Tag Archives: magazines

Once more into the breach, once more

For those who didn’t know me in the black days known as “the Nineties,” I used to be a writer. Specifically, I used to write nonfiction for a plethora of science fiction magazines, culture zines, weekly newspapers, and other gathering posts for society’s detritus. After about 13 years of little recognition and less pay, I came to my senses and quit nearly a decade ago. I refer to my two temporary returns to standard writing as “relapses”, and it’s because of writing that I have sympathy and offer support for recovering heroin addicts. Writing is a nasty, foul, vile little business, and the only reasons I can see for wanting to go back to dealing with science fiction publishing are either addiction to the subject matter or a level of masochism that usually entails bunny suits, overflowing toilets, and six-foot sandstone strap-ons lubed with habanero peppers. (Now’s about the time I’m told by friends “Tell us what you really think.” That’s when I tell them about how the only way I got paid for one of those relapses was by threatening to out the personal E-mail addresses and phone numbers of every executive at SyFy if I didn’t receive my check, and they understand why I’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have to deal with that again.)

Strangely enough, though, I don’t have that level of hatred toward writing about horticulture. I have no delusions of reaching the heights of a Gertrude Jeckyll or even a Neil Sperry in garden writing. For me, it’s pure relaxation, spiced with a thrill coming from sharing new wonders with friends. And then there’s the cross-pollination with people in other endeavors: I haven’t found the right opportunity for another article about plants for Reptiles magazine, but the response to last year’s article on carnivorous plants in the vivarium gives me an itch to try this again.

Then there’s the newest addiction: dark gardening. And so now I start as the new gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine, starting with the Spring 2012 issue. Arioch, Issek, and Nyarlathotep help us all.

Back to the linen mines

I’ve said before that I was goth back when the term still referred to Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’ve had lots of interesting dark gardening ideas running through my head for the last six months or so since the Gothing Beauty fiasco. Well, it’s time to go back to causing more trouble: as of today, I became the official gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine. Since the publication schedule is significantly more active than that of GB, expect a lot more in the way of pertinent subjects, including looks at moon gardens, sources for statuary, and prehistoric plants. I suspect that there’s room in the gardening writing community for one Turner Van Blarcum; come to think of it, I may have to talk to Turner about designing some drastically different plant stands for the Carpe Nocturne crowd.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Radio silence over the last week, mostly due to having a surfeit of vacation time at the Day Job that needed to be burned off or lost. This meant that, like the protagonist in too many really downbeat novels, I had to face my deepest darkness. Instead of, say, traveling up the Mekong to stop Colonel Kurtz or prevent Tyler Durden from setting off the last bit of Project Mayhem, I went waaaaaaaay deeper. I cleaned out my office.

The basic aspect of sweeping clean the Augean Workspace was relatively painless compared to the sifting. I didn’t realize how many boxes I had that were full of correspondence from the late Eighties and early Nineties, check stubs from companies dead a full 15 years, and holiday cards from people who meant a lot to me half my life ago. That’s not counting newspaper cuttings on subjects that must have had some significance in 1992, but that were completely clue-free today. The local paper recycler loves me, and not just because I’d been dragging around boxes full of obsolete catalogs because “I’ll get around to sorting it one day.” That went double for my once-voluminous magazine collection: when the Czarina and I got married in 2002, I had a full 25 legal boxes full of archived magazines, not counting my separate archive of magazines for which I’ve written. Now, I’m down to two, and one of those is solely a collection of Bonsai Today back issues that are nearly impossible to replace.

Along that line, going through all of that correspondence from my writing days, I’ve made a resolution for 2012. I spent a good four years trying to warn writer and publisher friends about the inevitable implosion of Borders Books, and took nothing but grief for doing so. After about the eighth missive whining about how I was a really negative vibe merchant who was bringing down the entire world for suggesting that Borders employees should get out while they had the chance, I stopped responding “What: like your trousers?” Likewise, going through that two-decade-old mail made me realize that publishing itself, particularly science fiction publishing, hasn’t changed at all since then, other than the names of the big players. You have some new names, and a lot of older names that are now greyer and fatter than they were back then, and a few who became trivia questions about fifteen minutes after their funerals. Because of that, I’m just going to smile and nod concerning publishing in 2012, mostly so I can laugh and point at some of the bigger casualties after the fact. Me, vindictive? Naah. I promise that when I celebrate the demises of several smaller publishers based on their current output, I’ll keep the music down and only pull out the cheap champagne.

