Turning A Science Fiction Hobby Into A Successful Side Project
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Joe Stech, and I'm the founder of compellingsciencefiction.com. I publish science fiction short stories, focusing on plausible science fiction.
I started Compelling Science Fiction because I'd always been a huge fan of the genre, and realized that I could help encourage more authors to write the kind of science fiction that I enjoyed.
I'm happy to say that by that measure we've succeeded -- we're one of a couple dozen SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) qualifying markets in the world, and thus far we've paid professional rates to over 50 wonderful authors. This goal has resonated with our ~1600 readers, many of whom support the company voluntarily on Patreon.
This is a side project for me, so it doesn't have to make a profit, but it does pay for itself. I only publish two issues a year (summer/winter) and in those months we make ~$1500. All of that money goes back to paying authors.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I currently manage a software team for a large tech company, which gives me the financial flexibility to work on side projects that may not be big money-makers.
In the case of Compelling Science Fiction, I was getting ready for bed one night and started discussing science fiction with my wife. I told her that I had always wanted to get involved with the genre in some way, and realized that I could devote some time and money to supporting new authors. She told me that I should go for it. I'm not sure she realized the extent of the time sink, but she's been amazingly supportive throughout the process.
After deciding to jump in, I wanted to know if I could garner any interest in the kind of science fiction I wanted to support. I knew people like me were out there, but customer acquisition for low-margin businesses can be really hard.
I put up a landing page to collect emails, and chose the name compellingsciencefiction.com because it reminded me of Astounding Stories, which went on to become Analog Science Fiction and Fact (the most enduring such magazine in history).
The landing page was extremely simple -- literally just a block of text talking about how I wanted to support hard science fiction and inviting people to join me.
I emphasized that readers can take action to help create what they want to see in the world, and that I'd let them know when the first issue launched.
I didn't even have a single image on the site, just text and an email submission form. I Also included an email address for authors to start sending me submissions.
Here’s what the landing page looked like:
Hitting the front page of Hacker News
I was fortunate enough to hit the front page of Hacker News. I collected several hundred emails this way. Now that I knew there would be support, I was really cooking with gas -- I built a simple submission system using Amazon Web Services to route author email submissions automatically to S3, since the docx files that authors were sending started filling up my inbox fast.
One funny result of my Hacker News post was that someone accused me of being a Hollywood team trying to collect script ideas. The commenter said that my wording seemed like "the outcome of an LA focus group." It was strangely flattering to be denounced for being a team of entertainment professionals, when I was just one guy with a weird science fiction itch!
There's always criticism when you start something that gets attention. In my case the criticism was mild ("your site with no images is sad!") but the fact that people cared enough to pay attention implied that I had something interesting. In my experience, the worst ideas are not the ones that people criticize; they're the ones that people don't even care about enough to comment on.
Take us through the process of getting started and launching.
After hitting the front page of Hacker News and validating that there was an audience for a new science fiction short story venue, my next step was to find authors to publish.
I went and found some sites (e.g. ralan.com) that listed paying venues where authors could publish stories. Since I decided to pay professional rates (6 cents/word), Compelling Science Fiction was immediately categorized in the professional category on many such sites. After getting the word out in this way I ended up receiving several hundred submissions for the first issue.
Doing a little bit every day adds up quickly. Setting aside an hour or two every day to get some work done can move mountains over time.
The next step was to sift through all the stories. Fortunately I've always been a decently quick reader, so I was able to do this part myself -- however, I had to bring on some wonderful volunteers (friends who also enjoy science fiction) to help me make final determinations. I ended up paying about $1200 out of my own pocket for 5 stories in that first issue. The cost per issue has stayed around $1500, since I generally still stick around 5 stories per issue and the cost per word remains the same.
I did everything as cheaply as possible, since there was no guarantee that I'd ever break even. I built a static site hosted from an AWS S3 bucket to serve the stories (this is still how the site works). I licensed pre-drawn art for the cover of the first issue. The biggest expense (other than the stories) was the logo, for which I paid a british designer $400.
When I had the bare minimum ready to go (cover, site, stories, epub/mobi versions), I launched by posting to Hacker News and Reddit. I was lucky again, hitting the top slot on Hacker News for a short time and getting some great feedback!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I have very low churn, but I'm not great at customer acquisition.
The channels I use most often are Hacker News, Reddit, and Twitter -- I also post on Facebook but don't get much traffic from there. I've experimented with Google and Facebook ads, but customer acquisition cost through those channels was extremely high for me, so I discontinued those efforts.
Customer acquisition can be incredibly hard. Do yourself a favor and make sure your lifetime customer value is significantly higher than your cost of customer acquisition, or you may end up just spinning your wheels.
