Paradigm Shift: The Making of Sci Phi Journal 2.0

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Jason Rennie, the founder of Sci Phi Journal, has announced he will depart from the magazine at the end of June. Jason tirelessly built up an audience for intelligent science fiction storytelling that captures our wonder at the universe, as well as our fears for life on planet Earth. Quite a number of authors were given their first break by Jason. He will be irreplaceable. But we are left with a decision: do we abort the mission, or do we go on? As somebody who loves philosophy, science, and science fiction, I know which choice I prefer. SPJ has a loyal readership, leading me to conclude that you also want this endeavour to continue. So I will take on some of Jason’s role, whilst working with current and new team members to build on Jason’s legacy. If you have a few moments, please let me explain how we intend to take SPJ forward.

One of Jason’s greatest strengths was the way he networked and promoted SPJ by reaching out to people on a one-to-one basis. That is just one of the reasons why Jason cannot be replaced, and also explains why his time has been consumed by so many other ventures. I doubt I could match Jason’s Herculean efforts, so I will try to grow the popularity of SPJ using a different approach: by throwing money at it. Increasing the readership of SPJ is good for all of us. It will introduce the writers to a wider audience, increase awareness of the artists, stimulate greater interest in the philosophical and scientific disciplines we care about, and ultimately lead to better rates of pay for everyone who contributes. The revenue-sharing model of SPJ meant the magazine was always guaranteed to break even, but it left no money for advertising and meant writers could never be sure about how much they would receive for their work. From July, the following changes will take place:

  • all fiction writers will be offered a fixed rate per word;
  • writers of non-fiction will no longer be offered pay, but there will be increased emphasis on promoting their work elsewhere;
  • fewer stories will be published, but their average length is likely to increase;
  • there will be more non-fiction articles about philosophy and science, and a clearer separation in the presentation of fiction and non-fiction;
  • SPJ will be run at a loss, with much of the additional expenditure focused on growing the audience through web advertising;
  • the website will be revamped and moved to a faster server;
  • the paywall for subscriber-only stories will be removed, so all stories can be read by all visitors to the website;
  • paying subscribers will receive a quarterly digest emailed directly to their inbox or to their e-reader; and
  • paying subscribers will also receive free digital copies of any future SPJ anthologies or other spin-off publications.

The plan is simple: if the readership grows, then the number of paying subscribers will rise, which will allow us to pay more to writers, and eventually return the magazine to profit. Loyalty will also be rewarded. Authors that regularly contribute stories or articles will be first in line for increased rates of pay. The most loyal subscribers will receive special one-off benefits, such as the opportunity to acquire original artwork, or to set the challenge for the writing contests we intend to run in future.

I have repeatedly mentioned money because I am a practical guy, and because authors like to eat from time to time. However, I want to be clear about why I am taking on the running of SPJ: “philosophy” means love of wisdom, and this will be a labour of love. I believe the telling of stories is an important route to wisdom, and is a way to explore the universe with our mind. You probably feel the same, and I have faith that there are many others who also feel as we do. If I am now trusted to take care of some of the practical aspects of SPJ it is because I have learned a thing or two about running websites and businesses over the years, and because I used to listen to Jason’s Sci Phi podcast back when he did them, and because I somehow stumbled into administering this website after offering to debug a glitch in another of Jason’s sites, and because I visited Australia late last year, and so met with Jason and talked about his plans for the future and the prospect that he might step down as Editor-in-Chief. Otherwise, my CV boasts enough education to know the difference between Schopenhauer and Scruton, and enough leisure to distinguish Asimov from Aldiss. I have even had a few stories published using my pen name, Ray Blank, but contrary to the beliefs of some rumour-mongers at SF gossip site File 770, my name in the real world is Eric Priezkalns, and you are welcome to google it and hence discover my lack of experience at science fiction publishing. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that Jason also lacked experience when he started SPJ, and I will benefit from working with the excellent team he assembled, which includes Ben Zwycky, who has agreed to be Editor of the revamped publication.

It is fitting that SPJ will be both an exploration of what human minds can achieve through collaboration, and an experiment in changing the way we share stories, science, and philosophy. As a relative outsider, I am bemused that SF publishing has not adapted more to 21st century technology. Historian and philosopher Thomas Kuhn observed that:

In science… novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.

