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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Astonishment

ASTONISHING ADVENTURES is dead.

Well, to me, anyway.

Yeah, their fourth issue is now available online, and, presumably, at Amazon, maybe, if the wind is setting in the right quarter, or something.

With issue 3, supposedly, ASTONISHING ADVENTURES became a commercial market, paying at 2 cents per word. I was delighted to hear it. I had a story in issue 3, my longest story to date. At 2 cents per word, that story should have netted me something like $130.

Issue 4 (I think) is still a 'pay' issue, although I missed the deadline for it and have nothing in it. It's just as well, as it's become clear to me that I'm never going to see any kind of payment for any of my many contributions to ASTONISHING ADVENTURES, which kind of made me simultaneously sad and angry. Still, it's not like I wasn't pretty sure this was what was going to happen (or not happen) from the beginning.

With issue 4, the publisher has admitted defeat and revised AA's submissions guidelines back to describing the magazine as a non-paying market.

In my opinion, ASTONISHING ADVENTURES has never been handled all that well. The people running the show there have never seemed to have much clue exactly how to make their property pay for itself. They seem to understand that nobody is going to subscribe to a pulp revival online, the way people do to adult websites. This leaves advertising revenue, and yet, despite the fact that I've been told issue 3, for example, has gotten something like 50,000 online views, the publisher of ASTONISHING ADVENTURES seems incapable of gaining the interest of any advertisers.

The problem, I have been told, is that the magazine has been unable to secure the services of a full time Sales Manager. Or something like that.

What would not be a solution (I have been told, over and over again) is to create a hard copy version of the magazine and try to somehow distribute it in actual venues in the real world. There would never be a hard copy version of the magazine, I was told when I first involved myself in ASTONISHING ADVENTURES magazine; it was strictly an electronic format and they were going to use an entirely new and innovative online marketing model to make it a commercial and professional success.

Then this changed, and the editors and publisher spent months beating their brains out learning how to format ASTONISHING ADVENTURES for various Publish On Demand operations, the latest of which is Amazon.com. The problem with this is two fold. First, POD publications are, individually, horrifically expensive (issue 3, through Amazon, was priced at $9 per copy, the latest issue is pegged at $12 each). People are unwilling to pay this kind of price for a hard copy of a magazine that doesn't show pictures of good looking women in little or no clothing.

Second, people are especially unwilling to pay this price for a hard copy of a magazine that they can view online, and even download an electronic version of, for free.

I most recently suggested to ASTONISHING ADVENTURES' publisher that, if he wants to put this project on a paying basis, what he may want to consider is converting the electronic copy of the magazine into more of a teaser for a hard copy version of same -- publish, say, the first third of each story online, and if a reader wants to get the rest, they have to order a hard copy. This would be a 21st Century version of pulp fiction's hoary old 'continued next issue' circulation stunt, and while I'm not sure it would actually work, it would have to work better than what he's doing now, because what he's doing now isn't working at all.

Combine this with some 'hard copy only' features, like, you know, a section of pulpesque 'good girl' art that, while it wouldn't be pornographic, would certainly be provocative, and would, again, only appear in the hard copy, and you might actually have something.

Maybe not. Maybe people just won't surf to a website, punch in their credit card number, and then wait four or five days for a hard copy to reach them in the mail. Maybe you simply cannot write pulp fiction and publish it online for a modern audience in such a way that you entice them into actually paying for it. And maybe 50,000 views of a particular electronic publication isn't all that exciting to any online advertiser, where as a general rule, you want at least a million fresh hits a day to really generate anything remotely like appreciable revenue.

