What the next generation of SF magazines should learn from Zynga

Science fiction and fantasy magazines are caught in a bind: print magazines struggle, while electronic mags need a revenue model. Cat Rambo, fiction editor with Fantasy Magazine and author of Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, has a theory.

Electronic publishing continues to encroach on print publishing. Sales of e-books are on the rise and a variety of e-reader options are floating around, with more due to wash over us by the Christmas buying season.

E-publishing has a lot going for it: availability, portability, scalability, the ability to hook into the power of the Internet. While I've resisted e-readers so far, my friend Louise Marley swears by her Kindle both for the amount of reading matter she can load onto it and the wireless card that lets her download new material anywhere.

This rise in e-reader popularity happens at a time when we're seeing the speculative fiction print magazines floundering: Realms of Fantasy just announced its closure and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has cut back on its number of issues. But who will supplant them in the electronic realm remains anyone's game still, although the leading contenders are Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Fantasy, and Lightspeed.

Hindering e-published speculative fiction magazines has been the lack of a clear business model. The most traditional forms have been deriving revenue from selling advertising or functioning as a loss leader for a larger entity, thus serving as a cost-effective form of buying advertising.

The problem with depending on advertising for revenue is that it's insufficient without enough eyeballs being drawn to the publication. To pursue advertising, you really need to be consistently offering something both high-quality and (somewhat) unique. It's possible to build a site that can deliver advertising dollars, but it requires investing in a) a great site and b) advertising for it. Online offers some data-rich means of advertising such as Facebook and Google Ads.

Alternate business models, none of which have proved particularly effective, include:

  • Subscriptions, in which some stories or content are offered for free while the rest requires payment.


  • Selling associated merchandise, which requires establishing a visually appealing brand that people want to be identified with.


  • Tips and fund drives, which are dependent on good will in a time when the economy is in bad shape and everyone has their hand out.

The rise of the e-reader does raise the question as to whether the subscription-based model might become viable. Certainly if you've got enough people subscribing through their mobile device, you could end up with a significant chunk of change, and we're seeing (imo) some movement towards lower prices but more buyers with e-books.

One possible direction in trying to arrive at a new model is to borrow the one used to good effect by Zynga, which is to sell virtual goods, things that don't exist. Here's two possible examples, but it would be possible to come up with others without too much brain-racking.

1) Promote and build community heavily, driving discussion and recognizing/encouraging participation. Sell customizations to user profiles/avatars. For example, a vanity title or a special decoration celebrating a holiday. Sell memberships to an event and give the user a special badge or award that shows they participated in the event. To make this effective, you need to make participating in the community a cool experience that answers one or more emotional needs in users.

2) Come up with a game associated with the publication. Make it point-driven, and give users points for actions like reading the website or posting on the message boards, but (important) also allow them to buy points. Points could be used for turns, character items/upgrades, special names, pets, and so forth. If you think that wouldn't work, go look at Zynga's earnings for last year.

Either of those efforts require a publisher's budget to create, but it should be noted e-publishing does do some interesting things in terms of removing a market layer between author and reader by eliminating the need for publisher in some cases. Authors who have a significant audience or brand name already may be able to use e-publishing to bring in some income. All you can do is make sure you're putting out good stuff, that you have a way to monetize a mention on BoingBoing or CNN, and the rest must be left in the hands of the gods.

Which is true of any business venture — at its heart it's a gamble, a prediction of market ups and downs, consumer desires and willingness to open their pocketbooks, whether they're paying with coins or Paypal.