Event Horizon's Web gamble

Can a publisher of blue-chip science fiction for smart readers make it online?

Published December 7, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Some things should sell themselves -- like beer in a ballpark, or science fiction on the Internet. But the act of faith that launched Event Horizon, a Web site devoted to literary science fiction, defies much of the conventional wisdom about the two markets it hopes to conquer -- science fiction magazines and online publishing.

Rising phoenixlike from the creative ashes of the late Omni -- the first big-league magazine to try to reinvent itself entirely online -- Event Horizon has set a gold standard for science-fiction excellence on the Net. Online readers can sample the work of outstanding writers like Robert Silverberg, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop and Pat Cadigan. They can participate in live chats with the likes of Neil Gaiman, Kim Stanley Robinson and William Goldman.

Event Horizon's creators, Ellen Datlow, Rob Killheffer and Pam Weintraub, proudly describe it as a professional venture. To Datlow, a critically acclaimed editor, this means, "We pay professional rates and we have editors who know what they're doing, who have some experience in editing, who have an editorial voice, who work with authors on stories, and who are not afraid to turn stories down." This distinction is particularly significant in two mediums whose culture is dominated by fan efforts.

Yet professionalism has proved no hedge against declining circulation in the traditional science-fiction magazine market, as subscriptions to the big three -- Asimov's, Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction -- continue to plummet. And professionalism in electronic publishing has yet to prove it can fuel a profitable business.

Although Event Horizon was partly designed as bait to draw attention to its successful parent Web production company of the same name, producer Killheffer stresses, "We don't want to be a vanity project. " And the site has drawn between 15,000 and 20,000 unique users per month since its inception in August. But is that enough to survive?

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Science fiction, of course, is ubiquitous on the Net: Multitudes jam the local area networks to download their very own personal copy of the newest "Star Wars" trailer, while TV-oriented sites like The Sci-Fi Channel's Dominion host three-day electronic sci-fi conventions. Since its earliest days, science-fiction fandom has had a community sensibility, and it has flourished online since the first cyberspace pioneers -- programmers by day, speculative dreamers by night -- colonized the distributed bulletin board system that would become Usenet in order to have a place to talk about their favorite "Star Trek" episodes.

But the army of people interested in science fiction spun off from movies and TV far outnumbers those interested in the genre's written words. "We're not growing a bunch of new readers," Killheffer admits. "The barrier that written science fiction has always had is the willingness of the reader to encounter unfamiliar concepts and do a little bit of work in reading. That barrier is as high as it ever was. 'Star Wars' is evidence that the imagery of science fiction has become familiar to people. They'll buy stories in a familiar world with familiar characters, but there's little evidence that they'll pick up a new world -- even when the book is aimed directly at that audience, telling a similar story of high adventure and using the imagery of science fiction in a similar way. They're not looking for science fiction, they're looking for 'Star Wars.'"

Event Horizon includes few of the bells and whistles that mark other science fiction-oriented sites. "We try and make a story online look the same as a print story generally," allows Datlow. "Although I've seen stories on a black background, I think it's a really bad idea. You want to make it as easy on the eyes as you can." And there are some advantages that virtual publishing has over print: Length is not a limiting factor, so novellas -- a format science-fiction writers favor -- can be more easily accommodated. Although the site does host a section called Superstrings -- round-robin exercises in collaborative fiction among teams of up-and-coming talent -- it eschews more elaborate hypertext experimentation. Datlow says: "I think the brain is still wired to read a certain way, and I don't think it's easy to get involved with fiction if it's not written in a traditional structure, or one that the brain is used to following."

The question remains: Can Event Horizon succeed where an established brand name like Omni -- supported by the deep pockets of Penthouse publisher General Media -- failed? Notes Gardner Dozois, editor of the venerable Asimov's and a well-regarded author in his own right: "The problems with publishing fiction on the Net are two-fold: You need seed money to pay for editorial material -- you have to be able to buy stories from authors. You need start-up money, pockets deep enough to allow you to buy stories until your site earns a profit. Which brings us to the second problem: How do you make money reliably by publishing on the Internet? The track record is not good."

Was the Omni model that Event Horizon has adopted -- a Web publication supported by ad revenues -- simply ahead of its time? "In my opinion," says Event Horizon's Weintraub, "Omni was in step with its time. It had a tremendously recognizable brand name, it was linked ubiquitously throughout the Internet at many thousands of junctures, and it had a level of traffic" -- approximately a million page views a day when the plug was pulled in April 1998 -- "that other companies who spent far more are making a profit on today."

Gerard Van Der Leun -- a senior editor at Penthouse who is also an online veteran and co-author of "Rules of the Net," a sardonic survey of Net manners -- disagrees. "The site was not making any money because it was an ad-driven site and the ads weren't supporting it at the level it needed to be supported -- through no fault of the editorial staff. It was a great team and they all worked hard. But if you add up all of the Web sites that are free to users and what it costs to maintain them and then add up all the ads, the amount needed to support those sites is vastly larger than the amount generated from those ads. Especially when those advertisers figure out that they're paying $5,000 a month for a tiny banner with two click-throughs. The model works better in the print world, when you don't know for sure your advertising isn't working."

Event Horizon believes the secret to success is attracting the right kind of advertisers. The site has aimed to cultivate advertisers who specifically want to target a literate audience -- book clubs, book publishers, publishers of interactive CD-ROMs.

"Maybe 1 percent of users on a 'Star Wars' site will respond to an ad. But on our site, every single one of our people will be interested in a product," says Killheffer. "We may have a smaller audience, but we have a focused audience. If people come to our site, they're declaring a certain kind of passion and devotion that is unusual in a market today. They're making a strong statement about how much they want it. There remains a very enthusiastic and deeply intellectual community that engages in conversation about the literature."

By Patrizia DiLucchio

Patrizia DiLucchio is a writer who lives in Monterey, Calif.

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