Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don’t Stop the Presses!

As all hardcore mystery fans know, this is Bouchercon week, the 40th gathering of crime-fiction enthusiasts, authors, agents, editors, and assorted gadflies in the otherwise calm and collected city of Indianapolis, Indiana. But while the conference will offer much in the way of celebrating this genre (panel discussions, dinners, parties, and the inevitable late nights spent in hotel saloons), there will also be a twinge of sadness, as this will be the final conference graced with the presence of Mystery News. The Anthony Award-winning bimonthly periodical from Black Raven Press will cease publication with the about-to-be-released October/November issue.

Mystery News under the stewardship of Lynn Kaczmarek and Chris Aldrich began in 1997, the “evil twins” of crime fiction having purchased the tabloid from founder Harriet Stay. It was always a labor of love and maintained editorial independence by surviving on subscription revenue only--no advertising ever crossed the eyes of Mystery News’ faithful readers. Yet, despite operating on the proverbial shoestring budget, and having to co-exist within the busy professional lives of Kaczmarek and Aldrich, the bimonthly never missed an issue, nor did it slump in quality over its 11-year run. (Full disclosure: I was a contributing columnist for more than 10 of those years, writing about new authors.)

While the demise of Mystery News is rather depressing, crime-fiction fans will still be well served by other publications, among them Crimespree Magazine, Deadly Pleasures, and Mystery Scene. The last of those is edited by Kate Stine, who was editor of The Armchair Detective (1967-1997) in its final days, and also edited The Armchair Detective Book of Lists (1995). Stine and Mystery Scene will assume the subscription rolls for Mystery News, as they did for The Drood Review of Mystery, another late and lamented journal that covered crime fiction. Stine’s impressive tenure as an editor makes her uniquely qualified to discuss the state of mystery magazines today, and I was fortunate to secure a brief interview with her as she prepared for Bouchercon. Ironically, our exchange took place on the same day Condé Nast Publications announced the termination of Gourmet Magazine and three of its other periodicals.

Stephen Miller: With the growth of the Internet and mystery-themed blogs that provide free content, can a magazine without advertising income continue to be viable?

Kate Stine: I think it’s tough if you don’t take advertising. The economics of a publication with postal and printing costs is very challenging. In addition to advertising, I think you have to have real subscription rates, because newsstand sales, which represents the third pillar, are difficult. [Mystery Scene is] in Barnes & Noble and Borders, but a lot of times what you end up doing is providing some entertainment for those customers while they buy expensive coffees. They don’t buy the magazine; they get returned, so we don’t sell through. You really have to rely on the other two components, subscriptions and advertising.

SM: How would you characterize the quality of mystery magazines you’ve seen over the years?

KS: The Armchair Detective was exceptional. I edited it for five years, but I wouldn’t take credit for what they built there. The writers had incredible expertise, like the professors and long-term collectors who just loved and studied the genre intensely. But it’s tough to get people to put the time and effort into magazines when they don’t get paid, which is what’s happening on the Internet. The writing on blogs is much more personal and in a lot of cases, it’s a lot of marketing, with writers promoting their own work. It isn’t the same thing, though.

SM: So, would I be correct in saying that the blogs aren’t picking up any of the slack left by departing magazines like Mystery News
and Drood Review?

KS: Some of them are. But they’re labors of love and it’s hard to cover the mystery world and do it justice as a hobby.

SM: Blogs and the Internet have broken down a lot of international barriers; we now know more about books published in Europe and other parts of the world. Does this expanding world of crime fiction make a magazine editor’s job more demanding?

KS: Because we’re a primarily U.S. and Canada publication, we focus on books available to our readers here, and most of them are not going to buy books from Amazon UK.

The Web certainly gives us a heads-up on things that are coming this way and it makes it incredibly easy to get ahold of people, which is wonderful. When I edited The Armchair Detective, finding writers for an interview could be a nightmare. Now, you can easily find someone’s e-mail and you can be talking to them the next day. Fortunately, I’m not the sole person keeping track of things at Mystery Scene. We have a great team of freelancers like Betty Webb on the independent publishers, and Jon L. Breen covers the reference books. If something is slipping past me, someone else will bring it up. In one way, it’s a challenge for a magazine to try and cover everything; but the economics of this is such that we’re not going to talk about people who aren’t available to our readers.

SM: How do you see the current landscape for crime-fiction-
focused magazines?

KS: You know, I don’t really know what to tell people other than this is a business. If you’re going to pay your writers, which is what we do, and [pay] the people in the office who handle the subscription stuff, you need to make it work as a business. I think it’s always been difficult. There weren’t that many magazines 20 years ago--it’s not like there were a dozen of them. They always come in and out of publication. I do wonder, though, what’s going to happen to us when electronic publishing gets to be more prevalent. Our job is to talk about what’s good to read and in a sense it’s not going to affect us. But, on the other hand, there are no good electronic readers for magazines yet. A good part of magazines is the design. I don’t think Mystery Scene will be going electronic, which is almost too bad because printing and postage are killing us. People were saying that things like the Kindle were a terrible thing, and I’m not sure that it is. It will be hard on booksellers, but as far as publishers and writers go, I’m not so sure it’s so bad.

SM: Well, we’ll all be a lot smarter about that in five years or so.

KS: We don’t even have a good guess about what will happen.

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