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Omni Online

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Publication.


US website originally an extension of Omni magazine but which continued in its own right once Omni ceased its print publication with the Winter 1995 issue. Omni had first set up an internet presence via Compuserve in September 1986 allowing subscribers access to a condensed version of the print magazine, an interactive "discussion" feature and the Omni Data Library. This facility was dubbed "Omni On-line" even at that stage. The experiment was repeated, via AOL, in October 1993 under editor-in-chief Keith Ferrell and the event was announced in Omni again under the title "Omni Online", a phrase that remained, though it was never an official title. The online edition chiefly ran material from the print edition with nothing new, although a science forum was set up where those who had decent dial-up access could chat to various personalities. By 1995, when Omni was making a loss, it was decided to cease the print edition in April though second thoughts meant two more quarterly issues appeared. Omni Online continued operating via AOL for another year, but in the summer of 1996 the publishers decided to develop Omni Online as a fully-fledged web-based magazine, which debuted in September 1996.

Pamela Weintraub had become Editor-in-chief after Ferrell left in July 1996; Ellen Datlow continued as fiction editor and Kathleen Stein as features editor responsible for the Interviews and Q&A online discussions. The website had most of the same features as the original print edition of Omni, though was far less glamorous and unsurprisingly perpetuated certain habits of print thinking. Though still rather primitive, as might be expected in 1996, this work was groundbreaking as no other major magazine had attempted such a large and sophisticated website, especially not on a stand-alone basis, without a print companion in support. Only Hotwired, the online extension of Wired, had preceded it on 27 October 1994, and that was not as extensive. Omni Online, launched and active from February 1995 with the intention of independence from Omni (this being achieved in May 1995) was the first major magazine to attempt a standalone incarnation entirely on the web as opposed to simply an online extension of itself – though also launched itself as a totally new magazine in December 1995.

Until February 1995 none of the fiction published in Omni had been posted online as electronic rights had not been acquired. However, at the end of 1994 Chrysler agreed to sponsor an online series of stories called Neon Vision where electronic rights only were purchased to six novellas which were to run one a month. The first to appear was "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" (February 1995) by Michaela Roessner, a delightful account of a possible encounter between W C Fields and Winsor McCay, which was a short novel in its own right, at 30,000 words. The other authors were Pat Cadigan, Richard A Lupoff, Robert Silverberg, Howard Waldrop and Jack Dann. Waldrop's story You "Could" Go Home Again (1993 chap; June 1995) had seen a previous print publication, but the other stories were all new, the Cadigan, Silverberg and Dann pieces having been specially commissioned. The authors kept the print rights to the stories and were allowed to sell them if they wished after six months. Two chose to do so, and Cadigan's Cyberspace story "Death in the Promised Land" (March 1995) appeared in Asimov's (November 1995) and Silverberg's apocalyptic "Hot Times in Magma City" (May 1995) (see California) also appeared in Asimov's (mid-December 1995). Lupoff's story and another by Cadigan were anthologized in Black Mist and Other Japanese Futures (anth 1997) edited by Keith Ferrell with Orson Scott Card.

Datlow published 24 stories plus three Round Robins between February 1995 and March 1998; only four of those stories had seen either prior publication or had a simultaneous printing, and only another five were also sold on to subsequent magazine publication. Several of them appeared later in anthologies and author collections, but five appeared on Omni Online only and have yet to appear in print form. Fortunately the archives that have been salvaged (noted below) hold all but one of these five, "The Day the Dam Broke" (August 1995) by Kathleen Ann Goonan, and that story can be found at the author's own website. This means a determined reader could access all of Omni Online's fiction.

Initial reports suggested that few readers were visiting Omni Online – it was all too new. It is also interesting that most of the stories nominated for awards had appeared in print elsewhere by the time they were nominated. Only one, Brian Stableford's "Coming to Terms with the Great Plague" (December 1997), which was shortlisted for the Sturgeon Award, was available only online at the time it was nominated. Nevertheless James P Blaylock's Thirteen Phantasms (October 1996; 2005 chap) became the first online story to win an award, with the World Fantasy Award in 1997.

All of the stories published in Omni Online are of high quality, every bit as polished and original as one had come to expect from the original Omni. They included work, in addition to those already cited, by Harlan Ellison, Simon Ings, Michael Kandel, Paul J McAuley, Dan Simmons, Paul Park, Cherry Wilder and Gardner Dozois in collaboration with Michael Swanwick. It also ran the first publication of an early novella by Fritz Leiber, The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (February 1996; 1997). There were three Round Robins, the Time Travel conundrum "Making Good Time" (25 November 1996-29 January 1997) by Rachel Pollack, Pat Cadigan, Nancy Kress and James Patrick Kelly; the tale of a sentient coral reef, "The Reef Builders" (4 March 1997-23 May 1997) by Karen Joy Fowler, Maureen F McHugh, Rosaleen Love and Terry Bisson; and the surreal space-time circus of "The Darcy Bee" (29 September 1997-11 February 1998) by Kathleen Ann Goonan, John Clute with Elizabeth Hand, Kim Newman and Jonathan Lethem. This was the first time a Round-Robin had been attempted in an Online Magazine, and Datlow would repeat the experiment in Event Horizon.

In spring 1997 Robert Killheffer, who had rejoined the editorial staff the previous November, undertook a complete redesign of the Omni Online site, assuming Head Programmer and Art Director duties and moving the venture more confidently away from its print roots. Killheffer and Weintraub boosted the profile of Omni Online's interactive features and added a more cumulative, fluid, and frequently-updated model. It included several interactive features, including the "Prime Time" chats with scientists, astronauts, sf writers and other "celebrities"; "Live Science" which allowed a "fly-on-the-wall" interaction in scientific experiments; various features on new scientific developments; "Project Open Book" about UFOs and alternative sciences, an art gallery and a host of other features. It is this final version that survives on the internet as a partial archive [see links below].

When Bob Guccione's wife, Kathy Keeton, died in September 1997, it was as if the project's spiritual driving force had gone. With the publisher, General Media, continuing to make losses, Omni Online was closed down in March 1998. The last story to be published was "Mr Goober's Show" (March 1998) by Howard Waldrop. Although Omni Online may not have proved a financial success, it was a significant achievement, not only as the first professional standalone online magazine but as the first to publish an award-winning story. Its impact within the sf field was such that other magazines, notably Galaxy and Tomorrow turned to online publication and the trickle began that would soon be a deluge. [MA]


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