Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Realms of Fantasy Dies. Again. Why?

So, it was making the rounds of the fiction blogs yesterday that Realms of Fantasy is going under. Again.

This is very sad news because, to my knowledge, RoF was the last professional fantasy fiction magazine that actually sold print copies. The two remaining professional fantasy digests I know of - Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (my current favorite) - are purely online affairs. Luckily, the classic print digest Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which presents a f/sf mix, still survives. For now.

Those of you who follow fantasy fiction probably already know that RoF failed in 2009 and was rescued at the last minute by investor / publisher Warren Lapine. Lapine has had success running other much larger magazines, and he pumped a lot of time and money into trying to turn RoF around. But it seems he could not fix the core problem – nobody would subscribe. In his farewell note Lapine blamed only one thing for the failure of RoF: the economy.

I suspect this supposition is not accurate.

While I believe the economy may have had some minor influence over the situation, it is painfully true that all the f/sf digests have been struggling with dwindling subscriptions rates for a long time now. And, as with newspapers and many print magazines, this has been a problem since long before the Great Recession hit in 2008. There’s a lot of discussion as to why this is, with competition from the internet being a favorite bogeyman. Indeed, the entire publishing world is still struggling to find a profitable model for internet publishing.

But… I’m still skeptical. I’d venture to say that most f/sf readers are fairly well educated, gainfully employed, and can afford a few magazine subscriptions without a second thought. Heck, I can. But I never subscribed to RoF. And I love fantasy fiction. Assuming people like me represent much of the lost market for RoF, I thought it might be relevant to consider my own reading and purchasing habits when thinking about why RoF died.

My favorite hypothesis for the failure of the f/sf short fiction market is that the whole nature of reading fantastic fiction now, in 2010, is fundamentally different from the way it was in 1930, 1960, or even 1980, because readers now are completely saturated with cheap excellent fiction. Up until the 1960s or 1970s it was conceivable that a serious fan of fantasy fiction could have read all or most of the professional output up until that point – all of the fantasy novels and all of the short stories. In an atmosphere like this is makes sense to subscribe to fiction digests because you would often be hungry for more stories. During the big f/sf boom of the 1970s, with breakthrough movies like Star Wars and bestselling books like Lucifer’s Hammer, I imagine it became much more difficult to keep up with f/sf because of greater output from publishers as well as the growing backlogs of classics.

So, think about someone like me. I was born in 1974. I started reading fantasy in the mid-80s as a kid. From the point I started reading seriously, I had a body of fantasy genre literature stretching back to William Morris to catch up on.  I mean, seriously, for the last 20 years I’ve been struggling to get caught up with just the 1920s-1970s. I am still sadly ignorant of the 1980s-present, except for some of the major Hugo and Nebula winners I felt obliged to check out. I’m saturated with great stuff, which is a wonderful thing. I have stacks and stacks of used paperbacks, pulps, and digests representing over a half century of remarkable fiction. I bought all this stuff at used bookstores and on eBay for next to nothing and I know a lot of it will be very good if not great.

So here is the problem - with a fiction digest like RoF I don't know if an issue is going to be good. Actually, it’s probably going to be mostly not good. This might be cruel to say, but it’s true. I try to sample issues of the modern f/sf mags on a regular basis, but I find the experience is much like buying a booster pack of Magic: The Gathering cards – except that I’m never guaranteed of getting a Rare. Occasionally there’s something great, which is a uniquely exciting rush, but most of the stories are stylistically formulaic, painfully trendy (e.g. steampunk or emo vampires, argh!), boring, and/or gimmicky. Why would I pay for this when (1) I already have stacks of unread cheap amazing classic fiction, and (2) I can wait for an annual anthology to come out, where hopefully the gem:junk ratio will be higher.

So, as I see it there are two sides to this problem.

The first is that there is a huge backlog of excellent f/sf which all modern authors must directly compete with. Yes, if you are a writer now you have the toughest job in the history of the genre – you are competing with stacks of cheap paperbacks by the best authors who ever lived.

The second is that either the editors or the slush piles are not capable of producing short stories that are fit for this difficult competition. This is not a matter of my taste or opinion. RoF died because not enough people wanted to subscribe. The brutal brutal truth is that many of these digests aren’t publishing fiction that people will pay for.

By the way, if you want to give publishing a shot, Lapine will sell you RoF for $1.