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The Solution to Saving the Short Fiction Genre Magazines is…

While the rest of the world bemoans the death of the the science fiction and fantasy magazines, SF Signal reader and all-around great guy Jay Garmon offers a solution so simple, even Dave Itzkoff could implement it: Build the perfect Web 2.0 short science fiction magazine:

Start an online genre magazine that commissions writers to write stories, and then lets fans pay for the commission. Think of it as a reverse Radiohead album release. In this case, Cherie Priest writes the pitch for the short story, which is listed as a commissionable project. There is a price listed for commission, and fans are given a Paypal account into which they can donate to get the story written–as much or as little as they want to pay. The faster the commission is met, the faster the story is published. Under this system, writers can earn a decent word-rate for short fiction, because the writers set they word-rate. We also harness a little wisdom of crowds on the selection side, turning the audience into the editor.

Once the story is paid for and published, it’s free to be read. Period. No restrictions. If you’re a cheapskate (like me) you can just hang out and wait for someone else to pay the freight. If you’re a total fanboy (like me) and would pay good money to see a great pitch from a favorite writer fulfilled, you’ll donate a fair amount to speed the cause. Moreover, if the site gives you badges, banners and buttons that let you promote the story commission on your site (and does the same for the authors), and combines that with some “ask your friends to donate” e-mail/Facebook/Twitter interfaces, every fan becomes a promoter.

Sounds like a good idea to me. But then again, I once owned a pet rock.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

25 Comments on The Solution to Saving the Short Fiction Genre Magazines is…

  1. This is the “Ransom” model.  A few role playing game designers have experimented with

    issuing PDFs of supplements to their games in this manner.  

  2. There’s a lot of problems with that model, chief amongst them what happens if enough funds are not given to actually get the story written? Do you refund the money that’s already been contributed?

  3. Also, what if – as often happens in the creative process – the story takes a sharp turn or two from initial idea to actual finished tale?

  4. Also, how would a newbie break into such a system?

  5. It’s an interesting idea, but it misses one of the most important roles the traditional print magazine plays: they’re where most new writers break into the field (still). Asimov’s and Analog have a “first published story” every month or two, and some of them are great. Few readers, if any, are going to pay for a story by someone whose name they don’t already know. This model could postpone the demise of the magazines, but it would probably speed the demise of the genre in general.

    Then again, I suppose some wealthy writers-to-be could pay their own commissions, and get their stories out without any editorial intervention whatsoever… But would that be much better?

  6. Perhaps a certain amount could be set aside from each paid story to underwrite one new author a month/issue/given time period?

  7. Wow, I got dissed by Lou Anders and SFGospel. Awesome!

    Anyway, Mr.s Anders and McKee, you bring up valid points, to which I will respond:

    *To my mind, each commission would have a deadline, probably 30 days, maybe 90 at the outside. If the commission isn’t met in that time frame, yes, the donations would be refunded. This frees the writer to shop the pitch elsewhere–probably faster than most of the Big Three turn their queries, too–gives the audience an impetus to accept/reject a commission quickly, and gives the magazine some semblance of editorial regularity.

    *So far as the creative swing between pitch and delivery, if the writer fails to deliver what is promised by the pitch, I’d expect that their next pitch would be met with skepticism by the audience. Costs of a meritocracy. This, of course, presumes that the writer is pitching an unwritten story, which in my experience is rarely the case. Most of the folks I know–which, I grant, aren’t the topline SF earners–are pitching written stories they want sold, not stories they might write if paid to do so. All that said, if the final product is good, I don’t expect (most of) the audience will nitpick about how closely it matches the pitch.

    *The lack of access for new writers is absolutely a valid criticism of this model. I’d expect that the magazine using this system would either underwrite (by discounting the commission or paying outright) at least one new talent every month, or in a worse-case scenario allow new writers to heavily discount their word rate to create cheap commissions that the audience would take a chance on. In the latter case, the authro’s first story or two becomes a loss leader for later sales. I’d rather do the former than the latter, but it would probably come down to funds.

