspapers plus local rags. And you'll see young people reading books -- more than a few of them reading on their phones and various ebook reading devices.

    It's quite heartening.

    Posted 6 years ago #

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