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Editorial - February 2003
by Gordon Van Gelder

"I've never seen such a homogenous response to a survey," said Adam the marketing guru when he went over the results of our reader survey. "You don't have a readership---you have a community."

While this observation doesn't come as much of a surprise, it's very nice to hear it from an outside source.

The reader survey we conducted last spring brought a total of 1388 responses from more than two dozen different countries, including a score of readers in Chile. Thanks to all who responded and apologies to everyone who felt the survey was too long. We got a high number of survey responses from people who said they were reluctant to give out their phone numbers or email address, for fear of getting solicitations; this strikes me as a sad comment on our times.

The boring statistical questions we asked about age and income and spending habits yielded two interesting results:

1) The percentage of female readers slipped from 39 percent in 1994 to 33 percent now. I chalk that up to the change from a female editor to a male; the last time a reader survey was conducted under Ed Ferman's editorship, the percentages were closer to the current levels. (Perhaps I'll explore this issue further in a future editorial. There's an article on this subject due out soon from the SFWA Bulletin.)

2) The readership has shifted towards the younger end of the scale. Our average reader's age is forty (both mean and median), but the percentage of readers under the age of twenty-five climbed five points, from seven percent up past twelve. Maybe this change is just a reflection of the fact that our last survey wasn't conducted by computer, but I choose to take it as a good sign for the future of the magazine.

Now, if you'll excuse me a second, I'll take off my publisher's hat and put on my editor's cap.

Fortunately, it needn't be a helmet; I didn't get too many knocks on the head from the various comments about the magazine's contents. (The fact that my skull is so thick helped, too). There were plenty of constructive negative comments, but people generally seem to be happy with the fiction we're publishing. Comments like "You are doing very well right now. F&SF seems to be publishing more stories of literary merit, regardless of authorship." and "I love this magazine. I can't wait each month for it to arrive." were abundant.

While we did get complaints that we publish too much horror fiction, I was surprised that we weren't deluged with cries for "more science fiction!"---since 1949, that has been one of the consistent pleas from readers. Maybe in the twenty-five years since Star Wars debuted, readers no longer differentiate as much between fantasy and sf. As was to be expected, the stories that showed up most often in the list of favorite stories also appeared on the list of least favorites---that's what happens to the memorable ones.

There were more complaints than I expected from readers who object to homosexual subject matter in the fiction. Much as I respect people's different faiths and beliefs, I have to confess that I'm boggled by readers who will seemingly accept any sort of mind-bending behavior from imaginary aliens and yet won't tolerate different behavior from their fellow humans. Then again, one survey respondent said, "To quote one of the magazine's former editors: 'Give us candy, not nice healthy carrots.' And spare me the lectures on racism, homophobia, sexism, etc." So I'll keep quiet and contemplate responses like this one:

Stories that are a bit more conventional with character in a context with a problem that he either solves by actions or attempts to resolve through action and interaction with other characters are not a sin to publish."
and this one:
I think it's great that you're taking such an interest in your readers' opinions. At the same time, one of the reasons F&SF works as well as it does is that Gordon Van Gelder is a terrific editor; while I think he should take the results of this survey into consideration, please know that I feel that the magazine will be strongest if he still trusts his gut instincts when it comes to matters of contents, types of fiction to purchase, etc.
(Last year Harlan Ellison sent me a postcard I keep above my desk. It reads: "Frustra laborat qui omnibus placere studet—He labors in vain who tries to please everyone.")

I was surprised by the number of people who said they'd like to see more editorials from me. I'll do my best to accommodate both of you who asked (hi Mom!), but for me to take pages away from the fiction with my own ramblings, I need something substantial to say. Otherwise, it fails my test of asking, "Who cares?" The death of my cat Darwin, for instance, meant a lot to me but I'd rather give you more fiction than a few pages of fond memories of the cat.

Our columnists were also deemed healthy in the checkup, although some readers admit they're out of synch with Lucius Shepard's edgy film reviews and a few people don't get Paul Di Filippo's "Plumage from Pegasus" columns. Humor is always one of the hardest forms to assay. Satire opens Friday and closes Saturday. There was some interest in seeing us to bring back the competitions; we might try running a few through the Website.

Speaking of the Website, many people suggested that we add a Message Board to our site and we shall do so soon. The Internet has brought our community closer and we want to encourage the conversation and discussion among our members.

Our survey question that asked how much you would spend for a trip into space brought out more readers' fears of heights and of air travel than we expected. Dr. Asimov was not alone. A few canny people asked if we distinguished between one-way and round-trip rates.

The lucky winner of the lifetime subscription was Simon Massel---long may you enjoy it. Congratulations are also in order for the winners of the other prizes.

Here are two responses that sum things up well:

I regard good magazines as the engine that drives the genre, acting as a forum for ideas and discussion as well as fiction

Maintain the spirit of the magazine and you'll have (as Jack Williamson) longevity, serendipity and transcendence

And as for the reader who asked for an occasional swimsuit issue---sorry, you'll have to keep waiting.


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