On brighter subjects, yesterday marked nine years of marital bliss between myself and the Czarina, and we were promptly informed by a good friend that this was our pottery anniversary. Considering that our day was spent poking through antique stores poring over old pots, planters, and Wardian cases, it fits. Discovering that our next anniversary is “tin” brought forth actual screams from the Czarina, by the way, as I’ve already mentioned that I’m planning to have a party to celebrate the occasion. Costumes for the waitstaff, perhaps?

Anyway, back to the linen mines. Four boxes of old papers remain, and I may actually be finished with cleaning, dusting, sorting, and pitching by next Monday. By Tuesday morning, it’ll be time to get back to gardening preparation, as 2012 is probably going to be as intense in that aspect as 2011. I hope not, but I’m trying to be realistic. In the meantime, get ready for another Joey Box contest: I just sent off Joey and Cheryl’s box for the year (nearly 20 kilos’ worth), and I have a lot of other items that just wait for new homes.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In the incessant kvetching about Dallas weather, I should bring up that we have a phrase for it: “If you don’t like it, hang around for ten minutes and it’ll change.” Last week? Subfreezing temperatures. This week? Rain and highs more suitable for Miami. I don’t recommend North Texas for anyone with respiratory issues such as a proclivity toward pneumonia, because if the pollen doesn’t kill you, the wild fluctuations in ambient temperatures will shiv you in the bathtub and watch you die.

That’s what hit Friday morning: sore throat, voice like a five-pack-a-day cigar smoker, and just enough of a fever to bring on some particularly interesting auditory hallucinations. Either that, or the cats really did learn how to talk. All I can say for sure is that I woke up late on Friday afternoon, fever burned out, and I did what any sane person would do. I started to clean the house.

Before I start into the details, consider the warring factions in my psyche that I inherited from both sides of my family. As mentioned previously, my father’s Scot heritage generally manifests itself as a thriftiness and frugality that comes dangerously close to packrat tendencies. Oh, who am I kidding? My sister constantly and bitterly complains about the two-seat hovercraft my dad bought at a police auction in the Nineties, and I refuse to get involved, partly because it’s none of my business and partly because I would have done the same thing. My mother, though, manifests her Irish/German/Cherokee heritage through control of her surroundings that pushes minimalism. The worst fight I ever saw them get into involved her donating his high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill, only some quarter-century later. What this means is that all of their kids collect…and collate…and make plans only to get delayed…and then BOOM!

(I’d like to note for the record that if I thought there was a market for it, I’d market a proposal for a comic book miniseries involving a nice Dunwich boy who married a nice Innsmouth girl, and the exploits of their adult children. It would be a combination of horror and comedy, and completely autobiographical.)

Anyway, one of the sore points in the house as of late was the office. When we moved in the spring of 2010, we were already horribly behind on getting ready for the move for various reasons, and I horribly underestimated exactly how many books I had in the library. Ever get that sick feeling when starting what should be a ten-minute chore that stretches into hours and days? By the end of May, that was my basic state of being. Get up, go to the Day Job, go home, pack, haul another truckload over to the new house, go to sleep, get up another four hours later…and all of this on top of getting ready for our big show of the year. After a while, you stop worrying about deciding where everything is supposed to go, and you focus on just getting it into boxes. Those then go into a back corner of a room somewhere until you can deal with them, which you never do because you’re too busy dealing with everything else that needs to be done during a normal workweek and weekend. I’d plan vacation time after Christmas to dig into it, and the Czarina would have her post-Christmas meltdown and decree that we were leaving town for our anniversary. Combine that with our mutual book addictions and the number of friends and bystanders who’d send odd plant- or dinosaur-related items that would go atop the pile, and it’s no surprise that witnesses would ask “Are you SURE that Hunter S. Thompson is dead? It looks like he’s been camping out here for the last month.”

