Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Magazine of the SF/F Field

That's what LOCUS MAGAZINE's masthead says at the top of every issue. Over the last year or so, I've been wondering if that's really true. Or should the word "Field" be replaced with the word "Writer"? Reason: virtually every LOCUS interview for the past decade has been writer-centric. I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook today that I wondered if subscribers would stop buying if LOCUS did full-length interviews with illustrators as frequently as they do with writers. There's already been several comments and I thought I'd bring the discussion over here where it's open to everyone and comments don't have to be limited. A few points:

1. I'm currently a subscriber to LOCUS MAGAZINE. Have been for the last several years.

2. The people that publish LOCUS are amongst my favorites in this business. They're fun, smart, insightful, and amongst the hardest-working folks in our field.

3. They've had a tough year with the death of LOCUS founder Charles N. Brown. It's a credit to Liza, Amelia, Kirsten, Tim and everyone over there that the magazine has not missed a beat. LOCUS is clearly in the best hands possible.

4. Here's what bothers me though -- if LOCUS is indeed the magazine of our field (the sf/f field), then why do virtually all of its regular interviews focus on writers? Doesn't "the field" encompass more than just writers? What about illustrators, editors, and art directors as well? Aren't their processes and opinions also an integral part of what advances our field? And if so, then why don't we see more interviews with those folks in LOCUS? In the last decade, to the best of my recollection, the only illustrators interviewed for LOCUS are Shaun Tan, Bob Eggleton, and Kinuko Craft. If LOCUS runs two full-length interviews per issue, then that's 240 interviews over a decade, and only three artists (or so) represented in the last ten years. Fair to say that those are three excellent choices, but three out of 240 possible interviews is a staggeringly low figure, to say the least.

5. In fairness, I've spoken to editor-in-chief Liza Trombi twice this year about this very subject, and without disclosing private details, I think it's fair to say that LOCUS is in a tough position. Think about this question from their standpoint -- they're a business, and quite frankly, these tough financial times aren't easy for ANY print magazine business. Change is especially risky right now. LOCUS only has so many pages and adding page count is expensive, if not prohibitively so. They're used to being a writer-centric magazine and have been lauded for it time after time (see their 29 Hugo Awards). Under those circumstances, I think I can understand their position to "hold the line" and not change their formula. At the same time, they are a print magazine that (like all print magazines) is always looking to increase its subscription base, especially in these challenging times.

6. Thus my question -- if LOCUS were to publish more full-length interviews with illustrators, editors, and art directors in addition to their already-outstanding writer interviews, would they diminish their base? Or possibly grow it?

7. Here's another question -- I wonder if perhaps LOCUS is completely justified to continue as they have (except perhaps change their masthead to "The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer"). Perhaps I've been slow to understand that I'm NOT the audience for this mag because I'm not a writer? Perhaps their magazine is purely a magazine about the sf/f writer and for the fans of those writers, and that's the way it always has been and should be? Maybe LOCUS and I disagree that the art of sf/f is a significant part of "the field" and therefore of genuine interview interest to its readers? If so, then I'd have no problem wishing them continued success, and subscribing instead to another magazine like ImagineFX, where I would learn more about my sf/f art peers and their craft, in the same way that writers learn the same from LOCUS' interviews.

Last thought -- LOCUS doesn't exist to make artists, editors, or art directors happy. They're a business, and if indeed their audience doesn't want interview coverage of those communities, I'm fine with that. But I'm curious to hear people say that's true or not. For LOCUS' sake, please keep comments productive here. If you're getting ready to launch slings and arrows at them, don't even think about it. I don't have time for that. This post is not about that. For the time being though -- I'm just curious if I'm alone in my observations. Remember -- it's their magazine. They're the ones doing the heavy lifting. :)


Blogger ENTP said...

I have subscribed to the magazine in the past and do buy it on occasion today. I would like to see more interviews with artists. In some ways it's surprising that artists aren't covered more. I think because the art is part of the fabric of science fiction and fantasy it's overlooked. Maybe it's just not on their radar but should be.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Christopher Gronlund said...

I like reading interviews with artists more than writers. I've read so many interviews with writers...since I write, I can usually identify with what writers say in interviews.

Artists have always fascinated me. Maybe because as a kid, even before wanting to be a writer, I wanted to be an artist.

I'm fascinated by the similarities and differences between writers and artists. I have a friend at work who is an artist, and it's always great chatting with her about creative things because it's a different view about--in many ways--the same things.

I've never been a sci-fi fan. There is some fantasy I like, but it's not what I typically read.

When I've picked up a SF/F magazine, it has usually been because there was something art-related that caught my attention. And then, since I have the magazine in my hands, I end up reading things that I normally would have never known existed.