The same might be said of novelty in publishing. Jason attempted quite a few innovations during his time as Editor-in-Chief of SPJ, and now we are going to attempt many more. But I think if any audience can cope with innovation, it is this one. Scientifically curious, philosophically open, and mindful of the impact of technology, I would like to think we are the people who could make a collective success of a publication that aims to deliver thoughtful and imaginative stories to the widest possible audience. And I believe we will do that not by tweaking existing commercial models, but by fostering a community of people willing to engage in dialogue via the medium of creative writing. I am excited by the prospect, and I hope you will join us for the ride.

Ray Blank
Ray Blank is the Executive Editor of Sci Phi Journal. You can learn (a little) more about him here.

22 Comments

  1. I’m glad to hear SPJ will continue. I’ve enjoyed the stories. It will be interesting to see the changes. How do you expect to handle fiction submissions that are still being reviewed?

    • Hi Clara, and thanks for your support!

      If you’re asking about stories submitted before the submissions process was closed (near the start of this year) my understanding is that Jason has contacted all the authors who submitted and given them an answer. Jason has selected all the remaining stories he wants to publish before the handover date. Given the lengthy period when submissions were closed, I wasn’t expecting any submissions to be carried over.

      As I have not seen the stories previously considered, nothing stops an author from re-submitting their story for review via the new front end. New submissions won’t be routed to the same reviewers as before, so every author has a second chance of success.

      • Hi Ray,

        Thanks for the answer. I’ve had something under review since 2015 (confirmed still in review last year) but received no definitive response. Since the timeliness of the story has faded (what I wrote about technically happened in real life), I’ll cut my losses. Good luck with the changeover!!

        • Hi Clara, I’m sorry to hear about the disappointing experience with your submission. I will reach out to you by email so we can ensure your next submission receives a speedy response.

      • Hi Ray

        I too have a story still under review – submitted on 15 Jul 2016. I did receive confirmation of receipt from Jason at the time as well as confirmation that he had passed the story onto the first readers. I have heard nothing since. Should I resubmit or is it possible that my story is still in the machinery somewhere?

        many thanks
        Chris

        • Hi Chris, I am sorry to give bad news but there is no possibility that your story is in the works. There has been a clean break from the submissions process/team that was closed near the start of this year and the new process/team recently established in anticipation of the handover of SPJ in July. I can only express my sympathies that you have been waiting for an answer but it appears to have gone missing somehow.

  2. Hi RB, I wish you success with version two. I’ve always thought Sci Phi was a great idea and it’s oz, so I left a piece with Jason even when the potential rights payment fell, and I subscribed pseudometrically. I know boutique publishing is hard work and I sent some thoughts to Jason a while back (kind of similar to your own):
    …importance of taking the time to interact and comment/discuss in the relevant on-line community. But when I read/view something at a publisher’s site (art fiction whatever), I rarely click a like button or comment because it doesn’t feel like a conversation/communication with the creator, it’s more like a vacuum …could a publisher’s site be more of a hub, more networked to the creators, even with some kind of duplication…

    As a jackass of all trades, when I look at publishing markets, I consider payment a token of respect to creators 🙂 plus I ask myself will more people have a chance to enjoy my work if I put it on my own modest site? BTW I’m convinced that sites need some short powerful stuff to build up casual readership.

    Again best of luck and I would love to support Sci Phi 2 into the future.

    • Thanks Steve! I think you’re right. The word ‘hub’ is one that especially resonates; I have used it to describe other web-based collaborative endeavours I’ve worked on. Some of the challenge involves implementing the right tech – for example, it is good if people are notified of comments in response to their own words, so dialogues can occur more spontaneously. But a lot of the challenge is to encourage the right habits. You can’t just create a massive blank space on the web and then order people to “put words here” because that is too daunting, but you can give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and then promote the efforts of those who take a lead. For example, if somebody feels strongly enough to leave a long and thoughtful comment, you might want to ask them to write an article, and so lift the dialogue to a new level where more people will notice it. Please feel free to be one of those leaders!

