Monday, August 17, 2015

Notes from PulpFest-Who Owns Weird Tales?

Pulp magazines began in 1896, making next year the 120th anniversary of their birth. The anniversary of their death is harder to pin down. Like old soldiers, they just faded away, probably in the 1950s. I read that the last pulp science fiction magazine was published in 1957. Michael Neno tells me that the last pulp of any kind was Ranch Romances, which rode off into the sunset in 1974.

Few titles are left from the pulp era. Analog, which was christened Astounding Stories in 1930, is still in print. So is The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which came into the world in 1949. Both, however, are digest-size and not pulp-size. Amazing Stories is still around but only in digital format. There may be others of that type as well. If Weird Tales were to be issued this year, we might be able to say that it's the last of the magazines from the pulp era still printed at pulp-size, but who knows if it will be published, and if it is, whether it will be pulp-size or magazine-size. Of course the cheap paper, garish covers, muddy interiors, and untrimmed edges are long gone. So, too, is the world in which pulp magazines flourished. Pulp today is more a spirit, a culture, or fiction and art of a certain kind than a physical object you can buy on the newsstand.

Weird Tales made its debut in 1923. The early history of the magazine is a little tricky, and I'll leave that for another day. In 1938, however, Short Stories, Inc., acquired Weird Tales and moved its offices from Chicago to New York. In September 1954, Weird Tales came to an end. My understanding is that editor Leo Margulies acquired the Weird Tales property at about that time (ca. 1954-1955). He may have had plans to revive the magazine, but Sam Moskowitz is supposed to have talked him out of it. Instead, Margulies published a number of paperback anthologies in the 1960s. He also reprinted stories from Weird Tales in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine.

Margulies and Moskowitz revived Weird Tales for four issues in 1973-1974, just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of "The Unique Magazine." Moskowitz the editor relied heavily on reprints of stories from other magazines that had fallen into the public domain. There wasn't much new or even pulp content. Leo Margulies died in December 1975. At about that time (ca. 1974-1975), Robert Weinberg acquired the Weird Tales property and began publishing his own books and periodicals: WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales in 1974, The Weird Tales Story in 1977, and The Weird Tales Collector from 1977 to 1980. Mr. Weinberg held onto Weird Tales for thirty years or so as I understand it. He finally sold the property to Viacom. In the meantime, the magazine went back into print, as four paperback anthologies in 1980-1983, then in two rare magazine-sized issues in 1984-1985, finally, in varying formats under varying editors and publishers from 1988 to 1994 and 1998 to 2014. We're still waiting for an issue to appear this year.

This weekend at PulpFest, the ownership and editorship of Weird Tales came up again and again. On Friday evening, Philip M. Sherman talked about his uncle Leo Margulies, who owned Weird Tales from circa 1954 to circa 1974. Other people at the show mentioned Robert Weinberg, Darrell Schweitzer, and other authors, editors, and publishers associated with the magazine. I can tell you, there is a lot of confusion on the issue of who owns Weird Tales. Robert Weinberg supposedly owns the copyrights to stories published in the magazine--except that some issues have fallen into the public domain. Viacom I believe owns the Weird Tales trademark if nothing else. (Maybe film or video rights as well.) And now we know that Nth Dimension Media, Inc., is the publisher of Weird Tales magazine. But how? Under a license? Is Weird Tales split into various pieces, each owned by separate persons? The bigger question is this: Why don't we know?

The publishers of Weird Tales went through a controversy lately, and we might be tempted to ascribe its absence to that. But one dealer I talked to said that it became impossible to find the magazine when it was recently in print. Another dealer or collector mentioned that Weird Tales had lost its distributor. So maybe the Mystery of the Missing Magazine has more to do with economics and logistics than anything else. None of this is new, of course. All of it is emblematic of Weird Tales throughout its troubled history.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

12 comments:

  1. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 17, 2015 at 4:55 PM

    You can ask Viacom for more details, if you like, as Jacob Hoye is your man to talk to. He may or may not outline what it is they own, but they issued one or two WT anthologies, presumably with the rights they acquired from Bob, which suggests that they own more than just the trademark, of course.

    With regards to your other questions, in the past Weird Tales always licensed it from Robert Weinberg. Since he sold it to Viacom, then that license transfers to them, and they have to agree. Without it Nth Media only has a subscription base, which imploded after he took over from VanderMeer. It's relatively worthless, at that point. Anyone could jump in and convince Viacom to license it to someone else, I imagine.

    The absence is due to a major factor: that it costs money to print and distribute a magazine, actually, and there is no money coming in. If things have dropped down to a thousand subscribers, which it had done so previous to VanderMeer it would cost at least three to five thousand dollars to publish an issue. That's not chump change. I suspect Marvin was dealing with an echo chamber, one which told him that the VanderMeer issues were an “abomination,” as I heard one person refer to it in passing, and that his reign would mean that hundreds and thousands of disgruntled WT readers / subscribers would support the new venture. That didn't work out, of course.

