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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Op Ed: Weird Tales: Dead Again?

This is a piece only tangentially related to goings on here at AIM Comics, but I think there's business lessons to be learned from it,  so I thought it would be worth sharing my opinions, off the cuff, irrelevent and unprofessional as they may be. 

I learned from Warren Ellis's website this morning that Weird Tales has been sold yet again, this time to Marvin Kaye.  What he'll do with it is anybody's guess, but Ellis seems to be predicting a more retro-fitted iteration of the magazine.  None of that in itself bothers me; Weird Tales has been dead more times than Batman or Bill the Cat, and like them, it always comes back.  Plus, I've enjoyed Marvin Kaye's anthologies for decades, and I think he's got a good sense of the enduring in horror.  And Mythos fiction is always good in my book, as long as it's not a one-trick pony.

What has concerned me about Weird Tales for some years now is that, like many of the itinerant wanderers found in its pages over the years, it never seems to find a home.  Its gone through editors and owners the way Elizabeth Taylor went through husbands.  It is as though publishers recognize the brand power of the name, but don't really know how to mobilize it. 

I think I've been a fan of Weird Tales since I read my first Conan the Barbarian collection (an Ace edition, FYI, with a Frazetta cover).  It's been my gateway to a host of incredible authors, such as Seabury Quinn, H.P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, just to name a few, and it set a standard for me against which all other magazines in the horror/fantasy genre were measured, usually to fall short of the mark.
However, my exposure to actual individual issues of Weird Tales has been surprisingly limited.  The presence and accessibility of the magazine, for all the history that accompanies its name, has not been there.  I think this has been the failing of Weird Tales in recent years, and I hope it is a lesson that the current owners will learn. 

During the Schweitzer era, I was able to find a few print copies of the magazine, but only long after they were published, and then only in random used bookshops.  Despite my constant hounding of new and used bookshops from about 1985 to...oh, let's say 2005 (I've done less since I went digital), new issues of Weird Tales were not to be found, and back issues were scarcer than copies of the Necronomicon, even in shops that were carrying other books of the same character such as Cemetery Dance, Apex and Doorways magazine. 
One would expect that with such a rich back catalog of work, and with the rising popularity of ebooks, that the publishers would be scrambling to get back issues online and into the devices of readers as quickly as possible.  With the recent rise in popularity of Lovecraftian fiction, nobody can tell me the demand isn't there, and all this stuff is just sitting there, waiting to be revived. 
Instead, I've found one anthology through Fictionwise, one issue in the same market, and only a couple of issues through the Sony bookstore.  A quick look at WT's own digital offerings through Wildside Press offers only 3 random issues and a subscription option that looks suspicious at best (what are we subscribing to if only 3 issues are available digitally?).  I've considered buying a print subscription to the magazine, but the subscription price for Canada is nearly twice that of the U.S., averaging about 10 bucks an issue.  Emails to the editors asking about the price have not received replies, and politely worded comments on relevant postings on their blog have been deleted. 

Further, despite the proven efficacy of publishers making a selection of fiction freely available through their websites, WT's offerings are few and far between.  Again, with such a rich back catalog, shouldn't they be offering more free hits to get the customers addicted?

In short, it seems to me that the publishers of Weird Tales have been trying their level best to keep the magazine out of the hands of the readers.  Their marketing has been off the mark, and out of touch with the habits of the current readership, and I think this has been a cause, as much as an effect, of their constantly changing ownership and editorial staff.

I think, frankly, that the magazine has fallen victim to its own sense of history, and developed a sense of self-importance that is placing outside the bounds of its core audience.  In short, it's full of itself.
When WT was first published, it was the foremost of the pulp magazines.  That word "pulp" is important...these were magazines printed as cheaply as possible to be sold to as many people as possible.  Definitely a "lowest common denominator" magazine; the "National Enquirer" of the literary world.  The fact that the quality of the content was higher was a combination of luck and good editorial practices, but did not change the nature of the product being sold. 
After a couple of deaths and revivals, and after writers such as Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft began to get some serious literary recognition, WT seemed to get the idea that it was more of a literary magazine, albeit a genre-related one.  That caused it to set its standards higher (admittedly not a bad thing) and its approach to the market just as lofty.  This resulted in better production values (i.e. glossy paper and better covers) and a concomitant increase in price.  Meanwhile, as competitors began to proliferate, other work in the same vein...often from the same authors...began to be available cheaper and, as the internet magazine grew in popularity, for free.  The readership has been moving in exactly the opposite direction from its much-vaunted champion.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I'd like to get Weird Tales on the cheap.  Which is true enough, but I suspect that if I think this way, there's a lot of other readers who would happily nod agreement.  I'd like to see the magazine in more bookstores, and I'd like to see those magazines printed at about the same quality of an issue of Asimov's, if not at the same size.  I don't buy many printed books these days, but I think I'd gladly build my collection of WT magazines if it didn't break the bank. 
I'd like to be able to buy current and back issues of WT in a digital format.  I've got apps that can handle just about any format I care to read in, including Kindle and Kobo, so nearly any format would do, although it would be better if the illustrations were kept in. Given the realities of the market, anything up to $2.99 would be a fair price. 
Even better, start publishing the magazine's archives in a DVD edition the way the New Yorker did.  Now there's something I want on my bookshelf. 
Weird Tales started out low end, and built its readership from the ground up.  Since it clearly doesn't have that readership any longer, I think it needs to start from the ground up again to rebuild it.  Make it the modern equivalent of pulp to get it in the hands of as many readers as possible to give it back the life it needs. 

This is what I hope for the new incarnation of Weird Tales, although I've no reason to expect it.  I think that if the magazine has any chance of settling into a consistent readership it needs look at is own earliest history and address the market on more realistic terms, instead of placing itself above that market.  Otherwise, it's going to continue to lose ground to output from Hub magazine, Abyss & Apex, Apex Online, Clarkesworld, and the myriad authors publishing through Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords.  Weird Tales is deservedly the best of the bunch, but that doesn't mean it has to be the loftiest.

On a similar note, has anyone ever tried doing a Weird Tales-esque magazine in a comic book format?  I'm not talking about comic adaptations of short stories like J.N. Williamson did with "Masques" (excellent book, that).  I'm talking about running illustrated short fiction in a standard comic book size.  The closest I've seen is single-story books like "11 11" from Crusade, but nothing that tried the anthology in the smaller format.  I wonder if that would work?  Just musings, for now...

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