At a time when speculative fiction and fact seemed to have collided, three small magazine publishers have gotten together to discuss their viewpoints on the genre and the future of publishing. Join Scot Noel of DreamForge Magazine, John Linden Grant of Occult Detective Quarterly and me, Angela Yuriko Smith of Space and Time as we discuss how the pandemic is affecting publishing.
Do you have a burning question you’d like to ask? Leave it in the comments and I’ll organize another of these.
- Where do you see the role of speculative fiction right now as the world seems to have become part of some wild, dystopian tale?
John Linwood Grant: It depends how people utilise the fiction they read or write. For some it is pure escapism, a chance to take their heads away from whatever real life anxieties they have – which is admittedly harder when under the direct influence of a pandemic. It wouldn’t surprise me if people are reading more classic mysteries, romance and pure fantasy at the moment. For others it can be cathartic, exploring fears and psychological issues in a fictional environment as a way of processing it all, which where weird and strange tales can actually have relevance and value.
Scot Noel: The role of speculative fiction is first to entertain by engaging the reader in flights of imagination – no different really than telling stories beneath the night sky 50,000 years ago. (My wife made the painting below for me years ago. If I had a more high-res version handy, you could see that every moonbeam has its own story, bit of mythology, connecting the storytellers to the sky and the universe itself. And when are they telling the story – at night, when they are most vulnerable and alone.) Secondly, speculative fiction can provide perspective. We are both ancient and newborn. 100,000 years from now we will still be in our beginning. In our adolescence we may know the worlds of the galaxy. In our maturity, we may make of space and time a craftwork to call our own. Plagues far worse than this one have (and may yet still) spend all their might against the human spirit with no lasting result beyond our increasing power to understand and outmaneuver them.
Angela Yuriko Smith: In the past I’ve compared speculative fiction with the mirrored shield Perseus held up to defeat Medusa. Using the shield, he was able to safely look into the face of evil and defeat it. In my mind, this is the role of spec fiction. It is the mirrored shield that allows us to gaze upon the monster safely and study best how to defeat it.
- Where do you see the future role of spec fiction heading during this time of mandatory social distancing?
John Linwood Grant: To be honest, I’m not sure why it should change, but then I’m old enough to have lived through nuclear scares, HIV/AIDS and all sorts. The role of speculative fiction is to speculate. The intrinsic elements of the pandemic are little
different from those which have occurred during other diseases outbreaks. Quarantine, isolation, fear of infection, anxiety and suchlike have all been explored in fiction before, and will be again. I only pray that we won’t later be subject to ham-fisted stories where Covid-19 has been levered in to make a fast buck.
Scot Noel: All fiction is going to have to deal with some new realities. A hundred years from now, this time may be no more than a forgotten moment only a few will look back on with curiosity. For now, it is possible that “social distancing” may be with us for a lifetime or two. Many of us will have to live out our lives with a new awareness of viral threats, COVID-19 in particular. I think it would be a mistake, however, to look at a future a century or two from now where society is structured to keep us apart in common practice as a bulwark against plagues. That just won’t happen. We’re far too technically gifted and biology is on the verge of a revolution that will put the computer revolution to shame. That said, it would be cool to imagine all the ways we engineer the defeat of anything that would keep us apart in that way, along with its unforeseen consequences. (I already see memes hinting that this is why so many characters in the Star Wars universe wear helmets and breathing gear.)
Angela Yuriko Smith: I think our stories might become less dystopian now that we are in the middle of the real thing. Going back to my Medusa metaphor, she is no longer a theoretical threat. She’s in the room with us in the form of COVID-19, shortages, and politics going off the rail. No need to think about how we might defeat her. Now is the time to just get on with it. I think our stories in the future might change the most by not dwelling on the horror. Like soldiers who don’t like to discuss their war, I think literature may be able to move past 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. Maybe.
- What are some of the challenges with keeping a magazine running before the pandemic?
John Linwood Grant: If you have any realistic confidence in your ‘product’, then the main problem is always making people aware of it. I’m absolutely sure that more people would read Occult Detective Magazine, for example, if they knew about it, but with an almost non-existent marketing budget, that’s a stumper. There are horror fans, crime enthusiasts, people wanting a different read now and then, people bored with what they have to hand etc. out there, and so few of them know we exist. More sales means being able to buy more stories and art, or to pay higher rates, or to have a genuine, funded marketing plan.
Scot Noel: My wife and I had decades of business experience before running a magazine, so perhaps the “running” part was too easy for us. What we utterly failed to consider was how difficult getting subscribers would be. The market is just too rich with often fabulous content. Our experience, backed up by what we hear from some others, is that the “cost-per-acquisition/customer” (that is, how much do you have to spend in advertising and outreach on average to get a subscriber) is about $50/person for a magazine. That’s more than we can charge, because that’s just marketing, and the cost of the magazine would be on top of that. So except for large businesses with big bankrolls in a position to amortize startup costs over time, the challenge of putting out a magazine like DreamForge is almost insurmountable.
Angela Yuriko Smith: Funding is always the biggest hurdle for us. At best, S&T nearly balances income with outgo. Nearly. After artists, authors, printer, and postage are paid, we usually have a zero balance and are ready to begin the cycle again. We lose a small amount on every issue we send out, even after raising prices this year… but we expected and accepted that before we started. It’s truly a labor fueled by passion and prayer.
