Tuesday, October 16, 2012

INTERVIEW with Brian White of Fireside Magazine

Here at nerds_feather, we celebrate short fiction. To that end, for our latest interview, we "sat down" with Brian White, editor of new multi-genre short fiction magazine, Fireside. Though not limited to SF/F, in its first two issues Fireside has featured SF/F authors like Ken Liu and Kat Howard. We ask Brian what's next, and what makes Fireside unique.

Tell us a little about Fireside Magazine’s backstory. How did it come about? What does the ideal Fireside story “look” like?

Fireside kind of sprang fully formed out of a stew of ideas in my head late last year. I follow a lot of writing and publishing folk on Twitter, and I was reading a lot there about new publishing models and pay for writers and then, Kickstarter. And I thought, “Hey, I could start a fiction magazine.” We’d pay writers well above the going professional rate of 5 cents a word, and it would draw from all genres, like the Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio anthology “Stories.” We’d also publish comics. I have only been reading comics for a few years, and I love the possibilities of comics. Our only criteria would be good storytelling. That’s the ideal, a story that keeps the reader turning pages and asking “what happens next?”

How do you see Fireside fitting into the world of short fiction—and given this site’s interests, specifically into the world of short science and fantasy fiction? How do you differentiate yourself—in terms of concept, scope or aesthetic—from the competition?

I think Fireside is different in its genreless approach and its inclusion of comics. Most magazines focus on a genre or theme, and very few have comics at all. Because we are looking for stories from any genre and only have four short stories per issue, the mix of genres in each issue is different. I definitely am keeping an eye out for good science fiction and fantasy, because that is my first love and what I’ve read all of my life. But I’m also pushing myself to broaden my reading to all the other genres out there.

You have an interesting model for compensating authors and for raising funds. Would you like to tell us how it works?

When I came up with the idea for Fireside, one of the things I had been reading a lot about was the pay rates that authors get for short fiction. The rate that is considered professional is 5 cents a word, and has been for years. That translates into $200 for a 4,000 word story, which is the upper limit we publish in Fireside.

Given that writing, editing, and revising even a short piece of fiction can take weeks (albeit not of continuous work), $200 isn’t really all that much. Fireside pays 12.5 cents a word, or $500 for a 4,000 word story, which we think is fair and can help writers make a living from their writing.

Of course, that money has to come from somewhere. (Plus we have to pay to actually produce the magazine!) I work a day job – well, a night job, actually, as a newspaper copy editor – and I don’t have a lot of money to throw at Fireside. By using Kickstarter to fund the issues, I am able to publish something that I’d never be able to pay for up front out of my own pocket.

If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, here’s how it works. You create a project, describe what you are trying to do, and set a fundraising goal. You create rewards at different price points, and people can make a pledge to the project and choose a reward at or below that pledge level. If a project reaches enough pledges to hit its goal before the Kickstarter campaign ends, then at the end everyone’s credit cards are charged and the project creator gets the money. If the project doesn’t hit its goal, no one is charged. So I am assured that I have enough money to create the issue, and the backers don’t pay for something that only gets a portion of what it needs.

For Fireside, every reward we offer is a preorder of the magazine, either in eBook or print formats. We then offer a lot of extras at higher pledge levels, like autographed copies of the magazine or the chance to have your name used as a character in a story or your likeness used in the issue’s artwork.

How would you characterize your experience with kickstarter? What made you decide that this was the way to go, and what was it like building up a network? What have you learned from the experience?

Kickstarter has been great. It’s really easy to work with and learn. I chose Kickstarter over the other crowdfunding sites mostly based on name recognition. It is by far the most well-known, so I thought I could trust it and that potential backers would be more likely to trust it as well.

Building our network of supporters largely grew out of Twitter, where most of the promotion of our first Kickstarter happened. I had a decent-sized number of followers, as did the writers and artists who worked on Issue One. Something that Amanda Palmer said during her Kickstarter, that in order to crowdfund you have to have a crowd, really mirrors the experience I had. We were able to reach out to people who already were interested in what we had to say and that translated into some of them backing the project.

Do you think crowdfunding sites like kickstarter could transform the way fiction magazines operate? If so, in what ways? 

I still don’t know about that. I’ve been approaching our use of Kickstarter as a big experiment. It’s gone well for two issues, but I know there is a big danger of Kickstarter fatigue if I keep coming back every few months. I’d like to in our next Kickstarter to raise funds for at least two issues. Ideally we could do one a year.

The eventual goal would be to be supported through subscriptions, but to cover the cost of putting out the magazine, especially with our high pay rates, would take about 3,000 subscribers, and we have only a very small fraction of that now.

Design by Amy Houser

Going back to the magazine itself, I understand issue #3 is slated to be all speculative fiction. Can you tell us what, and whom, we can expect to see?

Well, I can’t say that Issue Three will be all speculative fiction. What we do have is three invited writers — Daniel Abraham, Elizabeth Bear, and Mary Robinette Kowal — who are all known for their speculative fiction. Their stories won’t be written until the Kickstarter is funded, and that’s part of the fun. The issue kind of takes shape over a few weeks, and the mix of stories has been very differnet so far. A few of the writers we’ve had have broken very sharply from what they are known for, and have come up with very good stuff.

Besides those three writers, we do have two things that will be speculative for sure. Rachel Deering and Christine Larsen are working on a horror comic, and we are also publishing the first story we bought through our submissions process: a steampunky story from Lucas J.W. Johnson.

There are some established names on that list—Daniel Abraham, for example, is someone we’ve written about extensively on this site. I assume you solicited a story from him, rather than the other way around? If so, is this the typical way Fireside obtains stories, or are you also taking submissions from writers who may not already be well known?

For our first two issues, all of the writers were invited, as were Daniel, Elizabeth, and Mary in Issue Three. In August, we held a monthlong open submissions period, and we ended up finding eight stories, including Lucas’s. Our plan at the moment is to split the future issues between invited writers and ones we find through open submissions.

Even though Fireside isn’t “just” an SF/F magazine, it seems to play a big part in what you’re trying to do, so I feel obliged to ask you how you reacted to Paul Kincaid’s statement (and his elaboration on our site) that short science and fantasy fiction is currently in a state of malaise, and fast approaching a state of “exhaustion.” Do you think that’s a correct assessment, and if so, how can things change to get short SF/F back on track? If you don’t think it’s a correct assessment, maybe you could speak to your experience as an editor and publisher, and what alternative view this has helped foster.

Well, I think I come at this issue form a very different place than Paul does. I've only been working in fiction publishing now for nine months, and I have been pretty excited by the things I have been reading, both the stories sent to me for Fireside and in the short fiction magazines I've started subscribing too. I think his argument is interesting, and certainly worth watching out for. But I think that the best thing I can do as an editor is to focus on Fireside's goal of finding good storytelling. If I do that, I think I will be serving our readers as best I can.
What’s next for Fireside after issue #3?

Well, as I said, we’re most likely going to try to do a Kickstarter for at least two issues, probably early in the new year. I’m also hoping to start publishing books, and have a few projects in various stages of Idea, but nothing concrete yet. I am having a ton of fun though, and I’m really enjoying all this experimentation!

Thanks for speaking with his, Brian! 

My pleasure.