Jim Baen’s Universe, one of the top markets of the SFF genre, is closing. Unfortunate for two reasons: it was a big, very well-paying market, and it was a big important experiment in actually charging money for its web-based content.

Given how many online magazines put all their stories out there for free, I’m not sure how successful a subscription-based model can ever be. I don’t mean I don’t think they’ll work: I simply mean I have no idea whether they can compete and thrive. The death of one big subscription-based magazine doesn’t mean anything, really. It was just one place, and it seems to have been founded on a top-down model of profitability: start off with a known brand, invest a lot up front, pay big money for big names, then use all that to try to drum up enough readership to match or exceed costs before the initial capital dries up.

It could be that model for a short fiction market just doesn’t shake out well in the online environment, or it could be that it just didn’t work well in this specific case. I hope someone else gives it a shot soon so we can find out.

The other main subscription startup model, like M-Brane SF, is to start off with very little capital and very little expenses–it is a paying market (which when I’m looking for places to submit to is the difference between considering it and ruling it out immediately), but it’s run off Blogger (and still looks better than most online SFF mags), is distributed by PDF, and can’t have much of the way in overhead costs other than what it pays its authors.

The thinking here’s both identical to and opposite of the JBU plan: start off small, then once you stop running in the red, that’s when you can start plugging real money back into attracting talent, getting your name out there, and proving to a wide audience you’ve got something worth plunking down a couple bucks for, something it’s difficult or impossible to find for free.

Because there is simply no way to eliminate the free content model. I’ve seen some talk about getting other mags to change their way of thinking, for everyone to band together and charge readers for what they’re putting out there, but given the internet environment–all but total anarchy, huge populations of people whose self-confidence outstrips their ability, the unending energy of people to provide their thoughts and content not in order to make a living off it but just because they need to be heard–free content is never going away.

In an awful lot of ways, the ease of setting up a website is actually a bad thing. Anyone who wants to start up a webzine can do so with minimal investment, which means hobbyists, incompetents, and lunatics are all out there on the same playing field with the pros and the people who take it seriously.

We’ve got way too many writers, too, way too many kinda-good authors to fit in the limited space of the big magazines; once they get rejected there, they shoot their stories off to the next level down, or the one below that, or to some dork’s flashing Geocities unicorn zine. A lot of fine fiction ends up placed with markets that don’t really deserve it–but if a bad market ends up running a lot of good fiction, is it really a bad market after all?

There’s a huge supply of writers who expect little or nothing for their labor. On the other side, the entry fee to the publishing game is basically zero. How do you expect to stop editors from giving it away for free? Unionize the Internets? Beat up everyone who posts a story without a price tag on it?

Pouring energy into reversing established web culture is useless when every part of the environment opposes those efforts by its very nature. Free fiction will always be out there. Shit-tons of it. Some of that shit will even be pretty good.

I think JBU realized that. I think that’s why they paid for real talent, stuff you can’t find anywhere else online. Hell if I know why they went under, whether it was bad luck or bad decisions or if paid subscription models simply can’t support a pro market in this medium. But they were trying to work with the environment rather than against it. That’s the one thing anyone hoping to charge for web-based content needs to keep in mind.

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