- How have those challenges evolved during the current crisis?
John Linwood Grant: No staggering changes, but there are inevitable problems with distribution – bookstores are closed; online retailers prioritise other products; conventions and physical launches are cancelled and so on. Some people in the business, including the writers and artists themselves, are heavily involved in sudden additional family responsibilities; some have employment problems. Which can mean communications can slow down. And many readers have rightly to focus their cash on essential supplies – no one’s going to buy a magazine instead of bread. Well, not a lot of them.
Scot Noel: People have other things on their minds and getting any new subscriptions to a magazine, for a while anyway, seems unlikely. Boy, doesn’t that sound grim.
Angela Yuriko Smith: We are facing a plethora of possibilities right now. With the USPS talking about having to raise prices or close, small businesses closing, and ourselves having less expendable income we are looking at a variety of changes we may have to make to keep the magazine going.
- Has the pandemic affected your motivation? How, and what are some of the things you are doing personally to get through?
John Linwood Grant: I can only speak personally on this one. Anxieties about infection and the complications of lockdown mean that instead of having more time to work on the magazine, I actually have less. Being at the supermarket or the chemist at the right time is more important than finishing an editorial; checking on family elsewhere and far-flung friends takes precedence over submission reading. I’m not a big drinker, so I scientifically titrate my evening gin or pale ale to achieve that point where I am mildly less stressed but still more than functional. And I spend time with the dogs, who quite frankly don’t care what’s going on as long as they get walked, fed and entertained. The lucky little sods.
Scot Noel: I don’t mean to be too flippant with this answer, but if something like a little global plague is going to demotivate you, you probably shouldn’t be trying to publish a magazine. Story tellers, publishers, printers, entertainers, and the whole “steal hope from the jaws of death” crew need to be ready, and always have been ready, to work through wars, plagues, totalitarian regimes, inquisitions, natural disasters, and probably mass extinctions. We are the torch bearers that keep the frightened masses moving through the night, always toward the dawn, passing the torch when we fall, always and ever firm in our resolve, the belief that the dawn shall never fail to return and that those who see it must be ready to live it out in hope and joy and the confidence that they belong. For the universe is indifferent to our existence, but it is irrelevant without us.
Angela Yuriko Smith: Short answer, yes. I’ve found it very hard to focus on the magazine and my own writing as real-world crisis takes over. As a writer, I think it’s less a lack of motivation than just a need to process. For me, the world in my head just joined the world we all share and there is some readjustment there. I’d love to sound zen and suggest that we be kind to ourselves and allow that space to process, but that would be hypocritical of me. I started off fine, got hit with illness and personal loss and am just now finding my feet again. I attribute my retention of sanity to dogs, gardening, and patient loved ones.
About John Linwood Grant: John Linwood Grant is a professional writer/editor who lives in Yorkshire with a pack of lurchers and a beard. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, he writes strange fiction, including the Mamma Lucy tales of 1920s hoodoo, the Last Edwardian series and contemporary weird stories. His 2017 collection ‘A Persistence of Geraniums’ – stories of murder, madness and the supernatural – is available on Amazon. He was the co-founder of Occult Detective Magazine (with the late Sam Gafford) and continues to edit it, now with Dave Brzeski. He is also a regular editor of anthologies, including ‘ODQ Presents’, ‘Hell’s Empire’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes & the Occult Detectives’. For more information on the magazine visit http://greydogtales.com/blog/occult-detective-magazine/
About Scot Noel: Scot and his wife Jane Noel are, to be honest, life-long geeks whose eclectic tastes in reading are well steeped in the worlds of SF and Fantasy. They’ve been together since the early 1990’s when they met working their way toward Project Management positions at computer game developer Dreamforge Intertainment, a now defunct but fondly remembered organization (ahh… you have it now!) Scot is the writer, having bluffed his way into computer games with a Second-Place win in Bridge Publications’ Writers of the Future Contest, Volume VI. Jane (then Jane Yeager) is the artist and designer whose work as Art Director assured the success of early Dungeons & Dragons computer game titles like Menzoberranzan and Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, along with award winning original titles like Anvil of Dawn. Both Jane and Scot worked on Chronomaster, an adventure game title designed by Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold. While it was Roger’s last project, we’ve been blessed to have Ms. Lindskold as a dear friend ever since, and we appreciate her guidance, support, and participation as we undertake the daunting challenges of establishing a new genre magazine. Upon leaving gaming, Jane and Scot worked together to found a web development and digital marketing agency known today as Chroma Marketing Essentials. With CME set to celebrate its 20th year in the spring of 2019, we’ve decided our younger partners are the better stewards of our beloved company’s future. And though we have no intention of quitting our day jobs, we believe it’s time for one last great adventure. For more information visit dreamforgemagazine.com.
About Angela Yuriko Smith: Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher, and author. Her first collection of poetry, In Favor of Pain, was nominated for a 2017 Elgin Award. Her novella, Bitter Suites, is a 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. In 2019 she won the SFPA’s poetry contest in the dwarf form category. She has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She co-publishes Space and Time magazine with husband Ryan Aussie Smith. For more information visit SpaceandTime.net.