April, 2003

Please join me on this historic occasion in celebrating the fifth anniversary of Far Sector SFFH (formerly Deep Outside SFFH and originally Outside: Speculative & Dark Fiction). This magazine can claim the unique distinction of being the world's oldest professional web-only magazine of science fiction, fantasy, and horror as we enter our sixth year.

Web years are shorter than dog years. Every seven human years is a dog year, but every four months is a Web year. Five calendar years is a long time on line, a very long time, many Web years. We've had a longer and more successful run than many print zines, to say nothing of most web magazines.

When we launched our first edition back on April 15, 1998, there was not a single other web-only SF/F/H magazine paying professional SFWA rates and following the other SFWA rules for a professional magazine. This is a very carefully formulated assertion, which takes into account the existence of one earlier magazine that does not accept SF, and another that no longer exists. Omni Online had folded, and Ellen Datlow was just about to launch her short-lived but excellent Event Horizon. The Web was already populated with hundreds of brave little websites, some better than others, many truthfully not that great, but all exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech, dedicated to speculative and dark fiction. One of the best is Andy McCann's excellent Planet Magazine, for example.

Brian Callahan and I first entered the Web scene in early 1996, fueled by some excited and idealistic meetings over coffee at the now-extinct Farmer's Market in Horton Plaza, San Diego. We launched Neon Blue Fiction (mystery/suspense) in May and The Haunted Village (sf/f/h) in July of that year. We published genre short stories and two of the Web's earliest weekly serial novels (Neon Blue, suspense, and Heartbreaker, SF). In 1997, with help and moral support from my dear old friend Al Sirois, we launched Clocktower Fiction, later Clocktower Books, which is still around today. In recent years we have also acquired the staunch support and entertaining writings of media reviewer John K. Muir as a valued monthly feature.

Our 99% freelance stories (one exception: "Syndicate Motel" in Far Sector SFFH #2) have always met the highest standards of professional writing, and have thrilled thousands of readers around the world. You can read the Deep Outside SFFH archives on this website for free and decide for yourself.

We're now exploring new ways of publishing "exciting fiction for avid readers on the Web" through the distributorship of Fictionwise for less than a buck for most short works, and less than the price of upscale coffee and pastry for novels.

Speaking of free, there was a time, a few Web years ago, when hucksters were prostituting the vast potential of the Web to fleece the American public of more than ten trillion dollars based on vaporware, nonsense, outright lies, and blue tulips. Meanwhile, those of us laboring with love and integrity in the bowels of this embryonic industry could readily see the stock market scam that was taking place, and could only shake our heads and continue doing it our way.

There is some sort of moment of reckoning at hand, this month. It's been five years, mostly good times, a lot of hard work, mostly associations with wonderful people, a few gross-outs who have since slithered back under their damp rocks...as in, for example, in the past month, the discovery that Dennis Latham's wonderful Hitchcockian suspense story "Jumpers" was stolen by a creep in Ottawa and published in the creep's name-that story next month or soon. In short, we've seen it all-the proverbial good, bad, and ugly. But here's the upshot: we are still here. The promise of the Internet is real and immeasurable, including a great future for digitally published fiction.

Now a lamentable little footnote to this glorious tale. I don't really want to go into this, but I feel I must. The question will arise: "If you publish my story, will I get credit toward membership in SFWA?" Sadly, the answer is still no. When we started in April 1998, we made sure our magazine conformed to SFWA's stated guidelines. We saw a great opportunity for the imaginative and futuristic world of science fiction to join in the exciting new world of digital publishing.We were sure that people who write, publish, and read SF would be interested in the future. After all, these were the Futurians. Hah.

From the beginning, we published in English, in North America, at least three times a year, and paid three cents a word. We did not try to put together a subscriber base of 2000+ because it was a marketing impossibility on line, as bigger guys than we (Salon, many newspapers, et al) found out. We did, however, have a mailing list of 4,000+ names.

We approached SFWA in 1998 trying to pry open the door of recognition, for one reason only: so our excellent writers could gain a publishing credit toward membership in this professional organization. We were soundly ignored. Through back channels we were warned to lay off, back off, stay away-three emails from us constituted "too much pressure." You'd think we wanted a date with them. Apparently the feeling among these Backwardians was that if one ignores the future, if one pretends digital publishing does not exist, then it will simply go away.