    Oh, and don’t believe that “all-around great guy” bunk. The SFSignal crew is just a very magnanimous bunch.

  8. Very interesting idea. I like the fact that it would do away with some of the boys club attitude that seems to pervade the fiction magazines today. Some of the authorsI see most often write absurdly unreadable stories. The people that put out the best content would be rewarded for it rather than the friends or favorites of the editor. 

    Some other points.

    You could have a subscription fee and the fee would translate into points that you distribute among the story pitches.

    I also like the new author tax although I’m not sure the established but still lesser known authors would be a huge fan.

    Would there ever be a print edition of these stories? Maybe a Year’s Best voted on by the fans?



  9. Not dissing you at all. Asking what I hope are valuable questions.

  10. What this does is put the content of such a magazine entirely in the hands of those fans willing to pay commissions. This may seem admirably democratic, but it’s not meritocratic at all; since when is the worth of a story determined only by the initial popular readership? Fans are always going to want to see more of Writer A who gives them exactly the same thing every time than they are of Writer B who goes in different directions, or Writer C who may be the field’s next superstar but hasn’t been published yet and has no way to generate interest. That’s the nature of popular fandom in any field–SF, comics, movies, All-Star Game voting, etc.

    This model also leaves writers no room for adapting to a story as it develops, and reduces writing to graphological factory work. Just taking myself as an example, because it’s the only one I have: I have written very few stories that turned out the way I thought they would when I started them. The initial idea is a point of departure. If fans were determining the content of, say, F&SF, I never would have published a story there, and that’s where I got started.

    I can see a certain portion of a magazine devoted to this kind of content by popular acclaim, but if the point of a magazine is to publish the best stuff it can find, letting the fundamentally conservative taste of the most committed fans drive all content isn’t the way to go. It would be great for people with existing fan bases, and fatal for those without them.

    Having said all that, I would love to have the Radiohead model work for me.

  11. Mr. Irvine,

    The risk of a “tyranny of the majority” you bring up are well founded. That said, I’ll concede that the committed audience of the Big Three magazines are fundamentally conservative, but I’m not convinced that the average online SF/F fan is so change-averse. In fact, I think a large part of what is killing the Big Three is that they are beholden to a dwindling, “things were better in the old days” fanbase. I’d like to see what would happen if the BoingBoing generation got a real voice in commissioning and promoting science fiction. Maybe it would fail, maybe it would thrive. I’m not wise enough to presume, but I am curious enough to try. (Assuming I find the time and money.)

    Also, I’m completely jealous of your successin earning publication from F&SF, and I’ll concede that some small part of this idea is a product of my own fiction career frustrations. So, you know, I’m far from an impartial arbiter here.

  12. Mr. Anders, I use dissing as an ironic term. You questions are relevant, valuable, and I hope you found my responses adequate.

  13. Lou got the first key point before me: no access for new writers. And let’s face it, the established writers who keep writing short fiction, by and large, do it because they want to, but they’d much rather be writing books (which, being established, they can more easily sell) because there’s more money there.

    The other issue that’s lacking in this new scheme is editorial taste and the editorial voice. Whether or not you read Analog, when you pick up an issue, you know (at least in general terms) what kind of stories you’re getting, whether the authors are your best friends or complete unknowns. By the same token, Asimov’s, or F&SF, or any of the smaller magazines, are going to give you a mix in their own sub-sub-set of the genres. But the key point is that the editor is putting his name on the line, telling you that the stories in this issue are good, and you’ll probably like them, because he’s discarded the 99% of submitted stories that just aren’t that good. Removing the editor from the equation — and having the stories post when the fans pay enough for them seems to me to do just that — is going to lower the quality of the stories you’ll be able to read. You need a mechanism to keep some unknown from paying for his own publication of absolute reeking dreck, which will have the imprimatur of the online-zine under whose banner it runs, and which may overwhelm the good stuff (95% of those rejected authors will gladly give their story away for free to see it in the magazine, but the editor keeps them out so you can easily find the good stuff). You also need a mechanism to get the long-lived, though difficult, stories into print; the stories that may not be fan-favorites today, but are remembered forever. And the experimental stuff that you turn out liking, even though there was no way you thought you would.

