Reimagining Realms of Fantasy

(Originally posted on Silverstring Media; reposted here because it applies to writing in general and I don’t know how much crossover readership I have!)

This week, I watched The Social Network, and besides loving it as a film (Aaron Sorkin is my god) it fired up the entrepreneur in me. I started thinking about all the things I’d love to do if I could, especially when it came to transmedia projects. (And I started thinking about the people I’d need to work with to make some of them happen; I’m just not a graphic designer or computer programmer.)

Then, last night, I was also thinking about Realms of Fantasy. The well-known speculative fiction magazine recently announced that they would be closing their doors, being unable to keep the magazine a viable business. (And that they’d sell the magazine for $1 to anyone who thought they could save it.)

And I recalled a related tweet from Guy leCharles Gonzalez:

And I thought, well why not? Why not take a property like Realms of Fantasy, and make it something a little… more?

My thought was this. First of all, ditch the print publishing and distribution, which would be one of the major expenses. The next bit would require some investment capital — personal investment or a loan, perhaps — but have someone design and program an app. Turn the magazine into an electronic property. Ideally, there should be a mobile phone/iPad app, which would have the most functionality. This same functionality should be available through a browser as well, for computer viewing. Then, you’d have to also design some epub functionality; make sure the magazine was available on as many platforms as possible.

Next, restructure the method of getting content. A reader could buy the app for a reasonable price, and then a further yearly subscription (cheaper because of initial cost and lack of physical product) would automatically download each new issue to the app/computer/device. Alternately, one could have the app without a subscription, and download issues manually. Alternately, one could have the app, and decide to only download select stories. Pay a dollar for a story kind of thing, like iTunes. That way, if they hear about a particular story, they can just get that one story. It encourages more people to pay for content, and more people to pay for the initial app.

The app, then, would be designed to facilitate navigation through different stories, and handling stories without necessarily handling an entire issue. We’re certainly not just talking a pdf of the magazine. (And perhaps things like editorial content, interviews, etc., would be free content, with only the stories themselves requiring payment. Encourage the audience.)

And finally, there’s the big dream: stop accepting typical fiction. Encourage contributors to think beyond the text. Ask them to make each story they submit, each story that gets published on this platform, something that uses the potential of the platform. Enhancements, video clips, hyperlinks, notes, unusual formats, even entire transmedial stories, of which what appears in the magazine is only part.

What would a transmedia short story look like?

How would style and form be different between a larger transmedia project, and something short and compact, something that could be experienced in half an hour and be over?

I don’t have the investment capital or the business, programming, and publishing expertise or contacts to make this happen, but I kind of wish I did. (I also don’t know how viable it would be, ultimately. But I’d certainly like to find out.)

Anyone up for the task? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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  1. Jay O'Connell

    The list of people going broke trying to sell this kind of product is long; the web is the place magazines go to die. Subscriptions, readers, have always been a small part of the picture when it comes to magazines; advertising has always been very important. Ad models on the web, interestingly, don’t seem to be able to monetize the cost of creating content for the web. How is this possible? With a more efficient distribution medium, you’d expect the exact oppposite.

    For mysterious reasons, perhaps simply because ads are measureable on-line, web ads don’t work. Maybe ads never worked and we’re only finding out now how little they mattered. At any rate, only a few entities really make any appreciable ads from the net. Google is one. Maybe the only one.

    The New York TImes is slowly disintegrating. My experience with the times has been interesting; in my parenting blog, where I had to date gotten a few dozen readers a day, suddenly surged to thousands of readers after a single link buried in the middle of an article on style. There after my readership was doubled.

    I had spent months on various ‘search engine optimization’ tasks and linking, and the NYT was the only thing that did anything for my traffic.

    And the NYT is slowly disintegrating, slowly going bankrupt.

    Short stories, like Poetry are a commercially dead product; short stories are primarily written by writers for other writers and editors as a kind of audition for eventually publishing novels, with which the occasional brave and lucky sole can eke out a living.

    One writer gets to be J.K Rowling and buy a continent. Just more of the usual winner-take-all system of traditional mass media.

    Rather than enabling a blossoming of middle-income, unique voices, creating a new mid-list of creative people making content for a few tens of thousands of fans each, the net is driving many of that midlist out of business. As everyone gives away content for free for…well, for the hope of someday something good happening.

    I had a lot of hope for the web ten years ago. The way it is all unfolding is unbelievably ugly. A handful of giants engage in an endless series of ponzi schemes generating free applications and distributing free content in the hope of…ruling the earth, I guess…and the unintended consequence has been a culture which feels that all their entertainment and news is included with the cost of their net feed.

    The few counterexamples you can count on the fingers of one hand. THe WSJ can sell subscriptions to the captains of industry for whom anything free has always stunk of communism. Outside of that bastion, almost nothing is working.

    Check out

  2. “Online publishing has turned into a destructive arms race.”
    –John Cassidy, The New Yorker

    Jay: Yours is a pretty cynical take on things, and as far as the NYT goes, fun with hyperbole aside, kind of off the mark. They’re not “disintegrating”, they’re restructuring a massive company into one that’s better suited for the new media landscape. It’s the challenge all traditional publishers face, and some are moving faster through the transition than others.

    As for magazines in general, there are a variety of business models, including some where advertising represents 0% of revenue. Those magazines ARE subscriber-driven, selling content in a variety of formats, as well as producing events, providing services, and licensing merchandise.

    Monomedia platforms aren’t as viable as they used to be, but transmedia concepts can be (and are being) used successfully by many magazines. And those concepts are quite perfect for publishing models built around short stories and poetry, when put in the right context.

  3. Lucas: I think this is a really thoughtful piece. It would require an enormous amount of time, energy and (above all) love to get off the ground – the timing may not be right at the moment, but I think it’s wonderful that you’re thinking in this way. To address your first sentence, the first step is to step forward and do something – and then follow through. That’s what makes (and, admittedly, breaks) entrepreneurs. You seem bright and energetic, so I’m expecting (read: pressuring) you into doing this soonish. How is the Canadian setup for grants etc.? And yes, I expect that pressure to be shot right back in my direction.

    Jay: Yours is a healthy skepticism, but I think your argument may miss the point. I don’t think that Lucas is arguing that merely transposing the magazine’s content online would make it a success – the brand (because it cease to be a “magazine” by conventional speaking) would have to be completely reimagined in a way that plays to the strengths of online. Actually, I believe it would more closely resemble Scott Walker’s Runes of Gallidon project – call and response where writers receive instantaneous feedback and see their works quickly built upon by further works of other authors.

    Thus “commercially dead” short stories undergo metamorphosis into something different – the rapid and unpredictable generation of story universes over the internet, held together by a unifying “Realms of Fantasy” platform and brand. Content is filtered and recommended by peers, and community is formed. Spontaneous video spinoffs and adaptations are filmed and shared. There are no “subscriptions” because there are no “issues” – it just lives and breathes.

    That’s still a very risky endeavor, but it’s closer to where we’re going.

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