Welcome to the New Year
By Susan Marie Groppi
17 January 2005
Happy New Year! (A few weeks late, but I'm a firm believer in stretching celebrations out as long as possible.) The start of this year meant the end of my first year as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, and seeing as how I haven't run the magazine into the ground or anything, I'm going to assume things are going okay. How's that for a negative spin on a positive year? Certainly we don't need to damn with faint praise in order to talk about what a great year it's been for the magazine.
In 2004, for instance, we rolled out our lovely new site design, and we set new records for fund drive participation. We published great fiction from acclaimed authors like Leslie What, Ellen Klages, and Eliot Fintushel, as well as new fiction from newer authors like David J. Schwartz, Leah Bobet, and Jason Stoddard. We published original works from accomplished poets like Mike Allen and Bruce Boston, and we ran a number of interesting and engaging non-fiction works in both our articles and reviews departments. Regular Strange Horizons contributors did extremely well at the 2004 Hugos, with Cheryl Morgan and Frank Wu winning Hugo Awards and Jay Lake winning the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In a different awards direction, we've just recently learned that Greg van Eekhout's "In the Late December" has made the preliminary Nebula ballot. We won't know for a couple of months whether Greg's story qualifies for the final Nebula ballot (if it does, it will be the second story from Strange Horizons to be nominated for a Nebula, the first being Tim Pratt's "Little Gods"), but we're happy just to see Greg's story on the preliminary ballot.
We're very happy with how things have been going at Strange Horizons, but we're also continuing to make some changes. The biggest change that you'll be seeing in the next few months is that we're going to be introducing some regular columnists. Through our regular fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, we've been working for more than four years to bring you exciting and unusual voices in the speculative fiction community. Now we're going to bring a few voices a little more directly by giving monthly columns to a group of smart, engaging, and articulate writers who will each have a monthly slot on our table of contents. We haven't finalizing the lineup just yet, but I'm very excited about the two writers we have on the schedule already. Matthew Cheney is already a familiar figure to a lot of our readers, either from his weblog The Mumpsimus or his articles at SFSite and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. The first of his regular columns will appear on 7 February. Debbie Notkin is also a familiar figure, although in a different way; she helps run the Tiptree Award and coedited the Tiptree Award Anthology, she's been active in both fandom and publishing for decades, and many of us here at Strange Horizons have been fortunate enough to benefit from her wisdom, humor, and experience. Debbie's column will begin on 14 February.
As you have undoubtedly noticed, the Strange Horizons Reviews Department is on a temporary hiatus. Reviews will be returning soon, but with a change in format; instead of running weekly in-depth feature reviews, we'll be running a monthly series of shorter "capsule" reviews. We're considering this an experiment with the reviews format, and we'll be reevaluating the format at the end of this year, so please don't hesitate to let us know what you think of the new look when it debuts.
I'd like to thank everyone who responded to our reader survey. It's good to get some sense of who all of you are, after all. Most of us on the staff here work under the assumption that our readers are basically a lot like us—that the kinds of things you want to see at Strange Horizons are the kinds of things we'd want to see in a magazine we were reading. I think we're basically right about that, but things like the reader survey give us a valuable opportunity to ask you directly who you are and what you want to see. (And before I get any further—I'm going to discuss the survey results as though they're representative of our readership as a whole, but I've taken too many statistics classes in my life to feel comfortable skipping the standard disclaimers. We do realize that the survey results may not be an accurate reflection of our readership, because of the response bias. But they're what we've got to work with at the moment.)
We asked a lot of demographics-type questions, and the results were not particularly surprising. Our readers are primarily white, relatively young, and have high-speed internet connections. About forty-five percent of survey respondents were female, which indicates a much higher percentage of women reading Strange Horizons than conventional wisdom would dictate. I personally don't consider that a surprising result, though—my experience has never really supported the pervasive belief that most speculative fiction readers are men.
One of the questions I was most interested in had to do with which other publications you're reading and subscribing to. We've never been quite sure to what extent our readership overlaps with that of the other major magazines in the field, and even less sure how many of our readers are reading outside of the genre as well, but there was another motivation to asking that question. Based on what I'm hearing at conventions (on the ubiquitous "state of genre publishing" panel, for example), there seems to be a lot of concern among print magazine editors that online magazines are stealing away their audiences. Circulation numbers for print publications have been declining, and while there are undoubtedly a lot of factors involved, many people attribute the readership attrition to the rise of online publication. I'm not a fan of this argument, for a number of reasons. I still prefer reading print magazines to online magazines (I know, I know, I shouldn't admit that, but it's true) and I don't want to think of myself as contributing to their decline. More to the point, I don't believe that magazine readership is a zero-sum game. There's no logical reason to assume that an increase in our readership has to come from (or result in) a decrease in Asimov's readership, for example, and until I get evidence either way, I'm going to go on believing that by generating more interest in speculative fiction in general, we're indirectly helping the print magazines rather than hurting them.
