Us Guys Iz Yooze Guys: A Status Report On the AC Experiment
Ban Poehland, Managing Editor
Go Ahead, Sniff It
Beginning with the February '93 AC, our Publisher switched to a different printer. That change was marked by two serendipitous events: first, the new printer didn't whittle down the page size as much, so we got a slightly larger magazine without any material being sliced off in the margins; and second, the new printer uses some kind of ink that smells really great. Yup, I'm one of those people that compulsively sniffs fresh print. My first impression of the printed copy of the February issue was, Gosh this thing not only looks great, it even smells good! I sure hope this April issue gets printed by that same printer using that same ink. Next thing you know I'll eating the darn thing.
So go ahead, give it a sniff. Then give it a good read. Twice over, if you're the sort who needs extra time for digestion. Hopefully, there's a little something in here for everyone- whether you're a reader or a sniffer.
What Is It?
Okay, we've established that this thing you're holding in your hands looks like a magazine and smells like a magazine. A magazine like ANTIC, or Analog, or Compute! or Current Notes, or AIM, or 8:16, or Page6 New Atari User- right?
Wrong. AC is not like any of those magazines. Some of the publications listed above are (were) commercial operations, founded by their respective proprietors for the purpose of making a profit. Commercial magazines are the property of their publishers: the magazine is the publisher's product which he offers for sale, and thereby earns a living for himself and his employees. Some of the magazines above have their origins in the usergroup community, having been founded as usergroup newsletters which grew to proportions approximating the size of commercial operations. At least one of them actually became a commercial operation, while others maintain a quasicommercial status as non-profit operations with close ties to the usergroup communities from which they evolved.
So where does AC fit in? Nowhere, really. AC isn't a commercial operation like ANTIC or Compute! We aren't in business to make a profit, and none of our "employees" (known affectionately as "The Staff") is paid a salary. We are basically a non-profit organization (such profit as may accrue officially goes to our Publisher, but as a practical matter is actually returned to the "kitty" to seed future operations), so in that regard we do have something in common with the usergroup-originated publications like Current Notes. But unlike them, AC doesn't have any particular geographical point of origin, nor does it have any particular relationship to a usergroup.
The only constituency this magazine has is the worldwide 8-bit user community as a whole. AC is parochial to the extent that its language and style reflect the fact that it's produced and printed in the United States, but that's only because when you do something you have to be somewhere. In theory, the idea of AC could have sprung up in any part of the world where people are still using Atari 8 bit computers and didn't want to end the love affair we have with these old machines.
A Bold New Experiment
I deliberately used the phrase "...the idea of AC..." in the preceding sentence to soften you up for the main point of this article. I've said this a thousand times to people already, and I'll say it here again:
AC isn't just a magazine. It is an Idea. It is a bold new experiment.
Memorize that. Burn it into your brain. Sniff the words off the page if you want. But never forget it.
Now I see some of you are confused, and with good reason. There has been quite a lot of confusion in the 8bit community as to what AC is supposed to be. Obviously AC represents an idea, but what idea? What exactly is this Bold New Experiment?
In simplest terms, the Bold New Experiment consists of the Idea that a disenfranchised user community can preserve itself from oblivion by means of some vehicle that focuses the collective resources of the entire community. In this case, the "vehicle" selected was a print magazine. That magazine is what you now hold in your hand, and it's called Atari Classics. Quite literally, AC is the embodiment of the expressed will of the worldwide 8-bit community that it does not want to die.
Every time an issue of this magazine gets printed and distributed, the Atari 8-bit community is telling the world-and the dodo-brains in Sunnyvale-"We are still here. We haven't died yet. We are still a viable community of users who feel there is value in these machines. You can disown us, or laugh at us, but you can't kill us." To my knowledge, no other user community has ever done anything quite like this. As such, AC represents something new in the world: the idea that a user community can exist as an entity independent of the company whose product drew us together in the first place. We are breaking new ground here, and the whole world is watching.