    They did lose their distributor, Curtis News, but it's not like it's hard to line up Ingram Periodicals.

    All of this can be found out fairly easy, if you know where to dig. But the new owners/editors probably don't want to admit that 1) they lost their distributor 2) they fucked up by conspiring to fire the previous editorial team 3) that their tastes are out of touch with modern readers 4) they don't know what they're doing.

    Weird Tales is effectively dead, even if they get out another issue. I can only hope that someone else approaches Viacom, and have them yank the license from Marvin and John (if it hasn't happened already!), and give it to someone else. Otherwise it could be lost to corporate hell.

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    1. Dear Concerned,

      I was thinking last night (after I wrote today's article) that the best thing for me to do is to get in touch with someone at Viacom and get it all straight from the horse's mouth. There is no horse at Weird Tales magazine or Nth Dimension Media--neither has a website with any useful information, although I think I could track someone down by mail.

      So it sounds like you're saying that the license under which Nth Dimension is operating dates from Robert Weinberg's ownership of the property. Is that right? If that's the case, that makes me think that the license is a commodity that can be traded around from person to person, without Viacom's direct involvement. Is that right also? I had assumed that only the owner of the property (Viacom) could transfer the license. But then if Viacom is the owner of the property, then it could, presumably, also revoke the license at any time like you say. I guess if things get too bad enough with the magazine, Viacom might just do that.

      I guess what's needed is someone with the cash and the know-how to put the magazine on firm footing, plus a good editor and art director to make sure it publishes the right material. It sounds to me like the current operators under the license have made some mistakes, maybe fatal mistakes, and that Weird Tales is about to give up the ghost yet again. Anyway, I'm glad you wrote. A lot of this is new to me.

      It all makes me wonder: Everybody loves Weird Tales, but nobody seems to be able to make a go of it. Analog (aka Astounding) has been in print continuously since 1930. Why not Weird Tales? Is there something about weird fiction in general that keeps a magazine in that genre from succeeding? Is "weird fiction" too unfocused? Too broad in its definition? Too narrow in its appeal? Are fans of various genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres not able to tolerate each other in the pages of the same magazine? Can no one agree on what Weird Tales and weird fiction should be?

      There is also the issue of the conservative and nostalgic reader (who can be seen as old-fashioned or "out of touch" like you say) vs. the more progressive reader (whose tastes might not appeal to the more conservative reader and who doesn't have much interest in past). But what is the point of publishing Weird Tales if you're not trying to capitalize on the past? Why not just publish a new magazine of some kind? If you really want to be progressive, go all out. Put Weird Tales, a magazine that was old-fashioned even in its day, behind you. Or why not a magazine that's a mix, which is what Weird Tales has always been? Why does it have to be all one thing or the other?

      Finally, I would ask you and anyone else who might write to please refrain from using profanity and obscenity here. This blog is intended for readers of all ages and sensibilities. I won't delete your comment as it is so insightful, but I would like to delete one word from your comment.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    2. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 17, 2015 at 7:21 PM

      I just lost a very long reply that I was about to put up, but I'll attempt it again later tonight. You can of course replace the offending word in my original post with “screwed,” if you wish. That might tone things down a bit!

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    3. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 17, 2015 at 7:35 PM

      Let's try this again: you could contact Marvin or John, at their email addresses, but good luck! They aren't hard to find, per se, though the former hasn't posted to facebook in ages, so that makes me wonder a bit. You would find it easier to talk to someone at Viacom, actually, I would bet.

      The license would actually be with Viacom, since Weinberg sold everything to them, including the trademark. So it is at their behest whether or not Nth Dimension Media can use the Weird Tales name. However, since Viacom bought the property primarily for a television series, and have almost zero interest in the magazine, I can't say for certain whether or not they have noticed that Nth Dimension Media has dropped the ball. They may not care, either way. But you are right, if another interested party came in, and got the license, it would be revoked from Kaye / Harlacher in a second. And that's assuming they have something in paper, with Viacom, as opposed to it simply continuing from mere momentum and lack of oversight. The license fee is actually not that much, in the grand scheme of things, from the Weinberg days, so . . .

      Analog/Asimov's has always been published by a major player, in this particular instance Penny Press, which has substantial resources, including national distribution, capital investments, and more, including digital representation. Weird Tales can't compete with that, or find a willing backer to finance that much into the magazine. You also have the issue that horror (short fiction) is very much niche, compared to its sf/fantasy counterparts, and that has been true since the 1930s. Nothing has changed.

      Off the top of my head the biggest issue with appealing to the conservative / nostalgic reader is they usually represent a core base which can't be enlarged upon and simply dwindles through time, even through disinterest, death, etc. So you support one at the expense of the other (progressive readers), essentially. There may be thousands of new readers who might be interested in the WT brand, but are turned off by the older material or approach.

      I actually suspect that HPL's Magazine of Horror had the bigger (potential) fan-base, and that the subscriber mailing list should have been leveraged into that magazine. instead of Weird Tales, especially with the contentious nature of the trademark / name ownership and that it could be yanked at any time by Viacom.

