Friday, February 27, 2009

Whatever Happened To Wizard?

So what does it mean that Wizard Magazine has laid off seven more staff positions? It could be interpreted as a sign of the economic times, but Wizard has been laying people off since before times got rough, so the blame can’t be placed squarely at the feet of the collapse of the global economy. No, this is a matter of relevance and not knowing what you want to be as a business.

Let’s face it, "relevant" is something Wizard hasn’t been for a long time. For a while they were pretty safe in their niche, but then that whole Internet thing really took off and sites like Comic Book Resources and Newsarama not only took away the need to wait a month to get your comic book news, but offered up a wonderful benefit to fans who would love to spend their money on comics: the sites and all their content were free. Still, though, Wizard hung in there, probably because people remembered fondly what it once was.

In the glory days, way back in the 90’s, Wizard was one of a kind. Not only was it a magazine dedicated to covering super hero comics, but it also had a sense of community to it. This was long before message boards took off, and Wizard was a rallying point for fans, especially since it read like an updated version of the old Marvel Bullpen from the ‘60’s. Everyone at the comic shop may not have read the same titles each month, but everyone read Wizard.

And Wizard played on that. The big appeal of Wizard when it first debuted was more than just its content (though seeing actual features like whether Batman could take Captain America were big). The magazine’s voice was the draw. Wizard could easily have read like “An Ode To Fanboys, By Fanboys” but it rarely did. There was this feeling given off from the magazine’s staff that these were the fans at the comic shop that, while they loved their super hero comics, got just how silly they could be at the same time. And it made for good reading. The articles had pop, flair and snark to them. They were funny while managing to be informative. Most importantly, the magazine was unapologetic about everything; its tone, its stance on editorial directions its favorite books had taken, everything. Wizard was the cool rallying point for an uncool hobby.

Slowly, though, all that started to disappear. Writers stopped calling out companies for bad stories, stopped making fun of goofy characters (remember “Mort of the Month?”) and stopped being smart asses all the time. They even stopped doing reviews, attributing this to not wanting to use its lofty position of power among fandom to influence them or writers. Sure, that sounds altruistic, but everyone suspects the real story being about knowing who butters your bread, and knocking that person’s output could be seen as detrimental.

It also became more overt about taking money from the fans, and for a little while, managed to do this with success. Not only did it buy up hard to find comics and resell them at exorbitant rates (thanks to the price guide in the back of every issue that most retailers referred to when doing business), but it started to make deals with publishers to get exclusive comics, action figures, lithographs, you name it. On top of all that, Wizard got into the convention market, and for a little while, to great success.

In short, Wizard made a grab for the money Marvel and DC were making off comics. Too bad there’s not that much money to grab.

Anyone who follows comics knows the money both Marvel and DC make from just comic book sales isn’t that much. Sure, comics pay the monthly bills, but the real money is in licensing, movies and TV. And to some degree collected editions. Plus, Marvel is a publicly traded company, while DC has Time-Warner to prop them up. That Gareb Shamus thought there could be exponential growth by just being a comic magazine/comic seller shows a severe lack of foresight. At least when it comes to the long-term success of his company. Certainly his own bank account is pretty full, just not his company’s.

The most recent nail in the publication coffin seems certainly to have been an editorial shift from covering comics exclusively to trying to be an all-encompassing entertainment magazine. Now in addition to a Q&A with Brian Michael Bendis, there are also cover stories on The Watchmen and whatever else is hot in genre movies and TV. The only problem with that is there are dozens of other, better-established magazines dedicated to doing just that. Plus, with a name like Wizard, a newcomer is more likely to figure it’s some D&D fanzine than a legit mainstream journalistic publication.

The layoffs at Wizard started long before the economy went south. It first started with longtime staffers and editors making a certain amount of money being served their walking papers, then selling off their actual office on Conger’s, New York. Just last year, the magazine actually recruited volunteer writers from the Internet to contribute content. That’s right, fans who’ve always dreamed of being close to their favorite writers and artists are working FOR FREE while making money for Wizard. For Shamus, this is certainly a good moneymaker. Why pay for the content when fans will do it for nothing? But when you’ve let go all of your seasoned editors and trained journalists, just how good can that content be, and how long will readers tolerate it? After all, they’re paying for the content. If there’s no guarantee of quality, they won’t stick around for long, or so one would think.

How did this all happen? Like a thousand other print publications, Wizard’s owner got greedy. The magazine’s decade plus long lifespan is more than enough proof that there was, and most likely still is, a market for what it has to offer. However, Wizard is learning the hard way what other media owners are learning about their newspapers and magazine. Gone are the days when publishers could see an annual return on their investment of close to 50 percent. Realistically, if your business plan is a sound one and you have actual content people want to pay for, that return is going to be 10 to 20 percent. Enough to pay the bills, live comfortably and pay for some extra pages for a couple double sized issues every now and again. But not enough to make you a media mogul.

For Wizard, it already may be too late. We may well be seeing the death throws of a once viable, vibrant magazine. This most recent round of layoffs will, sadly, most likely not be the last and more people will be left without jobs.

Here’s hoping the next comics magazine is content with being just that; a magazine about comics.

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