The Experiment Begins
Some of you may recall that in the latter half of 1991, Atari Corp. announced its intention to discontinue manufacturing and support of all 8-bit computer products. In the waning days of that year the future of our machinesand our community- became a raging debate on the networks, especially the Internet. Many felt that Atari was trying to kill us off, or coerce us into dumping the 8-bits in favor of the ST. Resentment was strong, but there was also consternaton over what to do about it. Proposals of all sorts were hotly debated. It was the proposal made by Jeff McWilliams (now AC's "Moonlight Workshop" columnist) for a mail-in campaign to start our own all-8bit periodical, that withstood the rigors of debate and emerged as the grass-roots movement that brought this magazine into existence.
Jeffs Mail Campaign was international in scope. Its goal was to find 500 people who would commit themselves in writing to subscribe to a magazine that didn't yet exist. Jeff acquired five other people-dubbed the "Campaign Committee" (myself among them)-to assist in distributing about 1600 market survey forms to 8-bit users all over the world. The Campaign ended successfully in May of 1992, exceeding its goal of 500 commitments by a healthy margin. Jeff McWilliams became the Keeper of a Trust.
The Experiment Takes Form
In retrospect, I think Jeff and his Committee were rather astonished at the results of the Campaign. Especially in the beginning, I don't think any of us really thought we'd meet our goal. There were about 1,000 people who said NO to Jeff's idea- which was mostly what we expected. The surprise was that about 600 people (615 to be precise) said YES, and gave their personal signatures on officially postmarked replies to back it up. During the Campaign everyone was focused on the daily logistics of getting out the survey forms and counting replies; no one really thought about what we would do if the hairbrained scheme actually worked. In May of 1992 Jeff suddenly found himself obligated to 600 rabid 8-bitters who expected him to carry through the promises of the Campaign and start a magazine. As a struggling college student the rigors of the Campaign had stretched Jeff's personal resources to the limit, but the prospect of starting a magazine was totally beyond his ken. Recognizing the limits of his capacities, Jeff turned over the Campaign postcard responses to me and asked me to start the magazine.
It was in this way that I inherited The Trust and accepted the obligation for proceeding with The Experiment. Over the summer of 1992 I made arrangements with Unicorn Publications and devised a business plan for the magazine. Known as the "Atari Classics Publication Manifest", that plan is the foundation upon which the organization of this magazine is built. It's a long, tedious document. In it I drew upon every personal observation I had ever made about magazines. Mediocre magazines that survived. Good ones that failed. Forged in the cauldon of a user community on the brink of extinction, this magazine had to be bullet-proof. There were 600 people depending on me, and time was running out. I knew that if I failed, this would be our last hurrah.
Unicorn Publications accepted the Manifest in August of '92, and a Staff was hastily assembled. The free Premier Issue of AC, which had been promised to the Faithful 600 by the Campaign Committee, was prepared in September, launched in October, and mailed out in November with a December 1992 cover date. In the business planning for the magazine, we assumed we would get 500 subscribers (the minimum required for a full bimonthly production schedule on the basis of spreadsheet analysis) just from those 600-odd participants in the Campaign. For good measure, I decided to stack the odds in our favor by directing our Publisher to print up an excess quantity of copies (2,000 total) which we would also distribute for free. By the time the last batch of freebies was mailed out on December 28, 1992, we had given away over 1700 free magazines. That effort represented the extreme upper limit of the combined resources of the AC Staff and Unicorn Publications. It was our best shot, and I was confident our 500 subscribers would be forthcoming. It didn't happen.
The Subscription Dilemma
In December and January I was mostly preoccupied with production on the February issue and our fist Software Disk. In my dual capacity as Circulation Editor I continued to process incoming subscriptions, but with all the chaos of those days I wasn't keeping a running tally. I sensed we weren't up to 500, but I thought we were close. In late January I prepared all the mailing labels for the February AC (those of you with 1025 printers will recognize the print style), and also did an exact count. The result was disturbing: we were mailing out only about 350 copies of the February issue. Alarmed, I requested Unicorn Publications to cut back on the print run of the February issue. After servicing our paid subscribers, storefront distributors, and gratis distributions, I was left with precious few copies to service new subscription orders and back issue sales.
