Like 80,000 other nerds, I trekked out (no pun intended) to this past weekend’s Fan Expo here in Toronto. I wasn’t there so much to see any particular celebrity – although it was cool to catch a glimpse of Stan Lee in the flesh – or buy any comic book, but rather to stroll through the convention centre with an aim to writing something about the show.
Ultimately, I couldn’t help but get nostalgic. While it’s true that a lot of these conventions are cookie cutter – Lou Ferrigno seems to be at all of them – the Toronto show always feels a little closer to home for more than the obvious reasons.
Way back in 1996, a couple of friends and I started something called Realms Magazine, a bi-weekly fanzine devoted to all things science-fiction that we published out of our bedrooms. We put the little eight-page thing together with Adobe Pagemaker, then split the file up onto several floppy discs so that we could print it out on a larger format printer, which none of us owned since we were just poor students.
We were overjoyed when Zip disks finally arrived, since their bigger storage capability saved us a ton of time and work. It’s hilarious to think that today, we could email an entire issue to a printer in just a few minutes.
We distributed Realms for free mainly through comic book stores in Toronto, with our costs barely covered by advertising. It was mainly those same stores that bought the advertising, but one of our early customers was the Canadian National Comic Book Exposition, which had run its first show in 1995. That event, of course, eventually grew up to become Fan Expo. As such, the annual show will, for me, always be linked back to the magazine.
Realms managed to stay afloat for 52 issues. The magazine provided us with amusement and it achieved some mild success – at one point, Eye Weekly (now The Grid) even wanted to quasi- buy it, while the Toronto Star called us “small-scale but hugely impressive.” Perhaps our biggest success, a dubious one to be sure, was in unwittingly kicking off the legal battle that would establish a precedent in how libel notices apply to news organizations’ online operations. You’re welcome, Canada.
In the end, the strain of producing a newspaper every two weeks, even a small one, proved to be too much. None of us were businessmen, so we weren’t able to turn our mild successes into anything resembling a sustainable business. Alas, Realms was shut down.
Somehow, though, I didn’t learn my lesson. A few years later, my friend Kenny Yum came calling and convinced me to unretire the magazine. This time, though, it’d be a proper magazine, rather than a newsprint tabloid. It’d be sold for actual money in book shops, with cover sales, subscriptions and advertising making up our revenue. By this point, Kenny and I were both working at The Globe and Mail; we knew tons of talented journalists and we were sure we could twist their arms into writing for us – for free, of course. It’s ironic that Kenny now runs Huffington Post Canada, which has made exactly that approach a key facet of its business model.
In any event, the new bi-monthly Realms was great. We did in fact have great stories written by great journalists. But, just as with the first effort, we had bitten off more than we could chew. The magazine was too much work and it was too expensive to produce. Kenny and I blew through our respective lines of credit, which was enough to fund five issues. We knew we were onto something but the question was whether we were willing to dive deeper into the hole and work like dogs for who knows how long, with little to no reward. The choice was pretty clear. Realms folded again, this time for good.
In retrospect, both experiences were worth their weight in gold since they taught all of us what running your own business is all about. It requires unbelievable amounts of work, sacrifice, patience, perseverance and faith, not to mention the ability to recognize what skills you may not personally possess that are ultimately going to be necessary.
That’s why whenever I stroll through the cramped aisles of Fan Expo Toronto, I can’t help but smile. While the organizers have made many missteps over the years – no one is likely to forget the overcrowding fiasco in 2010 – it’s heartening to see a Realms contemporary and early supporter having made it to the big leagues. It’s also a little melancholic, since who knows where our magazine might have ended up if we’d only involved someone who knew what they were doing when it came to business matters.
Oh well. Who wants to be a millionaire publishing magnate anyways?