The publisher of ASTONISHING ADVENTURES keeps talking about a 'new, innovative model' for selling an appealing product such as pulp fiction online. Apparently, this is a model that people like John Rogers and Warren Ellis have been pushing for years now. But what he does not seem to realize is that John Rogers wants to sell video and animation projects this way... fictional artifacts that have movement and sound and that look like actual reality. People will pay a good price for these things in a movie theater, or on pay cable TV, or on DVD at Wal-mart, so why not online, where it's easier for them to get access? (Maybe because most people are already paying a subscription fee to get internet service, and nearly subconsciously expect/require that all Internet content they access after paying that fee be 'free', and will balk at paying anything further for such content, no matter how cool it may be.)

And Warren Ellis is trying to sell comic books online, and I'm not sure how well that's been working for him, either, for maybe the same reason, or, maybe not.

Whatever the case may be, neither of them is trying to sell what ASTONISHING ADVENTURES is pushing... stories presented in a textual format, sometimes with a couple of not particularly well executed graphics, most of the time not.

An entirely Internet powered audience isn't going to pay for that; to them, text is simply too boring to be worth spending any money on in that kind of context. You want people to buy text (and only a very small percentage of contemporary folks will even consider it under any circumstances) you have to present them with your text in the kind of format where it does not make them yawn, i.e., in a bookstore or on a magazine rack. Presenting them with an electronic simulacrum of a textual magazine on the Internet... well, there's some novelty there, but honestly, unless you've got a story in the current issue or know someone who does, you are most likely going to say 'oh, screw that' and move on to some other Internet site where things either move and make noises, or where, at least, the text is presented with more pictures and in shorter, more easily read chunks.

If people are going to shell out good money to be entertained, they don't want to use their imaginations. For most modern types, using the imagination is way too much like work. They want moving pictures that closely resemble reality as they have experienced it, they want sounds, they want cool special effects and hot chicks in skimpy clothing... and if all of this is presented to them on the Internet, well, they are already paying for Internet access, and they do not want to pay for Internet content all over again, no matter how cool it looks and sounds to them.

I'd be fucking ecstatic to see a successful commercial revival of pulp fiction. I love pulp fiction; I love reading it and I especially love writing it and I would love to get paid for writing it. Writing pulp fiction is comparatively easy and more fun than kittens; pulp fiction doesn't have to make any sense and doesn't require any real literary talent to produce. Pulp fiction is visceral, it is porn without sex or explicit violence, it is about using your medium to evoke a strongly visceral emotional and, to the extent you can, sensual feelings and responses in your audience. This is why pulp fiction is always about trying to excite your audience (without using sexually explicit descriptions) and often about trying to terrify, horrify, or, at least, gross out your audience -- because your audience wants to be emotionally, viscerally, thalmically stimulated on a level below and beside the purely intellectual.

The easy way to do this is with porn, of course, but here in the civilized Western world, we are all ashamed of porn and its consumption and circulation is very strictly regulated. Pulp is one step down (or, looked at from another direction, up) from porn, and like porn, it doesn't have to make any sense or be at all well written -- it simply has to be exciting and provocative. And if you can't excite or provoke people with sex, well, the next best thing has always been people shouting at each other and waving weapons in the air while shit blows up real good all around them.

But you can't sell textual pulp on the Internet. You can present it for free, and you'll find some kind of audience for it... but they won't pay for it, and there will most likely not be enough of them to interest an Internet based advertiser.

Which basically makes ASTONISHING ADVENTURES an amateur operation, something done by fans for fans, that is never going to make any money for anyone. I have nothing against projects like that, but there are millions of them out there, on the Internet and off. If I want to write for a fanzine and never get paid, I have plenty of options.

What I want to do, though, is make a living off my writing, and that, clearly, will never happen at ASTONISHING ADVENTURES.

Stupid of me, really, to ever try to let myself be convinced otherwise... but like Fox Mulder, I really wanted to believe.

