Something Wicked, South Africa’s first (and only) magazine devoted to horror and science-fiction short stories – which featured breakout works by largely unknown authors and stunning full-page illustrations by a talented group of (primarily) local artists – was started in 2006 by Joe Vaz, in partnership with Vianne Venter. Over the years the publication has had its ups and downs, largely due to financial problems (a major one being the cost of printing on paper skyrocketing to prohibitive levels over the past few years, a problem that has seen even established magazines with massive financial backing folding left and right), but, nevertheless, it gained a patient, understanding, loyal following all over the world due to its focus on quality publishing. The readership understood, and celebrated, what the magazine was trying to achieve and therefore was largely unfazed by the delays and problems.
The same readership now mourns, for the publishers have announced that the current issue, number 10, will be the magazine’s last in print.
The death of the print version requires a suitably macabre eulogy (should someone wish to write one in the comments below), but, equally, Something Wicked‘s achievements should be celebrated. The magazine set precedents that will be hard to follow and there are many lessons to be learned – especially for those wishing to traverse the quagmire of niche publishing in this country.
I interviewed Joe to hear his thoughts on the magazine’s successes and (sometimes very gory) hiccups – and on what brought him to the decision to stop printing.
Where did the idea come from and how did it all start?
The idea has been around for decades in magazines such as Cemetery Dance, and Interzone, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Weird Tales. What frustrated me was the fact that there was no South African alternative for these international magazines, the realisation that South African genre fiction writers really had no outlet for their work.
Horror and SF short-story magazines have been around in the UK and the US for decades and yet in 2006 there still wasn’t a single publication of that type in South Africa. So one night around 3am I thought to myself, “Why don’t you do it?” So I did.
Talk us through the typical process of putting an issue together.
It starts with receiving and reading piles and piles of submissions and selecting seven to 10 stories for the magazine. Once the stories have been selected contracts are sent out to the authors and every single story goes through a preliminary edit by Vianne Venter. Every edit is then sent to the authors for their approval and correction.
At the same time art is being commissioned from various artists for each story.
Once the edits come back from the authors the stories go through a second edit and a final approval. They then get proofed by our wonderful proofer, Mark Sykes, who sends us back his edits and notes. Vianne goes through each story one last time and sends me final “to print” versions of all the stories.
By that point I have received final art and have begun prelim layout on the magazine. While all that is going on DVD, game, and book reviews are being sourced and written, columns are being commissioned, and interviews are being conducted.
Once everything is ready to go I will do a final layout followed by one last proof of design and reviews. We then send everything off to the printer and pray we haven’t made any major errors. Once we’ve signed off on the proof the print run goes ahead and the magazines are delivered to the distributors.
Meanwhile the web site is being updated, publicity information is being sent out to magazine reviewers, the e-book version is being laid out, and invoices are being collected and claimed.
Once the magazine is delivered subscriber’s copies are packaged and posted off.
Rinse and repeat.
How did you manage to organise international distribution?
I did some research and found out who was distributing similar types of magazines and contacted the distributor. I then sent them some sample copies, which they sent out to their retailers. They then contacted me with an order request.
The magazine featured both writers and illustrators. Who were some of your favourites and what were some of the success stories?
Favourite artists is kind of hard to choose since over the last four years we have had some amazing talent grace our pages. Obviously Vincent Sammy, who illustrated both our first issue and our last print issue; Hendrik Gericke and Pierre Smit, who have had illustrations in every single issue; Jesca Marisa who has given us two beautiful covers; Joe Doe; Kobus Faber; etc etc – the list is endless. We love all our artists.
Favourite illustrations would probably go to Vincent for his illustrations for The Protector [by Evan Morris] in Issue 1, Kobus Faber for The Lighthouse [by Karen Runge] (SW03) everything Hendrik, Jesca, Pierre have ever done. But seriously, it’s hard to choose. I love them all. Check out the double-page spread Kobus gave us for Werner Pretorius‘s I Will Come For You in SW07. It’s astounding.
