When Diamond Comics Distributors speaks, comics publishers better listen. DCD is the dominant distributor for the comics shop market, serving about 3000 comics shops around the country that generally buy their inventory on a nonreturnable wholesale basis. But earlier this year, Diamond raised its minimum sales order—comic shops order serials and books in advance through Diamond’s giant Previews catalog—and if a comic doesn’t reach the new advance minimum sales order, Diamond will not distribute it. The change sparked an immediate outcry from small comics presses, self-publishers and some retailers, who complained that Diamond’s new minimum forces them out of the marketplace and limits the variety of materials available to the comics shop market. Indeed some comics publishers complain that Diamond’s new benchmarks are shortsighted and would have prevented many works that are now well-known from being published at all.
But Diamond v-p of purchasing Bill Schanes says the new minimum order levels reflect the real costs of distribution and the reality of doing business in a distressed economic climate. Diamond announced in the middle of January 2009 they were raising their retail ordering minimums from $1500 to $2500 to more accurately reflect “Diamonds cost of goods,” according to Schanes. Due to these changes a book must earn $2500 when ordered by retailers wholesale, and therefore around $6250 at retail. The changes most directly influence periodical comics with lower cover prices, further diminishing the viability of the traditional comics periodical even as the popularity of the graphic novel or book format is rising quickly.
But publishers also complain that in today’s comics market, most serials are collected into trade paperbacks and the lack of a major distributor for the serial can seriously damage the viability of releasing the comic in book form. In addition to instituting new sales benchmarks, Diamond discontinued their adult materials catalog and cutback on their “offer agains,” or backlist offerings as they are called in the comics industry. “It’s a tough market out there now,” explained Schanes.
“We looked at two or three sales cylces based on 3000 stores from previous offerings,” said Schanes, explaining Diamond’s decision. “We made allowances for first time items. If issue number one sells a 1000 copies, number 2 sells 70% of that, there is a declining bell curve; and by issue four or five hopefully it will curve back up.” Diamond makes the case that there simply aren’t enough interested consumers if a comic can’t meet the minimum. Schanes says that “if 3000 stores don’t show enough interesst, the power of the people have spoken.” Yet, others would argue that it’s the marketplace power of Diamond, the dominant distributor in the comics shop market for more than a decade, that has spoken. In fact, if Diamond doesn’t distribute your comics there are few other options.
Chris Rosa, the manager of Meltdown comics in Los Angles, said the new minimum benchmark, “hasn’t directly affected our decisions, in that Diamond is making the decisions.” Chris Butcher the manager at highly regarded comics store, The Beguiling, in Toronto, echoed this sentiment, “Diamond decided what we can carry.” Butcher says, “we haven’t really seen the effect yet, but Previews is 100 pages lighter.”
Rosa pointed to the discontinuation of two serials, Young Liars and Captain Britain, which he said, “did well for us, but is getting the axe before the second trade comes out.” Rosa also noted, “over the next six weeks, we’ll judge how things will go for the next year.”
Dan Vado, president of indie comics publisher Slave Labor Graphics, said two of their listings were cut by the new benchmarks, Warlords of IO by James Turner, the author of Rex Libris; and Tales to Suffice by Kenny Keil. Diamond’s decision to drop Warlords of IO, stirred up a frenzy on the Internet. “It was difficult to hear Warlords of IO didn’t work out,” said Butcher, “he’s a Canadian artist, and we wanted to work with him locally.” Vado said SLG plans to find a short run printer for Warlords of IO, and only sell it at conventions and online.
Frank Forte of Asylum Press also had two books declined by Diamond: Fearless Dawn #1, which received 1200 orders, and the third and final issue of Warlash: Dark Noir. The first two issues of Warlash sold about 500 copies each, according to Forte. Asylum Press intends to continue to publish both Warlash: Dark Noir #3 and the Fearless Dawn mini series, and will publish $4.95, 56 to 64 page one-shots and 128 page trade paper backs “to insure that even with low numbers of 400 to 500, we can still meet the price break,” according to Forte.