* * *

A few more thoughts on this general subject, since, what the fuck, nobody is going to read this thing anyway:

Various blogs I read have been pointing me towards something called Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog for quite a while now. I'd been pretty much ignoring them (which will be pretty much part of the point I'm getting to, when I get there) mostly because until Mike Norton noted it on his own blog, I hadn't been informed by anyone that Dr. Horrible is a Joss Whedon production. Whedon has produced a great deal of wretched shit over the course of his career, but on balance he's produced a lot more really brilliant nifty-stuff that I love a lot, so, you know, when Mike Norton advises me that it's the last night I can see JOSS WHEDON'S "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" before it gets locked away in a 'pay for download' vault over at I-tunes, well, I respond.

And having responded, I can now say that "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" is excellent stuff, very much in the BUFFY vein, a sort of light-hearted high camp with a dark, bitter heart that, in the end, suddenly comes out of nowhere with a left field shot straight to your emotional solar plexus. It's exactly the kind of thing Whedon specializes in, a story so soaked in pop culture superheroic mythology that only an ubergeek like Whedon could even conceive it, much less pull it off.

Is it worth watching for free? Emphatically, sir. Is it worth paying a few bucks for? Yeah, undoubtedly... and I may well pick it up, for a few bucks, should it come out on DVD.

Would I pay a few bucks to download it onto my computer's hard drive?

I... doubt it.

Of course, I'm extremely weird, and my feelings in this regard may not be typical; I really have no way of knowing. If "Dr. Horrible" racks up a few million paying downloads, then more power to it and Whedon and this whole "the Internet can indeed delivery original content that will actually make money in today's marketplace" concept/model.

Yet from where I'm sitting, all I can say is, it seems doubtful.

See, my training is, if I own something, some media artifact like a piece of music, or a movie, or a TV show, or a short story or a novel, I want to have that artifact... somewhere. On a shelf, over there. I want to know where it is and I want to be able to pick it up and hold it in my hands. I find this... reassuring. I know it's there; I can see it, I can go over and touch it. I have two different playlists at playlist.com, and I listen to one or the other of them near constantly while I'm working on the computer, but I have no feeling that I own any of that music... except the stuff like the tracks from SAM'S TOWN by the Killers (just for one random example) because if those playlists stop working two seconds from now, I still own a copy of that CD, and I can pop the CD in a player somewhere and still hear the music.

Maybe this is a completely idiosyncratic feeling, but I don't think so. It doesn't feel that way. I think I'd be happy to buy a copy of "Dr. Horrible" on DVD, because then I'd feel like I owned it. Whereas, even if I downloaded it somehow onto my computer's hard drive and could watch it again any time I wanted, it wouldn't feel 'real'. I wouldn't feel like I actually 'owned' it. It's somewhere on my hard drive, and hard drives crash, and they get viruses, and stuff gets erased. And probably there are many things that could damage or destroy a DVD, a videotape, a CD, a magazine, or a book... but, still, when I own one of those things, I feel like I really, truly, actually, honest to frag OWN the fucker.

I don't know what it is. I want the physical artifact, and I want it to have some kind of cool case with a nice logo and some dramatic still photos and some ad copy on the back and maybe an extra SPECIAL FEATURES section.

So I'll be extremely curious to see whether DR. HORRIBLE makes any money for Mutant Enemy, because I presume Mutant Enemy has sunk at least a few hundred thousand dollars into making this thing, and if nobody pays to download it, that's a few hundred thousand dollars they won't see again. And that may not entirely discourage everybody else out there who is trying to make money creating original content specifically for distribution on and through the Internet... but it's going to hit a lot of people pretty hard, and when the next DR. HORRIBLE comes along, and maybe it doesn't make any money either, then, people are going to stop trying this.

Which... I don't know. I don't know how I feel about that. I don't know how I feel about this idea of turning the Internet into a new pay cable station. Maybe it's just my natural resistance to change, but I think I prefer to get my video-like entertainment on a DVD. Because, honestly, if TV/movies on the Internet starts to become a real moneymaker for someone, then corporations are going to take over the Internet, and access rates are going to go up, and every website that has anything cool on it at all will be for subscribers only, and the horrible plague of pop up ads and spam is going to become absolutely intolerable.