This is not entirely surprising. Over the years, we have run into all sorts of resistance. I've spoken with editors who mistakenly think print books will be around much longer, telling us they'll never read a digital book, not realizing they're already editing them and soon enough there won't be anything but. I've encountered librarians who "lose" POD books rather than allow them into the library's system, despite the library's stated intention to give "nontraditional" publishing a fair shake. There was even a fellow in the L.A. Times about a year or two ago who was still ranting and raving against Amazon, apparently of the opinion that there is something unethical about selling a print book through an online catalog and sending it to the reader via snail mail. All of this, trust me, is nothing more than noise-hot air-sheer nonsense, because backwardness and wishful thinking won't make the future go away.

In 2001, Scifi.com published a wonderful story by the very deserving Linda Nagata that won a Nebula for best short story. Scifi.com did not have a paying subscriber base. What's good for Scifi.com under SFWA rules should be good for Deep Outside SFFH. I saw this as a clear signal that, according to SFWA's own rules, we should now be able to join the club. I filled out their official application and sent them a check. I never received a reply. I then sent another application, with another check, by certified mail. I know they received it, because I got the certificate back signed, but again no response. At this time (April 2003) I am still waiting. Hello?

SFWA has already dispensed with the 2000+ paid subscription rule in awarding a Nebula to Scifi.com. In the meantime, we need to question the 3 cent a word rule. Whom does this rule really help? Supposedly, the 3 cent standard is a filter to ensure that professional recognition is only extended to magazines that pay writers "a living wage." I have news for you-3 cents wasn't a living wage in the 1960s when SFWA was founded, and it may barely have been a living wage in the 1930s during the Golden Age (and Great Depression). Surely, SFWA can come up with a more meaningful standard, and if they can't, a more progressive writer's group should take their place as the professional voice in this field.

For example, there are a bunch of considerable hurdles if one considers that, under tax laws in the U.S., one must send in certain federal and state forms for every author to whom one pays more than $10. There are a brace of such qualifying issues (like getting federal and state tax I.D.s, for another example) that would quickly weed out the vast majority of fledgling publications. In short, the rules of the print marketplace don't really work here.

One of the fundamental obligations a magazine has to its readers and to its writers is to survive. To do so, it must throw out the window antiquated rules from a bygone era, as has been done with the 2000+ subscriber rule in awarding a Nebula to a Scifi.com author. We've come up with some exciting solutions that are realistic and survivable, given the existing market place of digital fiction. I'd love to keep paying 3 cents a word, or even $3 a word, just as I'd love for the organization that created this standard to have the integrity to live up to its own rules. I just can no longer dig into my pocket and pull out hundreds of dollars a month to do this, and have the field's professional organization not even answer my letters, much less give my writers recognition. So who suffers in this? Actually, I don't. For any purposes of my own, I gave up caring several years ago. I only mention this sad footnote amidst our anniversary celebrations because it's a story that must be put on record. The writers suffer-because they need the recognition. The 3 cents a word won't buy them more than a few tanks of gasoline to drive to their day jobs that they have to keep, since the field seems to pay little more to most writers than this culture pays to poets and subway musicians. If you think that's just me talking, ask the editor of SF Chronicle, who recently wrote an editorial on the subject of sf/f/h writer wages. I can go back on the 3 cent standard at a moment's notice, so that should not be a show stopper for SFWA finally to do the right thing. The deal we now offer is a small advance (currently $10, and that may vary upward over time as we attract more advertising and other support) plus 50% royalties depending on sales through our primary venue, Fictionwise. This means that if a story is well received by the readers, and they buy enough copies of the story, the author might well earn over 3 cents a word. It's open, based not on artificial rules, but on the marketplace itself.

I did recently receive another back-channel advisory, suggesting that now recognition has been extended to an online digital magazine I don't need to name, and for some reason this was offered as an incentive to me to do... what? I checked out their website and found that apparently to come up with the money to pay the pittance of 3 cents a word, they've had to pass the hat. I don't know if they have third parties donating money, which is fine... but I'll say this. If a magazine instead passes the hat among its writers, then think of the absurdity: the writers have to give money to the magazine, which then pretends to pay them, in order to get recognition from SFWA. For nearly five years this magazine played by the rules, and were ignored.

Well, I've probably said more than I should. Let it rest there. The world moves on. What this kind of pettiness cannot take away from us is the fundamental purpose why we are here, the only reason why anyone should bother: the Sense of Wonder we continue to love, which has enriched our lives.

We have a lot of wonder in our past, we who write, read, and publish speculative fiction. I'm thinking of the magic of Paul (Cordwainer Smith) Linebarger and Alice (James Tiptree, Jr.) Sheldon, or the story-driving genius of Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein, or the whimsical egotism and inventiveness of Isaac Asimov, or the poetics of Ray Bradbury, or the humor of Henry (Lewis Padgett) Kuttner, the shadows on the wall cast by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, a fine galaxy of imaginative writers.

