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Is Diamond Comics the Devil?

It sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a bit of a kerfuffle over Diamond and its refusal to feature certain items in Previews. I thought I’d weigh in with the “ignorant” point of view, as I’m not a retailer nor a particularly good investigative reporter. But that’s why you come here – for Cronin’s brilliance and my ignorance!

Diamond’s new policy was announced back in January, when they raised the purchase order benchmark that comics would have to meet in order to be featured in Previews. The fear was that small publishers would be driven out of business, making us all much sadder. What does “purchase order benchmark” mean? Well, let’s check it out. According to several sources, this means that a comic needs to make about $6000-$6500 in retail business for Diamond to keep listing it. The chain, in case you don’t know, is this: Publisher sells to Diamond, Diamond sells to retailer, retailer sells to consumer. However, if the retailers don’t order enough of the comic, even if it’s listed in Previews, Diamond won’t issue a purchase order to get the books from the publisher. The publisher gets screwed and the consumers get screwed. The retailers, however, won’t get screwed because they haven’t paid for the book yet. Here’s the interesting part: What Diamond pays the publisher for the comic is subject to debate. I’ve asked my retailer how much they pay for their comics. Marvel and DC give him a 55% discount – meaning for a $2.99 comic, he pays Diamond (who buys the book from the publisher, remember) $1.34. In order for Diamond to make a profit, they have to pay less than that to Marvel and DC. The worst discount my retailer gets from a publisher is 42% – meaning they pay Diamond 58% of the cover price. Theoretically, this means the retailer could charge anything he wants over $1.34 for the comic – the $2.99 price is MSRP, to an extent. This is why my retailer offers a 20% discount on his comics, and why, if you’re buying your books at cover price (plus tax), you’re getting screwed.

That’s the numbers part of it (although, as noted, I can’t find how much Diamond pays the publishers). Back when the new benchmark was announced, several people had apocalyptic things to say about the new policy. Heidi McDonald and Johanna Draper Carlson brought it up, while Tom Spurgeon published a letter sent to him by Dan Vado, the owner of SLG (ironically, SLG will be important later in this post). Vado predicts that Marvel and DC, which have a different relationship with Diamond due to their size, might be the only publishers to survive. He also points out that books don’t have to hit the benchmark every time, but if they consistently fall short, Diamond will kick them to the curb. Initial orders are given a lower threshold, but Diamond insists that the book move more copies or it will drop it from the catalog. Simon Jones breaks it down pretty well:

Comic Ace issue #1 has a cover price of $5, and retailers order 1000 copies, putting its retail value at $5000. It surpasses both the sales threshhold and the purchase order minimum. A purchase order for 1000 copies is issued by Diamond, and Comic Ace issue #2 appears in the next Previews catalog.

Comic Bee issue #1 only garners orders for 500 copies, totalling $2500 retail. Diamond issues a purchase order for 500 copies, but warns the publisher that if orders for issue 2 does not increase, they would not allow issue 3 to appear in Previews.

Comic Cee issue #1 gets an abysmal 200 orders, for a total value of $1000. Despite retailers ordering 200 copies, they will never receive them … Diamond refuses to issue a purchase order at all for Comic Cee because it missed the PO benchmark.

Verstehen sie? Yeah, it’s confusing.

This has all come to a head recently because of the poor sales performance of The Warlord of Io and Other Stories by James Turner, published by SLG. This is, as far as I have seen, the first comic by an established publisher that has been rejected by Diamond. According to the other, cooler blog at CBR, Robot 6, Diamond told SLG that the sales on the one-shot meant that they (Diamond) would not solicit the new mini-series that the one-shot sets up. This means that SLG will not publish it, although you can buy both the one-shot and the first issue of the mini-series at SLG’s web site as a PDF file (the first issue is here for 99 cents, while the one-shot is here for $1.49). The Warlord of Io got good reviews (Parkin naturally links to one on his own blog, but damn it, I’ll link to mine!), but as usual, good reviews mean nothing when it comes to sales. That’s really neither here nor there, except to I’d like to note once again that James Turner is freakin’ awesome.

The problem with Turner and SLG being rejected by Diamond has led to all sorts of reactions from the usual suspects: Tom Spurgeon discusses it, Heidi McDonald weighs in here and here, and Brian Hibbs checks in. Hibbs, as a retailer, offers an interesting point of view, but he shoots himself in the foot a bit by beginning his essay with “CONSUMERS: Honestly, a fair chunk of the issue is your own fault.” It vexes me whenever vendors blame the consumers for not buying what they think the consumers should be buying, but Hibbs does go on to qualify that statement. He takes everyone in the chain to task, too, so there’s that. He brings up the idea of the “mercy fuck” – if only distributors and retailers would order a lot more copies of, say, The Warlord of Io, and put it right next to Generic Superhero Shit Comic #57, then all the fans of Generic Superhero Shit Comic #57 would see it and see the light and buy it! Yeah, that’s pretty stupid. Maybe we should blame the consumer …

