Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Digest Blues, Part Three

It strikes me that I am a complete and total hypocrite. On the one hand, criticizing the fans of Heroes for attempting to dictate the direction of the show. On the other, discussing what the digest magazines can do to save themselves.

So goes life, I suppose.

B: Garner Relevance

If, as we presuppose, the "Big Three" have lost relevance in the modern speculative fiction community, how to gain that relevance back?

There are several tactics I can think of that would help all three magazines regain some of the lost ground.

The root of the problem appears to be declining readership. I think all involved can agree that the "Big Three" have taken a huge hit over the past decade, if the circulation numbers charted through Dozois' annual Best of collections are accepted. The heyday of the digests would seem long past. Whether this has impacted the profitability of their endeavors is not for me to say. But certainly the circumstantial evidence would at least suggest that this has, indeed, impacted their relevance in the field.

The most glaring failing of the magazines that I can see is their failure to engage with the genre community in any impactful way. Though Van Gelder has suggested that we are merely an online community discussing how great the online revolution is, I think such a point fails to take into account that, unlike those who refuse to engage with the internet, those of us online are receiving the benefits of both online and offline media.

By distancing themselves from the net-based community, the "Big Three" inadvertently shoot themselves in the collective foot.

The truth of the matter is, the digests fail to appeal to several important markets in one fell sweep. While it is true that many traditional readers of the magazines have not embraced the internet, it is still the media of choice for many burgeoning readers. By not engaging online, the digests fail to encounter the all-important influx of new readers and, by proxy, new customers. To be honest, their collective failure to engage fully online seems willfully entrenched. Old-fashioned. Worse, uncaring.

It is true that websites do exist for all three magazines, but they are, as one commentator put it, "vestigial at best". In fact, I find it extremely bizarre that the messageboard for F&SF is actually located on another publisher's website.

I think it is absolutely essential that the magazines radically transform their web presence.

The best way to do this would be to create a community-based website.

To date, there are few user-friendly features on any of the "Big Three" websites. Nothing about the websites engender a sense of identity, nor of community. Speculative fiction fans are notoriously tribe-oriented, but these websites fail to reflect that.

In essence, I would suggest tearing down the old websites and starting fresh. Make the websites, for starters, clean and clearly accessible. Organize things. I cannot say how often I've longed to find a particular review column on the Asimov's website and failed miserably in the process. Using a CMS-based web design would at least clarify the sites and turn them into easily searchable, open-ended websites.

However, that is only one step. It is necessary to encourage reader participation. For example, Dave Truesdale's columns have a link to "discuss at the messageboard", but no commenting feature at the articles themselves. Nor is it easy to find a simple listing of all of Dave's columns; I had to click about several pages to discover them. Further, continuing with Dave's columns as an example, there are no contextual links. This is not writing for the net; this is reflective of the dead medium of print, rather than the living medium of the internet.

Wisdom would also suggest that messageboards are a vital component to community websites... and each site does have a messageboard. It is my experience, however, that each one represents an entrenched mentality. These messageboards are not, in practice, open to all.

But messageboards are not the end of community. None of the magazine websites embrace the wider community of readers and writers. There may be links to some websites, but as we have seen, the interconnectedness of the blogosphere is far more representative of community-in-action. In all ways, the three magazines fail to engage in the genre dialog - they exist, instead, within their meager bubbles of online space, sequestered from the rest of the field.

As I mentioned earlier, it is rare to find any representatives of the magazines participating in the online discussion. It may be unfair of me to suggest that this is a failing of the staff; I certainly do not know what their time management and workload entails. Yet I find it difficult to believe that engagement is impossible. I know that Simon Spanton of Gollancz finds the time to comment on blogs. Other publishers run their own blogs, some of which are listed in my sidebar. And one cannot suggest that Lou Anders is shies away from the internet.

But having a strong web presence is only one step toward relevance.

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