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Platform Sites: Do magazine brands have value?

AmazingStoriesApril1957I don't know if this is the first in a series or just a one-off amble. Justin and I have been scheming (as we do), which has spurred a lot of discussion about platform sites - specifically, what makes them good and what makes them successful.

This is mostly a rambling encapsulation of some of my own (incomplete and ill-formed) conclusions.

First, by platform sites, I'm thinking of the "new magazine" - sites like, primarily, but also anything from Lightspeed (very magaziney) to the ghost of Suvudu (very much not magaziney): an edited platform that pays for content. There are a few other examples as well, and I'll touch on them below.

Generally speaking, like any other sort of publication (online or offline), the business model is pretty simple, as there are only three ways of making money back:

  1. Advertising (anything from banner ads to sponsorship to affiliate links)
  2. Content (selling subscriptions, putting stuff behind paywalls, repackaging free content in omnibus editions, etc.)
  3. Donations (auctions, fundraisers, etc)

Building a business model around donations makes me nervous - and simply aren't appropriate for a professional (as opposed to fan or semi-professional) platform. I suppose there are also some clever variants I'm not thinking of. A platform that gets strong rights agreements, for example, may be able to pay the bills purely by reselling content to other publishers and platforms. I can picture how that would work in theory, but not really how it would be sustainable. 

Regular outlays also fall into three categories:

  1. Stuff  (IT costs [fixed] and your own marketing efforts [variable])
  2. Content (paying for fiction, non-fiction and art)
  3. Staff (your editors, community managers, proofreaders...) 

There's a temptation to minimise 1 and 3, but that's where a lot of platforms go wrong (again, examples way at the bottom of the page). You can have the best stories in the world, but if the site is crap and no one knows about it, there's no point. Similarly, you can borrow Peter (time) to pay Paul (money) as far as staff costs go: that is, do everything yourselves and not take a salary. For the lean start-up period, that makes sense, but it isn't a long term solution.

And, of course, #2 - content. As far as I can see it, there's only one answer - pay a pro rate to get pros. I think there's license to beg, borrow and steal (not really) free stuff from A-list authors while you're in the honeymoon period, but that's not self-sustaining.  

Nothing wrong with semi-pros and non-pros - the world needs them and they have to start somewhere, but we're trying to crack it big here, and, to do so, we need the biggest names and best work possible. A platform also needs to "start as it means to go on": if you kick-off with pro rates, you're stuck with pro rates forever, but you also get the credibility of being a pro rate publication - authors think of you first with their work. 

[Side note: one of the reasons is so successful is because they spent where they needed to spend. Pro rates for authors doing fiction and decent (call them "half-pro") rates for the bloggers doing non-fiction. For bloggers used to doing what they do for free, this was akin to a shower of gemstones. And for, they got bloggers and their goodwill [marketing] and their community participation as part of the package. It isn't dissimilar to what the Huffington Post does, except HuffPo manages not to pay anything at all.]

[Another note: I'm not including print as a cost at all because this is about building an online platform. Print adds a certain amount of credibility, true, but even with POD being what it is, you're hemorrhaging money. For a case study, look at any one of genre's organisations: from the BFS to the SFWA, they're spending the majority of their money on occasional print publications. For organisations with guaranteed continuity, that's fine. (Although, argh.) But that's not where we are. Plus, for a commercial enterprise, you're more than doubling your staff costs as well - you need to organise distribution, shipping, layout, etc. The added advertising revenues (which are negligible - no one is shelling out to advertise in an untested, undistributed publication) aren't going to make up for it. No print.]

As far as a start-up plan goes, well, the odds of getting venture capital for something in publishing - genre publishing, no less - are slim to none. But we do have a few models:

  • Suvudu, Arc, all started as extensions of existing publishing enterprises. This is extra helpful as it means there's also help with staff, stuff and acquiring content. Having a boost like this is more help than just getting a cheque.
  • Kickstarter and other crowd-sourcing options. Also viable, but require additional cost in creating a "return" for the investors. As much as I personally dislike crowd-sourcing as a business plan, I can see it working well for creating platform sites. 
  • Be rich.

We'll leave the third one out, as that solves most problems. For the first two, what with a "big brother" looking over your shoulder and/or a limited pool of money, you'd probably be in situation where you're looking at hitting break-even after 12 months. "Break-even" has a lot of wiggle in it, of course. Are you paying your staff at that point? Are you paying yourself at that point? Could you be spending more on marketing (undoubtedly)? 

Which, of course, leads us to that critical initial12 months.

A lot of this has to do with getting noticed. Geeks are generous. We're nice people, we'll support stuff and, hell, if we like it, it'll wind up on our internet goat path (the auto-mechanical way we tread through environments; I load up my computer and immediately flip through Gmail, Facebook, ESPN, Twitter... my goat path.) Users mean ad revenue and possible content revenue. Certainly we're not selling our ebook compilations or paywall subscriptions without having a lot of footfall.

So how do we get there quickly? How do we get folks' attention? If we're going with a crowd-sourced funding model, this is especially important as we need to be recognisable and appealing before we even exist.

The obvious answer: borrow a brand.

There are several ways of doing this (publisher partners, 'celebrity' editors, notable sponsors, big name partners), and one common method that I've seen is through magazines. It makes sense: magazines were the "platform sites" for genre for over a century, and, even now, many (well, some) are still recognisable and carry with them a certain (largely positive) reputation. People already have certain expectations of Omni, New Worlds, New Scientist, Amazing... it gives those sites a running start; we'd rather be caught reading Omni than Big Bob's Shack o' Blogs

Although it works in theory, magazine brand equity isn't exactly a proven commodity. For example:

  • Folks have tried with Omni in the past (and now it is happening again 'for real').
  • New Worlds may be in financial trouble after a rocky start.
  • Amazing Stories is... I'm not sure what's going on there. Possibly less a standalone platform than a community forum for the magazine?
  • The New Scientist variant - Arc - isn't the same scenario; it is probably closer to, with an established publisher (with its credibility and resources) trying a new product. Nor is it actually a platform site - the product in question is a quarterly publication, it just so happens that there's a high quality Tumblr supporting it.

Arguably several of the above titles would be in a vastly different place right now with a) better technology and b) better marketing. But it is a little scary: those are perhaps some of the largest names in genre, and, in the case of both Omni and Amazing Stories, I'd argue that the brand is strong enough to be recognised outside of our geeky bubble as well. 

The other interesting thing about this is how few magazine properties there are any more, and fewer that could make this kind of leap.

Weird Tales is in a strange place, but it has the sort of legendary brand that most magazines and sites would die for (which is why, when they fuck up, we all see it). In different circumstances, it'd be a fantastic brand foundation for creating a new genre platform site. Black Mask, although a different genre, is brilliant recognisable - a name that even non-mystery lovers know and admire. (Although that hasn't prevented it from being, er, dead.)

What's the next step down? Argosy? Galaxy? Worlds of If? We don't need the brand to do all the heavy lifting, but it'd be nice if it were in some way recognisable, and I'm not sure Startling Stories is any more likely to get funded than Big Bob's Shack o' Blogs.

What's the conclusion? I think we're missing a good case study of a platform-site-née-magazine that's also a success story. Still, given my model of "12 months to break even" (with the 12 months being generous in today's climate), I don't believe that any new platform site could make it without existing brand equity. Is a magazine brand the answer? I suppose we'll know better after Omni, but unless Weird Tales is re-re-born, I'm thinking they aren't.