Despite the provocative title of this post, I don’t necessarily blame Diamond. They’re a business, trying to stay in business in tough economic times. What is annoying, however, is that they aren’t more forthcoming (as far as I can tell). I suppose it’s their business how they do business (I can still joke about this!), but when they say it’s unprofitable for them to list a comic in Previews, I wonder why. Consider: I submit my comic book, Angst-Filled Days in 1980s Suburbia, my trenchant memoir about growing up white, male, and middle-class and how that totally fucked me up, to Diamond for review. They agree to put it in Previews. Here’s where things become secretive. How much does it cost Diamond to put an inch-high blurb in Previews about my awesome autobiography? I don’t know. Let’s say it’s not much. Then, because I have a large extended family, 100 people order my comic. I charge $5 for it, because you’re privileged to read about my summer days watching Star Blazers while wracked by adolescent ennui, bitches! Diamond pays me $1.75 for it, the retailer pays Diamond $2.25 for it, Diamond makes a profit of $50. Does it cost more than $50 to put my tiny blurb in Previews and to ship it? I assume that shipping the books makes up the largest part of Diamond’s expenses, but I don’t know. Now, I wouldn’t expect a comic selling 100 copies to make it into Previews. According to SLG’s web site, The Warlord of Io and Other Stories sold 900 copies through the Direct Market. Yes, that sucks, but the question remains: How much money did Diamond lose to advertise the product? I’m sure I’m missing something, but if the only money they lose is to put a short solicit in their catalog and the shipping costs (which I’m sure they get a bulk discount on), it seems like it wouldn’t take that much for them to turn a profit. Again, I must point out that I don’t have all the information. I welcome people with more knowledge to come here and tear me a new one.

The question remains (and this is where I want to look at solutions, as wrong-headed as they may be): What can we, as readers, do? Well, on-line seems to be the place to go. I’m sure many creators have made this point, but Scott Sava shows up to comment on one of Heidi’s posts, and he mentions how much better it is to build an audience through the web, then offer a trade paperback of the collection (I know Brian Clevinger, for one, espouses this, although I can’t find where he mentioned it, and I’m sure other creators feel this way too). This, of course, leads to the problem of reading comics on-line, something we’ve debated before. I HATE reading comics on-line, mostly because of the format, but also because (old man alert!) it hurts my eyes. I suppose I could learn to live with it, if we have a revolution in the way comics on-line are produced. That’s one option, of course.

Diamond, presumably, isn’t going away, unless there’s a cataclysm in the industry. If you’re hooked on your Wednesday single-issue fix, there is something you can do. Basically, consumers need to be more proactive (a word I hate, but it fits here). In the comments thread of one of Heidi’s post, customers who use Previews show up. Ray Cornwall writes: “So the first book, Warlord of Io and Other Stories, did go through Diamond? Huh. If that’s true, I’m upset, because I would have pre-ordered had I known it was James Turner. Bleh.” Yes, it’s true, Ray – it was offered in Previews. He later writes:

“I’m a guy who fills out the form, and have for years. Do you [he's addressing a retailer who commented before he did] do anything to help them fill out the form? Do you offer a newsletter offering favorites or specials to those who pre-order? Pre-ordering is a lot of work. It takes me two hours to go through the catalog. In return, MOC gives me 30-50% off my order. If you want your customers to pre-order, offer an incentive!”

I’ve said something along this lines ever since I started writing about Previews here on the blog. My retailer, as I’ve pointed out several times, gives Previews away. He pays Diamond $3 for it. As I’ve pointed out above, your retailer is making plenty of money on the comics they order, so retailers really ought to offer some kind of incentive for you to order from Previews. Ask your retailer to give it to you for free, people! His point about the time it takes is backed up by another commenter, Nate Horn, who writes:

Ryan,

Honestly, filling out the Previews order is a bit of a pain. Nothing against you, but I work two jobs – one corporate and one freelance – and I don’t want to spend 3 of my free hours each month going through a catalog looking for oddball independent books that interest me.

Now, it takes me less than an hour to fill out my Previews “order form” (the quotes are because I use my own paper, as Previews’ short order form is far too short), and I order quite a lot of comics. For example, for April I ordered 39 items, and that’s a fairly standard month. 11 of those were from DC, and 3 were from Marvel (3 were from Dark Horse, and 5 were from Image, while the rest were other publishers). The DC and Marvel books are mostly trade paperbacks or original graphic novels (I pre-ordered Batman and Robin #1 even though I’m confident there will be enough, and the other single issues are Vertigo books, because occasionally my store doesn’t get enough copies of those). I don’t know how many comics those gentlemen are ordering, but 2-3 hours to go through the catalog? Wow. They’re hard core. But it really shouldn’t take too long, and if you’re serious about comics, why wouldn’t you use Previews? I get that people have jobs (I don’t), but if Mr. Horn, for instance, doesn’t have an hour to go through the catalog, I wonder when he has time to actually read comics. I don’t mean that snarkily, because I appreciate that he wants to use Previews, but I do wonder how he finds the time.

Another commenter, Joe Williams, is an artist who creates comics (click the link to check them out!). He’s fairly grumpy:

I think it’s ridiculous to force people to pre-order comics. When I go to the grocery store I can pretty much expect them to carry 30 varieties of salsa and 50 varieties of potato chips and 50 cereals (or more), they don’t just fill the store with Pop Tarts and Coke. When (if) I go to the video store it’s a safe bet they won’t just have 50 titles of the new Hollywood blockbuster but they’ll also have a copy or two of many of the low budget and indy titles I want to get. Comic shops think they can just sell Coke and Pop Tarts and they’re doing their job because anyone who wants celery or pickles had better fill out a form every month to let them know that some people want something besides Coke and Pop Tarts.

