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SF Magazines: Some Fudged Numbers

It’s been pointed out to me that these magazines pay for shit. They pay rates that I wouldn’t work at — $50/1000 words, more or less. I once heard a writer call it “a charitable donation.” Given that one of the digests, at least, will contain some 100,000 words, that’s a creative budget (before art) of $5000/issue. Which I’d like you to turn around in your head for a few moments.

I’d like to know some numbers, I really would.

Consider that a magazine like ASIMOV’S or F&SF, who sell 15000 in subscriptions and 5000 at newsstand at a cover price of $3.99, constitutes a theoretical gross of some $80000. Fudged number, sure, but in the ballpark. What does that break down to?

Well, 55% of your 5000 copies just vanished, because the distributor took it. 55% is the cost of doing business in the returnable-sales game, which in this instance means $11000 of the $20000 you made from your sell-through of 5000 copies. So you’re down to $69000.

But those 15000 other copies are subscription, so your distribution is the cost of mailing them. And the three big US mags give you some 25% off the cover rate to subscribe. So you’re down to an imaginary number of ($45000 + $9000) $54000 before you even pay the postal service.

What does it cost to mail those things? I assume there has to be discounts available to post 15000 copies of something, so it’s got to be worth the magazine’s while even though they’ve given up 25% of cover price (or $15000). And if you’re keeping score, you’ve noticed that you’ve shed more than a quarter of your imaginary gross just through the cost of doing business. Running a magazine is, in fact, a job for crazy people.

What’s the unit cost on printing? These things are printed on pulp in relatively large runs, the printing bill can’t be too onerous. I mean, it’d be pointless selling to newsstand at all if the unit cost was more than a couple of bucks — and they have to be printing 15000 copies for newsstand for them to sell 5000 at a 32% sellthrough as reported for ASIMOV’s. A total print run of 30000 minimum. A unit cost of $1/copy would break them. You’ve got to assume the unit cost is way under a dollar.

The ballpark for the writing budget is $5000. Call it $1000 for art? That’s another $6000, plus whatever you allow for production. And even though we’re missing hard numbers to plug in here, you can see that it’s all got to come out of a pool of $54000. What if it costs fifty cents to print a copy and fifty cents to send one? That’s a minimum of $22500.

Here’s another number – ASIMOV’S lost 3000 subscribers last year. Using the above as a rough mark, that’s clearly at least $6000 per month taken out of their calculations for this year. Or: their entire creative budget per month.

ASIMOV’S and ANALOG are part of a large magazine group, and so their printing bills should be a lot less due to gangprinting and other cost-saving elements, and also their salaries ought to be payments amortised across the entire company rather than pegged to the magazine’s takings. They’d only go into the red when (budget+print bill+circulation costs) > (subscription fees + sellthrough). F&SF, I believe, doesn’t have that kind of buffer.

I really wish I had those missing numbers tonight.

(UPDATE: someone pointed out in email that there are also ad revenues to take into account — also, that when there’s ad space to burn there’s crosspromotion to be had.)

Science fiction is going to lose at least one of these magazines in the next five years. This is where other people say to me, “that’s why we’ve gone to the web.”

Published in brainjuice


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