The eZine Thing
I had an eZine for a couple of years. It was an interesting experience, but I don’t think that I’d do it again.
I’ve learned a little about making an online magazine or eZine, and I’d like to discuss the process a little.
First, I’ve read lots of comments on Speculations and other places about how hard it is to start an eZine. Of course the opposite is true. It is too easy. There are thousands of genre eZines out there. The truth is that it is very easy to start an eZine, but it is very hard to do it well. I like to think that the eZine that I managed was better than 80% of the Speculative Fiction web sites out there, but that leaves a big 20% of some very good sites.
First, you need a concept. The concept was that I wanted to create a site that featured good old fashioned speculative fiction. I wanted classic style stories that could have appeared in magazines in the 1950s. I particularly did not want arty, experimental, or alternative stories. I wanted real plots, real characters, and real speculative fiction themes. Arthur decided that he would take any story as long as it was good and did not want to use too fine a filter. I think that the eZine featured some very good stories. Not all of the stories are of the classic style, but all are well written and not many were what R. A. Heinlein would have called “Stinkeroos”.
I recommend that you discard any concept that contains the word Alternative. I think that many eZines are started because of the frustration that writers have trying to get their own stories published. They see editors as being short sighted. Their own stories are not understood, so they try and create a venue where they kind of stories that they write can be published. Using the word Alternative implies that you will be publishing a different flavor of speculative fiction. I strongly suspect that the new flavor will smell bad. If you are having trouble selling your art, don’t blame the editors.
I would also be suspicious of using the word Dark. I read many stories of adolescent angst. These stories can be classified as Dark. I am, as Muddy Waters sang: way past twenty one. I don’t need to read stories about teenagers with self esteem issues working out gender identity problems while raging against authority. Dean Koontz is Dark. Stephen King is Dark. H.P. Lovecraft is Dark. A frustrated kid writing about a monster chopping up his parents is boring. There are plenty of Splatter Horror eZines out there, the world doesn’t need another one.
Make your concept simple and not too limiting. It is hard to get good stories. The eZine that I managed was lucky with submissions, but there have been issues where it was hard to put together nine good stories. Don’t turn away any good stories because they don’t quite fit. Don’t discourage anyone from sending you a story.
You need a good name. I registered AstoundingStories.com and immediately had men-in-suits knocking on my door. The alternative name was actually a better name. If you want to by the domain AstoundingTales.com, I’ll sell it cheap.
Your name needs to stand out, but should also tell the world your concept. It does not have to be a domain name. You don’t need to register your eZine name and get a dot-com address. A dot-com is like an easy to read address and will help readers find you, but you can use a subdomain or subdirectory at a big site ( this is like using a post office box), although I would avoid the free web hosts with all of their intrusive advertising.
Where to host.
You will need a web host that supports PHP or ASP (scripting languages). If you can find a host that supports a package called Fantastico, all the better. You need these features to have Discussion groups, Chat rooms, Guest books, counters, and other neat features.
Create a design.
Everyone and his cousin touts themselves as a web site designer these days. I am not an artist. I am a programmer, with training in usability. I spent hundreds of hours while working at IBM, in user interface design classes. The eZine that I managed was not stylish or cool or even very pretty, but you could read the stories. I am not a web site designer, but I know how to make a web site.
You have to create a web site that has a nice feel and is above all readable. You need to have redundant navigation. Put menus all over the place so the reader is never lost. The reader should not have to hit the back button.
If you are serious about designing your eZine, you will need an HTML editor, a graphics editor, and a good clip art library. Dreamweaver is my HTML editor, but FrontPage is good. I have an old Paint Shop Pro V6 that I bought a few years ago. If you can afford a legal copy of Photoshop, all the better. I own the Corel Clip Art Library (1,000,000 images, but out of print), the MacMillan Imagine-It! Library and several other packages. The MacMillan library includes a Science Fiction section that is pretty good, but the package is hard to find now.
You can create a web page from a canned theme, as some sites have done, or you can find an artist to create a theme for you. Remember, the story is your product. You readers will appreciate a pretty and atmospheric site, but they will mostly want to read your stories. If they can’t find the stories or the screens are obscure, you will not get many visitors. Many sites use dark backgrounds with low contrast font color. I find myself using the mouse to highlight the text in order to read it. Don’t make this mistake.
Make your design readable. Find out about using colors so male colorblind readers will still be able to see the site (10% or more of your readers).
Build the site.
Put it all together. Write up your mission statement. Make a masthead. Write your guidelines. Tell the world and wait for submissions.
Put your site on Ralans, Spicy Green Iguana, and other writers directories. Announce at Speculations, Asimov’s and the other boards.
Read the submissions.
Reading slush is a hard job.
Be kind to your writers. Give them encouragement. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. All stories have the germ of a good idea. Find that little spark and let the writer know that you liked something about their story, even if you did not accept it.
Some writers send back abusive email if you reject their stories. Some send back a kind thank you for your comments. Keep your rejections short and to the point. Don’t say anything discouraging, even to the worst writer. The rejections that I hate most are the form ones with no comments at all, though, so always personalize your rejections to convince the writer that you actually read the story.
One in a hundred stories is a winner, so find a form contract and send it right back to the writer before he changes his or her mind.
Publish you eZine!
Once you get it all together and get the stories, format them according to your theme and send them out to the world. Announce the hell out of your site on every board and bbs and discussion group you can find. You will get a few hundred hits a day and some fans. The next issue will be better. Someday you will be able to pay your writers. Someday you will publish a “Best Of” and you will have something that you can be proud of.
Is it worth it?
You can’t make any money on an eZine. There are so many eZines out there that you can’t make a dent in market share. At best you can bring together a small community of writers into a community.
Looking back, I sometimes feel that I wasted my time, but I was reading through the old pages (I keep them for nostalgia value) and I think it was mostly a positive experience.