While I agree with his sentiment, I would argue that the video stores often DON’T have quirky independent titles, or at least they don’t last long on the shelves (it’s been years since I went to a video store, so I could be wrong; someone makes this point later in the comments). Yes, they have more indie offerings than a comics store usually does, but it’s still an imperfect system. You can extend the metaphor to video stores, music stores, and book stores. I’ve mentioned that my favorite band EVER is Marillion (much to Mr. Apodaca’s chagrin). You basically can’t find a Marillion CD in U. S. stores, because they don’t sell very well. Years ago, Marillion went with a business model where fans could pre-order their discs and they would use that money to fund the actual recording. They offered a lot of bonuses for this (my name is printed in two different discs, as that was one of the perks) and once the disc was recorded, it could go to music stores in a stripped-down, “normal” version (one disc, no fancy packaging). If you’re a hard core fan, you pony up the dough, man! It works well enough for Marillion that they’ve been able to release at least five studio albums in this way (they began it in 1998-99) and, of course, keep all the profits and retain all the rights. But you won’t find Marillion discs in many actual locations, although you can get them on-line. This is true of a lot of bands I like – I’ve never bought a Hamell on Trial disc in a store, for instance – which puts the onus on me to find the discs. I’m not as huge a fan of music as I am of comics, but I don’t know of a nice, handy catalog where I can find all the new music releases – even the tiny ones – in a given month. I’m sure it exists, but I don’t go looking for it, because I don’t care that much. But I like the fact that Previews exists, and I like the fact that I can pre-order comics. Joe Williams has a good point that stores ought to stock more weird stuff, but the fact is, most people want to buy DC and Marvel superhero comics, and comic book stores are, after all, businesses. This gets back to the “mercy fuck” idea, and most stores have no interest in that. If I want a furshlugginer comic, I’m going to order the confounded thing.

People respond to Joe and it becomes slightly contentious (it’s the Internet, after all), but before that, Joe continues a few comments later:

Also, why can’t Diamond offer their catalog on-line in non-PDF form? It’s ridiculous the price they charge for a monthly catalog [This gets back to my point that retailers should give it away, or at least offer it at cost]. If there was an easier way to pre-order comics I might try it but most on-line places that offer previews of monthly titles don’t list the Fantagraphics, AdHouse, etc. stuff I’d want to pre-order.

Diamond actually has this. It’s not a very good system (it’s kind of all over the place), and it seems like it would take a hell of a lot longer than getting the catalog. Plus, they don’t list all the books they do in the printed version. But it’s there, certainly, and if Diamond is losing so much damned money printing the catalog, streamline the one on-line, for crying out loud!

Ultimately, comics fans have to be aggressive. Most fans have become passive, accepting whatever their stores put out for them, which, at my store, means mainstream DC and Marvel, a few Image books (not all, just a few, usually Kirkman’s), a few Dark Horse books, a few Boom! books, a few Dynamite books, and a few random issues from other publishers like Zenescope, because apparently tarted-up fairy tales sell well. You could have a decent reading experience picking up just what my store puts out, but if you’re not that interested in superheroes anymore, the offerings are, admittedly, slim. They will order anything you ask them too, however. I’ve gotten some books based on what reviewers write on blogs, too, and I’ve written before about how nice it is when someone comments to me that I got them hooked on a book they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I like to think I’m an aggressive comics reader. I’m not to the point where I follow stuff on-line, but I will, however, get a collection of, say, Kevin Colden’s I Rule the Night when it gets collected. I had already known about Colden from Fishtown, but I found out about his new project from a comic blog – Tim Callahan’s, to be specific.

I may disagree with Brian Hibbs claiming that it’s my fault, but I do think comics fans need to stop blindly accepting what’s given to them and start demanding what they want. Diamond certainly isn’t the Devil. It’s a business, and even Dan Vado doesn’t hold a grudge for dropping Turner’s latest. I think they could cut some costs without necessarily ditching smaller comics (like the on-line catalog idea). I don’t have any really great ideas, but I do want to stress that, as always, it’s up to you. Yes, it sucks, but comics are a hobby, and every hobby takes some work, doesn’t it?

As always, fire away at me in the comments. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood the arcane nature of distribution and retailing, so let me know!

23 Comments

Speaking as a book retailer (I don’t sell floppies, just tradebooks, graphic novels, &c.), I have to say that of all the publishers/distributors we deal with, of any size or genre, Diamond is the hands down WORST. Just, ridiculously bad. Orders show up in part, with no explanation why only two of forty books shipped. Backorders ship months later. Customer service: nonexistent. Orders never ship to the correct address; I am constantly picking up packages that were misdelivered. How can I get them to change their delivery address? Who knows. I don’t know when the last time we paid them, either. I have no idea how much we even owe them, since they never send invoices or any real paperwork–just books in a box. It would be nice to get an account statement, but I can never get any help on the phone, and no one returns the messages I leave in their mailboxes. Just, amateurish and horrible. I imagine stores that sell periodicals have to put up with it because Diamond’s the only game in town. I’m happy to carry books from DC (Random House) and Fantagraphics (Norton), et al, but anything we have to go to Diamond for? Forget about it. More trouble than it’s worth.

