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A Brief History of Wizards Being Bad at Selling Books

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Unfortunately, the public has made it very clear that novels are not how they want the story told.

-Mark Rosewater, 2014

Judging from the response I get any time I complain about it publicly, and by the complaints of other prominent Vorthosi, at least some segment of the fandom is getting a bit frustrated with how difficult Wizards of the Coast makes it to buy their books, or even be aware that their books exist. Take, for example, "The Art of Magic: The Gathering: Concepts and Legends." Now, this is a book I had no idea existed until a few days ago. It looks pretty interesting, like something I might like to get. There was a very solid chance, though, I might have never found out it existed at all. I only learned of it from a former fan mentioning to me that it was weird that Wizards of the Coast was so silent about the book coming out.

That seems, for some reason, a little dysfunctional to me.

And yet, the official Magic the Gathering account hadn't mentioned it yesterday when I started this article, though they've since retweeted publisher Viz's release page. That's one attempt at advertising, but others remain scarce. I scrolled up and down the latest Magic Story entry in vain: there's no mention of the book anywhere. I had no luck on the "mtgstory.com" page, either, which might be reasonably assumed to catalog all the purchasable story materials.

Oh, there IS a link to Amazon, though, on mtgstory.com. Finally. It took them several years to get that put up, but at least it's there now.

Unfortunately, it links only to ebooks of largely Weatherlight era materials, and even that isn't going to make for a particularly satisfying read. All of Urza's story is there, but the entire Mercadia trilogy - the whole middle of the Weatherlight story - is missing. They used to have the Ice Age books up (the first "The Gathering Dark" - was listed under the title "The Gathering Darkness", which made it a little tricky to find...) but those just sort of disappeared a while ago, for whatever reason. Oh, and there's two out of three books of the Time Spiral story. The first one is missing. Also missing from the list of ebooks are The Secretist and Godsend, which were only ever published as ebooks. Ok. And to round things out, the original Ravnica trilogy IS available in ebook form, but for some reason is not in the ebook list.

Back to the subject of "Concepts and Legends," though, that's nowhere to be found on the page. It's not an ebook, so that at least makes sense from a category perspective, if not a marketing one. There is no link on the mtgstory page at all to Viz's now relatively venerable series of art books. I guess the books must be selling anyway, because they're still producing them, but they haven't made them easy to find. It's not, for example, on the Coming Soon product page. It's a product, coming soon, but books do not, traditionally, seem to count much as products to WotC. What counts as a product seems to be fairly narrow, judging by the fact that https://magic.wizards.com/en/products/ redirects to a list of sets only, one that shockingly doesn't even include things like Commander releases.

It's weird that they keep trying to make a novel line work, given their seeming reluctance to actually promote books or make them easy for fans to find. I've already written about the novel line's history in three large articles, but I think it's worth drilling down specifically to the topic of promotion. Take the Weatherlight era, for example. There isn't, traditionally, a lot of talk by former employees and freelancers about just what went on behind the scenes in any era of Magic, but one striking exception is Clayton Emery's treatise on why he no longer writes for Wizards of the Coast. I want to highlight one particular complaint he has:

I finally attended GenCon after they'd begged me to come for years. And arrived to find waiting for me - nothing. No green room, no free coffee, no signing party, no reading, no panels, no chance to meet fans, and not a single copy of any of my books anywhere in sight. Why did you invite me? "We just wanted you to come." And do what for three days, shop?

While there, I did get to ask, How do I graduate from the B list to the A list? "You don't." Will you guys promote my work? "No. If you catch fire with the fans, then we'll promote you." How do I catch fire with the fans if you don't promote my work? "Who knows? We don't promote Magic books as a rule anyway, because they don't sell well." Then why produce them? And hey, you promoted Jeff Grubb's latest Magic book, advertising it on the inside front cover of every DC comic for three months during one summer. "Oh, sure. His books sell."

Now, in WotC's defense, Emery DOES mention some advertising for the books: Jeff Grubb's books. According to Emery, though, this was only because Grubb's books already sold; they weren't interested in building the brand unless the brand had already built itself.

I can't attest to the accuracy of Emery's recollections, but it certainly feels familiar. During the dying days of the novel line, a frequent complaint on the Vorthos forums of Gleemax and MTG Salvation was that exciting new books - like the Planeswalker's Guide series, moved online after a single entry failed to sell - weren't actually being promoted to the wider fanbase. Doug Beyer was, at the time, writing a weekly column on flavor, taking over for "Vorthos" coiner Matt Cavotta, but for some reason the articles seldom mentioned the novels. While things have gotten better in some respects since then with the rise of advertising for mtgstory directly on the cards, bizarrely they continue putting in the effort to publish pieces of their back catalog as ebooks, without actually mentioning to anyone that they've done it. None of the ebook releases, to my knowledge, have ever been acknowledged by official accounts, aside from that single link to an incomplete list on mtgstory.com.

