3SF, and the beginning of the end

The history of Big Engine, part 3

To make ends meet in mid-2001 I started working for a Witney-based publisher of law journals. I became much more aware of how a journal publisher actually works than I ever had before. I hadn’t realised before just how useful periodicals are for smoothing out the cashflow. You get a constant, steady stream – or at least a trickle – of cash in the form of subscriptions, whereas if you just publish books, all your income clusters around the publication dates. So, I decided Big Engine needed a magazine.

I mentioned it to Liz Holliday, who had edited the short-lived Odyssey back in the nineties – a very worthy attempt at a science fiction magazine but sabotaged by an inept publisher (a sad story shortly to sound strangely reminiscent). Liz didn’t quite bite my hand off by asking if she could be editor, possibly only because I moved quickly enough. It was exactly what I had intended to suggest, though, because I knew I couldn’t handle that workload too.

Liz had long dreamed of calling a magazine 3SF, after our writers’ group. So why not? It was short and catchy and people would wonder why we chose it. We retrofitted an explanation into the magazine’s strapline: Science Fiction, Speculative Fantasy, Strange Facts.

Word spreads very quickly in the SF community. Liz just had to mention in a couple of discussion groups that she was involved in planning a new magazine, and immediately pledges of subscriptions started coming in. She’s an extremely capable editor and that is the regard she’s held in by those who know.

The main competition was of course Interzone – not that we wanted to compete. We wanted to complement. Interzone was safely into magazine middle age, no longer turning out new talent with quite the frequency it once did but relying on staple producers of fiction. It had its own distinct style and stable of authors; we wanted to develop a new stable. Liz had enough contacts in the community of beginning authors to manage that.

Interzone had started as a quarterly 20 years earlier, gone bi-monthly and was now a monthly publication. We thought that a quarterly magazine would soon lose impetus, with too long a gap between appearances, and a monthly would break the bank and drive us into an early grave in nothing flat. We decided 3SF would start off as a bi-monthly.

Fiction would be the main ingredient, but there would also be much more science fact than Interzone published, and speculative pieces, and of course reviews covering the full range of media. By some twist of magic Liz managed to hire Gwyneth Jones as UK reviews editor and Rich Horton as US reviewer generally, which made our lives much easier.

The guidelines on the 3SF website said:

“We take stories up to 10,000 words long – but at that length, a story will have to be brilliant. Especially if you’re a new writer, you have a much better chance with something shorter. And yes, we will buy short-shorts (under 1000 words).

We pay £30 per thousand words, pro rata (i.e. 3p – or around 4.5 US cents per word depending on the exchange rate – per word), on publication. We buy first English Language print serial rights, i.e. we buy the right to use your story once, in English, in the printed version of the magazine, and we need to be the first people to do so. We intend to do an electronic version of the magazine at some point in the future, and our guidelines and contracts will be amended to take account of that.”

Both the upper and lower word limits for stories were unusual and opened the magazine up to a wider range. As well as the quoted pay rate – which matched professional rates – Liz also had the idea of one even higher-paying story per issue, coming from a recognised Big Name. We were quite open about this.

And, Liz said, there would be illustrations. Personally I’ve never got on with illustrations in fiction – not since I was a child, anyway. I read a story for the words. At best illustrations are a distraction, at worst a badly placed illustration can spoil what you are about to read, and from a publisher’s point of view they’re one more thing to pay for. But there is a constituency of readers that enjoys them, and would therefore expect them in a quality magazine; a good artist is just as likely to win awards and acclaim as a writer (and hence associate it with the magazine’s reputation); and I will admit that an A4 page of small type looks pretty dull. So, illustrations there were.

Interzone still hailed from a time when written and televisual SF were two very distinct creatures with different sets of fans: the only televisual SF had been Doctor Who entering the final stages of its decline and repeats of the original Star Trek. Now there was a new generation of much more determined science fiction on TV and we wanted to cater for the increasing overlap, with critical pieces that would give, say, Stargate SG:1 or Farscape just as much in-depth attention as the latest China Miéville or Alastair Reynolds (as much as is possible with media SF; I still maintain that even the best lags at least ten years behind the printed form, and while one TV season might rattle off twenty different SF concepts that would each need a whole book to do justice to, it won’t do them well). There would also be a column on factual topics that should be of interest to an SF audience, even if they weren’t specifically science fictional; thus issue 1 featured an article by John Whitbourn on 11th Century English soldiers who went to fight in Constantinople for the dying Roman Empire; issue 2 featured an essay on ‘The Republic of Heaven’ by Philip Pullman, which I didn’t think could hurt; issue 3 had a science column on prions.

Word reached David Langford. “I hear you’re starting a new magazine in competition to Interzone,” he said in an email. “When can we expect the first edition of Die, Pringle, Die?”

I responded in a similar light-hearted mood: “I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge … though he’s seen so many of the opposition come and go, I doubt he’ll lose much sleep.”

My half of the conversation was duly reported in the next issue of Ansible. “Asked about the title, Ben mused: ‘I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge …’” I was glad he also included my line about David P. not losing much sleep over the matter, but it still led to a little awkwardness the next time I met the man socially.

I went to my first foreign worldcon: ConJose, in San Jose, 2002. The main object was to sell 3SF and I came home with a lot of subscriptions. Most of which were from Brits.

Incidentally, you really have not known what a homicidal impulse is until a major New York editor stops by your stall, fingers your stock, looks approvingly at the covers, even laughs at some of the jokes in one of the books, then compliments you on the little cardboard stands holding the books up and walks away.

Issue 1 of 3SF appeared in October 2002. If you’re selling subscriptions, it always helps to have something tangible to show. The number of subscriptions started to climb. Issue 2 followed in December. The dream of evening out the cashflow was working, if you only looked at the credit column of the spreadsheet. In the debit column …

I was right. You do get a trickle of subscriptions. You also get a regular outflow – ‘haemorrhage’ would be a better word – of cash in the form of typesetting and printers’ bills and author payments. This wouldn’t be a problem if you had enough subscribers. We never did. Launching 3SF can be summarised as a simple, elegant scheme to get a bit more money coming in, and it only needed another 700 subscribers to work.

We were all doomed.

To be continued …