That DOJ investigation into Diamond was a sham. The final ruling about how they didn’t have a monopoly on the industry because it was a subset of “books” and there are other “book” distributors out there…well that ruling just goes to show that in the course of a three year long investigation they never actually looked at the nature of the industry. I hate Diamond. The price point requirement for sales is part of the reason the over inflated prices continue to dominate the industry. Man, I hate the industry now. I’ll stick to picking up trades via Amazon. I’d love to be back into the good old days of visting my local comic book store but the way the industry is these days, individual comic prices are way to fucking high. Again, Diamond is partially to blame for this.

Three-Ninety NEIN!!!

May 5, 2009 at 9:56 pm

There are certain discount comic book services on the ‘net that offer a Previews spreadsheet for download. It even has all the formulas in it, so when you finish entering in how many issues of whatever, it adds up your total!

And there are pretty sweet discounts, which serve as great incentives, as you mention in your post here. I just starting using such a service because there is little to no way in hell that I’ll pay a full $3.99 for a monthly book from the big two (indie books are another matter). Especially when, if I order with a discount service, I can get a trade for as low as 7.99… 7.99 people!!!

Well, it’s been a while since one of us set the internet on fire. Was it your turn, or what?

….seriously, though, that was a nice summing-up.

I read through PREVIEWS every month, but I rarely order out of it and I bitterly resent paying for it, though my retailer at least only charges me the wholesale $3. I usually end up giving it to the students. They LOVE it. Catalogs of exotic comics they’ve never heard of are endlessly entertaining to them.

I think the basic fallacy with trying to ‘find a solution’ is that every possible solution requires SOMEONE to basically pick up the slack for a flawed system. Consumers need to be more pro-active for the good of the industry. I know how frustrating it is that stupid consumers = bad comics, but, you know, it’s the way of the world. Consumers will do what they damn well please. And mostly what they please is wanting to shop without having to work at it.

“Pro-active” really ends up meaning just bypassing the retailer entirely. Hell, when I get wind of some obscure small-press thing I want to look at and my retailer doesn’t have it, I don’t sit down with PREVIEWS. I look at the computer — since that’s where I’m usually sitting when I get wind of interesting new comics, I read about them online — and I order from Amazon or direct from the publisher. Diamond doesn’t enter the equation at all. Am I helping kill the comics retail industry? Probably. But show me where I’m better off AS A CONSUMER doing it your way. The best argument you can make is that it benefits retailers and the comics industry as a whole.

Consumers don’t really care about that. Retailers know it. So they are shifting the burden back to Diamond and Diamond is shifting it to publishers. Again, the business benefits to them for that are concrete and obvious, and the alternative offers only vague idealism on the plus side. Business guys don’t care about vague idealism. Not even the ones in the comics business.

The only real argument to make against that is the one you made — “Is it REALLY that big a deal to list the small guys, Diamond?” and again, what can you offer in the plus column? You have to figure there MUST be some financial incentive for them to crack down. One would hope that it’s not just laziness or mean-spiritedness.

But no matter who bears it — consumers, retailers, Diamond, or the publishers — there’s a burden to bear, because the system itself is ridiculous. The whole thing is based on figuring out what comics readers MIGHT like two months in advance. Who assumes the risk for the wrong guesses? Especially since the cost for those wrong guesses is so much higher than it used to be?

I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of years wondering about this and the answer I come back to is always the same — traditional comics retail just doesn’t work for the little publishers or indie creators, period.. The best result for small-press, marginal efforts seems to be through the internet or other non-traditional outlets, taking traditional retailers and Diamond completely out of the equation. I think that’s the way the wind is blowing. Small-press publishers probably should quit trying to fit themselves into an outdated system that’s clearly not built for them and get on with creating a new one that is. I think the place for that to start is online.

The way the Direct Market works has never sat well for me. When I go to a Convention I will be willing to pay full cover price from creators just out of spite for the DM. But also because the creator gets a small cut of the $1.15 or so for a $3 comic.

Why can’t comic book publishers do print on demand? Being able to purchase comic books directly from an online store, avoiding the extortion-like prices seems to be a good idea that can work if someone tried.

As a community of comic book people we need to demand that things change. Not only do we sit by and let writers and artists delay books for months, almost years at a time, but we let a monopoly tell us what we can and can not buy just because it doesn’t meet there standards. Weeding out out the little guy’s so the bloated beasts known as Marvel and DC can not be bothered. A comic book revolution as it should be. Not within the underground of the 60′s and 70′s. But right out in the open. The dissolution of Diamond may be painful, but so was the American Revolution, and all other uprisings.

Greg, I really couldn’t agree more on your point that Previews should be online. I am lucky enough that my LCS actually has an online ordering system that includes a pull list, so every month the same series will be pulled for me. I update it once a month, usually, for things like one-shots or issues that I want individually, but for the most part I just leave it alone, and what I want is pulled for me. The drawback here is my LCS is now run out of a pool supply store, since the owner closed his comic shop due to rising rent, and moved his other store ( the pool supply one) to a new location that is out of the way for me. I have considered finding a new shop to go to, but no one else’s ordering system is online and easy to use. I would have to update, in person by paper, once a month, and get a smaller discount for it (20% vs. 25%), and not get Previews for free as well. I’m already trying to slowly make the transition to trades and such, but I find myself still needing my weekly floppies fix.

Larry, I also agree with your print on demand suggestion. Some one a week or two ago (Greg, you maybe?) linked to this new print on demand machine in London, and I would love to see how fast that catches on, because I can’t wait for one to be brought to my area. It just seems cheaper and so much easier.