It's bad enough that nowadays, I put in a DVD and have to wade through ten minutes of ads that the DVD makers have embedded on disc in such a way that I can't skip over them or fast forward through them. I hate this crap; I bought the goddam DVD and the goddam DVD player and they are MINE and I should be able to watch or skip any portion of anything I put into it at any time and all the buttons on my remote control should ALWAYS work, and it aggravates me when this is taken away from me by smarmy fucks who are going to make a little bit more ad revenue on this particular product by making sure I have to actually watch some idiot talking to me about some other DVD I probably have no interest in, goddam them.

And why won't any political candidates ever run for office on a promise that they'll do something about THAT annoying crap, anyway?

But I digress. Back to my point -- I'm not sure one can successfully sell media product on the Internet, unless it's porn. And I'm VERY sure one cannot successfully sell textual media product on the Internet, which is, unfortunately, the only kind of media product I have any skill at all in creating.

So I'll be very interested to see what happens with DR. HORRIBLE... and if it turns out (as I expect) that even Joss Whedon can't get people to pay for web-only product, well, most likely, nobody else can, either.

2 Comments:

At 10:25 AM , Anonymous Always Esteemed Scott said...

I want the physical artifact, and I want it to have some kind of cool case with a nice logo and some dramatic still photos and some ad copy on the back and maybe an extra SPECIAL FEATURES section.

Hey me too. It's why I prefer buying books to getting them from the library. It's why I still buy CDs, for the most part.
But I think that's because we're old guys. I don't know anyone who's under 30 who buys music or movvies. They download their movies, their music, everything - except for text of course, but that's because most people I know that are under 30 don't read much at all.

I have mixed feelings about reading stuff online. I'll happily read relatively short articles and blogs, but I would have a really hard time reading a book, for example, off a computer screen. Probably that's because sitting upright at a computer screen is not my preferred way to read for long periods of time (I'd much rather be lying on the couch).

 
At 4:04 PM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

But I think that's because we're old guys. I don't know anyone who's under 30 who buys music or movvies. They download their movies, their music, everything - except for text of course, but that's because most people I know that are under 30 don't read much at all.

My two teenagers both buy and audit CDs, DVDs, and videotapes. They'll watch movies on the computer, too, which I have little patience for, given the crappy resolution our obsolete box provides.

Beyond that, there's a huge independent music store in our neighborhood called Ear X-tasy that stocks a very large number of CDs, mostly featuring groups I've never heard of whose primary market demo seems to be teens and twens. They've been open forever and seem to be doing fine, so I have to assume that people under 30 do actually buy CDs (and occasionally DVDs, Ear X-tasy has a small DVD corner, too).

Of course youngsters download their entertainment, that's not my point... or not my full point, anyway, which is, they won't pay to do it. Neither will anyone else, from what I can see. You may watch something online (or on cable, or on your Tivo, whatever) to check it out; if you like it enough to want to own it, you go and buy it at the store.

Now, if the only place to get a movie, TV show, or piece of music was the Internet, then perhaps this model would change. But what Whedon is doing with DR. HORRIBLE seems typical... he put it up for a week for free on the Internet, then gave it to a pay per download site (where my prediction is, few if any will pay to download it) and in a few months time, he plans to bring it out on a DVD loaded with enough extra features to make it worthwhile for someone to pay DVD prices for a 40 minute one shot TV episode thingie.

Nearly everything that has any commercial value on the Internet (other, always, than porn) seems to follow this model. Pitch it on the 'net, get people talking about it, then try to get them to pay for downloading it -- but if they do, that's just gravy, because down the road, what you're really going to do is collect all the material into a hard copy graphic novel, or put it on a CD or a DVD and sell it at Wal-mart.

The Internet is, basically, simply used to convince some studio somewhere to put it out, and to convince Wal-mart to carry it.

This is the model that seems to work, whereas simply selling someone an electronic copy of your product really so far doesn't.

 

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