Publishing A Genre Magazine In The Age Of Indie

I got challenged by John (not really his intent, but he had some interesting, pointed questions for me, so here goes):

Publishing A Genre Magazine In The Age Of Indie

It started when the Fabulous Publisher Babe™ was part of the Uncollected Anthology project, some 8-10 years ago (I forget when, and it doesn’t matter for this topic). They did Urban Fantasy, the group of them. Everybody had a theme, and wrote to it, published individually, then cross-promoted.

It was messy. Kinda worked, kinda didn’t, mostly because it was an anarcho-communist syndicate. Nobody in charge. Everybody taking turns on various bits.

During our drive down to Oregon in 2017 to see the eclipse, she and I talked about the state of publishing, and how to break it. (That’s what we do on long drives and over dinner, most of the time.) (previously Bundle Rabbit) had created a new set of tools. (I helped Chuck with concepts and project roadmapping, because that was my day job at the time.) Originally, he’d been planning to use collaboration for what the romance folks did, but I had an idea…

Nobody had been in charge of UA. Collective group effort. All fine and dandy.

For Boundary Shock Quarterly, I figured I should just run the thing like a publisher. I will set the themes for every issue. I’d do some editing. Mostly, quality control and some spelling corrections, rather than extensive rewrites and such. Instead of having an open call every issue and having to wade through slush piles, I would recruit pros that I knew (and I have a deep bench of folks then and now).

Finally, rather than paying pro rates, it would all be done royalty share. House would take 25% of the money coming in, with the other 75% split among the writers. Pubshare has the tools to handle that for me, so I have no fiduciary responsibilities and never handle anybody’s money. They can bother Chuck instead.

As a rule, my costs on any given issue run about $20. That’s the cover art. I do the rest of the work, but don’t bill myself. Formatting, editing, goldfish herding, whatever.

We don’t make much money. But I get profitable on any given issue pretty quickly because I’m not out a lot, and this project is not about getting rich. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice, but the goal of all Indie Publishing is discoverability. (I have an enormous catalog of books, once you decide to read me.)

In the way old days, there were only a few hundred full-time SF writers out there. And only a few thousand new SF books published in any given year. We’re up to 1.5 new million new titles on Amazon every year, and FSF are a LOT of them. The gatekeepers are dead, long live the long-tail of the marketplace.

So far, I’ve put out twenty-one issues of Boundary Shock, with #22 coming in April. Along the way, I’ve lost about half of my original syndicate of writers (life happens, ya know?), and replaced about half of those (still need 2-3 permanent members if you know some folks to send my way).

We have guest authors every issue that I can recruit them. As editor/publisher, I want to know several things about a guest. “Can you tell a compelling story?” is not necessarily all that high on my list. “Can you hit theme?” “Can you hit deadline?” “Can you act like a professional, communicating with the editor when you have problems or questions?”

Those are my primary filters. They work, because folks used to the TradPub world and the major magazines (FSF, Analog, Asimov, Clarkesworld, etc.) work differently.

The biggest change of mindset is royalty-share. Lots of folks throw up their hands and huff off loudly when they find out I’m not paying up front. It gets worse when I expect them to do marketing work.

Indie is a hustle. All the time. Discoverability. Telling people you are in a magazine, so they will buy it to support you (and the rest of us).

TradPub writers chuck their manuscript over the wall again and again until someone hands them a check and that’s the sum total of their relationship.

There is a reason those magazines are all having serious financial issues these days. Circulation numbers today are 10-20% of what they were 60 years ago. And falling.

Partly, that’s my fault. I have created an alternative. (Me and ten thousand of my closest friends, all trying things.)

Worse, folks have listened to how I did it and started using my model. The Fabulous Publisher Babe™ started Mystery, Crime, and Mayhem (MCM) and has started getting the attention of some major players. One of the stories she published recently was reprinted in Otto Penzler’s Best of Mystery. And short-listed for a Derringer Award. This year, there is also traction. That’s good.

M.L. Buchman (after I listened to him whine enough and told him to do something about it), sat down and created the first ever thriller short magazine. It just had a successful kickstarter campaign in February and the first year is funded. The Thrill Ride.

First ever thriller short magazine. MCM is one of only a handful of mystery-focused shorts.

BSQ is one of dozens (if not hundreds) of SF magazines out there, so the competition is fierce. (There are a LOT of ‘zines, too, but I’m not sure how they pay or handle rights.)

But I’m usually having fun doing it. And get good stories.

More importantly, I had to identify a number of sub-genres in SF, then force myself to understand them well enough to write a story in each of them, when I might never have explored some. Made me a better writer. Same with many of my folks.

So What Is Boundary Shock Quarterly?

Science Fiction.