And people can make the argument that aggressively working for your comics will improve the industry, but I don’t know if I buy it. It’s not so much that people are lazy (which of course is the case, but we’ll set that aside for now), but more along the lines that comics is a leisurely activity. People do it for fun! When you have to struggle to run around (figuratively, although I’m sure literally in some peoples cases) and jump through hoops to find out what’s out there in terms of variety and quality, it just becomes less and less fun. And when something isn’t fun anymore, well, then why do it? This is all preaching to the choir, and we know the industry needs to be changed, but when it comes to the fans, people want their fun to be fun, and not have to work excessively for it beyond the work they put in in their normal lives in order to afford their fun. And we fans shouldn’t be made to go through a painful uprising to get it.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

May 6, 2009 at 12:11 am

I remember when Jimmie Robinson from Bomb Queen came on here and said it’s all our fault for not doing enough to get people to read comics, and all the comic readers said ‘piss off you silly bugger’, and then all his image creator buddies came in to back him, and we all swore at each other… fun times!

I hate the ‘it’s your fault for not buying mroe different stuff argument’ – as much as I hate the ‘If you’re not reading this you don’t love comics/fun/life’ line way too many reviewers feel the need to put it in their reviews – I buy what I want to buy, and read what I want to read.
I don’t have the money to spare on a book I’ve never heard of or take a risk – or when I do, sometimes I just don’t want to.

It’s also not my job to get it to the stands for me to see – I won’t pre-order, it jsut doesn’t appeal to me at all – if there’s books I want to buy on the stands, I’ll buy them, if not, I sometimes don’t buy anything.

Honestly, it’s like these days publishers, not readers, actually believe the Stan Lee hyperbole about readers being the bosses and the one’s with the power… if you’ve got a good product, sell it, for fucks sake.

Don’t blame me that you couldn’t get enough pre-orders, I’m your customer, not your sales/marketing guy.

Diamond’s online order form:
>> they don’t list all the books they do in the printed version
They don’t “get” the Internet.

Just as an observation regarding Diamond’s costs (and I have no special insight into this, but these do seem like reasonable guesses), I think the space in the Previews magazine is probably only one component of their cost structure. You’d probably need to also take into consideration any warehouse space, order processing/fulfillment time, incremental shipping costs, overhead, facility costs, etc. In a warehouse environment pretty much every additional part number (and in the grand scheme of things a comic book isn’t any different that a widget in that regard) has a baseline set of costs associated with it.

Now, that’s not to say that Diamond isn’t making any money on a small press book…only Diamond can say that for sure. But what I’d be willing to guess is that Diamond is likely to see a greater return on investment for the 18th Wolverine book of the month that may only sell a ten thousand copies or so. The baseline set of costs probably aren’t that different, but the generic Marvel/DC book will benefit from deffering fixed costs over a greater number of units.

That said, I think any system that is working off of a functional monopoly is pretty broken.

Regarding the Wizard of IO in particular…I never even heard about the one shot until after it was released. The good review of it on Robot Six was the first time that I heard mention of it…and I’ve got a copy of the book on order this week because of the good write up it got. I’m not one to go through Previews on a monthly basis. For the most part, I depend upon the trade media such as CBR, Comics Should Be Good, Robot Six, Newsrama, etc. As well as solicitations that may be published online, and any marketing efforts that come into play from the publisher. That’s an area where a small publisher like SLG probably needs to improve…depending upon a listing on page 338 in Previews isn’t sufficient to create demand among end users. Whereas media coverage can at least raise awareness and put pressure on the retailers and Diamond to stock the book.

Actually, I think the guy with the grocery-store analogy got it exactly right. The problem with the whole system is that you have to know that a comic exists, and know that you want to buy it, and be willing to buy it sight unseen, from a catalog that apparently many people actually PAY for. Right there, you have cut off a huge chunk of the potential audience.

Every time I go to the grocery store to get a gallon of milk, I come out with two bags of groceries. Supermarkets know that, and a big part of their profits come from serendipity and impulse buying. Chain bookstores, same thing: They put a big table of interesting-looking books out in front, a couple more down the aisles, and before I know it, I’m buying a book that I didn’t know existed before I walked into the store. The entire comics retail system seems to be set up to guarantee that that can never happen in a comics store.

I pick up Previews occasionally, on my infrequent visits to my LCS. They give it to me for free, and I have to say it’s just another example of how consumer-unfriendly the system is that anyone would even think of charging customers for it. Perhaps because I’m not a regular user, I find it very hard to read. I don’t read superhero comics, so most of what I’m interested in is crammed together in tiny little listings arranged, not by genre or title, but by publisher—again, not particularly accessible to the average consumer. I don’t understand why, in this day and age, Diamond can’t put all of Previews online and arrange the material in some way that makes it easy for people to find what they like—even comics they have never heard of before. You know, like Amazon and iTunes do.

If the chief objective of the comics retail system is to limit distribution to a select group of insiders, then it’s working very well. As mass marketing, not so much.

As a comics creator, I decided a long time ago that the direct market was not built with my needs in mind. I have a day job and run my entire creation operation out of my home. This means that any print run is paid for out of my own pocket. Logistically, I cannot offer any kind of discount on the price of my books and still turn a profit, which means that any discussion with a retailer (even my LCS) is an automatic non-starter.