It seems like LOCUS leaving out artist interviews is selling themselves short. While I realize--especially with literary magazines--that publications full of short stories are primarily supported by people who want to write, I think most writers would do themselves a favor by reading interviews with artists, musicians, and other non-writing creative people.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Kat Howard said...

So to continue/ elaborate on what I said on Twitter:

I subscribe to Locus, because I'm a writer in the SFF field, and it seems like one of the best ways to keep up with writerly business. At the same time, I would like to see more inclusion of illustrators/ art directors because that is also, I think, part of the field. Maybe they could start with interviewing/ profiling people like Irene Gallo, the art director for a major publishing house, or Dave McKean, who has a long-standing collaborative relationship with a major author in the field, or someone like you, with the experience of doing the GRRM calendar.

I really think it's possible to keep the writerly focus which does seem to be working well for them, and also branch out into a new and interesting direction.

1:27 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

I want to jump in and clarify something in case it's not already clear in my post -- Christopher makes the point about how much we learn from other communities which are tangents to our own. I completely agree. For instance, I learn a helluva lot reading interviews by writers like Jeffrey Ford, Cory Doctorow, and Charles Stross, even though I'm not a writer. Reading about the way they see the world sometimes impacts my own. I'm willing to pay good money for those interviews, and do so when I subscribe to LOCUS. My point is that if the magazine claims to be the mag of "The Field", then the field (in my estimation) realistically encompasses much more than just writers and I'd enjoy learning from those other communities as well (including interviews with peers within the art community). I love those interviews with writers but I suspect that LOCUS is capable of covering more than just that community. However, I could be guessing wrong, and maybe they have zero interest in that, and the same may be true of their core readership, and if so, then that's a valid response, and I should move on, and spend time elsewhere. I don't have enough data to say for sure. That's why I'm raising the question....

1:39 PM  
Blogger ces said...

I always thought LOCUS was a magazine for writers, and that the "field" they covered was the field of writing. It's always interesting to read artist interviews, but they aren't what I associate with LOCUS. I'd like to see LOCUS continuing doing what they are doing so remarkably well. And I'd like to see a sister magazine devoted to sf/f art, the "field" here being the field of art. I'm afraid that if LOCUS did include an artist interview, it would appear as an "afterthought," with 10% of the magazine being the artist interview and the remaining 90% being the writer interview and the other material. (The percentages quoted are made-up by me.)

One problem I see with LOCUS including artist interviews - you'd have to have a picture or two of their art, and those pictures would (at least to me) be worthless if they weren't in colour. Colour is expensive, especially if you want to do a decent job of it. And LOCUS is a b&w magazine.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Question: What is ImagineFX's subscription size?

And, while its true Locus might lose some folks, don't they have more to gain from the 12,000,000+ folks who frequent each month?

3:56 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Hi, Christine -- Great input as always! :)

Hey, if Locus were willing to devote 10% of their mag to art discussion, that would be a huge improvement, even if the rest of it were all devoted to the writing side. That would be a huge step toward them living up to the claim of "The Magazine of the SF&F Field". As far as a "sister magazine" devoted to art -- I hate to break the news, Christine, but I suspect that ship ain't gonna be sailing in anytime soon, at least not from LOCUS. :)

Your point about art presenting better on color pages is well-taken and a good one. However, I would offer the example of a magazine called THE COMICS JOURNAL. I grew up reading that mag and I distinctly remember reading long, extensive (like 20 pages long) interviews with folks like Frank Frazetta and Dave McKean and countless other visual artists and storytellers. Most of the artists were known for their color work, but the mag printed their imagery in b/w. Back then, the mag's interior was completely b/w and printed on much worse paper than LOCUS is currently printed on. I treasured those interviews and still do. Really insightful stuff and never a bad interview. Learned A TON from those texts including lots of art history and problem-solving. Their b/w printing did not diminish their potency or value.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Mair said...

...if you want to include more in the "field" then why stop? What about scripts, movies and TV? Maybe the focus of LOCUS is correct and their masthead not quite accurate as John has proposed. I would think once you open the doors to artists and art directors, there would be no reason to stop there...unless there was a way to describe the field of this pub as "published" or "literary" field somehow...just random thoughts here...

11:38 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Mair - I think there's a difference between restricting yourself to the publishing field which includes artists and branching into other media. SF&F book and magazine illustration is not a new phenomena.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Carl V. said...

The Comics Journal is a great call. If Locus were to do artist interviews with that kind of length and depth, even with black and white images of the art, I would be more willing to subscribe and suspect others would as well.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John: I personally would find interviews with artists just as interesting, but I think then it might make sense to open it up entirely--have more interviews with editors, etc. The variety in that case would make the magazine more fascinating, in my opinion. Especially since they sometimes get the same old usual suspects multiple times.

As for reproducing art in the magazine--not even necessary beyond what's doable financially for the magazine. It's actually a lovely way to integrate Locus's online and magazine presence--run the artist interview in the magazine, run a gallery of the artist's work on Locus Online, and reference that fact in the magazine.