Not Spec Fiction. As an editor, I am not the least bit interested in paranormal. That’s fantasy. Go write for a fantasy magazine instead. I don’t want magic, gods, angels and demons, or anything else.

Past that, I’m pretty open-minded as an editor. Over twenty-one issues, I’ve only ever had to reject a handful of submissions. One writer tried to cram a doorstop novel into 10,000 words, and didn’t pull it off. A couple of times, folks didn’t have the least understanding of the theme/sub-genre itself, and gave me stories that simply weren’t close enough to make it work. (Cyberpunk, coming up on April, tripped a few writers, because they locked onto the concept of implanted electronics, and skipped the ’punk part entirely, for instance.)

I don’t edit. (I will reject a story that is not good enough.) Instead, I will catch typos and such when I do a read-through, and fix those. That’s about it.

You are putting your name on the story, and selling yourself to the reader. Gimme your best shot.

My job is to take the dozen stories I have each time and form an emotional arc out of them. Stronger/weaker. Lighter/darker. Faster/slower.

Occasionally, I stumble into “anti-reader cookies” which are topics or styles that immediately turn me off as a reader. For instance, one story purposefully withheld a critical detail from me for at least half the story. One of those little things that would have probably resolved the entire story as soon as it became known. The second time that detail came up and was intentionally withheld, I simply put the story down and sent a rejection letter. Personal, because someone else who read it later understood what I’d seen and was okay with it. To me, the character was suddenly Too Stupid To Live, and I didn’t care about them anymore.

Things like this happen, especially when you give really good writers (like that one) the space to swing for the fences.

It can be a pain in the ass. But a fun one.

More importantly, half of the folks I have published, either in BSQ or in Blaze Ward Presents, had never been published before. There are a lot of folks that want to write, but haven’t had the impetus. Or the time to learn all the things about Indie that my wife and I marinate in all the time.

But I got them motivated. And gave them the emotional support to do this. Plus, I treat them like professionals from day one, and that teaches them how to deal with bigger names in the field later when they want to submit to those folks.

I am a small fish in a big pond. I’m okay with that. Obviously, I would like to sell more magazines. Have a bigger impact on more lives. Hell, SF is one of the few genres where I cannot be nominated for any awards, because I don’t pay professional rates, and as you know, it must be crap otherwise. (Don’t get me started on those gatekeepers.)

MCM runs the same royalty-share model, but those readers and gatekeepers do not care about finances. They care about the quality of the story, and MCM has done some amazing things. Thrill Ride (BTRM), when it goes live in a month will be the same way. Big players will take notice. I’m hoping Matt gets some stellar submissions for next year, because there are a lot of amazing writers in thriller than haven’t have the chance to write short very often.

What I’d Like To See For BSQ

John suggested a regular columnist. Someone writing a specific quarterly essay on something important in the field or on the topic. I’ve tried to recruit a few, but again, they demand cash up front. And lots of it, because they are used to the TradPub world where they will get paid for their words. (Except for all the folks that want the job and never get it.)

If you know someone who wants to talk about Indie Science ​Fiction on a regular (read: 1500 words +/- every three months for royalty-share), please send them my way. I also edit and publish the Milestone Indie Publishing Newsletter monthly, but it is all about Indie itself, rather than anything specific to do with Science Fiction, except when something interesting or appalling comes up.

Similarly, interviewing my various writers and getting that out there would be fun. Or better, interviewing important people in the field and getting their takes on things. In the grand scheme of things, BSQ really is hardly more than a fanzine in scope. But we take it seriously. And I’ve based new series on characters I worked out in these pages, as have several of my writers.

It is a place to experiment. And by that, I don’t mean Burroughs. I mean stretching yourself into a new genre every quarter. My requirements for story are 2,000-20,000 words, because I have to read them all. And a few times, folks have had to cut something down to get it under 20,000, but that just means that they could beef it up into a novel later.

Tell me the story as it needs to be told.

As a publisher, I have two sets of requests. For my guests, that they market the issue they are in. Talk about it. Get it noticed. But I don’t claim anything other than first English-language print rights. (I have, to date, accepted two reprints, from folks that were big names and had the perfect story already published elsewhere, and they had rights back.)

For my regulars, I DEMAND that they don’t publish it on their own (we’re all Indies here) for 90 days after initial publication. That’s it. Again, I want them talking about BSQ. Driving traffic our way. Finding ways to make everyone in the syndicate money and fans.

Helping us get discovered.

And, learning how to write beyond my usual circles. I have an erotica penname for the same reason. All of that penname’s first readers are female, so I have to make it good enough for them to approve. That’s made me a better writer.

Pushing the envelope. Trying new things to break publishing.

And having fun. That’s first and foremost.

So far, so good.