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Monday 14 May 2001

Brickbats and Mortar Shells: Will Science Fiction Survive the Dot-com Implosion?
By Jeff Berkwits

Looking for the latest science fiction stories and news? Don't turn to the Internet — when it comes to SF, the information superhighway is currently full of potholes. And old-fashioned print periodicals aren't doing much better. Why? In large part because online publications have captured their audience and, to some extent, their advertisers. Yet when former magazine readers turn on their computers, lo and behold, their favorite Web site is likely to be gone, too!

In short, while the dot-com boom promised a wealth of information for SF buffs — simultaneously making it difficult for old-line periodicals to compete — the collapsing Internet marketplace has resulted in the extinction of many key genre Web sites. If economic conditions don't improve, science fiction fans could soon find themselves in the midst of an SF information vacuum.

Just over a year ago, the outlook — at least for Web-based companies — seemed awfully bright. Although a few early online SF ventures like Event Horizon and the subscription-only TomorrowSF had already failed, aspiring upstarts like,, and even all assured SF aficionados a wired future rich with insight and information. A dozen or so months later, is gone, has apparently dropped all science fiction coverage, and, although still extant, has lost most of its name talent (Ben Bova, David Gerrold, etc.) and hasn't posted any significant new content in months. Meanwhile, other science fiction sites, such as the much-ballyhooed The Infinite Matrix, never launched. Even well-moneyed media-related sites like the controversial and have thrown in the towel.

Which is not to say that the Internet SF landscape is altogether barren. — which includes both Science Fiction Weekly and the Ellen Datlow-edited Sci Fiction section — remains viable, as do informational sources such as,, and the non-profit Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web site ( Corporate-sponsored URLs like and are healthy, although their focus is obviously on promoting the respective franchises (including various media tie-in books) and not the genre as a whole. Fan-based projects such as also remain active, despite the fact that their affiliation with the financially troubled portends a potentially rocky future. Nonetheless, the Internet is clearly not the "promised land" predicted by many pundits.

At the same time, increasing market pressures are leading to a dismal outlook for hard-copy magazines. Science Fiction Age and Amazing Stories both ceased publication last year, while, according to a recent Locus survey, the four leading professional genre periodicals (Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy) experienced an average 10 percent decline in circulation last year alone. While these publications are reportedly making money, the same Locus analysis, written by Carolyn Cushman and Charles N. Brown, notes that, "All the magazines maintain that, despite declining circulations, they are profitable — unfortunately, they all say that, right up until they fold." And SF-affiliated media magazines are apparently in trouble, too. Cinescape — which was purchased late last year by the now-defunct — is for sale, SCI FI (The Official Magazine of the SCI FI Channel) just changed ownership, and Starlog is rumored to be facing serious financial difficulties.

In light of these problems, numerous observers have speculated about the impact of the Internet on magazine publishing, and many of their suppositions are likely true. Why wait a month for news about or reviews of the latest science fiction movie or book when it's available on-demand online...for free? Yet this simple question encapsulates only the most obvious challenge facing SF periodical publishers. Besides generating competing content, Web sites have also been fighting for the same promotional dollars that, prior to the dot-com's heyday, had largely gone into print media. With advertisers always chasing after the latest popular trends, the relatively conservative SF print market inevitably ends up losing desirable income. Even with many companies presently indifferent towards laying out additional money for Internet advertising, magazine publishers have a new long-term competitor for already tight ad dollars.

Ironically, the once-flush Web sites also served as potential revenue streams for various magazines:, for example, at one time or another advertised in several print publications including Locus. With the demise of the dot-coms, this admittedly sporadic monetary source has also disappeared, leaving struggling SF periodicals with one less revenue reservoir. This represents another monetary blow to the ailing print market.

Observant fans might ask, "What about all the Web sites affiliated with old-line print magazines?" Certainly most science fiction publications nowadays have an Internet presence, but with very few exceptions these sites serve primarily as online billboards for their hard-copy brethren. On the other hand, purchased the long-dead Galaxy magazine (and almost bought Amazing Stories) with high hopes and big plans, but the company's current moribund status leaves the future for that periodical doubtful.

The dot-com implosion also affects the SF genre in another unusual manner. Many science fiction buffs work in computer-oriented fields and, like folks in non-technical jobs, utilize the high-speed connections afforded by their workplaces to access the Internet (and consequently their favorite SF sites). With the well-publicized employee layoffs at both dot-coms (within and outside of the genre) and numerous other high-tech companies indirectly affiliated with the Internet, many of these individuals have lost both their high-speed online access and the freedom to casually visit a popular URL. They may still "surf the net" at home, but dial-up connections (which most consumers still depend upon) are comparatively time-consuming and troublesome. That inevitably cuts down on the total time spent online, which leads to decreased visits even for preferred sites. And as "downsizing" continues to occur in other industries, a similar reduction in time spent online could also conceivably take place, resulting in an even worse economic environment for the few remaining SF Web sites.

So with magazines dying and the Internet imploding, where will SF fans be able to turn for accurate information or cutting-edge fiction in the future? The current outlook may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless: the key is for people and companies entering the marketplace to maintain a love for the genre rather than a "get rich quick" mentality., which admittedly launched with the idea of becoming a moneymaking enterprise, is a good example of an online venture that, while their fan-driven review process can at times lead to inconsistent and somewhat unsophisticated coverage, has clearly been committed to the field. Hopefully their alliance with the shaky won't result in an untimely demise.

SF industry giant — which, due to its affiliation with the SCI FI Channel, receives significant funding from USA Networks — has, by paying the necessary dollars to hire experienced columnists like John Clute and SF editors such as Datlow and Scott Edelman (who helms Science Fiction Weekly), helped to prove that online information and literature can be, if not necessarily profitable, at least workable. As SF author and pioneering online magazine (TomorrowSF) publisher Algis Budrys stated in a recent interview with this reporter for Science Fiction Weekly, "If they ever figure out how to make money at it, [the Internet will] be the medium. Print magazines are falling by the wayside, and the Internet somehow does it."

In order to survive, these print magazines will surely have to change their practices. Paul T. Riddell — a contributor to several science fiction periodicals and the former editor of — presciently notes in a commentary in the June 2001 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle that, "[SF publications are] not an essential ingredient to life on this planet. The truth is that no magazine is essential. The trick is to convince readers that a magazine is essential, if only because they'll miss out on some damn good reading."

At the risk of sounding like a prototypical management consultant, science fiction magazine publishers will have to think "out of the box" to survive, which may mean genuinely embracing — rather than blaming or fearing — the Internet. Editors may find that generating a story-specific, online-only interview with a writer, or streaming a brief audio clip of an author reading and discussing a particularly meaningful passage, or linking to key Web sites that were influential in a writer's research could, with proper cross-promotion, augment both hard-copy sales and online traffic.

Any SF vacuum should not be viewed solely as a threat, but also as an opportunity. The writing is on the wall for print publications, and the future is hazy for online periodicals. Yet there is little question that, in one form or another, the genre will endure. For fans and professionals alike, now is the time to actively think and work towards guaranteeing a bright, appropriately competitive, and freethinking future for science fiction.

Jeff Berkwits has covered science fiction for numerous online and print periodicals including,, Filmfax, and Sci-Fi Universe, among others, and at one time was the publisher and editor of ASTERISM: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Space Music. He is currently a staff writer for Science Fiction Weekly and a regular contributor to both Cinescape and SCI FI magazines. During last year's dot-com boom, Jeff was also the entertainment editor at

© 2001 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.