    I don’t know. These utopian ideals are wonderful to think about, and I, too, keep casting around for a better way to do things. Ideas like this are a good start, but there are lots of potholes to be filled before I’m willing to drive down this road.

  14. I guess I’m not convinced that this system would entirely shut out new writers. If anything, I should imagine that they would tend to have first-crack at it, in that the majority (I say majority like I have any statistics backing me up, which I don’t) of professional working writers are perhaps dealing more with anthologies, editors of magazines directly, and book contracts.

    Maybe I’m just optimistic, but all a new writer would need to do is present a good idea. Every now and then, in casual conversation, writers I know will suggest an idea they’re toying with, and just off the offhand remark, I’ll go “Oh my God! That’s brilliant! You have to write that!”

    I can see that working in this system too. The brilliance of the idea would help. It might not do much for the new writer who is busy writing Heaving Vampire Bosoms: The Emo Returns. But who knows? Readers are a rabid bunch. That’s the joy of ’em.

    The biggest problem I can see is sorting through the chaff. There’d have to be some sort of system in place of guarantees to make the reader trust that they are going to get something for their money. And I don’t even mean the above-mentioned “what if the story idea changes?” which is a valid question too.

    How do I know that the writer can produce something enjoyably readable? Perhaps he’s written down a compelling idea, but he is very much a new writer, just cutting his teeth, not quite at a level where his writing is publishable, or even readable. The good idea gets lost in clumsy writing. They haven’t done their million words of crap yet, as it were. SO there would still be editors involved in the process. Either the story would have to be done ahead of the time, and vetted by an editor (more or less like a normal system, just with an altered payment idea) OR the writer would have to submit other examples of their writing…but again, to an editor.

    (An alternative I can see is, they’ve gotta have two pages, or some other such arbitrary number, written of the story, and posted. I want to see how you carry the beginning of the story. I want to make sure that, good or bad, at least your writing stlye is something I can enjoy enough to put money into.)

    Overall, I like the idea. It’s not actually that radical, in that it just feels like an evolution of the old system of artists have a patron sponsoring them (a fine idea. Anyone want to sponsor me, I will make no protest.)


  15. Misters Tzinski and Strock, valid points all. As you both point out, one can’t completely abdicate the role of editors in this process. Free for alls lead to the lowest common denominator, and I go to Digg for different info than I do CNN.

    My thought is that the role of the “Ransom Magazine” editorial staff would be to select from available pitches those that show the most promise. In fact, it might be worth it to amend the model to only accept queried complete stories–which sidesteps the “what if the story changes” and what about the new guys issues–and make the offer to authors one of “we’ll pay you more, and we’ll give you an answer faster.” However we tweak the model, I simply want to push the editors back to being gatekeepers of pitches, rather than outright gatekeepers of publication.

    I think the audience is dwindling for short genre fiction not because readers don’t want it, but because readers aren’t being offered what they want. And authors aren’t writing short fiction not because they don’t want to, but because it isn’t econoically viable. I think a ransom model could address both concerns.

  16. I think you’ve got me convinced by the theory of the ransom model, although I’d quite like to see it put into action before being totally won over by it. I think out of sheer interest in the new system, I’d send a story or two at them.

    I remember, a few years back, that someone released a novel onto the internet, with the caveat that the readers collectively had to reach a certain payment goal before the next chapter would come out. Shamefully, I don’t remember the name of the fellow who did this. I do, dimly, recall that it worked well. (Boy, Pete sure can cite and reference the muddled contents of his own mind, can he not?)

    I write a serial — for free, for joy, as a hobby next to my regular writing — and I have toyed with the idea, before, of asking for SuchandSuch an amount to be reached before each episode comes out.

    So it’s a fine idea, in my book.