Fortunately new subscriptions are continuing to trickle in at the rate of about 50/month, and as of this writing (the first week of March), our subscriber base is up to 400. That is not a bad number, but it restricts what we can do. Certainly it's enough to keep AC going the rest of this year. It will permit us to print at least five issues in 1993. Nevertheless, AC is 20% undersubscribed, and there's a price to pay. We may have to drop an issue (probably August). We'll be stuck at 32 pages (I'd like to see 40). And worst of all for American subscribers, we'll still have to use this crummy 3rd Class Mail, aka "Pack Mule Express" (ever wonder where the term "snail-mail" came from?). The good old days when you could plunk down a hundred smackers for a 2nd Class mailing permit are long gone; the post office will nail AC $350 for that privelege these days, and the record keeping they require would warm the heart of any former NKVD officer. We're willing to put up with the Guvermint hassles, but not without the Magic 500.
Probing the Riddle
Perplexed by the sluggish response in the face of an effort that seemed a sure-fire success, I did a little poking around jawboning with folks, snooping on nets and such-to see if I could gain insight as to what was going on. I made a rough check of the original 600 Campaign respondents and discovered that barely 200 of them had honored their commitment. Apparently the magazine itself wasn't to blame; despite some grumbling that it wasn't long enough, most readers gave the December AC high marks. And our February issue was received with even more enthusiasm. Quality control isn't the problem; we got us a good product here.
A major factor seems to be a "wait-and-see" attitude. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Too late, the folks who are waiting to see whether AC will "make it" are going to realize this magazine is for real. When they finally get around to honoring their pledges the back issues will all be gone, and they will miss out. We have to pay our bills in hard cash up front and can't afford to incur debt for costly print overruns in the hope we'll be able to sell the extra copies later to the slothful slaggards out there. I sent out an announcement to the networks explaining the consequences of our slow growth and the short supply of the February issue. Predictably, subscription orders increased by 40% in the following weeks. The small stack of spare copies of the February issue continues to contract each week as new orders go out the door, and now supplies of our first Software Disk are running out. I'm awaiting a final shipment from AC's Disk Men, Steve and Alex, as they scrape the bottom of the barrel. When they're gone, they're gone.
Some complained about the slow delivery of the December issue. There wasn't much I could do about that except offer my sympathies, and there's no question the slow deliveries delayed our subscription drive. The worst case of "snailmail syndrome" came from Iceland, where the November 3 mailout didn't arrive until February 5 (yeeesh!). Still, mailing delays alone don't account for the gap between expectation and performance.
Of all the reasons I encountered for why people were dallying, the one that concerned me the most was antagonism toward Unicorn Publications. Unicorn Publications faltered on deliveries of Atari Interface Magazine after October, which understandably annoyed a lot of people. Observing that AC was also published by Unicorn Publications, there were a number of cases where people took out their frustrations with AIM by refusing to honor their Campaign commitment to AC. The inference was drawnquite incorrectly-that because AIM was in trouble, AC must follow.
With AC more or less up and running, people were now lumping it in with AIM and all the other magazines they had known, and treating it so. Former participants in the Mail Campaign had forgotten that AC was founded at their bequest and was being run by the 8-bit community itself, not by Unicorn Publications. And there were many newcomers who, totally unaware of how AC got started, had a cavalier attitude and were making all sorts of demands upon us as though they were dealing with some monolithic corporation. I realized we had a problem of perception, which motivated me to write this article.
Who Owns AC?
By mentally linking AC with AIM-and thereby to all the other Atari magazines they might have known past or present-people were implicitly assuming that AC, like those other magazines, is the property of its Publisher. Unicorn Publications does indeed publish AC, but they don't really own it; at least not in the same sense that they own AIM. True, Unicorn Publications provides professional services to AC that are absolutely essential: DTP services, arrangements for printing and mailing, paying the bills, assuming obligations for legal and tax liabilities, and processing payments made with credit cards. But AC is basically a contract job for Unicorn Publications: we're paying them to do that stuff. Theoretically, we could have asked anybody to produce AC for us. I selected Unicorn Publications because I felt they had the most to offer, and from personal contact with Bill and Pattie Rayl I sensed a willingness on their part to support the 8-bit community.
