Compelling Science Fiction

Joe Stech talks about reading thousands of stories, landing lucrative sponsorships, and launching his own science fiction magazine to over 3000 readers.

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, I'm Joe Stech, and I'm the publisher/editor of Compelling Science Fiction. My background is in software engineering, and during the day I work as a data scientist for a large software company in Colorado.

Compelling Science Fiction is an online science fiction magazine. The goal of the magazine is to find and deliver great science fiction stories that are entertaining, inspiring, and extremely well thought out. Our stories tend to lean toward what is referred to as "hard" science fiction, in the sense that we prefer stories that are self-consistent, scientifically plausible, and technically detailed when necessary. It's also important to me that we support the authors who write great science fiction, which is why we pay professional rates. The readers I've conversed with share my goals.

I publish an issue every two months. All issues can be read for free on compellingsciencefiction.com, and are also available through the Kindle store and in DRM-free epub/mobi format on our Patreon page. At this point we average about 3000 readers per month, with revenues of ~$1800 per issue.

What motivated you to get started with Compelling Science Fiction?

I've always enjoyed science fiction, and I realized one day that I had the means to encourage the kind of science fiction that I most enjoyed. I think it's important to nudge culture in the direction you want it to go, so I started the magazine.

My plan was to create three issues over the course of six months. I budgeted $2000 per issue and gave myself a hard limit — if I didn't break even after three issues, I'd quit.

I wasn't particularly concerned with validation, to be honest, because this was a passion project I was going to pursue regardless. However, I did need to start creating a pool of authors, so I created a MailChimp list and a splash page to collect emails from people interested in the project. I then posted the link to the splash page on Hacker News and it hit the front page. That was a lucky break, because it gave me confidence to keep moving forward. It would have been much harder going initially if I didn't have that pool of people waiting for release. It was definitely a motivator.

What did it take to build the initial product?

The initial product consisted of two things: the tech side and the story side. I kept the tech side super simple: I served static pages through Amazon S3, and used their Simple Email Service to accept story submissions from authors. You can read more about my system in this blog post. The whole thing only took a weekend to build. However, the story side was much more work.

To obtain stories, I had to get a bunch of submissions and then screen the submissions. The key here was two things: my list of emails from Hacker News, and a site called ralan.com. Ralan is a cool guy who has been running a site that lists all forms of speculative fiction writing markets since the 90s. I emailed him (following a detailed process he has listed on his site), and he agreed to list Compelling Science Fiction in his pro markets section. This was a big help.

Ultimately I ended up getting 200 submissions for the first issue, and I read every single story from beginning to end. (I learned some things this way, but it was time-consuming.) Out of these initial stories, I chose five to publish. This whole process took two months.

I still use essentially the same tech that I initially built that one weekend, but my process for selecting stories has changed significantly. I now receive 300-400 stories a month when submissions are open, and I only generally need to read 1-2 pages before making a rejection. It turns out that if a story starts poorly, it always ends poorly. After reading ~1300 stories I can say that with some certainty.

Issue #5

What marketing strategies have you used? How have you attracted users and grown Compelling Science Fiction?

After the two months it took to create the first issue, I launched by posting to Hacker News and sending an email to my email list. It worked well again, and I hit the top slot for a while. This garnered the site about 12,000 uniques in the first couple days. I also posted to a couple other places (Reddit and Facebook), but the additional traffic was negligible.

After that first push I tried a few other strategies to obtain traffic, but I found that nothing worked quite as well as Hacker News. I tried some AdWords and Facebook ads, but both of them had far too high a cost of acquisition per reader. I started a Twitter account, which never gained much traction. It currently has ~215 followers. By comparison, my email list has ~1500 subscribers.

I've been on several podcasts, most notably Techzing and Beyond the Trope. I've posted to a few forums, but I have not yet found a location with a very high density of hard science fiction enthusiasts — it's a fairly niche genre.

Ultimately I determined that I need to spend a lot more time investigating traction channels, because I haven't discovered any that are particularly effective for me yet. Readership continues to grow slowly due to word of mouth, however, despite my lack of marketing wins.

Along the way I also had some interesting one-off marketing opportunities. For instance, late last year I worked out a partnership with the publishing company Springer Nature (one of the largest academic publishers in the world). They had a new project where they were publishing science fiction written by real scientists, and they created a Humble Bundle project to promote their books.

I gave $50 to the bundle to support their project, which apparently put me on their radar, as I was contacted the same day by a marketing director from Springer Nature. Over the next couple months we worked out a deal where I would choose a story to publish from their new anthology, and they would give me publication rights to the story and promote my magazine. It was a fun little project.

How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?

The revenue model has three main prongs:

  1. Voluntary contributions from readers on Patreon. Readers who support us get DRM-free mobi and epub versions of the magazine. Right now revenue from this channel ends up being about $1200/issue.
  2. Sales through the Kindle store. This generally amounts to another ~$300/issue, but is highly variable. Right now you can buy issue 1, issue 2, issue 3, issue 4, or issue 5 from the Kindle Store. My thanks for supporting Compelling Science Fiction!
  3. Sponsorships from companies and individuals. This is also highly variable, but at this point I usually get at least 1-2 sponsorships at $360/each.

This all adds up to roughly $1800/month, but as you can see from the above numbers, it's a very rough estimate which is always growing.

