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Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Thirty-two years ago the world of science fiction magazines was a vastly different place than it is today. One year after the release of Star Wars, we seemed to be in the midst of an explosion of science fiction magazines. Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine had begun publishing within the previous year or two, immediately joining Analog, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as a sales leader in the field. Galileo was another new magazine in the field, struggling to find market share and Omni magazine, with the marketing muscle and deep pockets of Penthouse magazine, was about to debut.

This list doesn't even take into the smaller, long-running fanzines such as Algol, Space and Time (still published today online), and Locus (considered by many to be the place for science fiction news). These magazines, and a handful of others like them, were called fanzines but had more in common with the prozines than they did with your average fanzine. They had slick covers and some big name writers appearing within their pages.

With what appeared to be a growing market for science fiction magazines, my old friend Stephen Gregg and I thought there was room for yet another science fiction magazine. Stephen ran a newsstand in Clemson, SC, and I was his first employee. Our tastes in science fiction varied widely but when we both liked something the book almost always proved successful. This seemed like a great basis for co-editing a magazine and Stephen had even previously edited a fanzine by the name of Eternity Science Fiction. Over dinner one night, we hammered out the idea of bringing back Eternity with the aim to become a professional zine.

Having made the decision, we alerted the world and waited for stories to come in. Alerting the world meant getting listed in the various books and magazines that come out annually with information on various professional writing markets. While waiting for new stuff to come along, we also sent letters to everyone currently listed in the SFWA directory. This would probably get people irritated at you these days, but it worked well enough in 1978.

We got submissions from some lesser names in the organization as well as from Andrew J. Offutt and even Roger Zelazny. Stephen was a huge Zelazny fan, so he made sure to contact him. As a result of Stephen's contact with him, Zelazny dusted off an old character, Dilvish the Damned, and wrote a new short story about him -- which he submitted to us. (A year later, a new Dilvish novel was announced. When it was published, Zelazny dedicated the novel to Stephen, for getting him thinking about the character again. We thought this was quite cool.) We also landed Orson Scott Card, who had just won the John Campbell award as the best new writer in science fiction, to review books for us. All in all, we thought we were off to a good start.

Once the world knew we existed, it was time to start working on making the magazine look good. Previously, Stephen had produced the magazine using a typewriter. We knew we needed to look professional, which meant having right-justified lines. These days it's easy to get right-justification; simply tell your publishing software to right-justify the lines and you're set. Back them, variable spacing was not so easy to pull off. We bought a used IBM Selectric II typewriter, which was specially designed to handle right-justified lines, for a bargain basement price of $400 (about $1300 today). To produce the justified lines, one of us would have to type a line from the story until we reached a certain number of characters. Then we'd type the same line again, with the Selectric II varying the spacing so the lines were right-justified. The machine tended to get confused if you made and corrected too many typos when typing either of the lines, so you had to type carefully both times or risk having the justification fouled up. If you figure an issue of our magazine had about 65,000 words in it, we'd end up having to type 130,000 words just to get the type properly justified.

Once all of the stories and columns had been run through the Selectric II, it was time to layout the magazine. Again, these days that kind of thing is handled mostly by publishing software. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's a lot easier than doing the layout manually. To manually layout a magazine, you cut out the columns of justified text and paste them onto a sheet of paper, usually graph paper so you could align things just right. Manually laying out an issue of the magazine was just as tedious as you might think it was. A lot of time was spent fiddling with parts of stories, trying to get everything to work out right and not leave white space on a page. It's sort of like putting together a puzzle except you don't know what pieces fit where and you don't have a picture of the finished product to use as a guide.

All told, it was a lot of work to produce a single issue of the magazine. Note that I didn't even mention reading through the slush pile in hopes of finding something worth buying. Still, when the first issue of the magazine appeared, we felt it had all been worth the effort. Sales didn't exactly set the world on fire, but we felt we were off to a good start. Several months later, we published our second issue and were quite pleased with it, as well, though sales were not increasing. Our third issue was going to be our best issue yet, with the new Zelazny story, an interview with Zelazny, the Andrew J. Offutt story, and a new story from Orson Scott Card. After lots of the drudge work I described above, we finally had the third issue typeset, laid out, and ready to go to the publisher. The plan was for Stephen to take the issue to printers one afternoon while I covered for him at the newsstand. I showed up at the newsstand that afternoon, ready to take over and excited to have the third issue going to the printer. But it was not to be.

Stephen had brought the laid out magazine with him to work, planning to go straight to the printers from the store. I would have done the same thing, had I been in his place. He left the folder with the magazine layouts in his car and opened the store. A few hours later, he discovered someone had broken into his car; the only time it ever happened during the 25 years he ran the store. The thief had rifled through the glove compartment and taken anything that might remotely be of value, including the folder holding our third issue. Of course, once the thief stopped to check what he had stolen, he probably cursed up a storm and threw the laid out third issue into the nearest dumpster. In the slim hopes that we would get lucky, we did check the dumpsters in the general area of the newsstand. We did not get lucky. With neither of us quite able to face reproducing all the work that went into making the third issue -- and also recognizing that our sales weren't likely to ever make the magazine much more than a slick-looking fanzine -- we agreed to call it quits.

On the face of it, it sounds as if I didn't get that much out of my brief stint as an editor. That's not true. I learned enough about self-publishing that, four years later, I started writing and co-publishing a comic book with a good friend of mine. That effort proved much more successful, yet it probably wouldn't have happened had it not been for Eternity Science Fiction.

I sincerely hope my second foray into the magazine biz, albeit in a somewhat different role, will last far longer and be far more successful than my first one. Most of all, though, I regret my friend Stephen will not be around to see this new magazine; one I believe he would have greatly enjoyed reading. Stephen passed away five years ago. He was only 52.
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