I was hoping that the reader survey results would somehow unambiguously support this position of mine, but alas, they did not; only about half of the people who answered that question indicated that they regularly read Asimov's and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with significantly fewer respondents indicating that they regularly read Realms of Fantasy or Analog, but over two-thirds of our respondents are regularly reading Sci Fiction. The ratio is similar with the semi-pro magazines; a lot more of our readers are also reading Ideomancer, which is online, than The Third Alternative or Interzone, which aren't. For pretty much all of the print publications, though, the number of respondents who said they read the magazine was nearly double the number who said they subscribe. I don't know enough about subscription patterns to have any kind of profound analysis of that fact, but I will say this: if you're one of those people who likes to read the print mags, just subscribe already. There's really nothing to lose—you save enough off of the newsstand purchase price that it works out financially even if you don't currently buy every issue, and think of the wonderful convenience of having an agent of the United States Postal Service hand-deliver tasty magazine goodness right to your door!
The Advertising Question
The other survey question I was particularly interested in: "Some online publications include small text ads on their sites to help support their work. If Strange Horizons ran a few small text ads next to some pieces, would it negatively affect your experience of the magazine?" I'm going to give you a peek into the secret inner world of Strange Horizons and let you know that there was a lot of emotional turmoil on our end about even asking that question. And, to be perfectly fair to the rest of the staff, when I say "our" I mean "my"; back in the early days of the magazine, lo those many (four and a half) years ago, the question of taking advertisements was raised, and it was shot down so quickly and with so much fury that we've all just assumed ever since that having any advertising on our site would alienate our readers. (Not to mention alienating the staff—I don't think any of us would be quite so willing to donate our time to the production of a site that featured a big blinking ad banner at the top of every page.)
There's a lot that's changed in four years, though. I still maintain my stubborn and unyielding opposition to ugly banner and pop-up ads, but many sites I read regularly have small text-based sidebar ads that aren't nearly so obtrusive or so offensive. We played with the idea a little bit, mocked up a few pages to see how those text-based ads would look on our site, and decided that it might not be the worst thing ever. None of the financial projections on these ads suggest that they'd ever make up a significant portion of our income, certainly not in comparison to the fund drives and the private donations, but having a little extra money might help us do some interesting things, and would certainly give us a bit of wiggle room in the case of future magazine expansion. (That's the problem with being editor-in-chief of a nonprofit that operates on a relatively fixed budget; there's all this stuff I want to see us doing, but it all requires more money than we can reliably get from our existing funding sources.)
So we decided to take a chance and ask the question on the survey, even though our past experience led us to expect some kind of angry backlash for even asking about advertising. To my genuine surprise, not only did the question generate no angry backlash, but only a very tiny percentage of the respondents said that they'd have a problem with our running advertising.
Most of the survey questions are meant to be purely informational, just to give us a picture of what our readers like or don't like. The purpose of the survey isn't to directly guide our actions; some departments will certainly be taking the reader input into consideration, and the survey results will help us prioritize various projects we have in progress, but that's usually the extent of it. In this case, though, if the survey had indicated that our readers are strongly opposed to the idea of small text-based ads on Strange Horizons, we would have put the idea out of consideration for another couple of years. The fact that readers aren't opposed, though, doesn't mean that we're definitely going to go ahead with running ads, it just means that we're going to continue discussing it. We still have a number of concerns about the concept, particularly about the fact that we probably wouldn't have much (if any) control over the content of the advertising displayed on our site. It's something that would be a fairly significant change for us, though, and one that's actively under discussion, so I thought it only fair to let you, our readers, know.
So what's next? Other than the exciting new features mentioned earlier in the editorial, we've got a few big things coming up. In February we're going to have our annual Reader's Choice Awards, where you get to vote for your favorite pieces published in Strange Horizons in 2004. The winners not only get the happy glow of knowing that you love them—they also get cash prizes and automatic inclusion in our Year's Best anthology series. Voting will be open for the entire month of February, so make sure not to miss it. After that, in March, we're going to have our regularly scheduled spring fund drive. This fund drive will be your last chance to get a personalized (and laminated!) membership card featuring original art by Janet Chui. We'll also have our standard (fabulous) array of donor gifts and prizes, which we'll tell you all about as the drive gets underway.
Mostly, though, what's next is more of the same kind of interesting and insightful speculative fiction, poetry, art, and related nonfiction that you've been able to expect from Strange Horizons for so long now. Thank you for staying with us, and happy new year!