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Scrye: A personal remembrance

Monday, February 2, 2009

With the news of the cancellation of Scrye: The Guide to Collectible Games, my mind went back to my years as the second editor of the magazine — one of the most lucrative times in the publication’s history, but also one of the bigger challenges I ever faced in magazine publishing.

Scrye magazine was founded by Joanne White, who was introduced to Magic: The Gathering by Peter Adkison at the game's release at Origins in 1993. A role-playing magazine publisher, Joanne had Scrye running within months to cover the new product — and by the boom year of 1994, when Magic was being called “crack for gamers” because of the ridiculous prices cards were fetching, Scrye was solidly ensconced as the #1 price guide and strategy publication for players of Magic and the dozens of similar games that followed.

I was editor of Comics Retailer for Krause Publications in this period — and the publisher, ad staff, and I all saw the strength of the market and began directing coverage toward it. We didn’t have our own consumer magazine for games, however, and with Comics Buyer’s Guide coping with the collapse of the comics market after the 1993 boom, we were never able to generate enough internal support to either buy an existing magazine — buying Scrye was mentioned in some conversations in 1995, but it was something we only talked about — or to start one of our own. The most we were able to do was to start another in a long line of game columns in Comics Buyer’s Guide. Though rightly seen as a digression by readers and never well received, it did result in the highest-selling issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide up to then when two Magic: Ice Age promo cards were inserted in the magazine, thanks to the column. With the addition of gamer extraordinaire Joyce Greenholdt to the staff, we later built that out into occasional supplements for CBG.

But the desire to have a full-fledged magazine remained — and by 1999, with publisher Mark Williams at the helm and the trading-card game beginning to boom again with Pokémon, the company quietly entered negotiations to purchase Scrye. The purchase was announced in mid-November of 1999 — when preparations behind the scenes were already well underway.

The transition, as I mentioned, was one of the more challenging projects I’ve ever worked on. The average consumer may not ever realize how many different ways there are to produce a magazine. Even if you’re on the same software, there are fonts and style sheets and image locations to be reconciled; templates to be created for new paper sizes; e-mail addresses and creator contracts to transfer, and more. And that’s before you even get to figuring out what goes on the page!

Scrye was a well-oiled machine by the time it arrived in our offices — but it was also a different machine, going from an office where the editor was the publisher to a building of (at that time) 500 employees putting out dozens of magazines. I’m sure it was a culture shock for Joanne, there to help us on that first issue: Where in the past, she could get a scan of a card in seconds at her desktop, our editors didn’t have scanners at all. We had a scanning department running a ten-thousand-dollar megascanner 24 hours a day, and forms to fill out to commence our several-day wait for the card image to materialize on the proper server. (It wasn’t long before we snuck in our own scanner.)

Other culture shocks were for us. Joyce was familiar with all the games, but I had given up playing Magic in 1995 — and I didn’t know what Pokémon was, at all. And here in 1999, Scrye was doing big business with huge sections of translations of Japanese Pokemon cards unreleased in the United States! It took me back a bit to my time editing lumber magazines — when, again, I had no idea what was being covered — but we figured it out, with help. Freelancer Jason Winter — later hired to work in-house — managed story assignment and incoming editorial from a group of hand-picked players, like Omeed Dariani and Ka-Lok Fung, hired to understand the things we didn’t. Jack Everitt continued to manage the translations from outside (eventually producing a Pokémon book for Krause).

And the price guide was already a thing of wonder, relative to other set-ups we’d seen: Retailers were shipped the actual Scrye Price Guide spreadsheets and paid to fill them out and return them. The pricing reconciliation, handled on our side by Joyce and our new assistant Denise Janec, was a higher-tech process than many at our collectible publications in 1999, and it delivered a superior guide. After always playing catch-up in comics, it was very nice to be working on a publication that was the entrenched price guide leader.

Scrye was a fairly unusual publication at Krause at the time — glossy, expensive, with a youthful demographic, single-copy rather than subscription-based, and on an especially esoteric topic (at least as compared to collectible coins or cars). Company founder Chet Krause came by the office one afternoon in that first month and wondered what the heck we’d gotten into: the whole concept sounded alien to him. And no one else in the building, then or later, could ever pronounce or spell the name. The guys in the sportscard wing jokingly called it “Screw” — lightheartedly, although when you think about it, we had just swiped the most profitable card-related hobby of 1999 for our division!