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    4. Dear Concerned,

      Thank you for the offer to replace the offending word, but I'm not sure I can alter your comments. I can only delete them. If you know something different about how Blogger works, please let me know.

      TH

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    5. Dear Concerned,

      I'll bet you're right: Viacom doesn't know or care about the problems with the magazine. Magazines are a dying form anyway. In addition, a magazine is pretty small potatoes compared to movies, television, and video games. We see that with Marvel movies vs. Marvel comics.

      I think you're right that weird fiction is a pretty small niche compared to science fiction, and it's not as well defined. If you read a science fiction story, you can be pretty sure it's science fiction. Sometimes when you read a weird story or contemporary fantasy, you're not sure where to place it. Science fiction has a firm fan base. I'm not sure that's true with Weird Tales.

      The conservative/nostalgic fan--who may be a little hidebound--probably wants only a certain thing, the kind of story he loved when he was twelve or seventeen. Like you say, those fans are losing interest or dying out. I really wonder what PulpFest will be in 10 or 15 years. I wonder if pulp fans are giving this any thought. The progressive fan changes with the times. It may be that the progressive fan of today becomes the nostalgic fan of tomorrow, but I don't know. The thing is that Weird Fiction, as a form of fantasy, is not essentially progressive. Or at least I don't think it is. Maybe that's part of the problem, too.

      I'm beginning to sense that part of the divide between the Kaye camp and the VanderMeer camp is because of "underrepresented demographics," a phrase I think I have read over the past couple of days. Ann VanderMeer seems to have cultivated writers from other countries or from certain ethnic or national groups. (Please tell me if I'm wrong about that.) That's beside the point. What I'm thinking is this: if you live in India and you want to go to McDonald's, you don't go to Manhattan. You go to a store near your home. Why should a magazine be any different? Instead of one Weird Tales, why not a fleet of Weird Tales? Why not a franchise wherever it can be supported, in Japan, China, India, Indonesia, Europe, Russia, Latin America? Yes, magazines are dying, but why not try a franchise approach vs. an exclusive licensing approach? Maybe people can lose their shirts all over the world instead of just here.

      Finally, you might be right that there could be more of a cachet to H.P. Lovecraft's name vs. the Weird Tales name. And there might not be the risk, as you point out.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    6. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 18, 2015 at 12:04 PM

      I think you're right, in that the VanderMeers have indeed embraced an international presence, which may overcome the limitations of just focusing on the local market. And from what I heard they did effectively turn around WT's plunging sub base, which was below a thousand subscribers and built it back up to two thousand. It may all have been a losing battle, either way.

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    7. Dear Concerned,

      These days it only makes sense to appeal to an international readership. Why limit your readership to the United States and maybe Canada and Great Britain when there are another 6.5 billion potential readers out there?

      It's strange to me that there would be only 2,000 subscribers to a venerable title like Weird Tales, but I wonder if the unpredictability of the thing could be the reason for that. Better artwork might help, too.

      TH

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  2. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 17, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    Enlarging on the financial figures: Between the thirty-thousand dollars or so they paid for the magazine mailing list, and the fact it probably costs about five thousand dollars to publish an issue, and they got out four issues, then they’re probably hurting a lot, right now. Each and every time they put a new one, they incur more debt, because they gave subscribers more and more free issues, in the past. So at this stage, the publishers have to print the magazine on their own dime. It quickly adds up.

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    1. Dear Concerned,

      J.C. Henneberger lost his shirt in 1924 and the magazine ended up being controlled more or less by his printer. Sam Moskowitz advised Leo Margulies in the 1950s that he would lose his shirt if he went ahead with plans to revive Weird Tales. The magazine failed again in the 1970s, twice in the 1980s, and then was passed around for another generation until now. And now it sounds like the publishers are about to lose their shirts again because of printing costs. (The proximate cause to be sure.) Star Trek is an example of a strong franchise that just keeps going. Maybe there just aren't enough fans of Weird Tales out there.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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  3. A Concerned WT ReaderAugust 17, 2015 at 7:19 PM

    This is nothing new, alas. One of the major reasons Wildside Press sold it is because it had been bleeding a lot of money. A lot. Nth Dimension Media is just the latest owner to purchase the unique magazine and find out that its value is much diminished to the point that it really can't be leveraged to a profitable level. :(

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    1. Dear Concerned,

      One result of that is that the magazine is always starting over again instead of building on what has come before. And of course every new editor and publisher wants to make it his or hers instead of what it really is. You see that with superhero comic books and movies: Every movie retells the origin story. Every new artist and writer on the comic book wants some kind of reboot. One of the reasons that Superman was so successful for so many decades is that he was known, consistent, and predictable. Who knows what Superman is now? Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he married? Is he gay? Does he wear his underwear inside his clothes or outside? Who knows? And when you don't know anymore, you don't care anymore.

      My rant.

      TH

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