There was a feature here reviewing a month of self-published comics which was like a breath of fresh air in the crowded room of heavily branded superhero reviews, news and promotion offered by large publishers who offer far more books in a month than I am able to produce in a year – but those kinds of independant reviews tend to be an anomaly in the main reviewers markets like CBR and Newsarama. Any potential signal that I may have been able to produce is almost automatically swallowed by the overwhelming noise of people with money to burn on advertising. Anyone who gripes that creators should be making more of an effort to raise the visibility of their own books has clearly not tried to get the word out about their own, self-published works. I feel like a guy trying to market a brand of offbeat cola in a Coke and Pepsi world.

The ideal system for me would be something that allows me to offer a press release telling potential comics buyers about my book and offering interested reviewers the opportunity to get a copy for their own edification. As someone who almost never reads superhero comics, this would be perfect for me because it would allow me to find out about books that I would probably never hear about otherwise.

My best hope has been and will probably continue to be conventions. In this environment, I am just one person in a crowded room (which is really not all that different from the Direct Market). Despite this limitation, I am able to converse face-to-face with potential customers and explain to them why, exactly, they might be interested in reading my books. Places like Small Press Expo and Indy Island and Heroes Con are perfect for someone like me because they offer me the opportunity to stand out in a crowd without having to worry about kicking back some of my money to retailers or distributors.

It’s not a system that benefits my friend in Austrailia who wants to buy my books, but it doesn’t make sense for me to try and adapt myself to a market that has done a very good job of being passively aggressive about giving people like me the cold shoulder. They don’t want me and I don’t want them and I think we’re both okay with that. The only people who really lose in this scenario are the readers who don’t know what they’re missing. And, to be honest, if the readers really wanted something else, they’d be buying it.

Manglr – You pretty much hit the nail on the head. Everyone questions the reason for Diamond turning away *any* book, but there are costs that the consumer doesn’t (nor does he/she necessarily need to) know.

Greg – The formula laid out up there regarding Comics Ace, Bee and Cee aren’t that hard to figure out. Comic Ace had a strong start, and had enough of a built-in cushion that it’s going to be able to weather the inevitable second-issue drop. Everyone buys a #1, as there may be speculators or just people who are curious about a new series. This is why it’s not the smartest idea to *sell* a preview issue, as it can serve as the #1, shifting the flow of sales. The decline, then, is seen by #1 instead of #2, which is what would have happened in the SLG situation. Anyway, Comic Bee didn’t have the best start, but it was respectable and, with proper marketing, the series could see some backorder activity in time for the next issue. For Comic Cee, it doesn’t have a prayer – even if it gains some online buzz, resulting in backorders, it’s still never going to get to a place where it has a chance of survival, especially after the second issue drop. This ties into another issue that small press publishers don’t seem to factor – scheduling.

As a small press creator, scheduling is of the utmost importance, to allow for effective marketing, as well as any shipping/printing issues that may occur. Also, it’s important because proper scheduling allows you to establish a relationship with retailers and consumers. Too many indie creators think, ‘I want to be like Batman – I’m going monthly”. Bad Idea. This means that retailers won’t necessarily have data for #1 by the time that they have to place orders on #3. This, then, affects the distribution end, as they’re looking for the same sort of data as the retailers. It’s becoming apparent that many comics don’t work in the serialized format anymore. Some people still cling to the “I want to go into a comic shop on Wednesday each month and see my comic on the shelf” idea, but that’s not a blanket format for everyone. Some books are just OGN’s being cut into chunks, and nobody’s making that call up front. This is a case of trying to make money off the same item twice – not every series deserves to be collected, just as not every book deserves to be serialized, but I’ll be damned if publishers don’t try to both avenues anyway.

A lot of people have hit the nail on the head, though – Diamond is not the best channel for many small press creations. It just isn’t. Now that we realize that, it’s time to move on. Print-on-demand isn’t necessarily the savior, either, as it screams “vanity project”. If you had a project of high demand, you would have an established printer, like Lebonfon for example. However, for those smaller print runs, you’re probably going to go to print-on-demand, and I have spoken with creators and retailers who don’t want to go anywhere near a book with Kablam girl (or whatever her name is) on the back, as it just doesn’t seem professional, and it seems more grassroots than it should. Not saying that everyone needs to score a Gatorage deal for the back cover, but how you present yourself is important.

Anyway, I’m meandering. So, we’re all agreed that Diamond isn’t the best vehicle for all books. So, what’s next? No, don’t fall back into the anti-Diamond gripes – that just weakens your argument. Outside the box, what’s next?

[...] de Guzman, and commentary from Heidi MacDonald (followed by debate in the comments section), Greg Burgas, Sean Collins and Dirk [...]

Will – I understand where you are coming from when you talk about “vanity” projects (one of those weasel words that bugs me), but one of the great things about the small press end of the comics market is the heavy acceptance of these kinds of creator-owned works – most of which are “vanity” by definition. Small Press Expo is my personal touchstone, but one of the things that this (and other) small press conventions represents is a place where this kind of work can be presented without fear of being overshadowed by the big two.

Also, print-on-demand is a great idea in theory, but the reality is something else entirely. The methodology that works best for me (OGN creator) is to use Comixpress to print a small run of books that I sell at conventions. After a suitable time lag, the books get serialized as webcomics. This leverages two systems that already exist: small press conventions for physical sales and webcomics for providing content to people who aren’t sure about this newfangled story/creative team or can’t make it to a convention.

