"Astro Friends" by Romeo Esparrago

Science (Non)Fiction:
The Story of Planet Magazine
by Andrew G. McCann


Note: This article was originally written for the Jan/Feb 2003 issue of "Matrix", published by the British Science Fiction Association (http://www.bsfa.co.uk/).

Planet Magazine is a free quarterly Web-zine of short science fiction and fantasy that was first published in March 1994. When I began putting the magazine together in the fall of 1993, I was inspired by two things: a long-held desire to edit my own science fiction magazine, and the combination of improved desktop-publishing tools and the Internet, which finally made it cost-effective for anyone to publish a zine electronically and avoid the cost of paper, ink, and postage. I gave the name a lot of thought, too. I chose “Planet Magazine” for a number of reasons: as an homage to "Planet Stories" (the pulp SF magazine published from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s), to connote the global reach of the Internet, to allude to the literal “other worlds” found in SF, and to acknowledge the internal "worlds" created by writers and artists.

Since it seemed clear from the start that an e-zine would be a money-loser, and because the Internet culture at that time was free-spirited and strongly anti-profit (the word e-commerce did not exist then), I tried to make life easy for anyone involved with Planet. As I wrote in the first issue, Planet would focus on emerging writers and digital artists -- they wouldn’t be paid, but they’d keep their copyrights, and I’d get to be the editor! Furthermore, Planet would carry no ads and would be free. As we would print the issues on electrons, not with paper and ink, our costs would stay low -- especially since electronic transmission saved us the cost of any postage. We did consider the fact that many people don’t like to read on-screen, and so we decided to keep the layout simple to allow anyone to print out Planet and read it that way. To my mind, Planet would be a training ground for writers, and ideally a writer would get better and move on and up to the paying markets. This, in fact, has happened, although these writers (such as Tony Chandler, who recently published “Mothership”) have had other influences beyond Planet Magazine. We’ve also taken this approach toward digital artists in recent years, as more artists (such as Kenn Brown, who illustrated Planet's June 2002 cover and also did the December 2002 cover of Wired magazine) have come online and as Internet bandwidth has improved, allowing for more illustrations in an issue.

In the early 1990s, I had been working as a journalist and got a part-time job as assistant editor on a short-lived small magazine named “The Prospect Review”, published out of Brooklyn, N.Y. That was my first taste of receiving and reviewing submissions, although it was all done by regular mail. But the costs and the time involved with printing the magazine were daunting, and I didn’t see how I could start up my own magazine without losing thousands of dollars in the process. Then, in 1993, I bought a Mac LC, replacing my old DOS computer and DOS-based CompuServe account, and signed up with America Online. This was my first experience with color and a graphical user interface on a computer, and it wasn’t long before I came across some electronic magazines in color, such as Inside Mac Games. I also found some mainly text-based SF e-zines, like Quanta (which started in something like 1990) and InterText (founded in 1991, and still going). The light bulb quickly went on, of course, and I started planning my first issue of Planet Magazine, which debuted in March 1994 on America Online, CompuServe, and various online bulletin-board services. As far as I know, Planet Magazine was the very first electronic SF magazine with color illustrations (which impresses me, anyway). Originally, submissions came from myself, friends, and family. Soon, though, writers found the magazine online and sent me submissions. I continue to get several submissions every week, and that’s essentially built up without any advertising or promotion over the years.

Early in Planet’s life I was contacted via e-mail by an artist named Romeo Esparrago. We worked well together, and he ended up joining the staff as sort of an at-large graphics editor. Later, Tom Wagner, who is a real-life scientist, and Ray Dangel, a retired newspaperman, came on board to help review submissions and edit accepted stories and poems. We all were motivated by the fun of putting out an SF zine, and we all had skills we could bring to the party.