Maybe this reluctance to promote results from, to paraphrase Doug, the existence of a Vorthos fanbase was in question for many years. It's hard to justify advertising to the empty void. And there was anecdotal evidence to back this assessment. Take this bleak tale from Purifying Fire author Laura Resnick:

As it happens, when I signed books at Gen Con in 2009, I noticed a several things which I thought were signs of shoals ahead. I had never been to a convention in my entire career where there was such a stunning dearth of books (and not even -one- book dealer, as far as I can recall). The MAGIC gamers I encountered all weekend had no idea there was a series of MAGIC books and/or they were so uninterested in MAGIC books that we couldn't =give away= the novels. (I have sadly comical memories of the anxious PR team more-or-less forcing signed copies of these brand-new novels on MAGIC gamers who were responding as if being handed dead reptiles.)

Elsewhere in this thread, the big End of the Novel Line thread on the motherboard, Brady Dommermuth lays out dire numbers for the buying public: "1 in 10,000 Magic players bought any given Magic novel. That's using the highest sales numbers among our books historically (not counting fat packs, which were priced in such a way as to make the book essentially free) and our lowest estimates of total Magic players." That tidbit about the fat packs seems important: for at least some part of the fanbase, even before the story was being published for free, it was already effectively free (and not wanted).

This lines up with other anecdotes I've heard over the years, though I stress that these may be fan lore more than hard fact. I've heard tell of people opening their fat packs, cracking the boosters, and throwing the novels in the trash. I have multiple copies of the first two Mirrodin books because of such unwanted copies. I've also heard that the early Harper-Prism promos were often acquired by players simply pulling out the coupons in bookstores and putting the books right back on the shelves. This might be apocryphal (all my copies of these books still have the coupons inside) but I can also picture many of the dudes I've played Magic with over the years not only carrying out such a scheme but patting themselves on the back for their cleverness afterward. It's possible that WotC is reluctant to run similar promotions because the fanbase is so resistant to being sold novels, for whatever reason.

Nonetheless, it's a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy to not promote a product, and then conclude that there simply isn't an audience for it. I feel that the success of Magic Story, promoted on the cards themselves with a URL, suggests that if you put things directly in front of players, they'll notice them.

But, has Magic Story actually been successful? As with basically everything involving Wizards products the answer is a resounding "who the heck knows." Just as Rei Nakazawa (probably) claimed the novel line was doing great only for Brady to reveal after its cancellation that it extremely was not, we've gotten takes on the success of Magic Story. Mark Rosewater has repeatedly claimed that readership is at record breaking highs and so is awareness of the story. Blake Rasmussen, meanwhile, seems much more skeptical, though he also hedges that Mark's tweets are more than two years old. I'm not sure that would matter, as the publishing model remained largely consistent through the Gatewatch era right up until Dominaria, but hey, maybe story engagement took a precipitous dive during Ixalan to more like Weatherlight era engagement. Without actual numbers it's impossible to say.

This is all a bit perplexing though. Did Magic Story's success inspire them to radically alter their publishing model, releasing the A plot in the form of a $27 hard cover book and floppy comic books? Or was it failing, forcing them to try out a new model, which just happens to be a model everyone at Wizards has claimed for six years was totally not viable? I can't parse the logic, in either case, that would inspire them to gamble so much on a publishing model that they seem so reluctant to build a sales infrastructure for.

It's absolutely incomprehensible to me that the single best source for Magic's back catalog is a fan site from someone who doesn't even go here anymore. It's bewildering that the main website of this game offers no comprehensive list of all the art books, novels, comics, and webcomics, with new releases coming out this very week highlighted and promoted all over every relevant article. This is the kind of thing bloggers and webcomic artists recognize the need to establish, so why does a company owned by Hasbro have such a disorganized back-and-current catalog? For goodness sake, this has actually gotten worse recently, with the former list of ebooks getting killed in the still buggy and archive-destroying site redesign a few years back. Even that, mind, was a bizarre mess, with single books missing from trilogies on different platforms, and no mention of Godsend, which had come out a month before this archive capture.

Wizards seems to want to turn the storyline, somehow, into a global franchise and brand, but they seem pathologically unwilling to pay for the venture. While I congratulate Jay Annelli for coming on board as a freelance storyline guru - he's an excellent pick for the job and deserves to get compensated for WotC for the work he's done - this move to handle continuity through someone not employed full time in the creative team does not inspire confidence in their willingness to invest in the brand they're staking so much on. Neither does their other uses of fan labor for things like translations. Solid investment efforts, like purchasing illustrations for Magic Story, end up, in the wider context of the franchise's perpetual disorganization, feeling haphazard. I keep coming back to the question posed by Claton Emery about another era of story: if Wizards isn't willing to invest in selling their books, because they don't turn a profit, why have a novel line at all?

Certainly, it's hard to feel very invested in a fandom where I feel so little like I know what's going on, what is being released when, and how to actually give Wizards of the Coast my dang money!

Maybe the bleak prediction in my head, where this new set of novels and comics fail the same way each previous novel era has fallen apart, is too dour even for 2018. Maybe, as we approach the release of the Ravnica novel, Wizards will keep actually promoting it as loudly and frantically as I suspect will be necessary. Maybe the whole venture will be a rousing success and they will put in the effort to construct a viable catalog of their storyline materials, and a hype engine as successful as set spoiler season. Maybe they'll make it as frictionless as possible to go from awareness of the latest set, to awareness of the latest book, to purchasing that book.

We've got a 25 year history of Wizards of the Coast doing none of these things. But maybe this time will be different.