Monday, October 5, 2009

On Eating One's Tail: The Death of Necrography and the State of Short Fiction


Another small press magazine bit the dust. As a former contributor, I received an email that Necrography was no more. The publisher produced one and only one issue (which can still be purchased through Amazon.com), and my short story "Brian Cullen's Confessional" found itself in the TOC. It's a nice little magazine, glossy and slick with clean layout.

Am I sad that another paying market has bitten the dust? Yes.

Am I surprised? No.

I turned to writing short fiction when my first novel was in the "query quagmire". I loved it. Still do. In order to continue to sell short fiction, markets have to exist to exhibit that short fiction. How do paying markets exist? Well, by selling copies (or enough advertising to make the cover price reasonable.)

To whom does a small press horror mag generally sell copies? Well, from my experience, contributors (generally at a discount), or hopeful contributors doing "research". Eat your tail, short fiction community and cough up some cash to help small presses. Buy a copy of a nice looking anthology or magazine. Most of the folks "publishing" do so with limited help, volunteering their services, and often paying for the excess costs from their personal cache. Short fiction publishing doesn't make money, folks. Not for most 'zines...not until they've survived long enough to build a reliable readership. Unfortunately, many don't have the resources to "live" long enough to see that happen.

I quote from the email:

"Our submissions have been 12 times the number of our purchases and the advertising and promotion we've done have only served to increase those submissions rather than our readership."

More advertising=more people jostling for limited spots in the TOC? Where's the sales? If we, as short fiction writers, expect fine, small press venues to continue to exist, we must help support that press. We can't just complain and throw up our hands.

In full disclosure, yes I "own" a small press (all by myself now that Ed's been "fired"--not really, but that's for another post). Yes, I'd love your support...(wink, wink). But part of me want to keep going just because I know there's a bunch of writers whose work needs an outlet, even if I have to eat the financial loss...or part of my own tail.

26 comments:

Jamie Eyberg said...

I got the same e-mail this morning (they had been sitting on a story for 190 days). I had a feeling this was coming. I have a feeling for those that think think publishing is going to be a cash cow (or a profitable venture) it is a short term project. I will continue to buy and support magazine and small presses that I enjoy (I liked 'Confessional' BTW) and hope that they keep coming.

K.C. Shaw said...

That's depressing but terribly common. I've been trying to buy more anthologies lately, but I've only got so much spare change myself. It's a vicious cycle.

I do wonder at all the magazines I've seen that don't run advertising in their pages. Granted, finding advertisers isn't easy, but rejecting the idea of ads out of hand seems foolish.

Aaron Polson said...

Jamie - The only cash cows I see are those with vampires and zombies. I'm always surprised zombie anthos sell so well, but the public seems to like what they're comfortable with.

K.C. - It's hard to drum up advertisers (it involves proving to said advertisers that paying the ad rates are worthwhile), but you're right.

Jodi Lee said...

Damn. I had Necrography on my list of markets to crack into. :(

I know for my venture, I've got a financial partner that supplies the funds for half our costs, and I either cover the rest out of my pocket, or through ads/donations/sales of swag. We just recently added the ProjectWonderful ad box to try and drum up some advertising that may pay off.

I think we all live in hope that small press will, someday soon, take off like a rocket. But reality is that we're all dangling precariously...

Aaron Polson said...

Jodi - "will...take off like a rocket". I'd love that. I think you're doing great work on New Bedlam. Online/free distribution is the way to increase readership (which as a writer is sooooo important--almost as important as $$), hopefully the ads will follow.

L.R. Bonehill said...

I support the small press where I can, but unfortunately you can’t support everyone you’d like to. Every little helps, I guess.

The demise (and submission / purchase stats) of Necrography (and countless others too) highlights the fact that as writers in the small press we’re often just reaching out to other writers in the small press, not readers.

It’s a sad reality, but there must be an evil genius out there with a plan to change it all.

Alan W. Davidson said...

You make some really good observations. I'm sure that you're correct, though, in that most of the purchasers of an anthology are the contributors themselves. Perhaps if more established (ie. making good money)writers used backed these small presses, in thier genres, they could stay afloat long enough to get a decent following. Just a thought.

Rebecca Nazar said...

It's disappointing to see such a great product sink. Like most writers, I purchase subs too. Tenaciousness and passion and talent sometimes isn't enough, unfortunately.

Aaron Polson said...

L.R. - we tend to feed on ourselves, don't we?

Alan - I like the model of most literary presses--they associate with a University and operate with grant money.

Becca - But tenacity, passion, and talent never hurt. (three cheers for the scrappy-factor!)

Cate Gardner said...

So what have you done to Ed?

