Brickbats and Mortar Shells: Will Science Fiction Survive the Dot-com
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
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 GalaxyOnline.com, Space.com, and even Bookface.com all
assured SF aficionados a wired future rich with insight and information. A
dozen or so months later, Bookface.com is gone, Space.com has apparently
dropped all science fiction coverage, and, although still extant,
GalaxyOnline.com 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
Fandom.com and Zealot.com have thrown in the towel.
Which is not to say that the Internet SF landscape is altogether barren.
Scifi.com which includes both Science Fiction Weekly and the Ellen
Datlow-edited Sci Fiction section remains viable, as do informational
sources such as Locusmag.com, Speculations.com, and the non-profit Science
Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web site (www.sfwa.org).
Corporate-sponsored URLs like StarTrek.com and StarWars.com 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 SFSite.com also remain active, despite the fact
that their affiliation with the financially troubled IGN.com 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
Fandom.com 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
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: GalaxyOnline.com, 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, GalaxyOnline.com 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
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. SFSite.com, 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
IGN.com won't result in an untimely demise.
SF industry giant Scifi.com 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 SciFiNow.com 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
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
Jeff Berkwits has covered science fiction for numerous online and print
periodicals including SFSite.com, SciFiNow.com, 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 GalaxyOnline.com.