    I think Ransom Magazine would need 1) Some major authors to start off with. Get masses of readers familiar with the system and aware that it exists by sending them after Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card short stories.  2) OR…a major influx of content, streaming at the reader all the time. Maybe there aren’t any big names, but there ARE sixty stories, and thirty of ’em sound good to you right off the bat.

    I can see where the user might have an account, into which he can just put a lump sum of money, if he wants. For example, I just give my “Peedee” account Twenty Bucks. It’s in my virtual wallet. As I come across interesting stories that I hope to read soon,or in the near future, I put a buck, or two bucks, or something into them. I have a little page that watches them and alerts me when their goals have been reached and they become available to read. So in a way, you’re sowing the seeds of later reads.

    I can also see it being a fantastic potential delivery system for novels — a chapter at a time — or serials — an episode of the ongoing series, at a time. Hell, why not comic books? Hell, why not radio dramas? The amounts might vary from short story, to chapter, to comic, etc. but in theory, you could ransom just about anything through this system, done cleverly.

    The more I blither on and bore everybody (I’m thinking out loud about it, sorry) the more I find myself liking the idea. It may not work perfectly, but I’d love to see it given a go. Even if all it did was fail spectacularly. Those can be really useful too.

  17. Do a Google search on “street performer protocol” and you’ll find a lot of discussion about this idea.

  18. As a (not especially well known as yet) writer I really like this idea. I like the prospect of a more open system that doesn’t come down to the tastes and favourites of one editor or board. On the other hand, pitching short stories is hard – a short story needs to be interesting and surprising. It’s hard to pitch a story and not give away the punch.

    However, if such a system showed up somewhere, I’d certainly get involved. Jay, do you know any web developers? šŸ™‚


  19. Jay Garmon says: <i>I simply want to push the editors back to being gatekeepers of pitches, rather than outright gatekeepers of publication.</i>

    Uh, excuse me? When were editors ever simply gatekeepers of pitches? The role of an editor has always been to choose the good stuff and present it to potential readers, winnowing the increasingly rare wheat from the chaff.


    Pete Tzinski says: <i>I remember, a few years back, that someone released a novel onto the internet, with the caveat that the readers collectively had to reach a certain payment goal before the next chapter would come out. Shamefully, I don’t remember the name of the fellow who did this. I do, dimly, recall that it worked well.</i>

    I know Lawrence Watt-Evans had some success with this model, as did Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. But I think Stephen King abandoned the project when he tried it as not worth the effort for all those individual $1 payments.


    He also says: <i>As I come across interesting stories that I hope to read soon,or in the near future, I put a buck, or two bucks, or something into them. I have a little page that watches them and alerts me when their goals have been reached and they become available to read. So in a way, you’re sowing the seeds of later reads.</i>

    I’m missing something here. We’re looking for a model to publish stories economically, so that companies will continue to pay the editors and writers so we (the readers) have something to read, yes? The average Asimov’s, Analog, or F&SF has 6-10 stories (as well as some non-fiction content), and charges a bit less than $5. So you’re saying you’re willing to pay more for any one of them in the hope that enough people fell the same way, pay for a story in advance, and then you all get to read it? I don’t think you’re the reason the magazines are in trouble. The problem are the folks who aren’t willing to pay a dollar (or 50 cents) per story.

  20. S. F. Murphy // November 19, 2008 at 10:54 pm //

    I’d argue that only certain types of writers are breaking in on the big three mag side and not necessarily writers who are writing for readers.  They are writers who are writing for other writers.  That, right there, is a major problem.  That is before you get into issues of editorial bias.

    Which, trust me, exists.  I’m afraid I no longer buy the “quality will dictate saleability” any more. 


    S. F. Murphy

  21. Mr. Murphy, I recall Stephen King writing a very compelling article about the problem of writers, writing for writers, to be read by other writers who are mostly just trying to write for the magazines. It’s a good point, unfortunately.