I wish I could support more small press magazines, I try and at the moment I have about 12 unread magazines/anthologies and more magazines due through the door.

katey said...

An excellent post on an issue I'm sure everyone frequenting the blog regularly ponders.

Every small business is a dangerous venture, even with a proven business model-- such as the small press and/or magazine. I think the issue is twofold. On the one hand owners need to take the same responsibility for sales that owners of other businesses-- be they bakeries, crafters, or even farmer's markets-- take. (Which of course, owners like you do. But let's face it, that's not always the case.) When it's a labor of love it's very easy to jump in headlong and not know what's going on in the business, marketing, and accounting end of things, and end up screwed. We've all seen it.

And on the other hand, writers, who are by nature ravenous readers, need to, as you say, support the venues they deem worth supporting-- both through word-of-mouth/reviewing, and dropping the money when they can. Yeah, we can't buy everything or subscribe to every magazine, but I know I don't mind paying a couple bucks for an issue of Apex or Niteblade, and I certainly love filling my usual Xmas book score with small presses who've proven themselves. And anyone who does mind doing that... really isn't much of a reader. One wonders why they'd want to write, then.

Barry Napier said...

I do often feel guilty for not being able to purchase more small press mags and anthos. It's not that i don't want to...it's that I literally can't afford it. (one of the many woes of being a writer, I suppose)

Aaron Polson said...

Cate - Ed? I just tied him up with twine and left him on the shores of Clinton Lake (south of Lawrence). ;)

No...he's had some family "stuff" come up, and thus "bailed". I'll share the gory details in the future. Promise.

Katey - Many lottery winners try to start resturants and lose everything in the process. I have a friend who has a catering business, and he's been working for fifteen years. Quite successful now (making around a cool million gross), he still only pays himself around 20K. He started by baking caseroles for church groups out of his apartment. People think of the "glory" but none of the work. Understandable, but do a little research, huh?

Word of mouth reviews are awesome, especially in the age of the 'net.

Barry - I hear you. All those magazines are in competition with each other, and the pickings are pretty slim to begin with.

Brendan P. Myers said...

Shocking they were only able to put out a single issue, and I suspect proof that they did not have a sound (or any) business plan. Most small businesses run at a loss for the first year or two. What were they expecting?

That they succumbed so quickly makes me more angry (at them) than sad.

katey said...

That's precisely what I mean. There's a sort of entitlement complex with people who do something they love to do, in particular artists, and it's ridiculous. No one pays us for loving something, or even for being good at it. They pay if we convince them they need our services. Capitalist, but if you want to work within a system, er, yeah. You have to work within it, don't you?

That's so cool about the catering thing, though. People really have no idea that that's EXACTLY what it takes. Targeting your audience, providing good customer service, and building a solid customer base-- even if you're baking casseroles in your apartment, or printing chapbooks in your garage. It's not cheap, but if it's what you want, you do it, right? Instead of whining that everyone owes you a living.

But yeah, not to absolve the writers who submit and never read. Just saying. Right on.

Aaron Polson said...

Brendan - "Most small businesses run at a loss for the first year or two..." True. Do your homework, folks.

Katey - "No one pays us for loving something, or even for being good at it..." Especially during hard economic times, when discretionary money is limited. (and yes, I spelled casserole wrong *headdesk*)

"...printing chapbooks in your garage..." Sounds like Bucket 'o' Guts, right?

To me, it's all about value. Am I getting something worthwhile for the amount I'm shelling out? If not, sorry...I'll keep my money.

katey said...

Absolutement!

Hypersonic said...

I've never run an paper mag for small press, nor published chapbooks, but I am involved in the online side of small-press.

It's like busking. You're never going to make ends meet busking. You're doing it for the love it, really. That said, it would be nice if some coins were thrown in the guitar case, once in awhile. I don't think Adam Smith had blues on a street corner in mind when he came up with his little economic theory.

Some small press seem to hang on year after year. "Space and Time" have been at it for years. Ads and affiliate programs work, but really only if you have the traffic to get enough visitors. We've had ads, got nowhere, pulled them, tried again. Hopefully at some point it's possible to find the perfect match.

Paypal donation buttons rely on a human nature which I personally hold little faith in, and frankly Paypal still is not the best substitute for some kind of small change payment on the web. Maybe that day will come. Still, we might give it a try, though. How Strange Horizons manages, is a mystery to me, it really is. My hat is off to them.

Ultimately, the nicest tip a reader can do is click the ads. If you read something you like, click an ad. It helps. It's a sincere little tip that over time will add up. If it adds up, then more small publishers will be able to really pay the writers what they deserve.

Natalie L. Sin said...

Man, you need balls the size of bowling balls to publish these days!