Working nights and weekends, we miraculously got an issue of Scrye out in a few weeks, just in time for the Christmas season and Pokémon peak — and, more importantly, to make it into the 1999 budget year. It was the highest-selling issue ever, with sales somewhere around 150,000 copies — and it went some way to immediately begin paying for the purchase of the magazine. So important was it to the whole company’s bottom line that we were singled out at the employee stock ownership program’s stock price announcement meeting a couple of months later — and then there was the day that an executive, seeing Joyce and I working for free (we didn’t get overtime) in the office one Sunday, took out his wallet and slipped us each a hundred bucks. A small token — but it showed that nobody wondered if the company had made the right decision in buying the magazine by then!

Scrye had never been on a set schedule — coming out whenever it was ready, four or five times a year. We immediately put the magazine on a bimonthly schedule for 2000, bumping it later to eight times a year and finally to monthly. I also later changed the numbering of the issues — which had been an odd decimal formulation meant to call computer software to mind (#7.5, etc.) — to a simple ordinal numbering.

And it was exhausting. Our third issue in March 2000 was our biggest yet, at 150+ pages — and I was still editing Comics Retailer and trying to cope with a new child at home. I gave up my review column in CBG — and, in large measure, sleep. Gen Con 2000 had some important moments, though. I met James Mishler of ACD Distribution, who we would hire weeks later as an in-house associate editor to relieve some of the workload. Writer friend Mike Stackpole also took me to meet Jordan Weisman of WizKids, who presented me with a sample kit of his new game, Mage Knight. We immediately saw this was something that would be great for the hobby, and Scrye became the first publication to cover collectible miniatures games weeks later. We dropped the word “card” from the “The Guide to Collectible Card Games” at that point.

With Joyce, James, and Denise giving me some breathing room to work on other projects, in December 2000 I set to work on the project I’m proudest of from my involvement with Scrye: The Scrye Collectible Card Game Checklist & Price Guide. I was literally in the office every single day from January 2 to March 1 finalizing the book, which had all of Joyce’s prices and a lot of James’ analysis for every single CCG that had been released to date — in a format that was fun to read. It was a mammoth undertaking, and we did it again two years later for a second edition.

By the fall of 2001, I was needed for a redesign of Comics Buyer’s Guide — and by the end of the year, I was kicked upstairs to become the editorial director of the Comics and Games Division (something that didn’t exist by that name before Scrye). Joyce took over as editor, a job she retained until the end. Apart from the second edition of the book, I really didn’t do much for the publication after that in front of the camera, focusing more on the business side.

Scrye always presented some unique challenges on the sales side. As the glut of Pokemon copycat games waned in the early 2000s, we very much wanted to branch out into other kinds of games, as Wizard’s publication Inquest had; unfortunately, we found there was a hardcore group within the audience that only ever looked at the price guide, whatever we did. It’s one of the reasons when I worked on the CBG magazine design in 2004, we interlaced the price guide with editorial content — although there, the concern was the reverse, that some readers wouldn’t look at the price guide otherwise! The number of these guide-only readers was such that we found that polybags were hugely connected to sell-through; promo cards were a great draw, but even if there weren’t any, it was still worth bagging the issue to prevent people from grazing a few prices without paying for the magazine.

If there was an acknowledged weak spot in the operation, it was that Scrye had never had a website, for prices or otherwise. Joanne White had never had one (running the magazine was a handful on its own) and the best Krause had in the early 2000s was a subscription page on a catchall website. We discussed doing an online price guide several times, but the technical challenge and expense was always greater than the perceived return. It wasn’t until my very last few weeks at Krause — then F&W Publications — working for the internet division at the end of 2006 that we purchased GamingReport.com, a news website, to serve as the Scrye landing and news page. I regret that I didn’t get more time with it before I left, as in many ways it was a similar challenge to the magazine acquisition of 1999, being on a different platform bringing its own special technical needs.

The mid 2000s saw a softening of the gaming market — with the print version of Dragon and Inquest both folding, Scrye became the last non-electronic gaming monthly. Some time after I departed, ad and single-copy sales had declined enough to require a move to a Tuff Stuff model (after the Krause sportscard magazine, which had pages of glossy color up front followed by signatures of black-and-white on newsprint). It was hard to position such a move: In Comics Buyer’s Guide’s case, going to such a format in 2004, the magazine had always been on newsprint, and the glossy color pages were something extra. And, finally, the word I’d already heard behind the scenes went public today — the April issue, #131, will be the last.

It’s always sad to see something like this go away — and I wish the best to Joyce Greenholdt, who’s staying at F&W; she’s one of the sharpest people I’ve had the pleasure to work with, in publishing or in gaming. It was a heck of a job taking on the publication, but we got it done — and she saw through something close to 100 issues. For myself, the two Scrye years were some of the hardest work I’ve ever done on anything, but they were a helpful entry into the game world — and often, a lot of fun.

Update: Fellow former editor James Mishler's own recollections appear here.

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