"The back-alley ambiance was so foul, so incredibly rotten."

That last comment particularly hurts when your 11-year-old niece says it. Just saying.

I’d already planned to take the week after Christmas off and do nothing but focus on the mess. This included threatening the Czarina that if we went anywhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I’d tell the investigating detective “I didn’t defenestrate her, sir. I just threw her out a window.” Well, that’s what I told myself: one view of her rapier-sharp elbows and the word “please” was used quite often, and not just as part of the phrase “please don’t kill me”. However, something about reaching the terminal stage of Dutch Elm Blight made my mother’s heritage grab my father’s in a rather rude place and scream “Shove off,” and I started pulling stacked books off the shelves and alphabetizing them where they belonged. And filling boxes full of obsolte gardening catalogs for recycling. And tearing through an already-impressive magazine collection and deciding what I’d keep and what was going to Half Price Books.

One of the nice things about having a very comfortable relationship with the Czarina is that I can drop all sorts of worrisome comments and she doesn’t kill me where I stand. For instance, last week, I finally admitted to her that after book tour events in 2009 and 2010, I slept with a fan immediately afterwards, and she beat me to saying “And you were already married to her, weren’t you?” This way, when she came home on Friday evening and the first words out of my mouth were “It’s not what it looks like,” she just blinked at the piles of boxes and magazines and blinked instead of preparing to show me my own gall bladder. Then she looked at the office and screamed. Even better, it was a good scream.

And so it continues. The gardening magazine sale at Half Price brought in enough money that I could get her another Christmas present. I’ve cracked open and discarded boxes that I’ve been dragging around, still sealed in packing tape, since 1996. I now understand why so many dedicated bibliophiles now have PDAs or smartphone apps that track all of their books, because I discovered a good two dozen that I’d repurchased at least once because I couldn’t remember if I already had it. (These will be up for an upcoming Joey Box giveaway after the holidays. I promise.) The Czarina dances through the house, giggling about how she expected to find me dead in a crapalanche by now, and I just tell her that with the change in my pockets, I’m still worth more dead than alive. Best of all, remember my mentioning the odd dinosaur-related stuff received from friends and cohorts? We found a home for one of the biggest pieces.

First, a bit of preamble. The Czarina and I have been friends of Mel Hynes, the writer of the classic Webcomic Two Lumps, for nearly a decade, and Mel has a habit of surprising friends with really odd acquisitions that she finds via eBay. One day, she called and asked us to meet her at her apartment, because she’d found “the absolute perfect Christmas present for Paul.” I loved it, but the Czarina just looked sick and asked Mel “And what did I do to you?”

Part of the Czarina’s concern was that we really didn’t have a place to display it. It couldn’t go over the mantelpiece because of a beautiful glass display given to her by a mutual friend, and she was insistent that it didn’t need to go up in the living room. It then sat in my old office for the next five years, and it went into the back closet of the new office when we moved in. The Czarina kept making noises about putting it in the garage, but that required risking massive catastrophic crapalanches to get to it. Now, with the extensive bulldozing and palaeoarchaeological expedition going on, one path leading to bedrock gave me strength, and it came out. And when you see where it went, blame the Czarina for it.

Damocles the Nanotyrannus

Yes, this is a life-sized Nanotyrannus bust. Yes, this is in my bathroom. Directly over the toilet, in fact. I call him “Damocles”. This is a friendly warning: if I could do this much with a bout of Dutch Elm Blight, you’d best pray I never get smallpox.

Thursday is Resource Day

Lots of interesting stuff in the mailbox this week, and all I have time for is to note that the new issue of Reptiles magazine just arrived. I’m very serious about getting serious vivarium people, serious miniature garden people, and serious plastic casting people together for a bit of a discussion. Among other things, we could all have a LOT of fun.

Horticulture and publishing, part 6

Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.

The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.

When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.

Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.

As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.

Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.

And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.

This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 4

Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.

And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?

If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.

Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.

Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.

By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.

The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)

Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.

The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.

The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.

One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.

And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.

Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?

Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

Okay, enough hinting around. It’s time to discuss an uncomfortable truth about the publishing industry, or at least the side that covers horticulture and gardening. The growth of the big-box chain bookstore both created and metastasized the current dire situation, and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders only made the situation more noticeable. This discussion will probably infuriate a lot of old-time readers, writers, and publishers, but that’s like stamping your foot in anger at a supernova.

The reality of the matter:

Most horticultural magazines and book imprints aren’t going to survive the next five years A.B.L. (After Borders Liquidation) in their current form.

The horticulture magazine as we know it today probably won’t exist at all in another five years.

The current book and magazine distribution system supplying readers with literature probably won’t exist in its current form in another five years.

Any publisher depending upon its current distributor or audience base probably won’t last the whole five years ABL.

For all of the noise about urban chicken-keeping and the like, making a sudden push for a nebulous “young audience” will probably accelerate any collapse.

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

The reality right now is that you have too many books vying for bookstore shelf space. You have too many books desperately trying to snag the attention of too few readers, and far too many redundant titles competing against each other. That’s just with books in general, of which horticultural and garden books are a subset of a subset that’s lucky to get its own marked subsection in most bookstores. With online sales, not only is everyone drowning in excessive content, it’s that much harder now to tell if a particular book answers a customer’s needs. Bookstore owners and employees understandably complain about their stores being used as Amazon.com showrooms, where customers come in, browse the selection, and buy their selections online. The stores are simply caught in an artifact of the big chain store days, where customers have been trained that if they wait a little bit, they can get the same book for significantly less. This speaks just as much about the decline of discretionary spending in a typical household as in customers not wanting to pay top dollar for a book that may be completely obsolete within five years. In ten years, the idea of people hanging onto huge book and magazine collections due solely to their initial cost is going to be as quaint as keeping music purchases on vinyl.

It’s even worse with magazines, and not just because of the amount of content online for free or damn close to free. The model for magazine sales was that newsstand copies built up enough interest to encourage readers to buy subscriptions, and the subscription money and advertising revenue brought in enough income to pay for printing, production, and administration. Either that, or the magazines ran on the trade publication or weekly newspaper model, where the individual copies were given away for free or at a drastically reduced price in order to get a minimum guaranteed circulation for advertisers. As magazine distributors folded or were assimilated, the number of available venues willing or able to sell magazines kept crashing, until now it’s nearly impossible to buy most print magazines outside of a big-box chain bookstore. At the same time, Borders management in particular encouraged customers to come inside and use the magazine section as a reading library. Some publishers saw actual subscriptions coming in this way, from either the blow-in subscription cards that littered the bookstore floor like autumn leaves or from the constant “Subscribe now!” house ads within the magazines. A lot of others, though, died, especially when Borders followed its usual invoice practice of paying for sold magazines”when we bloody well feel like it”. The current shutdown and liquidation of Borders only accelerated a shell game that was going to fold anyway, sooner or later, and many magazines couldn’t afford to wait upwards of four years for payment for issues long-sold and counted on Borders’s balance sheets. (And that’s with actual sales. Several former Borders employees have related the ridiculous number of magazines with covers ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit, with returns well above 70 percent on many titles. Even with big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast or Time Warner, this sort of expenditure was unsustainable, even if the idea was to get readers who may subscribe at some time in the future.)

With these factors, change is inevitable. Failing magazine publishers can no longer talk about “going on hiatus”, or presume that some rich benefactor is willing to throw away thousands or millions of dollars on supporting a publication that will never be profitable. Oh, it can happen, as with the recent purchase of Newsweek. It’s just not going to happen with the thousands of others. (With the ones whose business plans include either a purchase by an eccentric millionaire or a purchase by a big publishing conglomerate, rotsa ruck. In a few cases, as with one former science fiction magazine editor of my acquaintance who regularly whines about the unfairness of a universe that won’t supply said rich benefactor to keep him employed, the only real response is “Sometimes, very occasionally, the invisible hand of the market is both just and fair.”)