Aaron Polson said...

Hypersonic - I, too, am amazed at Strange Horizons...thanks for the comment.

Natalie - I'd sell the bowling balls on ebay to fund a publication, then write my memoir and rake in the cash there, too.

Robert said...

It is indeed a vicious cycle, and the problem is there are just so many magazines and journals and anthologies out there that it's impossible to support all of them. I've heard some writers say that, instead of taking out subscriptions, they spread that money out over a number of journals, so at least some money is going to the journals and they, the writers, can broaden their reading habits.

The biggest issue these days are "publishers" wanting to sprint right out of the gate. I blame organizations like the HWA who set "pro rates" at five cents or more. Of course not many "publishers" can afford that, but they know if they don't, they'll be looked down upon and won't receive immediate respect, so they offer payment they can't afford, and after maybe two issues they end up folding.

Instead, they should start small -- a penny or two a word -- and then increase the payment as sales begin to rise. Look at a lot of the big magazines nowadays (I'm thinking of Chizine right now, that started out paying less than 3 cents a word, I believe, and now pays 7 cents) -- that's how they did it; had they come sprinting right out of the gate, they no doubt would have folded long ago.

abrokenlaptop said...

I just heard that The Rambler is going on indefinite hiatus, and is refunding its subscribers. I was in the very last issue. This breaks my heart! We support who we can, but it isn't enough. Still, even though it's cliche, every little bit really does help.

-Mercedes

Carrie Harris said...

God, yes. I don't understand the mentality that says, "Yeah, I want to be published by you, but no, I don't want to buy a copy." But it's a strange slope, isn't it? Because I'm also not keen on the vanity press, you-must-buy-a-copy-to-be-pubbed-by-us mentality either. The only solution seems to be to rely on people's urge to do the right thing, and that makes me snort milk out my nose.

It's a tough question, and I give you small press owners some serious and well deserved kudos.

BT said...

Thanks for the heads up. My email at home has been offline for the last day or so but now I'm not keen to go home and open it - I had a sub with them as well.

I did my taxes this year and my agent allows me to claim a lot of my subscriptions to write off against my future millions - yeah right - but not including my tuition fees, I forked out way too much to have the privilege to read and write over the last year. My wife nearly choked.

Producing a print mag for the genre markets is almost impossible today. Online is difficult to get an audience outside of the community - no chance to pick up just passing trade.

The days of paid markets are numbered until we all start walking around with direct connection through neural interfaces into the rest of the world and all magazines are only available electronically because we've cut down all the trees.

Buy a subscription or two - or the world will come to an end a lot earlier than 2012!

;c)

Anton Gully said...

That makes no sense to me, Aaron.

The majority of people reading this blog are probably writers or wannabe writers. Encouraging them to buy more small press products, in order for there to be more potentially paid markets they can sell to, is a false promise that's still only to benefit a small proportion of those writers. The small press exists to lower the bar for publication to writers who can't get a spot in the handful of pro zines or big anthologies.

The internet has made that bar so low it renders small press nothing more than a collectibles market, IMO. And not one I'm personally interested in.

Nobody is making a living selling to the small press and I'm pretty sure half of them exist to provide credits towards professional organization membership for a group of friends and associates.

If people want to run a small press magazine or publisher and they don't have the means to indulge it purely as a hobby or charity then they're in the wrong business.

Me, I welcome the death of dead tree media altogether.

Robert said...

Wow, that's the most ignorant and asinine thing I've read in the blogosphere in quite some time, so congrats on that. You're missing the point completely here, Anton. The only way markets stay alive is, let's face it, with the support from readers -- which is usually the writers, unfortunately -- and it doesn't matter if the market is print OR internet.

Yes, there are a lot of terrible markets out there -- anthologies that don't pay anything, not even copies, and then expect contributors to buy copies when the thing finally comes out (which those writers most likely will) -- but there are a lot of promising markets too. Are they "pro zines or big anthologies"? No, but that doesn't mean that someday why won't become one.

Look at some of the high-quality small press publishers today: Cemetery Dance, Subterranean, PS Publishing. Did they start right on top? Of course not. They started just like any other small press, and the only reason they were able to continue throughout the years and build and build was with -- surprise, surprise -- support from readers and writers. Keep in mind, they presented quality products, but still, ask yourself what might have happened had nobody supported them from the beginning -- a small press publishing staple wouldn't even exist.

Nobody is making a living selling to the small press, sure, but not many are making a living selling to the large press either.

You seem to be focused too much on the present without considering the past. Good thing you weren't writing ten years ago when places like Cemetery Dance was just starting out and telling people, hey, they're lowering the bar, don't support them.