Some might wonder what qualifies me to be an editor of a SF magazine. I suppose an interest in SF is a good start. Probably like most people reading this, I’d always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy books and movies and how they tickle the imagination. My favorite authors included the usual SF suspects -- Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison (and his “Dangerous Visions” series), and Frank Herbert -- as well as fantasy masters like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C.L Moore (who wrote “Black God’s Kiss”, among other classic weird-fantasy stories). As for movies, I’d have to list “Forbidden Planet”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and “Star Wars” as formative experiences, as well as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. There are too many great books and movies to mention, though. Beyond a love of SF and fantasy, however, I think my native writing and editing skills and my bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism have been assets. Yet the most important factor probably is that I have had the willingness to take the time and spend the energy to put out a magazine. It takes a lot of work to review stories, find artwork, and organize the issue on deadline -- not that I’m complaining. I think that if you’re magazine is good, and you can handle the workflow, your magazine will survive. Just don’t expect to get rich….

When Planet started, the Internet had been around for years, but the Worldwide Web (i.e., Web browsers and HTML coding) was in its infancy. Back then, Mosaic (the precursor to Netscape) was the only Web browser, all Web pages had gray backgrounds and flush-left images (if any), all links were big, blue, and underlined, and Yahoo! was just a very long page of links. At that time, it was much easier to put out Planet in text and DOCMaker formats and post it for download on AOL, CompuServe, local bulletin board services, and even eWorld for a while. (DOCMaker, by the way, is a program that creates self-running applications for the Macintosh that functioned as color e-zines, allowing illustrations.) We also put out Planet in Adobe Acrobat format for a while (and we’ve even done a few issues in Palm format). By 1994-95, we were hoping to do Planet in HTML format as a Web-zine, but server space at that time was almost impossible to get (cheaply), unless you were affiliated in some way with a university or a corporate IT department; we had an offer in 1995 from a guy at a university, but we couldn’t control the look or the uploading of the files, so we said no. (As far as I know, the first HTML-based SF zine was Dark Planet, which debuted in September 1995; it’s now part of SFsite.com. In fact, Dark Planet was probably one of the first Web-based zines of any kind.) So, after starting out as a text, DOCMaker, and Acrobat-based zine in early 1994, Planet finally switched over completely to HTML format in 1996, once free Web sites like Geocities.com and better page-creation tools (like PageMill) became available to all. Currently, Planet’s domain of http://www.planetmag.com is hosted by Etext.org, at http://www.etext.org.

Now that Planet is nearly nine years old, I can look back and see that we’re a little slicker-looking, we have more and better stories, our illustrations are vastly improved, and we’ve come up with a formula that works for us -- but in terms of attitude and spirit, we’ve probably changed very little. I think that’s because we always kept an eye on our initial, simple goals: to have fun, to encourage new authors, and to just publish an SF magazine. In that sense, we’ve been very successful. Monetarily, we have in fact lost money (on the cost of domain names, publishing tools, etc.), but not too much. Although there are dozens of SF zines on the Internet now, I think Planet is unique because it was one of the first SF e-zines (probably the first in color), and it has continued to publish (with few interruptions) and improve. I assume readers like the magazine because we get a good number of page hits and few letters -- as a former journalist, I know that people usually writer letters when they’re upset about something, not when they are satisfied (or, of course, when they don’t care) -- and the letters that we do receive are almost all fan letters of some kind.

SF and fandom have grown rapidly over the years from a niche to a mass market, helped by franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and that’s fine with us. But fads come and go, and we were never strongly interested in the commercial side of science fiction. Planet is all about writers and artists, and we intend to stick with our game plan and publish the zine for as long as it’s practical and enjoyable. It’s a pleasure for us to put out each magazine, working with authors to improve their stories (if needed), finding interesting artists and artwork, and hopefully giving readers a great mix of SF and fantasy entertainment for free.

As for the Worldwide Web medium itself -- without which Planet Magazine never could have existed -- it obviously has taken off in a big way in recent years. We believe that the Web, as an international, cross-platform medium, is the easiest and best way to publish electronically, especially for specialized publications like Planet. In future, as the Internet, the PC, and the TV somehow converge, we think reading publications online, and printing out online material, will continue to become easier and cheaper. The Internet might never fully replace books and magazines -- which, after all, work so much better in the bathtub than a Tablet PC -- but in many ways the development of electronic magazines is like a science fiction story coming true.

Article © 2003 by Andrew G. McCann andy@planetmag.com

Illustration © 2003 by Romeo Esparrago romeo@romedome.com

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