Where are current SF magazines going?

I’ve had a talk on current Anglo-American magazines at Festival Fantazie in Chotebor last weekend. I meant to present notable magazines to the Czech audience, describe the change this market went through since its establishment up until now and most of all talk about magazines with freely-accessible content, their strategies, benefits and how they shape the world of speculative fiction. Finally, I mentioned the opportunities online magazines present to authors worldwide. The talk had more impact than I had expected (especially given at 9 a.m. at a busy convention where this is about the time many people finally go to sleep); it gave one editor the idea to add podcasts to his magazine (more specifics about this later if he succeeds – I certainly hope so), some authors’ eyes brightened and Františka Vrbenská asked me to write an article based on my talk.

Well, here it is! (Czech version of the article can be found here.) Most of this information is quite easy to find for any English-speaking person interested in this topic, so I’ll only very briefly mention the history of SF magazines here and then will move to the changes brought by online publishing (and what it means for readers as well as authors).

From the penny dreadfuls available at kiosks and scientific romances published in general magazines, we moved to the pulp era and the dawn of some of the most famous genre magazines. Weird Tales were first published in 1923, Amazing Tales in 1926, Astounding (today Analog) in 1930, later F&SF in 1949… And from today’s perspective, the market seemed to be flourishing. The magazines could be bought at most newsstands, they had a very wide audience in the US and inspired lots of future great authors of SF. However, their sales began to drop slowly in the second half of the 20th century, most markedly since the 80s. There are many hypotheses as to why – google “decline of sf magazines” and see. We can now move to the 21st century.

We’ve still got “the big three”: Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF. Numerous other previously successful genre magazines were canceled permanently or lay dormant before being rebooted. These are the most famous ones that prevailed and still draw a large audience. Does it mean the market has become small?

Thankfully, not at all. The volume of publications just moved from print to the web. Many magazines exist in both forms but more people read them as e-books, even more only publish e-books or are directly available online. The purpose of my talk was to present especially those magazines whose content is free to read online to the readers since getting print issues in the Czech Republic would be too expensive and readers have a chance to try the magazines before buying them if the stories are online. These also provide excellent opportunities for readers who want to improve their understanding of English and for whom it would so far be pointless to purchase whole issues at once if they only can read at a slower rate. They too have a chance to pay their thanks to the magazines as we’ll see.

One of the most notable online magazines was established already in 2000: Strange Horizons. They were followed by Apex in 2005 (Edit: As Neil Clarke pointed out to me, Apex started out as a print magazine, closed and reopened in 2008 as an online mag.), Clarkesworld a year later, Tor.com in 2008 and Lightspeed and Daily SF in 2010. This is just a small fraction of the list of pro-paying online magazines. There are others: Buzzy Mag, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres, Giganotosaurus and more… And these are just the ones with pro rates. Semi-pro online magazines are even more abundant on today’s market.

Well, it’s nice that there are many of them. But how good are they actually? There’s no objective measure to literary quality but we can look at major SF awards and see that Clarkesworld has won Hugo for the best semi-prozine three times and Nebula twice for the best short story. Apex and Tor.com have each won Nebula for the best short story once. Clarkesworld, Apex, Tor.com and Strange Horizons are being represented in nominations for these awards very strongly. Apparently, their readers are satisfied. But how does the free-content model work and doesn’t collapse like a public goods game in which more and more participants want a slice of the profit but don’t contribute to it themselves?

Tor.com is a special case among these magazines since it belongs to Macmillan, who also own Tor Books, one of the major SF publishers worldwide. It serves as a platform to deliver new stories, book excerpts, reviews and other articles. They don’t release issues per se; they publish one story a week. They’re only available at the website as far as I know – except for the assembly in The Stories: Five Years of Original Fiction on Tor.com. I don’t know of any ways you can support them directly. They likely get most of their income from ads and since one of the site’s purposes is to draw attention to Tor/Forge publications, I’m not sure whether the site itself has any separate business model.

Tor.com represents a very special case among online magazines. Let’s see magazines that don’t have a gigantic publishing house behind them. Clarkesworld offers a wide variety of means by which readers can pay for the content: subscription for various reading devices on Amazon, Apple Newsstand, Google Play, Weightless Books and Patreon; purchase of individual issues on these sites; donation; affiliate programs. The site also has some ads. Patreon is a special form of support – readers can choose what amount they want to send monthly to become a patron. There are goals similar to stretch goals on Kickstarter (resulting in adding more stories to the magazine’s issues). Patrons and donators earn a citizenship on the site and get their name or chosen alias listed in annual anthologies.