The mention above of scifi.com also brings a bit of whimsy. You see, back in 1984, as a youngish chap (I think I was 35 and my at that time full beard was dark and glossy), I sat out on a sunny, breezy patio in San Diego, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer (both luxuries in which I long do not indulge) and typed, on my ancient Kaypro-2, a proposal for a Science Fiction Channel. I never used the term "scifi" which was at that time, anyway, considered derogatory-well, I still think it is, conjuring some geek bereft of imagination, who thinks of "sigh-fie" as some childish crap involving yapping robots and whooshing rockets. I detailed the whole thing, including ideas for original programming, and a complete re-run schedule, and forwarded it to two persons I happened to think might be interested in creating such a Science Fiction Channel. One was Ted Turner, innovative creator of CNN, and the other was Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse and Omni. Both men had underlings send me short notes saying there is no perceived interest in such a channel. I'm not sure they were entirely wrong, but I think I was at least partially right, as with a few other wild ideas over the years (I was trying to pitch a digital writing pad in 1985), and that gives me hope that we're smart enough to see the Web with just the right sort of glasses as we take Far Sector SFFH in a new direction.

The magazine you are reading has already done some pioneering in its own right. In 1999 we became the first web-only magazine of SF/F/H to be listed in Writer's Market along with the four or so pulp magazines that dominate the field. Think about it: a thousand years from now, if any print books still exist, and if a copy of Writer's Market has managed to survive, researchers will find our magazine listed there as the first web publication ever.

A thousand years from now, if anyone cares, researchers may find Karen Wiesner's important journal of Web publishing milestones, and learn that Brian Callahan and I were publishing serialized novels as early as 1996. We weren't the first, but we were early. We received e-mails of thanks and enthrallment from readers in 100 countries on every continent (except Antarctica-that was one nut I never quite did manage to crack, though I sent notes to one or two stations at the South Pole; too busy doing science; oh well...)

More recently, we've gotten away from old-paradigm models more and more, concentrating on the wonderful opportunities offered by Fictionwise, the world's finest, most professional, and most progressive digital publishing company. We're not giving our stuff away for free anymore. We've learned that the public prefers to pay. Honest. Sounds strange, but so many things in this world are. People seem to feel that if something is free, it must be no good, even if they thoroughly enjoy it. It still sucks. Better to spend that money on a crumpet and a cup of burned brew at the world's most hyped coffee stand.

I suppose you may think some of this sounds a little bit bitter, like some of that over-hyped coffee. You are welcome to your opinion. The Web in general, and Web-based publishing in particular, has done wonders for me personally. I am now even making a modest amount of money as a writer and publisher, I have more control over my destiny than most writers, and I am a fairly happy and optimistic fellow as I sit here on this fifth-anniversary of our magazine, which incidentally is the 7th anniversary of my personal presence on the Web.

I am still happy with the vision I saw seven years ago. Mind you, I've never quite bought into the print vs. digital divide, except on specific issues such as the inhumane control the handful of remaining print conglomerates in NY exercise over writers' intellectual property rights. That's a characteristic of the entire media biz in which middlemen bully their way between the artist and the reader and take the lion's share of profits. Personally, I don't care if text is written in snow with tubes of yellow food coloring. It's jejeune and specious to dwell on how the text is delivered to the reader. The bottle isn't the issue, but the wine it contains. Thus you'll understand that I approach the following observations without any particular worship of digital presentations or demonization of print in and of themselves. That's just plain silly, and those who make much of it are making a tempest in a teacup. However, it is a fact that the digital world has made the conveyance of text much cheaper and easier, and thus opened the market place to all writers rather than a few filtered by the suicendiary bestseller-machine that New York's commercial publishing world seems to have become.

I am more convinced than ever that print has no future, any more than the horse did once the automobile came along. I see print on demand (POD) as a temporary band-aid. It's fun to see my own books in print, even in bookstores, but the real solution is digital. POD is an absurdity in itself, like those attempts to create online magazines with "turning" pages. It's sort of sad to see so much money wasted on these dead-end solutions. Think about it: they're going to put a $40,000 machine in a store, in which you can pay $30U.S. to watch a trade paperback (print book) be manufactured in five minutes and come plopping out by your feet. This machine will constantly break down and require $100,000 per unit in annual maintenance, floor rental, etc. And it will never earn a profit, because even at current hardcover prices the technology will never deliver within budget. And yet the same geniuses who brought us the 1990s bubble will bring us yet another losing whopper, and sadly many people will buy into it, losing their shirts again. I am not alone, or unique, in saying that the entire market place will be swept clean by the real e-book, when it arrives (soon; in the lab now).