      I passionately believe that many intelligent people enjoy engaging in dialogue not just with their neighbours, family and friends who live nearby, but also with strangers who have common interests but live on the far side of the planet. Not all ‘social’ media has to be as simple as Twitter tweets or the posts people share on Facebook. Data tells us about 1 percent of the human race are super creative and want to make lots of content to share with other people (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1%25_rule_(Internet_culture)). That’s not a high proportion of the human race, but it is a lot more people than can be employed as highly-paid professional full-time writers, artists etc. Unfortunately for them, if they run their own individual site, showcasing their work in isolation, it will be hard for other people to discover them because it unrealistic to expect the audience to scour through too many sites. A ‘hub and spoke’ model works better for these super-creatives: they share some of their content via a central hub, which receives more inbound traffic because of the high turnover and greater variety of content it offers, and then some of that traffic will flow to individual projects elsewhere. That is the kind of community I would like to see SPJ foster, based on some regular writers constructing a common core for their mutual benefit. I will be especially looking for individuals who show, by their actions, that they can be relied upon to make high-quality contributions on a regular basis. When I find them, they will be given more opportunities to use SPJ as a hub that connects them with the audience they seek.

      • RThanks for taking the time to expand your vision, RB. It sounds great and I wish you every success. My two problems are focus and time, okay, three if you count the Pinot Grigio. 😛 Because I only have a few hours each week, I try to be efficient. I’ve chosen platforms that suit me to give a little time to, eg, not twitter and not wordpress.org but wordpress.com because the wordpress reader is mostly the way people find my site.

    • Hi Steven, can you explain the difficulties you’re having with the contact form? It’s working for other people…

    • Hi Ray, the Contact form would not accept the security code, and I tried multiple times on several different devices. Anyway…

      I had a story accepted by Mr Rennie in January of this year and was told it would likely run this month. Having read your answer to comments/questions below I understand that there has been no hand-off between editorial teams; so if I were to submit the story again, what kind of response time should I expect?

      Cheers.

  3. Hi Ray,

    Can you please tell me what will happen to stories that were accepted but not yet published? I have an acceptance dating from 27 January 2015 which seems to have been shuffled to the back of the publication queue several times. It was left with the magazine when the format changed. I queried what was happening to it but received no definitive reply.

    I also have another story on submission since 17 March 2016 without response.

    • Hi Philip, I’m sorry to hear about your experience of making submissions to Sci Phi Journal. I can’t comment on your stories as there has been no handover of old submissions to the new management team. Obviously you should have received a response to both submissions by now – is it possible that they were caught by your spam filter? As there is now a completely new process for submissions, and a new team to review those submissions, you may want to resubmit your stories using the new submissions form. I’m sorry I can’t help more, but as we have no copy of your stories that is the best I can offer.

      • Since I was published once by Sci Phi Journal I can’t claim my experience was universally bad. I understand you’ve no records. I’m happy to treat the open submission as lost. The acceptance being lost upsets me rather more. However it’s certainly not your fault. Best wishes for the future.

  4. Ray,
    Good luck with the journal. It has so much potential. Like Clara, I too had a story in review (confirmed earlier this year) but I have not heard an answer and indeed I was considering pulling it and sending it elsewhere. Could you advise?

    • Hi J.K., and thanks for your encouragement. Please accept my apologies, but there has been no handover of submissions during the transition to the new management team, and all past submissions should have already received an answer. However, as we have a new team to review submissions, and a new process to handle them, you are welcome to submit your story using the new form, knowing it will be seen by a fresh pair of eyes. I’m sorry I can’t offer you more, but it’s the best we can do given that the new team has no record of the stories received or decisions made before the handover of responsibility.

  5. Good luck and welcome.

    Will post a notice with FB writers market news group I belong to about the changeover and the new guidelines for submission.

    Will also update my own market file for SciPhi Journal.

    • Thanks Gregg. Your help is much appreciated. And I enjoyed your latest story. I hope you will be sharing many more with the SPJ readers in future.

      • glad you enjoyed Berens & Kasparov’s latest misadventure… be warned, then, have at least two more of their scientific snafus in the works… and if i have anything else that may be apropos for SPJ, be sure i will present for consideration.

        🙂

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