On the other hand, some comics publishers are moving closer to the book market and away from the comics shop market's longtime emphasis on serials and on the super hero genre. Peggy Burns, associate publisher at Drawn & Quarterly, a n art comics publisher that does not emphasize periodicals, said, “we are not really affected by the changes, and have not changed how we distribute.” Burns says the house is moving away from the periodical format, claiming, “there is obviously no future with pamphlets [comics].” While they continue to have success with the serials of Adriane Tomine’s Optic Nerve and Jason Lutes’s Berlin, according to Burns D&Q will not continue to serialize Kevin Huizenga’s Or Else, Gabrielle Bell’s Lucky, or Sammy Harkham’s Crickets. Instead they are “working with the authors to do books instead of pamphlets.”
Without serials to introduce new works, Drawn & Quarterly is using their Petit Livres line of books, smaller format graphic novels, which they started four years ago. “It has been very successful in launching new authors,” said Burns, adding the format has the “plus side of being sold in every market,” unlike serial pamphlets which are limited to mostly comic book shops. However, Burns says, “not continuing them is less about Diamond’s minimums [and more about] realizing the pamphlet is not a viable form.”
Yet Vado insists that periodical comics remain critical for introducing new works. “In recent numbers, graphic novels and higher priced stuff of relative unknowns, those numbers are taking a serious hurt; we had to rebuild brand awareness through [pamphlet] comics in the direct market.” He continued that with the new minimums there are “no opportunities to list new series,” and develop a series though serialization. Vado claims that “all the stuff we’ve had that achieved long term sales, none met the [new] diamond benchmarks. We never would have seen a second issue of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac judging on the performance of the first issue.” Vado pointed to Samurai Penguin and a porn humor book as “books that sold initially well” yet emphasized that. “something that has potential needs time to build.” He was adamant that the current Diamond benchmarks don’t give new series the space to grow. “It’s fewer debut books and creator debuts,” says Butcher from The Beguiling, noting that “I wonder who is getting shut out.”
Schanes agreed that while “a number of new books build and become successes,” he also countered that there are “50 to 100 [rejected titles] that won’t; we might miss one and we’ll give it another shot, the door is not closed.” Yet publishers still complain that without Diamond’s clout there’s no other way for a book to get real market exposure and initial sales.
While some books have already fallen victim to the new minimums, publishers are being forced to seek out new distribution options and even publishing methods to counter Diamonds new stance. After the new minimums were announced smaller publishers scrambled to find new outlets for their books. And the cutbacks on “offer agains,” or backlist titles, are also having a negative impact on publishers. “The most immediate effect is the reordering policy change,” said Dan Nadel, publisher of PictureBox, “the reorder number did not meet the new minimum, so even though a book is still getting press, it’s not available through Diamond, taking a little chunk out of our business.”
Yet, this has opened opportunities for other distributors. “The biggest niche we fill is backorders,” said Lance Stahalberg, the director of Haven Distribution, a small indie comics press distributor. “Some of the bigger suppliers who go through Diamond, but once the book is older than 60 days, stores and customers are still looking for it; we fill that niche in the market always left vacant,” said Stahalberg.
“We’ve been approached by more publishers, more than maybe we can handle, since Diamond made the changes,” said Tony Shenton, an independent comics sales rep who represents around 180 publishers and distributors to comic book stores. Shenton picked up Classics Illustrated as a client since Diamond announced the changes. “So many people have grown up reading them, for Diamond to tell them no thanks is shocking,” he said. A few months after Diamond instituted their new minimums, Stahalberg said Haven has “picked up a few publishers” and has established a “more solid line up” with such publishers as Bluewater, Checkers, Red Five, and Asylum Press. But Haven is small and Vado said the distributor “needs time to build up, but it’s hard to build a business around the bottom of the catalog.” He said that Haven brings in “a couple hundred bucks here and there,” for SLG. Yet, Stahalberg insisted Haven offers small publishers a “home and higher place on the pedestal. A lot of quality publishers deserve better exposure than Diamond was giving them.” Stahalberg also pointed out that many small publishers end up in the infamous backpages of Diamond’s Previews catalog and claims, “we don’t ghettoize our listings.”
Shenton pointed out, “one major problem is there was just one [distribution] choice for so long, that it’s difficult to get people to notice another.” He also noted that, “smaller stores don’t have the time to track invoices; there’s a built in prejudice, three more distributors is three more invoices.” Not all stores have the resources of The Beguiling, which according to Butcher, uses 40 different distributors, as well as ordering more directly from publishers. “Retailers want to order direct form one place,” says Vado, “and most small places don’t want to go through a bunch of distributors for the same kind of product.” Shenton mentioned this is why he “supports Haven as much as I can,” since that is only one more invoice.
