'Have a point of view' - Fireside Fiction on 5 years of innovative publishing

'Have a point of view' - Fireside Fiction on 5 years of innovative publishing

Fireside Magazine first launched in 2012 as a Kickstarter-backed print magazine with a simple mission: to find and publish great stories, and pay well for them. As we round the corner on year five, FutureBook has been kind enough to give us some space to muse on lessons learned, and what the next five years might hold.

Here are five lessons:

1. People dig good stories - and they'll pay cash money to support the people who make them.

In the science fiction and fantasy (sf/f) short fiction field, there's a long and storied tradition of doing things for love. Many magazines feature long mastheads full of wonderful people who volunteer their hard work to make these publications happen, but never see a dime. That’s admirable, but we think it’s better to support a market where people who make stories get paid by sustainable publications.

In the literary world, the ‘get paid for your work’ conversation centers around authors and artists, and rightly so. But they’re not the only ones involved in making stories — editors, designers, producers, developers, and all sorts of other humans do lots of work in order to take the raw material from an author and turn it into a story, a podcast, an illustration, an ebook, a print edition. So now that we’re making a little more money, we’ve started paying our editors too, and as we increase our revenue (which you can keep track of on our Patreon page), we plan to increase our pay to authors, editors, artists, and anyone else we rope into working with us.

2. Small and nimble wins the race.

We managed to move from a print-centric first year to an online-first, then online-only publication, as well as moving from a Kickstarter-backed crowdfunding model to a subscription model via Patreon, while increasing revenue and remaining sustainable by staying really small, and by setting long-term goals and slowly working toward them. Being nimble also means we’re okay with calling something a mistake and adjusting our tack. When we first moved online, we built a Wordpress site. It worked well for us for a while, but after about a year we realized that we’d built the wrong thing. The admin interface got complicated. It got slow. So slow. So we decided to rip it all out and start again from scratch. It took a long time — the better part of 18 months – but we recently launched the new site, and it’s great. And so fast. So, so fast.

3. Technology knowledge is table stakes, and needs to be a core competency.

We wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do if we needed to go find outside people who know about this stuff, and pay them money. Having the ability to design and build our publication ourselves is a crucial advantage, but it’s not the only thing I mean when I say that understanding the technology landscape is table stakes: it also applies to the tools we’ve choosen for running our business: from CMSes to submissions and editorial calendars, business models to banking, project management to communications, staying constantly up to date with new, more accessible business tools is critical, especially for smaller outfits that need to move nimbly.

4. Having a point of view is a feature, not a bug. 

Hiding behind a faceless corporate facade is no longer a good strategy, even for the big guys (if it ever really was), and standing for something is not just viable, but it may be the best way forward. Fireside is a progressive organization, and we think it’s our responsibility to promote social justice, support others who do as well, and call out people who stand in opposition to our values. Our audience is selective, but much more engaged than they would be otherwise. They know exactly what they're supporting when they give us money, and we know they have our backs.

But the world is wide, and there’s lots of issues to engage with, so in terms of specific things we do to support progressive causes — aside from publishing stories that inspire — we focus on two issues we’re passionate about: calling out and countering systemic racism and implicit biases in the sf/f short fiction field, and building safer spaces for the vibrant sf/f community to enjoy.

Last year’s #BlackSpecFic report was the first manifestation of our focus on the first issue. It has helped to jump-start a conversation about implicit biases when acquiring work by black authors, and we’ll be doing it again this year. As for the second issue, we’re starting small; we’ll have more to say about it in 2018.

5. Sunlight is a great disinfectant.

We tend toward transparency at Fireside — it’s right there in our company values:

We think that it’s important to be forthright with the way we run our publishing operations, not only to build trust with the people giving us money and the creators who trust us to publish their work, but also to build awareness about what it takes to run a small, indie publishing operation, and to generate empathy among our readership. We think that that empathy will translate into revenue, which leads directly to providing fair pay for good work.

So far, we’ve been right. But more interestingly, our experience with #BlackSpecFic has shown us that being disciplined about having conversations in public – especially when we’re being critiqued – results in less distracting drama, and a more inclusive and productive dialogue. Transparency is something that most businesses avoid — it's hard to bare it all, especially when you're a larger organization with lots of dark corners. But we’re committed to being open about how we do things at Fireside, and we’ll be doubling down on transparency in the next year, as we engage with the community about issues related to payment and how we run our small publisher.

And finally, a prediction. I’m not much for reading tea leaves — the future is a complicated place — but some things are pretty obvious. Publishing, along with most other capitalist endeavors related to media, is at a crossroads. The well-worn path to success that publishers trod in the 20th century will continue to slowly generate diminishing returns, until all of a sudden those diminishing returns won’t be so slow. We’ve seen it in music, in TV (remember when TV network execs said cord-cutting was ‘just a fad’? Oh you sweet summer children.), we’re seeing it in movies, and books and magazines are certainly different, but not an exception.

One thing I’m pretty certain of, though: publishing will continue to be about relationships. The most important thing Fireside can do as a publisher is to make sure that we value and respect our relationships with our audience, our authors, and our workers. Our audience will always get wonderful stories, presented in a clean, uncluttered way that respects their attention. Our authors and artists will get fair terms on contracts, clear and timely communications, and as much money as we can reasonably give them. And our workers will get cash money for their hard work — again: as much money as we can reasonably give them.

After five years, we’re in a good place: we’re a sustainable operation, with just enough of a tiny bit of headroom where we can start doing some new things. We’ve built up a good reputation among our audience and the sf/f author community, and we’re ready to do more. Here’s to the next five years.