Market Insights: Jonathan Laden, Daily Science Fiction

A guest blog? By me? You do know I haven’t sold a story since 2005, right? Ah, well.

In fact this invitation owes to Michele’s and my decision to start Daily Science Fiction, not to my own writing career. At, anyone who signs up will get a story delivered to their email every weekday. For free. We pay professional rates and serve up shorter pieces from Monday to Thursday, plus a longer story on Fridays to read over the weekend.

We aren’t insiders, but we aren’t oblivious either. We know that many members of the science fiction community aren’t asking “What inspired you?” Rather, they’d like to know what we were thinking. Or possibly what we were smoking.

Here’s the thing. We’ve been hearing SF’s most knowledgeable professionals decry the fading SF short story market for years (note that it’s not the quality of the fiction that most complain about, rather the shrinking reach of magazines and anthologies.) After extensive complaints, the experts usually conclude it all makes sense for many reasons, from the death of the niche newsstand and the small bookshop to the pervasity of video games to the incomprehensibility of true post-singularity societies.

That’s all been true, but it has also seemingly been true for decades that few publications have had the resources and/or the interest in a sustained period of investment for growth. Is harvesting a cash cow the cause or effect of a mature, declining market? I don’t know. It may be that the economics of dead-tree publications simply can’t work any more. (The evidence for that is widespread, from the sale of Newsweek for one dollar to Gourmet magazine’s demise with several hundred thousand paid subscribers.)

We do know there’s a great deal of wonderful fiction available, from bigger names and relative unknowns. We know there are readers out there… more people read more words today than ever before.  We know that fantasy and science fiction is read voraciously by young adults, and that today’s parents are prouder than my own were when their children dive in.

We also know that forming a semi-pro zine and putting out an issue every six months did not fulfill our own need to create magazines. Fictitious Force lasted six issues and published some nice stories by some authors who have had some nice successes in the field, but it reached almost no one. Most of its authors don’t even remember it existed.

I was at a conference for my day job a couple of years ago where the speaker made a case that email delivery was the future for magazines.  I don’t know if he was right, but it got me thinking about how wonderful it would be to get a story in my email every day. Michele and I got to work plotting how we could pull it off.

Now we’ve been putting out a new story every weekday since September first of 2010, upsetting some, and we believe, pleasing many more. Thanks to the novelty of our model, and the professional pay rate, we’re drawing a bunch of nice fiction from first-time authors and Hugo winners alike. (Check out our website for hours of reading fun.)

A (weekday) daily email is not a traditional magazine. It presents different challenges. Our first surprise was how much readers prefer short, flash length pieces in this format. Every time we publish longer pieces, even strong pieces by award-winning writers, we get feedback about how the story was too long. We believe that’s more comment on the dynamics of the medium than on the writers’ tales.

One other big difference is that email has very little staying power. That’s one reason why our stories will all be printed in an old-fashioned book as well as flitting out over the intertubes. (We wouldn’t mind covering some costs thereby as well, of course.)

A third difference is that our readers get only one story a day. Despite claims to the contrary, we don’t publish many more words than a traditional magazine, but it is only one story at a time. If a reader–or many more than one–doesn’t like that story, they can’t flip to something else to get the bad taste out of his or her mouth. It’s bad feelings for Daily Science Fiction for the next 24 hours. Ouch.

On the other hand, we meet readers where they are, we provide a short fiction break in an otherwise harried day for many, we make frequent contact, we’re easy to share and easy to tout. Best of all, the price is right: a subscription to Daily Science Fiction is free. Thanks to the lack of paper and postage costs, it will be for years to come.

Is Daily Science Fiction the wave of the future? One of many possible futures, we like to think. We hope you’ll participate in this future, with your readership and fiction submissions, as well as other visions presented by Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and others of our favorites.

Think I’m crazy? Tell me so in the comments. No one else has been shy.


8 thoughts on “Market Insights: Jonathan Laden, Daily Science Fiction

  1. OK, I’ll bite. How DO you make money paying pro rates? There’s no advertising in the emailed stories I receive, no adverts on your site. The subscription’s free and you can’t really believe printed books will cover costs. What’s the business plan? That’s been bothering me since I first stumbled on your site a few weeks ago. Are you building the readership now so you can present impressive numbers to advertisers later and charge accordingly? An email push is a better guarantee of eyes-on than trying to drive folk to a site repeatedly, so can you, in effect, charge more for advertising in emails, if that’s in the plan? I would assume 6 months of stats would be just enough to use to persuade advertisers to plunk down cold cash.

  2. I don’t know what the business model is, though I’m as curious as Phoenix – I just hope it continues to work.

    I don’t read every story every day. I do save up a bunch, and read them in odd moments – waiting for the coffee machine, for spouse or child, whatever. (Email on my smartphone = spoiled rotten.) I end up reading more fiction than I would otherwise have time/energy/brain-space to give, and my life is better for it.

    Short, smart fiction to my email is a service for which I am prepared to pay. I’m already planning on buying the collection in hard-copy to have a couple of favorites on my bookshelf.

  3. We’re not alchemists. We’ll ultimately cover much of the cost of the fiction the same way everybody else does. Book revenue, advertising, reader donations, etc.

    Covering expenses hasn’t been our primary focus during the early phases. We’ve been oriented towards developing as strong a publication as possible, and reaching the people who will enjoy it.

  4. I just subscribed and submitted. I’ve gotten five pieces of fiction and considering the price was FREE, I was really surprised how awesome the stories are.

  5. I’ve been a subscriber since October and I’ve enjoyed most of the stories that I’ve read so far. “So far” being the operative phrase as I’m 3 months behind, hence my arrival today.

    I hope that you’re able to continue. The recession didn’t help and I watched the body count stack up over at Ralan’s. As an aspiring writer myself, there’s a dearth of markets that pay professional rates. And those that don’t pay that much, if at all, can afford to be choosy about what they publish.

    Writers can find outlets, such as at Smashwords, where they can self-publish their short stories at no cost. It’s a place that readers are congregating so an author can find a larger audience there for their work than at some zines. Some give them away for free; others charge the reader. As the rights to one of my earlier published short stories reverted back to me, I posted it there for free. As the download stats are made available to each author, I can see how well a story is being accepted. For the record, hundreds have read it, but I’ve only one review for it.

    I don’t know if any one particular model is going to succeed, but in the meantime, there will be several competing with one another.

  6. At the risk of diving into this conversation way too late, I invite you to read an interview the editors of DSF did here…

    How Jon and Michele are able to pay for it all is all their business and none of ours. They managed with whatever business plan they are operating on to remain functional for over a year. What surprises me is they still lack teh attention they deserve.

    Diabolical Plots is the only ezine that commits to reviewing the stories DSF offers. Someone needs to pick up the slack of the other leading reviewers.

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