    Ian: I’m not sure what model we’re looking for here. Or rather, I’m not sure that we’re discussing toward a particular one (or maybe we are, and I really am just blithering off into the void. This happens frequently). Mostly, I just like taking the idea and seeing all the various applications it could be stuck to, that’s all. Hence why I mentioned readers seeding money here and there, and why I mentioned comics. It would make a fascinating system to base a small comic book company on. Purely in theory, of course. I am no businessman, and could not math my way out 2+2, so keep that in mind.

    I’m not sure short story writing, or the business itself, is going to be commercially viable on a major level ever again, frankly, and I don’t know that this is a bad thing. I DO think that the internet is really a fine place to aim short stories, in that you are more likely to carry a reader all the way through to the end, than you would be with a novel. That’s why I find systems like the proposed one here interesting. It wouldn’t become The Standard, I don’t think. But it might make an interesting alternative. I doubt anyone would get rich off it. But then, I’ve always thought that going into writing with the expectation that you will get famous and rich is probably going to lead to disappointment long before it leads to dividends.

    *blithers and potters off to find a cup of tea*

  22. This is sort of an old argument. There are only a few magazines compared to the number of people who want to be published in them. Even in the heyday of magazines, there still weren’t enough slots. So saying that the big three magazines — who cannot possibly publish a tenth of the perfectly good fiction being offered to them — are failing as gatekeepers isn’t exactly fair. They aren’t in charge of the well-being of the entire SFF community. They are in charge of finding some stories their readers may like.

    We expected the Web magazines to take up some of the slack of a shrinking print market, but they keep failing. So the thing to do is not to look at what is wrong with print magazines if you want to do a Web magazine, but instead at what is going wrong with the Web magazines. And one of the things we’ve found on the Web is that people don’t like to pay for stuff. There’s a lot of free short fiction now up on the Web. is doing it, for example. People like it and read it. Tell them they have to pay for it, however, and they’re likely to say no thanks.

    The alternative idea being proposed is that if you can get one reader or group of readers to pay for a story, to sponsor it as patrons, then there will definitely be wider interest. So far, similar experiments have not shown this to be the case. Stephen King tried to do a serial novel, one of the first, on the Web. Readers were asked to pay a buck a section, but to do so on the honor system. If they wanted, they could read the stuff for free. They almost all read it for free. So King never finished the story.

    The thing that seems to work best on the Web is getting advertisers to sponsor you in return for you running their ads along with your content. (How effective this advertising is would be another matter.) You could ask readers to pay for ads, but then you would have an E-bay monitoring problem where you wouldn’t know if they were fradulent advertisers or not. Instead, the winner of the Web magazine for profit wars is probably going to be the person who can convince companies like Hewlett-Packard and Coca-Cola that paying him to advertise their products in a SFF Web magazine would be a good idea. People may not pay for short fiction, but they’ll probably sit through a pop-up car ad to read it for free.

    Come to think of it, this is probably what the print magazines need to do more of too. If you look at what magazines are still standing, it’s mostly the fashion magazines because the fashion and beauty industries are willing to pour money into them. The lad magazines do well now because they have pretty pictures and articles on sex to attract readers, and because companies with men’s products pay for ads to reach those readers. If Hollywood wants to do comic book movies, get them to advertise in the fiction magazine. They do so for many SFF sites now. Ads from book publishers are all very well, but the book publishers have hardly any money for ads and print ads. We need to move on from the great but long vanished hand-mimeographed newsletter history we have, and interest bigger business in fiction magazines.

    Which is not an easy task. But Dave Eggers seems to be managing a bit. Go look at what he does.

  23. Just a side thought: I thought the failing with Stephen King’s experiment — and similar attempts — is patience. I read, and have read, various web-comics for a number of years now. One of the things that’s common in the web-comic world is, even if you’re darn good and readable, you should be prepared to work for several years before anyone pays you. And even then, you may not make a fortune. Best be doing it for love and readers, because doing it for the ledger won’t work.

    (The internet is such a strange, new creature. It’s fascinating to stare at.)


  24. No dis intended– I think this could definitely work. I just think it should supplement what exists rather than replacing it.

  25. FYI: For those still playing the home game, Jay Garmon has tweaked his formula for rescuing short fiction based on comments in this post.

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