The pieces that are missing (from an independant creator viewpoint) are a reliable advertising/reviewing platform that is more than a random series of blogs and a distribution piece where anyone can order my books – an Amazon for Indies, if you will.

I don’t think it’s a case of thinking outside the box, but instead recognizing that there are two completely different boxes, based on the size of the publisher’s budget. The small press box is probably (IMO) best centered around using webcomics to create a presence that can be leveraged into sales of physical products. Ironically, cartoonists who have built their entire careers around syndicating their works in weekly local papers are facing the same hurdle – namely, how do you monetize content that is given away for free?

oletheros – You’re right – it’s not an idea of “thinking outside the box”. It is, however, an idea of changing perspective, which you’ve already done. You’ve met your success *outside* of Diamond because you realized that the model didn’t work for you. Instead of whining for change, you “pulled yourself up by the bootstraps” (a phrase I loathe, but seems to apply), and figured out a new avenue.

I’m just going to say it: There’s a Diamond model for a book, and there’s everything else. The main reason small press books don’t work in the Diamond distribution chain is that they do not follow this “Diamond model”, which is the same concept used by retailers and most of the comic buying public. For example, a book is supposed to be a certain size. You doubt me? Look up all the reactions to the Marvel FCBD offering, and the fans who hated it. Why? Because they’ve learned that there’s a “standard size”. The small press is full of innovative ideas, be it plot, packaging, schedule, what have you. Unfortunately, the current system is not built for that innovation. That said, it’s time for people to realize that and move on. To keep up this same argument is the equivalent of arriving at a party where everyone’s having fun, yet you ask the host to change the music just because *you* don’t like it. I’m not saying everyone likes the current state of things, but they don’t dislike it *enough* – otherwise, something would hav changed by now.

The main point is that most of today’s small press books aren’t *designed* for Diamond distribution, NOR SHOULD THEY ASPIRE to such a thing. The industry has been designed to convey that once you’re in Previews, you’ve made it. That is not the case. It’s only half the battle, and many small press creators learn that after it’s too late.

I’m glad you mention SPX. I’ve done that tour many times, and many of those books don’t meet the Diamond Model. That says nothing about their quality – it says something about Diamond’s standards. I get that. The most daring books are the ones that are seen as too fringe for the DM, while the books that would stand a good shot in Previews are the ones where the publisher has already been burned by Diamond and is doing just fine on his own. I can’t tell you how many times I’d approach a publisher and say, ‘Wow, this is really good. Have you thought of submitting it to Diamond?”, only to receive a “F*ck Diamond!” or something akin to that, due to some prior experience. A lot of the small press books, by Diamond standard, “just aren’t there yet”, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a market for them. It just means that Diamond isn’t the best choice for distribution. I think a lot of creators realize this, but refuse to really internalize it. The notion that you’ve “made it” because you got listed in Previews is what needs to change.

Will – I’m flattered that you think I’m successful. The truth is that success is (like the future) not a destination, but a process. It’s hardly surprising, however, that people would tend to believe that success would be predicated on some simple external event like getting a listing in a catalog.

As far as I’m concerned, each creator has the responsibility for setting their own criteria for success and sticking to that, regardless of external feedback. Monetary success is probably the easiest to measure, but the most difficult to attain. But if money is the only real goal, then I would suggest that creators try something with a more reliable rate of return – hauling manure is always a sure bet.

Mind you, I am very solidly set at the shallow end of the market with the work that I do. I do not have a publisher and nobody is relying on the sales of my book to keep a roof over their heads. But that means that I am not beholden to meeting commercial expectations with regards to my subject matter or means of illustration. All that really means is that I’ll probably be happily making comics for a long time on my own terms.

The flip side of this is that my model probably won’t help people who are hoping to earn a living on their art or publishers like SLG who want to put out quality books. But if the direct market doesn’t work for these mid-tier publishers, then perhaps they should really take a long, hard look at whether the direct market is really the distribution solution of choice. It is, after all, a business decision and should probably be treated as such.

WARNING: ECONOMICS LECTURE FOLLOWS: Without much knowledge about the inner workings of the industry, here’s what microeconomic theory tells me (I’m an economist, for what it’s worth): thgere is a clear (and predictable) difference between markets characterized by monopoly and perfect competition (most real-world markets are somewhere in between). A competitive market efficiently allocates resources and produces a product as long as the marginal cost (the cost of the last unit produced, NOT the average cost [which would include overhead]) is less than what the marginal buyer is willing to pay. In other words, the market will provide consumers with the goods as long as the consumer is willing to pay a price equal to or greater than the marginal cost of production. In a monopolized industry with the exact same cost structure, the quantity produced/consumed will be lower, and the price higher, than in a competitive market, because profit can be increased by withholding product from the market in order to drive up the price. Lost revenues from lower sales are more than made up for by increased revenue per unit sold, with the added bonus that total cost of production is lowered, since less is being produced and sold (think OPEC). The ability to do this depends on how price-sensitive buyers are. If they are not very price sensitive (higher price causes only a small decrease in sales), the price will be well above marginal cost (as we see with patented prescription drugs, for instance).