Favourite stories, personally would be Freemantle Mons The Leviathan Smile by Michael John Grist, The Resident Member by Paul Marlowe, The Lighthouse by Karen Runge, The Protector and The Breeding Season by Evan Morris, Night-Time Is A-Coming by Werner Pretorius, Brother Evil by Ryan Saunders, The Subtle Thief by C Hellisen, Child by Gareth Robertson, White Rock by Charles Paston, and anything Sarah Lotz has written.
Again, there are many more, I just can’t remember them all.
Success stories, well there’s Sarah. We were her first published credit. She won our first ever short-story competition and went on to work for Clockwork Zoo as a writer on URBO: The Adventures Of Pax Africa, followed, to date, by two published novels.
We published Abigail Godsell‘s Making Waves when she was just 15 years old. For me personally this was always the point of Something Wicked, to be able to inspire and reward a teenage writer and, hopefully, help nurture a talent that she will continue to explore.
In terms of the magazine’s successes, I guess just looking at my subscriber base and realising that we have readers in Japan, Australia, all throughout Europe, the USA, and Canada is pretty fucking awesome. Who knew this little project could reach so far?
What did the readership especially enjoy? I recall at one point you were considering widening the scope, which was horror, to include more science fiction.
It’s all across the board. One of the things that Vianne and I are especially proud of is the diverse reactions we receive to the stories. What it means to us is that there is something in there for everyone. Some of our favourite stories will sometimes not even blip with some readers while others will completely fall in love with them.
We decided to broaden the scope from horror to horror and science fiction simply because I felt it would appeal to a wider market and because I love science fiction.
Talk us through the problems you encountered that eventually caused you to have to make the difficult decision to stop printing the magazine.
Finally a simple question.
Something Wicked has only ever had two problems: time and money.
Throughout the history of the magazine it has never turned a profit, though over the last year we have managed to begin to break even. As a result most of the financing of Something Wicked has come from paying work that I do. What that boils down to is when I am earning money I don’t have the time to run the magazine, and when I am not earning money I don’t have the finances to run the magazine.
We cut a huge break in 2008 when the National Arts Council gave us partial funding (which covered about half of the printing costs for five issues) but inevitably a business needs to turn a profit.
Something Wicked has always been Vianne and myself with a lot of help from friends (Sarah Lotz, Digby Young, Erik G, Mark Sykes, and Brett Venter) but the bulk of the work has always been just the two of us and since we’re not getting paid for the work inevitably Something Wicked ends up on the back burner when actual paying work comes through.
In the last year both Vianne’s and my career have picked up significantly, which has completely obliterated our time. So, once again, the magazine ends up suffering.
We are hoping to keep it alive online but at this stage I’m still working out the kinks. It looks like one of the few possibilities is if I step down as editor as it seems to be my lack of time that is slowing the progress of the magazine. We’ll see.
What were some of the most important lessons you learnt about publishing due to this project and what do you think is important for those that might want to start a similar project to know?
Seriously, keep your overheads as low as possible. We started in print and right from the beginning we started losing money.
Printing paper is ridiculously expensive (easily 90% of our per-issue cost).
Build up a fan base through online marketing and publishing and then start pulling in the advertisers.
Be prepared to work for free for at least two to three years. Once, and only once you’re turning over a profit, hire some staff to help you out.
Do that for a couple of years and you may be lucky enough to move up to printing on paper.
But to be honest the print industry is an extremely difficult place to start building a business. The work never, ever stops. Every deadline you make is just the beginning of another one. As businesses go, I am glad I started Something Wicked, and I am extremely proud of the work we have done over the last few years, but it’s not a great way to earn money. It is definitely a “for-the-love” business.
I regret not being able to get back to writers fast enough. I know exactly what it’s like to send a story through to a publication and have to wait months and months for a response. Other than that, none whatsoever. Every mistake is a lesson, every experience, good or bad, is a learning opportunity and the more you learn the better off you are in the future. And if you’re gonna lose a bundle of cash over four years, at least pick a fun way to do it, which this was.
- Issue 10 of Something Wicked is available now and some back issues can still be bought online – though, now being collector’s items, they won’t be around for long.