Apex Magazine also has subscriptions and the possibility to purchase single issues, as well as the annual anthologies, ads and a donation button on the site. They joined Patreon too. Lightspeed has a similar business model, except they’re not on Patreon (yet?). Strange Horizons accept donations and run two fund drives to reach some financial goal a year. And we could continue with other magazines… I consider Clarkesworld‘s way most worked-through but you can see that all of them offer their readers an easy way to support them to get more great stories. And it works. I’m not sure about the percentage of paying readers (Does someone know these numbers precisely enough? I’m interested in finding out. Edit: There are numbers available for Clarkesworld, I should have mentioned. There are about 8 % of subscribers among the readers. Are there similar numbers to other magazines?) but the English-spealing audience is wide and apparently there are enough people willing to pay for content they like (but the more the better, so if you like any of these magazines or another one, consider helping them to become even greater than now).

Anthologies or special issues by their editors can also bring more attention to the magazines and find them more supporters. Last year, Neil Clarke ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for his cyborg anthology Upgraded, which is coming out soon. This spring, Lightspeed crew had a huge success on Kickstarter with their special issues of SF, fantasy and horror by female authors. Another feature that can draw a wider audience are podcasts. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Apex all offer audio versions of their published stories. This can be especially appealing for people who have little time to read but can listen to audio stories for example while driving, commuting, working or doing daily chores, or for people who have some form of reading or sight impairment.

Would a model like this work in the Czech Republic too? Unfortunately, not likely. When you’re aiming at the whole English-spealing world, even a small portion of paying readers can sustain your efforts. If a comparable percentage of the 10 million Czech people paid for an online magazine, it wouldn’t be enough. SF-related ads are also markedly less profitable here and somewhat fewer people are used to reading on e-readers, tablets or cell phones. Slovakian magazine Jupiter got closest to this model when it offered older issues for free, with the current one still only for purchase. However, paid e-books are a good idea and podcasts could be interesting to bring here too; this year, we’re seeing a rapid rise of audiobooks on the Czech market, which makes the situation for introducing podcasted stories optimal.

Non-English magazines seem to have a hard time all over Europe (more about that later in another post). But online English magazines can help to erase borders and enable authors worldwide to contribute. Even online subs for print magazines help that a lot. A beautiful example is C. C. Finlay’s special issue of F&SF, which was just published. F&SF normally accepts paper submissions only – and therefore gets few stories from international authors. C. C. Finlay opened his issue to electronic submissions for the first time in the magazine’s history. He got 751 stories in two weeks. Almost a quarter of them came from authors outside the US. All the thirteen stories in the issue are from authors previously unpublished in F&SF. The width of the authorship in the submissions spiked notably.

Online magazines have at least one more advantage for international authors: The writers can easily familiarize with many of them, a significant portion of the market. They can improve their language by reading online a lot, learn the taste of different editors, get to know what might be likely to succeed. How high or low are their chances? We can look at Submission Grinder data (collected July 1). These are reported acceptance rates for the major online genre magazines:

  • Clarkesworld: 0,9 %
  • Strange Horizons: 1,14 %
  • Tor.com: 1,6 %
  • Apex: 1,64 %
  • Lightspeed: 2,53 %
  • Daily SF: 7,42 %

For comparison, these are the grinder’s acceptance rates from the big three:

  • Analog: 3,49 %
  • Asimov’s: 2,38 %
  • F&SF: 1,5 %

Mind you, these numbers are certainly not precise. They come from submissions registered at the grinder and are likely too high because authors using Sub Grinder are often those who take the work more seriously and don’t just select a random magazine they haven’t even read for their super ingenious story. You can’t usually get to the real numbers – but in case of Clarkesworld, you can. These come from Neil Clarke’s editorial and refer to the period between October 2012 and September 2013:

This year, we bought:
22 Science Fiction stories (of 3619 submitted)
5 Science Fiction + Fantasy stories (of 698 submitted)
3 Fantasy + Horror stories (of 893 submitted)
3 Fantasy stories (of 2464 submitted)
1 “Other” stories (of 274 submitted)
0 Horror stories (of 836 submitted)
0 Science Fiction + Horror stories (of 457 submitted)

That doesn’t raise one’s hopes much, does it? But you never know until you try. And then try again. Read. Write. Improve. Be ambitious. And if you’re not much on fiction’s side but like writing nonfiction, the same applies. Some of the magazines also accept unsolicited nonfiction articles. So don’t be afraid. Hey – the worst thing that can happen is a rejection, which in the end has the same effect as not trying at all. The best thing cannot occur if you never try. Online publishing gives authors regardless of country or pretty much everything else an excellent opportunity and they now shape the trends in short fiction like never before. The current SF market made it as easy for authors worldwide as possible. Too bad: You’ve run out of excuses. So sit down and work. Good luck.


This article is by no means comprehensive; the pro and semi-pro market is now so wide that it makes it almost impossible to list all genre periodicals, their survival and growth strategies, benefits and features. That’s the answer for the title question: Magazines are massively going online and towards a wider authorship as well as readership. As for more specific directions, you may try to set them… Explore this world for yourself. Chart the territory on your own path. Have fun.

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