So… Since Diamond already has a distribution system (warehouses, etc.), including one low-selling book in Previews is almost certainly not a losing proposition for Diamond in the short run, since it has no effect on overhead costs, and only a slight effect on variable (per-sales-unit) costs—a slight increase in shipping, warehouse labor, and space in the catalog. On the other hand, in the long run, if this strategy manages to get lots of low-selling books out of the system, the whole distribution system can be made smaller and less costly—fewer publishers to deal with, etc. So, this might not be a way to increase profit in the short run (it might even lower it a little). But Diamond must think it will increase their profit in the long run, or they wouldn’t do it.

This, then, sounds like classic behavior for a monopolist. As Greg points out, it’s not evil, but it is also not indicative of good economic performance for the industry. Diamond is the only winner. Compared to a market with competitive distributors, we see higher prices (Diamond has monopoly power over retailers and monopsony or buying power over publishers. Publishers: Give Diamond a good price on your books or we won’t distribute them. Retailers: Pay Diamond a good rate for the books or don’t get them at all) and fewer sales at the retail level. The poor customer service mentioned by the book retailer is also not surprising in a noncompetitive environment. Where’s the incentive pay the cost of taking care of your customers when there’s nowhere else they can turn? Given the market structure, it would be very surprising if the market did not have these problems. It would be irrational of Diamond not to behave this way, given the power that they have. There should be an opening here for a competing distributor to come in (it would be possible to make a profit distributing the books Diamond doesn’t want, as well as providing a better service, period), but there may be barriers to that happening that I’m not aware of.

that was a great article, well researched and well put.

[...] Finn cover before. * there’s not a whole lot left in the Wizard of IO at Diamond thing. There’s an essay here that may be worth reading for some of you because it comes from a mainstream American [...]

Thanks for the link! My only quibble is that too often people argue the exactness of the analogy I use instead of the points I was using the analogy to get across. No, I don’t expect every video store or grocery store to carry every single product and I don’t expect comic shops to stock every mini comics, but I do expect all them to serve a wide range of customers by carrying a variety of products. Most convenience stores have a wall of beverages and not just Coke or Pepsi but when I walk into most comic shops they seem to have 90% of their stock in just the Big 2, ignoring the people who want Red Bull, Monster, Jones Soda, etc. 10-15 years ago I could generally find most indy titles in all but the worst comic shops but now it seems like Fantagraphics , D&Q, etc. are shut out of all but the best comic shops, despite their titles being responsible for a decent percentage of mainstream press coverage over that time.

Joe: The problem is that retailers still have to buy the books and if nobody buys them, they’re stuck with them. As I mentioned, my comics shop does get some smaller publishers, but they’re higher-profile ones like Boom! and Dynamite. They are completely beholden to the weekly grind, so graphic novels from Fantagraphics or D & Q aren’t going to make it onto their order form unless someone (usually me!) specifically asks for it. If they bought Exit Wounds (for instance), it would sit there forever. That sucks, but it’s true.

I think that the real problem with comparing comic book retail stores to grocery stores, or book stores, is that Diamond doesn’t have sales people (at least, they didn’t in the 90s when I managed a comic book store — has that changed?)

When I placed an order with Diamond, I did so after going through Previews, creating and distributing a store newsletter, and acquiring special orders from my customers. Diamond was incredibly passive in the whole thing. From their point of view, I could order 50 issues of Spawn, 50 issues of every X-Title, and 25 issues of every Batman title and be done with it.

That was a little over ten years ago. Today, I work collections for a distibution company (not in the comic book industry, but looking at this from a distribution service point of view.) Our sales force approach customers monthly to explain to them new product, the relations between this product and that, and offer discounts based on annual projected sales, not just based on this month’s order. So, when a small company puts out a product, it gets exposure to the retail level, and we support it so that it gets exposure to the end-customer level.

Did a Diamond rep approach comic book retailers and tell the ones who had high sales in Astonishing X-Men that their Whedon fans might also like Serenity: Better Days? or Fray? If not, why not? It would be in Diamond’s best interests to promote the sales of their own product.

But, it sounds like, from the article and the other comments, that Diamond is not actively seeking to promote their product. It sounds like they are complacent and believe that the customers will come to them, because they have no where else to go. It occurs to me that if they are not supporting their own industry, then they have lost the right to participate in that industry.

My solution would be for some retail owners and some small publishers to pool some money together and produce a website catalogue. A true “Direct Market” where any publisher, no matter how small, can advertize as many products as they want for, say, $1 per company per month (you get up to 20 companys doing this and maybe some banner ads from the webcomic industry and you’ll more than break even) and stores can join as a member for maybe $1 per year (again, you only need a handful to pay for the bandwith) to earn a discount on their order. That way if a normal guy who doesn’t run a store wants to order it costs them a bit more (maybe 10% more) than if they talked their local comic shop into becoming a member and ordering the book for them.

This will help the small publishers get the books into stores, help the stores get the books into the hands of the readers, and cuts Diamond out of the loop on everything but the big sellers from big companies — just like it appears they want.

Theno

Theo – Diamond has a sales team. Their effectiveness is up for debate, but a sales force exist.

The main problem with your argument is that it’s *not* Diamond’s product, nor is it their idea to market your work. Their marketing options are limited at best, and you’d probably be better off handling your own marketing. It’s not Diamond’s responsibility to market what they distribute. They are the middleman. Think “Field of Dreams” – if you build it, they will come. If publishers build the audience, Diamond will facilitate getting the product in their hands.

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