Personally, I think this will be an inexpensive, lightweight plastic toy. It won't have 360 radio ink pages. It only needs one viewing surface. It will have at most a half dozen viewing surfaces, and that many only in case you want to be able to compare a few pages, or review notes, or watch a ball game simultaneously, or whatever. And it won't just be cheap-on the low end, it will be free. Publishers will give them away free as a promotional items to get you to buy and download their texts. You'll snuggle in bed with it, love it, and not have to awkwardly hold its pages apart until your wrists grow numb and your hands hurt. Why is all this exciting to me? Because the digital phenomenon has opened up the world of publishing to so many more writers; subject for a future rant; just let me observe here that, as an editor, I now know my suspicion of years ago is true-there are several times as many excellent and publishing-worthy authors as the narrow print pipeline permits. That's the real blessing for everyone involved.

When that new world slams home like a comet, we won't need bookstores, printing presses, and all the rest. You'll simply wirelessly buy and download the latest news story, poem, article, or short story while having coffee at a non-bitter brew shop. As I opined in my inaugural 1998 editorial, I see the tremendous environmental benefit of no longer slaughtering ancient trees so idiots can write their dumb thoughts on them (my own meanderings included). The critical fault line will be when school systems discover that they can buy each child one e-book for the child's entire educational career, and save zillions of dollars. Libraries will immediately follow. As will individuals. You can see the economic tsunami already: that's why print books have no future. It's the economy, shleppo.

When I wrote that editorial in April 1998 I believe I also said that we should stop using lumber to build houses. We've already denuded half the world. We could use bamboo, as they do in Asia. Bamboo is just grass. There are ecological ups and downs to everything, but I think it's safe to say that the days of squandering, for example, half of Asia's rainforests to make chopsticks for the Japanese market need to swiftly come to a close. The Asians build steel and glass skyscrapers, as well as elevated concrete highways, using bamboo scaffolding. Let's do that over here, please.

Well yes, I was about to say, before I waylaid myself with my own diatribe, Fictionwise offers a wonderful glimpse into the future. There, I am able to bypass all the half-ass and dead-end solutions ("magazines," "books," "turning pages," "POD," all the pointless bridges that fail to make it to the opposite bank) and deliver the content directly from the publisher to the reader via the Internet, almost as if on a fabulous new transportation network for ASCII characters (ASCIIons? Ascions?) and pixels. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the true revolution has not yet begun to be realized. Do you see the implication here? Most of the terminology we associate with writing and reading becomes the obsolete property of a previous paradigm. Does it matter what grade of papyrus we use? Will a dull stylus rip our clay? Will a grease stain affect our palimpsest? Do we have religious rioting in the streets of Manhattan among the zealots of the various publishing sects (hardcover, paperback, trade, and that new sect, the PODers? Not to mention the heretics of the digital world, who must be burned at bookstore entrances as a warning to all other iconoclasts).

What really is a book? Is it a Sumerian clay tablet, or a wall covered by Mayan glyphs, or a scroll in a Roman library, or an illumined medieval psalter, or a World War II Liberty volume?

What is a short story, other than a fictional text not long enough to fit in to the economic requirements of people producing print books?

Is a book a hardcover, a mass market paperback, or the hybrid quality paperback? Or are these simply technology-specific vehicles for delivering text to a reader who has been trained to expect candy in a certain wrapper and no other? In the chicanery associated with the "traditional" commercial print world, paperback still has that "mass market" opprobrium, that pinching of the nostrils, associated with its origins in World War II and in the pioneering of Betty Ballantine in the late 1940s (when I was born). Far more illustrious the pricy hardcover, whose only real function seems to be as a more durable library volume, and whose more lucrative cost structure lends itself to grabbing bigger bucks from the early buyers, those people who don't care about the price but want their favorite author's latest book now. To straddle both worlds, there's the trade-it's the same size as a hardcover, but has paper covers. What does any of this mean in the digital world? Not a blessed thing. It is pure nonsense.