But there's a larger issue here--there are so many interview venues out there on the internet now that, much as I love Locus and read it every month, the importance of being interviewed by Locus has diminished.

So, in the larger scheme of things, *more generally*, I would, as a reader LOVE to see more varied interviews with a variety of people in professions important to the field acrosss ALL interview platforms. - JeffV

1:05 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Hi, Mair -- I think LOCUS' brand identity is firmly established on its coverage of sf/f publishing, and not sf/f cinema, gaming or otherwise. It's not like LOCUS has NEVER run artist interviews. They have. They are capable of it, but all I was saying is that in my opinion, it would be nice to see them much more often, as cover artists are a vital community of "the field" of sf/f publishing that is LOCUS' core content. I don't think artist interviews would detract from their established agendas of book-centric coverage. In my opinion, it would only enhance it.

Hi, Carl -- Gosh, I loved those COMICS JOURNAL interviews. Those things were like a seven-course meal. It took about that long to read them. They were so intense, especially when Gary Groth did the interviewing. But yeah, to my point, the paper was dirt-cheap and not particularly art-friendly, and yet it still didn't diminish the communication of a given artist's ideas.

Hi, JV -- Thanks for dropping by. Well-said. I agree. I'd love to see interviews with editors and art directors. Personally, I would devour that stuff. I would love to see how they see the world, and how they think. We're all vital parts of the same publishing ecosystem (more commonly known as "the field").

1:59 PM  
Blogger ces said...

You know, some writers love the covers that their novel's artist did, and ask for them to do the artwork on their next novel (especially if it's a series), while other writers don't seem to notice. A good way to tie-in the artist interview would be if the writer being interviewed would talk about the artist, and then the artist interview could follow as a tie-in.

Don't worry John, I have little hope of a sister magazine devoted to the artists happening - that is, after all, why we're having this discussion and last year's on the importance of cover art.

Is the market there though? Well, I went in B&B today and saw 6 different art magazines (not inluding Painter's, Photoshops, Imagine FX). I was surprised. Unfortunately I was already running late and didn't have time to peruse them. But I doubt any of them were artist interview oriented.

P.S. Maybe we should start a letter-writing campaign. Just kidding. :-)

3:34 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Hi, Christine --

Well, that's certainly one way to do it.

And as far as a letter-writing campaign.....yeah, this was my one letter to the situation. Hah! I'd rather draw and paint than talk about this kind of stuff, but I guess I felt like it needed to be said, and honestly, wanted to hear your perspective and other people's, so there you go. :) Good to hear what other people think.

4:19 PM  
Blogger ces said...

I'm probably going to be sorry I said this, but you know, I am going to write a letter to LOCUS.

But not until next week - I have to finish a birthday celebration for my Hubby this weekend,

10:38 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

What if rather than running a photo on the cover of the artist being interview, the artist supplied a nice/wonderful/spiffy piece of art for the cover ... wonder what that would do to sales?

Anyway, once upon a time, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, & Locus was mimeographed, they use to run black & while art by various fan artists. But that was a looooong time ago.

-- Michael Walsh

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've subscribed to Locus on and off over the years, but I think the internet has made serious inroads into the point of the magazine.

I rarely read the interviews. It's only the occasional author that has something interesting to say that hasn't been said before in a writer interview. Plus, sff authors are easy to get interviewed--any blogger can get one if they're patient. So, for me, the interviews aren't a draw.

That leaves publishing news for me. And again, the internet is a much more current and timely source. The advantage Locus has for me there is one-stop shopping for info (their online site, meanwhile, is abysmal), mostly of interest to me for things I missed online.

I also like their reviews since the reviewers are uniformly knowledgeable about the field.

My two cents? 1) Dump the always too long and too many Old Writers Dying pieces. Most times, they're about minor lights of the field with an occasional giant. Put that stuff online because it's really of interest to a very very small audience. 2) Dump the "Books Received" section. Who cares? There's not an sff publisher in the business that doesn't send their titles to Locus. Authors and publishers care if the book is reviewed, not stuck in a long list of "oh, duh, they got the book." If it's of interest to booksellers, again, throw it online.

Those two things along would free up tons of space for broader topics without sacrificing the author interview.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Jay W said...

This is a pretty interesting topic. I've read LOCUS for years, and must admit that I never really considered this, but agree wholeheartedly. I think Lou has a good point about the comparison to IMAGINE/FX, although that magazine is really more about the exploration of art in the field with some training thrown in, while LOCUS is basically a news and review magazine. That actually may be the downfall - it's a bit more difficult for writers (which makes up all of the Locus staff) to critique art, even though they do review art books from time to time. Personally, I'd love to see it - their author articles are usually only about two or three pages anyway; why not some artist interviews? Great idea.

6:32 AM  

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