A lot of this change is going to be even more painful than it already has been. A lot of individuals in publishing who have kept gainful employ in the field are going to fight, the way newspapers fought against the Web as being “just a fad,” as one big newspaper publisher put it in 1996. In the last fifteen years, the potential market for newspapers has dwindled to the point where the average reader age is well above 50, and anyone under the age of 20 looks at the idea of getting news and information from a newspaper with the same incredulous awe as the idea of listening to AM radio or using a television with a manual channel selector dial. Books and magazines are going to go the same way, but only if we let them.

In the following collection of essays, I’ll try my best to look at viable options for horticulture publishing, but I’m definitely staying away from the one-fit panacea “We’ll put it online.” E-book and E-magazine publishing is an option, but it’s not the only option. The technoweenie fantasies of Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, where you give away everything for free and somehow make up the cost in volume, aren’t going to work, at least without other mechanisms available to pay contributors and staffers. Neither is simply saying that publishers need to embrace some nebulous younger market, without talking about how that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to have The Answers, or even some answers. All I want to do is light a fire under a few of the right butts, because I don’t want to see a collapse of my favorite publishers any more than you do.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 2

I’m still revising that observation on the state of publishing and horticultural subjects over the next five years, but the fact that blog writers are getting as much acknowledgment as standard print writers on gardening subjects is something else to be added to the stew. It’s probably seriously premature to assume that we’re going to see a revival of the zine now that e-publishing for tablets makes niche magazine publishing even more plausible and reasonable. However, I can say that existing practices with print magazines are going to have to change. Those magazines are going to need some pretty compelling content to justify paid subscribers getting their copies three weeks to a month after the latest issue hits the newsstands (and yes, Horticulture, I’m looking right at the bottom-of-the-barrel English Lit majors you keep hiring to handle subscription fulfillment). They’re also going to have to pay a lot more for contributors to put up with control-freak editors and “when we damn well feel like it” publishing schedules when said contributors can put the same content on their own blogs and get the same number of readers.

As mentioned before, I don’t expect a return of the zine, for a lot of reasons. I figure, though, that this is a great time for gardening societies and independent nurseries to look at the requirements for E-publishing. Let’s also say that this might be a great time to try something new that wasn’t plausible or sane under standard distribution models, such as

If you’re coming in late…

It’s been an interesting weekend. Among other things, I discovered on Friday that I’m no longer the gardening columnist for Gothic Beauty magazine. After twenty-odd years, it had to have been the most passive-aggressive firing I’ve received this side of the “You’d better not quit, or I’ll fire you” treatment I received at Science Fiction Eye. Apparently publisher Steven Holiday thinks that he owns the rights to everything published in his magazine in perpetuity (given as a friendly warning to anybody who wants to contribute in the future), and took umbrage at my reprinting my old columns on the Triffid Ranch site. His way of dealing with it was to fire me, and then let me know about it when I queried about the column in the new issue. I’d get upset about that presumption, but I figure the impending collapse of Borders Group will take care of the problem for me. Besides, I should have learned my lesson a decade ago that it’s a sucker’s game to spend more money on buying up copies of a magazine for promotion purposes than what you make by writing for it, because it’s almost never appreciated.

Anyway, that shall be all that’s said about that. I’ve been labeled “difficult” before, and by magazines that are now nothing but trivia questions. And so it goes.

The practical upshot to this is that the main Triffid Ranch site has a new update. In particular, the old Projects & Observations section, which really only made sense if the site didn’t have a blog, is pretty much gone, with the exception of the LOLPlants subsection. The old articles will be put up here over the next few days, and then it’s back to new content. It honestly makes more sense, and it gives more reasons for regular updates. It may also be time to rewrite and revise it anyway, so that it’s more relevant. Again, so it goes.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, Datura will walk the earth.”

The Web site doesn’t include more than a pre-order form, but the newest issue of Gothic Beauty magazine arrived yesterday, complete with the newest “Gothic Gardening” column. Want to learn more about the one plant that connects “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Manson, and George Romero? You’ll need to snag a copy.