What about the traditional size constraints? Can't profitably publish a "book" at less than 60,000 words unless we make the print real big. Too long to publish as a short story...well, we could go on. And it's almost comical...even in the digital world, readers are still oriented toward "short story" and "novel," in large part avoiding the in-between lengths (say, 10,000 to 50,000 words). Why? Because the print publishers have made these lengths akin to leprosy. Fie! Let there be no story that is between 10k and 50k, for that is not a story, but an abomination unto the cash register gods. To which I say: what a bunch of stupid crap. Really. Every writer's dream, before he has it beaten out of him with steel rods on his bloodied knuckles, is to tell each story at exactly the right length it demands. What a luxury, when the movie folks are constrained to the 120-minute script.

Once the world of digital text throws all these concepts in the trash can, everything is up for grabs. Well, not quite everything. "Stories" will have to measure up to the high standards of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, David and Bathsheba, the love poems of Catullus, the epics of Dante and Chaucer, the novels of Flaubert and Dickens and Fitzgerald, the short stories of John O'Hara and Ray Bradbury, and a thousand other fine writers of great stories.

Editors will still need to edit, as they have done before, to their amazement learning that it doesn't matter if the end result is ink smeared on dead trees, or digital books downloaded from the Web, or even some future holographic text hovering in thin air. In our naivete, 5 years ago, we actually thought for one morning (I remember it well, and reality had set in by lunchtime) that publishing and editing themselves were about to be obsolete.

Publishers will still need to acquire-though one hopes against hope that perhaps authors in particular and artists in general will have better control over their intellectual property and their lives, in the form of more equitable contracts that don't steal the author's entire barn for the privilege of publishing one tiny piglet.

Speculative fiction has always been at the forefront of intellectual endeavor. In this spirit, I must mention my sadness at the loss of life in the currently ongoing Iraq conflict. Regardless of one's politics, one should be aware that every life lost is a universe snuffed out before its time. Here in San Diego as I write one can smell the first hints of Spring. It is distressing to know that there are young men and women who will never again enjoy the scent of a spring flower, or the touch of a loved one. Each leaves a bereaved family. Those of us who write must dream for them, as we read the violent words of The Iliad, full of their own anguish, or the pungently beautiful last words of great World War I poets like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae ("In Flanders Fields..."), and so many other flowers of that illustrious field snipped in their bloom. We are rediscovering such a dreadful springtime once again, though we must hope for the best for all the survivors, be they Iraqi or Coalition. Our caring must extend to both the military and civilian victims of war. This caring is important for people involved in speculative and dark fiction, because we aren't just about "sigh-fie." History is built around meaningful imaginative literature.

As the great anthologist August Derleth set out to prove half a century ago, much of your standard reading syllabus consists of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. There's H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, a fine social commentary. Or, speaking of social commentary, a fine little novel by Ayn Rand titled Anthem. Blade Runner, which is Faustus and Frankenstein updated and made digital. We have a grand galactic swirl here of horror, fantasy, sf, suspense, all things wonderful, wondering, wonder-filled. In fact, I have on a few occasions given a talk about how most of our literature syllabus of great books involves science fiction and other fantastic elements. Think Gilgamesh. Think the wheels of fire in Ezekiel. Think the wooden horse in The Iliad (SF) vs. gods and goddesses sporting on the field of battle (fantasy). Think Dante descending (horror). Think Moby Dick, in which the white whale may be arguably a horror trope (or SF). Think (or thank) Brave New World, a brilliant 1932 SF novel whose true implications and dangers won't be realized until well into the 21st Century. Think 1984, a social commentary of futuristic fiction written in 1948.

I'm looking forward to many more years of Far Sector SFFH. The first five have been great, including the bumps. I've been one of the cogs here. Others have played a vital role. Although my business partner and co-founder has moved on to other endeavors (http://www.sighco.com/), Brian Callahan leaves his mark indelibly on how this important Web original took shape.

Talented columnist John K. Muir has been a dedicated supporter and steadfast contributor for several years, and he now has his own website for you to enjoy.

The multi-talented story teller Al Sirois, whose books Blood Relations and Blind Ambitions you must read if you are an SF/SoW Sense of Wonder) fan, continues to serve illustriously as friend, webmaster, and fellow author. Explore his personal website while you're at it.

Oh yes, and I'd like you to read my SF novel This Shoal of Space. I wrote it in 1990 and I think it's one of the world's first virtual reality fictions, since I had worked as a programmer and was familiar with the early concept of virtual paging. Honestly, it's not for everyone, but then again nothing in this world is. Some people love it, some hate it, and a lesser number feel inbetween. For less than the price of an upscale coffee and crumpet, you can't go wrong trying it. Same philosophy applies to a lot of interesting fiction available today, whether print or digital, if that differentiation still matters to anyone.

Thanks for making the first five years fun. Here's looking forward to another great five and more.

Best Wishes,
John T. Cullen