Publishers are also looking at other ways to distribute their titles including selling directly to book retailers as well as nonbook retailers, selling online direct to customers and digital publishing—especially iPhone apps. Dylan Williams and Shannon O’Leary of Sparkplug Comics, a minicomics publisher and distributor, said in an email interview with PWCW, “our job should be to work with small distributors like Tony Shenton, Microcosm, AK Press, Last Gasp, Parcel Press, and Poopsheet,” adding they also “frequently work with other small publishers like Bodega and Secret Acres to make sure each other’s work is getting seen in new places.” According to O’Leary and Williams, “Sparkplug books have been rejected by Diamond off and on for our entire existence,” so they are familiar with discovering new outlets for their books.
The new minimums have forced publishers to reconsider the outlets their books are most suited for and take the initiative to search them out. Besides comics shops, Williams and O’Leary said, they reach out to “anarchist bookstores, info shops, libraries, and small press friendly book stores.” Forte said, “Asylum has been reaching out and has been getting stores to order direct form us.” PictureBox’s Nadel is also “working on other ways to get to different boutiques.” And while he acknowledged that comic book stores are not a large portion of their sales, “losing the Diamond guarantee is a drag.” Nadel pointed to Family, Los Angeles store that has been particularly supportive of them. In an effort to “look for alternate ways of funding ahead of time,” Picturebox is offering advance orders for two of their upcoming books, Powr Masters 3 by CF and If-N-Oof by Brian Chippendale. Along with the advance copies, the books will be signed and, based on ordering price level, will include various hand drawings and silk screens.
Shenton suggested that publishers “ jump on the band wagon” and take advantage of digital comics and comics on cellphones. But Vado insisted, “digital has not proven to be a pot of gold,” and said digital publishing has numerous obstacles to overcome before it be can be reasonable alternative to conventional distribution through Diamond. At one time SLG operated a second website specifically for downloads, but Vado said they closed it down due to poor sales and concerns about SLG’s content being “regurgitated to pirate sites.” And while he is interested in iPhone apps, Vado said that in the end, “print is supporting digital; the print paid for the content online. [The web] might help build circulation, but if it doesn’t go to print, what good does it do me.” Forte said Asylum Press expects to have an iPhone agreement soon and expects to use the Internet to “get a fan base and sell the collected editions to the same fans who read the book for free or download a 99 cent iPhone app.”
In response to the criticism of Diamond’s new minimum sales benchmark, Schanes contended that Diamond is nevertheless, “supportive of the small press, but if [their titles] don’t sell at retail, we are doing retail a bad service.” Schanes acknowledged that the new minimums are a “lost opportunity” for small publishers who relied on the convenience of the all-in-one of Diamond’s previews. Schanes emphasized that Diamond has also been working with publishers to find ways to adapt their products and help them to meet the new minimums. Schanes mentioned reformatting or enlarging titles to add value, more and better promotional materials and a focus on better covers and jacket art as some options.
Vado, however, was less than enthusiastic about Diamond’s suggestions to help keep Warlords of IO available. Vado said they “suggested making it thicker and charging $2 more,” but he worried those changes would, “cannibalize sales of the graphic novel.” The directors of Sparkplug said some publishers are, “seeing the value in publishing small, affordable, saddle-stitched books. In our opinion, making affordable books is the best way to get into the medium and stay in it.” However, Forte of Asylum Press, noted, “trade book collections can be printed once and sold for years. The saddle stitched comics tend to have a shorter shelf life.” And, said Forte, “Diamond said they are interested in seeing all of our books collected as trades.”
The reality is that small publishers are going to have to adjust to the reality of Diamond’s new minimums and be creative. Going forward, Schanes said Diamond will “certainly revisit things” if the economy should improve; “in the 2009, 2010 business environment Diamond can be there for the majority of publishers, and if things turn around we will be happy if things pick back up.” In the meantime, small press publishers need to be “willing to bang on unknown doors and create a new market for themselves,” Schanes said. Meltdown’s Rosa agreed and described the new distribution reality as “a tremendous opportunity for self starters looking for creative and imaginative opportunities; people who will climb over the wall instead of banging into it.”