In late February 1993 Unicorn Publications circulated a letter to all their AIM subscribers explaining their difficulties with that publication. Included with that letter was some commentary on the misperceptions people have about the relationship between AIM and AC, reassuring readers that the problems of AIM are completely unrelated to AC. I also noted with some amusement that Unicorn Publications referred to AC as "...Ben Poehland's new ... magazine." The faux pas is certainly understandable. I'm the fellow Unicorn Publications deals with for 90% of AC's business. And since I provided the loan that enabled Unicorn Publications to produce our first issue, it might be argued that I do indeed own AC. Even as I write these words, I still find the concept amusing.
The loan-which is interest-free-was nothing more than part of the machinery I created to fulfill the obligation I assumed when I accepted the legacy handed me by Jeff McWilliams. Sure, there was some personal risk to me in making that loan, but that went with the territory. Good grief, you have to start .somewhere, and printers and postmen don't accept IOU's. A bit of "pump priming" was required, and if AC lasts long enough I'll eventually break even. There is no personal gain to me from my financial arrangements with Unicorn Publications. That is as it should be: as I said at the beginning of this article, AC is not a commercial operation, and profit isn't our motive. I certainly do not feel authorized to claim ownership of this magazine, nor do I wish to.
I'm nothing more than the Keeper of the Trust that was bequeathed to me by Jeff McWilliams on behalf of those members of the worldwide 8-bit community who participated in the Mail Campaign. The sobriquet "Keeper of the Trust" has now been formally replaced by the title of Managing Editor. In that capacity I'm serving out my obligation to attend and supervise the Bold New Experiment represented by this magazine. In theory any member of the 8-bit community could step in and take my place. Indeed, if tomorrow someone appears who is better qualified than I, I would hand over this zany enterprise to him without hesitation. And the new Managing Editor would, in his turn, become the Keeper of the Trust.
I hold the opinion that the true owners of AC are those 200 people of the original 600 who followed through on their commitments to subscribe to AC. The remaining 400 are silent partners who haven't yet shown up to collect their piece of the action. The other 200 folks who signed up after the Campaign ended are owners too, but most of them don't know it. They think they merely subscribed to a magazine, and they are just now discovering that in reality they are fellow Participants in the Bold New Experiment. Thus it will be with everyone who subscribes to AC in the future: you aren't just a subscriber, you're a Participant.
Us Guys Iz Yooze Guys
So who are these people on the AC Staff, and who do they work for? All of us are 8-bit users just like you. We all subscribe to AC just like you do, and we suffer along with you when it gets delivered late. We do receive some minor remuneration for out-of-pocket expenses (postage, phone bills, etc.), but none of us accepts a salary or compensation for our time and effort. We come from all walks of life and are scattered among several continents around the globe. This, incidentally, is why AC lacks a distinct geographical focus and bears no particular allegiance to any user group organization. Some of us belong to user groups; some don't.
We are all ages, from college students to fellows well past retirement. We represent a wide range of occupations: astronomer, chemist, military officer, lawyer, aspiring writer, musician, electrician, computer professionals, and even a guy who works in a gunpowder factory making artillery shells for the Army. Like you, we on the Staff spend our daylight hours earning a living in occupations unrelated to AC. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, or religious zeal or whatever, for us to create and assemble the material for this magazine in our spare time. Relative to the world of publishing, we're all a bunch of rank amateurs. We're still feeling our way, trying to avoid catastrophic errors and making dozens of little mid-course corrections to tweak our efficiency. Our logistics are a nightmare. Our status with the Infernal Revenooers is anybody's guess. And as with any collection of human mortals, we have our share of internal squabbles, disappointments, hurt feelings, and communication failures. But then somehow another issue of AC gets published, and the immense satisfaction we feel makes it all worthwhile. For better or for worse, warts and all, the AC Staff are the Caretakers of The Experiment.
We are motivated by the same impulses that drove you to chance a subscription to this novel enterprise. The authority for us to do the stuff we do is derived directly from you, and it is you that we work for. The material we publish is partly supplied by members of the community at large, and partly by Staff members. Since the Staff of AC is drawn directly from the global user community, it's senseless to distinguish between ourselves and the community we serve. We are you. No corporate entities here. No glass-and-steel office towers. No starched white shirts. Just a bunch of visionary guys with an incurable addiction to Atari 8-bit computers who want to see The Experiment succeed. Including one guy who sniffs fresh print.