By far the biggest customer drivers have been Hacker News and cold emails. In the beginning I'd often send out emails to people I knew or admired online, letting them know about the site -- many ignored me, but some people liked the idea and became readers and supporters. I always send personalized emails, never form letters. It wasn't a very scalable effort, but it did net a core of great support.
A secondary driver has been podcast appearances. I've been approached by several podcast hosts looking for guests, and done about half a dozen interviews. One that I was particularly happy with was this interview with Techzing -- I always enjoy talking with Jason and Justin.
People seem to really engage with podcasts, and that has translated to good traffic to compellingsciencefiction.com.
What’s the business model and how you do make money?
The vast majority of revenue comes from voluntary subscriptions on Patreon. The stories are currently free to read on the site, but if you want mobi/epub versions of the magazines you need to subscribe on our Patreon page. I was very lucky to have some really big contributors find the magazine -- two people (venture capitalist Brad Feld and an anonymous reader) together fund about a third of every issue on Patreon.
I only have three tiers on Patreon -- $3.60, $10, and $360. The idea was that the average story cost me $360 to print, and I'd base the tiers off that number to help backers understand where their money was going. This had a couple other benefits: first, it takes into account wealth distribution in the US, and second, it level-sets for people. I don't have proof for this, but I think people are more likely to donate a little bit if they see that someone else cares enough to donate a lot. I also used this strategy successfully in my Kickstarter campaign, which I'll mention in a moment.
I experimented with ads on the site, but I haven't sold any for a while -- since I only get about 2000 unique readers/month it hasn't been worth it to monetize in that way. The CPMs would need to be very large to justify the degradation of user experience that most ad schemes provide.
The other revenue stream that I started up at the end of 2018 comes from Kickstarter. I ran a successful campaign for a print anthology that ended up totalling ~$12,000. I plan on doing more campaigns of this type in the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Customer acquisition is hard, and you should work on it as often as possible. This includes being a helpful person -- I've had many people recommend the magazine to others because something I posted resonated with them, or someone I met at a convention found my advice useful. These are small things, but I think the advantages of a good reputation exist across most industries.
Cold emailing done well can be very powerful. It's important to make sure you're writing personal notes to people who you know are interested in your field, though.
Finally, doing a little bit every day adds up quickly. I used to be very bursty in my side project work -- a whole weekend and then nothing for weeks. That type of working was not very effective for me. Setting aside an hour or two every day to get some work done can move mountains over time.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Amazon Web Services have been invaluable, and I've built essentially the entire magazine on top of them. I use S3 for static site hosting and submission file hosting, DynamoDB for database storage, Lambdas for our serverless backend, SES for automated notification emails, and Route 53 for DNS management across all my domains.
Since I have several use cases for emails, I use a couple other tools: Mailchimp for collecting and sending to subscriber lists, and G Suite for all other emails.
For publishing contracts I use signnow.com. They're excellent for my limited use-case (collecting signatures on purchase agreements).
I've become a very big proponent of using AWS Lambdas for bursty back-ends. I have written several applications that get huge spikes of traffic that die away to nothing (most notably our submission system) and using Lambdas means I don't need to have servers up all the time.
This approach, combined with static site hosting through S3, results in almost zero hosting costs even in months with large traffic spikes. I'm currently writing a book about how to run Flask (a small Python-based server) on top of AWS Lambdas that will detail the creation process of one of my production applications, complete with all relevant configurations and front-end and back-end code.
If that sounds like something you'd be interested in, shoot me a line at [email protected] and I'll keep you posted.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In terms of books, Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares was great for helping me wrap my head around customer acquisition channels. I expect to continue to lean on that book for inspiration as I grow.
In terms of actionable startup advice, all of Brad Feld's books are great. Two I particularly enjoy are Do More Faster and Startup Opportunities.
For inspiration, I find that you can't go wrong with Walter Isaacson's phenomenally written biographies. My favorite so far is probably The Innovators, but I also enjoyed his biographies of Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Steve Jobs.
In terms of podcasts, Gimlet Media's "StartUp" podcast is both entertaining and insightful, and Courtland Allen's Indie Hackers podcast is the best podcast featuring bootstrapped founders that I've found.
I'd also like to give a shout to "Marketplace" and "Planet Money" because I listen to them every day.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Again, set some time aside every day to work on your ideas. It's easy to beat yourself up for not making tons of immediate progress or missing days, but everyone I know who is successful takes the punches and keeps chugging along. It doesn't matter if you lose some motivation for a specific thing or get sidetracked -- as long as you're consistently doing things you'll learn and make progress.
Also, customer acquisition can be incredibly hard. Do yourself a favor and make sure your lifetime customer value is significantly higher than your cost of customer acquisition, or you may end up just spinning your wheels.
Where can we go to learn more?
- and feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Compelling Science Press has provided an update on their business!
About 3 years ago, we followed up with Compelling Science Press to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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