Monday, November 19, 2007

Digest Blues: The Lament of the Big Three

For the past month, the "Big Three" genre magazines - Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction - have come under fire from multiple sources, heralding the Imminent Demise Of The Digests (tm). An exhaustive tracking of this debate would seem impossible, but some of the highlights include:

All of which adds up to, I believe, more reading than an actual issue of one of the "Big Three". Of course I'll happily try to boost that up to a novel's worth of reading.

My Take on SFF Magazines in General, and The Big Three in Particular

There was a time, not so far off in the past, when I was an avid reader of the genre magazines. As a kid with only four television channels, I was far more apt to be found curled in a chair with a book or magazine. The books came from the library. The magazines I bought myself.

Perhaps this experience colored my perception of the magazines, but I have always thought of them - the three digests in particular - as an entry-level introduction to speculative fiction. They were cheap. They were filled with many different writers; if you disliked one story, it was easy to flip the pages to another. Purchasing a novel was a painstaking process, because it was important to find just the right one: an outlay of over two dollars required a substantial return on that investment, after all. But the magazines were an easy, quick purchase, at least a buck less than a novel.

When I was reading the magazines, they were important. They helped to form my opinions on speculative fiction. They introduced me to countless authors I'd never heard of. They urged me to write; I knew that if I could come up with an interesting story, one of the magazines might buy it. They kept me interested in the community of speculative fiction.

Around that time, I started to discover back issues of other magazines in second-hand stores, rummage sales, even flea markets and comic book shops. It all went hand-in-hand. Armed with ten dollars I could glut myself on speculative fiction every week.

I bet you remember those days as well.

...And Today

The digests have lost their relevance.

What were once vital and important arbiters of taste in speculative fiction have descended into myopia. They are no longer the touchstones of the genre community. Instead, they are read by a decreasing number of entrenched fans.

"Entrenched" could be the warcry for the three magazines. Despite minor size changes, fluctuations in page count, and the (very) occasional change in editors, the digests have remained essentially the same product they have been for decades. While book publishing has evolved in the same decades, and in tandem with the rise of the internet and its impact on all things, the digests continue to slog along within the tight strictures of their highly-defined niche.

The "Big Three" just don't matter anymore.

But what about the future...?

The question raging on everyone's minds seems to be: "What does the future hold for the digests?"

Most are singing the death knell of the digests. Consensus opinion implies a certain decline and eventual demise for all three of the magazines, replaced by the internet and upstart 'zines serving a variety of niches. Indeed, this is a trend that is visible even now: witness the expansion of online markets like Strange Horizons, Hub Magazine, Heliotrope, Clarkesworld Magazine and more. Or witness the venerable small-press success of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet or Electric Velocipede.

It would seem the digests have been consigned to death. Roll out the blindfolds, please.

An Alternate Plan for the Digests

But can the digests be saved? Further, should the digests be saved?

I think so.

Here I present a possible alternate path for the "Big Three". I post it in vain, of course; the internet presence of the magazines is woefully under-represented, and I doubt anyone connected with the magazines (save for, perhaps, Gordon Van Gelder or John Joseph Adams) will even stumble across this post... or give a crap if they do. Still, why diminish my fun?

A: Embrace the digest format... with tweaks

Believe it or not, the digest format is a handy one. In my opinion, it is the optimal size for a magazine - easy to handle, large enough to read comfortably, and still damnably cheap to produce. There are many magazines still using the format or a variation of the format. Postscripts utilizes the format to generally good effect, while 2600: The Hacker Quarterly offers a DIY, lo-fi variation. Granta is no larger, yet produces a beautifully clean design that is attractive as an object.

The major hurdles the "Big Three" face as digests are failures of design. Compared to the magazines listed above, the "Big Three" exude an archaic, lost-in-the-Seventies design. In order to maintain a relevant presence in shaping the speculative fiction field, the "Big Three" need to attract new readers. This injection of new blood has to begin with expanding their audience appeal, and a good place to start that expansion is in offering an attractive design.

In order to produce a useful design makeover, we have to consider who it is we wish to attract to the magazines. Once we have defined our target market, we can then work to incorporate a balanced, stylish design that will appeal equally to those segements.

As a base assumption, we will say the current content will not change (beyond small tweaks, to be discussed below), and that we only wish to entice new readers to the magazines.

Now then, here is our strategy for each of the three digests.

Though already the best-selling of the three digests, I think it is possible to position Analog even more strongly by appealing to the tech and scientific communities.

To me, Asimov's has always represented the most rebellious, cutting-edge of the the three magazines. I think it would benefit most by positioning itself even stronger as such, by appealing to the intelligent teen and counter-cultural mid-twenties crowd, with a healthy dollop of gamers added into the mix.

The most broadly-appealing of the bunch, F&SF would be best served by branching out its appeal to younger readers as well, roping in some of those Harry Potter and Lost fantatics, while also appealing to more women.

As this is an incredibly long entry already, I will continue my thoughts in the next post. Also, it will take me a bit to create mock-ups.

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