We rely very heavily on Patreon, because it's our only stable revenue stream. Without the recurring payments that Patreon provides, I'd be very nervous to commit to a regular release schedule, because I'd never know from issue to issue if we could pay authors for their stories. As many of you know, subscription-based revenue is very useful to base a business around. I actually don't have a lump-sum donation option on the site for this very reason — I'd rather have people give in small increments every month, so that I know exactly what the magazine can sustain.

The sponsorships were a game-changer, though — the first issue that was cashflow positive was issue 4, and that was the issue where I introduced sponsorships. The sponsorships are small 1-2 sentence notes at the tops of stories, explaining the company/individual that sponsored the story. Here is an example.

I've found that cold emails are particularly effective in obtaining sponsorships from businesses and individuals. Every once in a while I'll send out a new batch of emails to decision makers who enjoy science fiction. I usually start by saying that I learned about their love of science fiction from their blog/podcast/etc, and proceed to explain how they can both aid in the creation of great science fiction and reach more customers at the same time. I've had about a 20% success rate with this strategy. The key is to do your homework up front, rather than spraying emails indiscriminately.

Although our traffic is not currently high (as I said before, about 3000 unique readers/month), the sponsorships continue to be associated with the story forever on the site, so there is a very long tail of potential exposures/clicks for every sponsorship. Also, we have a high percentage of software developer readers — over 60%, according to a survey I performed. If any of you would like to support Compelling Science Fiction with a sponsorship I'd be happy to give Indie Hackers readers a discount — $250 instead of $360, until I run out of sponsorships for the next issue. Just email me at joe@compellingsciencefiction.com.

Since my hosting expenses are low, I consider my costs to be mostly fixed. The vast majority of the cost of the magazine comes from paying authors professional rates. Pay is based on word count, so my costs per issue vary from $1200-$1800 depending on the number of words I buy. Reprints also can drive down costs — I pay 1 cent/word for reprints, whereas I pay 6 cents/word for original stories. Issue 5, for example, cost $1700 in stories — four original works and one reprint.

It will be interesting to see how things go in the next few months now that I'm essentially breaking even every issue. If revenue keeps growing, I plan on using the additional revenue to reach more readers.

What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

Growing readership is my primary goal. While hard science fiction is fairly niche, I think there are many more people who would love to read my magazine; I just need to reach them.

This is somewhat ideological as well — I think that if positive science fiction continues to permeate pop culture, it's a good thing for society as a whole. I want people to be optimistic about the future, and I want to inspire people to help build that future.

To accomplish this I'm going to keep seeking out new traction channels. I've recently begun reading Gabriel Weinberg's book Traction, which is looking very promising.

Issue #2

What are the biggest challenges you've faced? What would you do differently if you had to start over?

The biggest challenges have all revolved around understanding the current publishing ecosystem. About four months after starting the magazine, I stopped accepting submissions because the third issue was full. I sent back the remaining stories in the submission queue unread, explaining that the authors could submit again when we reopened submissions.

This irked a few authors, and I actually received an email explaining that it is convention to evaluate all submitted stories after closing submissions, and to purchase acceptable stories for later issues. While the vast majority of authors did not express concern, I would have followed convention more closely in that circumstance if I had the chance to do it over.

Another piece of advice I'd give to my year-ago self would be to seek out some of the major players in the review sphere early on. Everything has worked out, but I think it would have gone smoother if I'd have had some well-known review outlets talk about the first few issues.

When you're entering an established industry, it's always good to seek out the best advice possible and take the time-tested pieces seriously. I did this with editors, getting great advice from Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld magazine, but I should also have done it on the review side.

What were your biggest advantages? Has anything been particularly helpful so far?

My biggest advantages were the friends who helped me out with the project. David Baur, Emily Goodin, Deno Stelter, Roy Murdock, Heather Kristjanson, and my wife Linda McCartney all gave me really valuable advice and help, and continue to do so.

The fact that I have a fairly good background in both the physical sciences and in computation was also helpful, and the fact that I am a huge science fiction fan was a massive plus. I was my own customer, so I just had to find stories for people like me.

Scratching your own itch is not the only way to build a successful product, but it's a good way, especially if you're working on a side project that requires motivation to maintain. I'm sure I wouldn't have kept working on the magazine if I hadn't really enjoyed the end result. I still look forward to that moment when I find a great story in the queue, and that keeps me going, issue after issue.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Quick decision making via judicious sampling is a great skill that you can apply to almost any industry. I was able to start applying this skill to story selection, and it saved me a great deal of time. I learned quickly that if someone submits a story that starts bad, it's going to stay poor quality throughout. This meant that I could the first couple pages and still make good decisions. Keep an eye out for situations like this in your own business — it will allow you to save a lot of time and still end up with the same quality result.

Contact people in the industry you're entering for advice. There are lots of clever solutions in every sector that have been built up over a long time, and you should be able to pick and choose the ones that are the most effective for your situation.

A corollary to the above is to read a lot about startups and about the industry you're getting into. For me this was things like the Traction book and The Year's Best Science Fiction. That anthology was particularly useful, because the editor (Gardner Dozois) gives lots of specific subscriber numbers for the big players in the field, which were useful to help calibrate my own plans.

And as most others have said, always be talking about your product!

Where can we go to learn more?

The best place is compellingsciencefiction.com. You can also follow @CompellingSF on Twitter, or email me at joe@compellingsciencefiction.com.

If you're really excited about science fiction, you can support Compelling Science Fiction on Patreon, or purchase issue 1, issue 2, issue 3, issue 4, or issue 5 from the Kindle Store.

And feel free to ask questions in the comments below. I'll answer to the best of my ability.

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