An Open Letter to Independent Comic Book Distributors

The following is my diatribe on recent developments in the comic book industry since Diamond Comics Distribution announced they are raising the sales requirements (AKA “benchmark) for publishers to $2500. If publishers do not generate this number on their purchase orders their book will more than likely be pulled out of Diamond’s catalog, and the purchase order may not even be filled. This move greatly affects how smaller publishers will be represented in the PREVIEWS catalog and reach (or not) comic book shops – and eventually their audience. For those unaware, the comic book industry is the only entertainment medium where there is pretty much one single distribution channel for retailers to directly get their inventory. This has led to in-deals with what we call the “Big Two” publishers – Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Currently Marvel Comics, whose primary genre is superheroes, holds over 45% of the market in comic book sales. Marvel, along with DC and Image, has inroads with Diamond so that their titles are published in the front of the PREVIEWS catalog. The remainder publishers, the smaller ones – the ones putting out stories that may not be about superheroes, capes or spandex – are all relegated to the back of the catalog. By the law of averages and attention spans, most orders that retailers place are from the front section of this enormous catalog. Once all “Big Three” (I’ll include Image here) orders are fulfilled, anything a retailer orders beyond that is pretty much gravy. As a result, independent comics are a dying subset of a medium that is over-saturted with sub-par writing, childish plotlines and far too many “Big Crossover Events” designed mainly as a sales tactic to flood the market. I’ve had some time to reflect, with friends and colleagues, on this; and have my own particular remedy for how someone could give Diamond a run for their money while simultaneously giving retailers the tools to carry more diverse types of comics. The opinions contained herein are my own and do not reflect any other company or organization.

Dear Haven Distributors (and, subsequently, Enemi Entertainment):

Surely you have heard about Diamond’s recent decision to raise sales benchmark from $1500 to $2500. As an independent comic book creator and publisher, I am very concerned how this change – however slight it may seem – will affect the comic book industry. It’s hard enough for independent publishers to find an audience, much less get accepted into the PREVIEWS catalog given Diamond’s rigid standards. By raising benchmark, Diamond has assured that even fewer small publishers will get distribution to the thousands of retailers nationwide.

This affects indie comics – and the very industry – greatly. Given the current global economic crisis, I predict certain factors that will become truths within the next year:

1) The 32-page “floppy,” or single issue edition, will become a thing of the past. With the new benchmark in place, only the Big Three-type companies will be able to secure the orders necessary needed to hold their place in PREVIEWS. Not that they need to worry about ever losing it. The indies, however, will have to move to a new model – the Trade Paperback. Gone will be the days of single, serialized issues. The independent publisher will be forced to collect complete stories in a larger format. The reason is simple: better pricepoint and profit. Also, if the indie hopes to have a chance to be carried by Diamond, this is the format they will eventually have to adhere to in order to play ball with them.

2) If any kind of serialized story is to take place in independent comics, it will happen online in the form of a Webcomic. Webcomics are quickly becoming the wave of the future, with several independent creators already taking their fate into their own hands – opting to find a new audience online. The smarter ones use webcomics, published on a consistent and reliable schedule, to generate buzz for their stories. They then collect the story arcs into the aforementioned Trade Paperback and then sell those independently. If they’re lucky and have some pull, they get the book distributed through Diamond.

3) The Big Three will eventually completely take over the comic book direct retail market. There will be a few hangers-on (IDW, Devil’s Due, Oni, etc.), but the smaller, one-man publishers will be forced out of the market. Capes and spandex will be the only kind of books that can be found at a comic book store, prevailing the existing perception that Graphic Literature is a medium for children and the socially inept.

Many companies have tried to compete with Diamond and failed. The reason for this is that they are trying to play by the same rules and paradigms that distributors have attempted for years. The truth is that Diamond is a huge, unruly powerhouse of a monopoly. Let’s just be honest. Most retailers aren’t even aware that there are any other options. The reason is that too many potential competitors are trying the same old method to get their message to the retailers – the printed catalog. But this is a new era in technology. And what I propose is a completely new model that would allow a very smart and resourceful company to go toe to toe with the behemoth that is Diamond Distributors.

We live in a time where nearly everyone is tuned into the internet. I sincerely doubt that any comic book retailer is working without a computer these days. If any are, they probably don’t even order indie comics, and this model wouldn’t be for them. However, most are very web savvy, and I think that affords potential distributors an opportunity to generate a serious revenue stream while simultaneously giving publishers a new outlet for their work and retailers fresh new inventory to put in their shops.

There needs to be a new distribution model, and here’s a few suggestions on what I think it needs to be:

Abandon the print catalog.
By publishing a print catalog for retailers, you are in fact becoming part of the overlying problem while at the same time throwing money away on a venture that will yield little – if any – return. What is the logic in spending thousands of dollars to create and print a monthly, quarterly or yearly catalog that most retailers will probably throw in the trash anyway? It’s been tried several times before, and it’s failed every time.

PREVIEWS is PREVIEWS. Let Diamond have it. Your future is online. By creating the catalog online, you’re eliminating a definite financial risk. You’re also combatting the problem of frequency issues of when the catalog becomes available, avoiding lag times between when retailers receive new content.

Take it online. WordPress is your friend.
The problem with Haven, Enemi and other small press distros is that their websites are clunky, unattractive, and impenetrable to the end user. And while Enemi’s “catalog” does an adequate job of showing which publishers are represented, there are no clickable links for DIRECT ordering on the initial page of their catalog. Websites nowadays, especially with the advent of WordPress templates, are both easy to create and visually pleasing. They give the consumer clear, concise information on what’s available and how to get to it.

By updating the content on a weekly (or steady) basis, you give retailers a steady stream of new material for them to stock their shops. By making the content available online, you sidestep the problematic and costly device of a printed catalog. Publishers are also free to solicit their content on their own schedule, not one pre-determined from an unruly distributor threatening to pull their books if solicitation deadlines are not met.

Also, the beauty of WordPress and having online content is that people interested in your product can subscribe to RSS feeds of your catalog, which will circulate to your subscribers whenever you update your product listings. In terms of getting the word out on the streets, this is invaluable.

Offer 5-previews of EVERY comic available.
This is where the Big Three are clearly winning in the buzz game. For every solicitation, they offer a 5-page online preview of their upcoming titles. It makes it very easy for the consumer to decide what they want to put on their pull lists and the retailer an idea of what’s good. It also gives the distributor a channel to reach comic book media with, reminding the general public that they exist. The problem with Haven, Enemi and the like is that practically no one know about them. Previews of every book they distributed – not just the cover – would be a fantastic solution. It would be up to the publisher to supply the preview pages that the distributor could easily put on the WordPress site and subsequently send to comic book news sites (Newsarama, CBR, etc.) No one will use the distributor if no one knows about it. And, so far, indie publishers are the only ones making an effort to build press on their books. Diamond will occasionally highlight a notable book with a “Certified Cool,” but even this distinction is generally given to a publisher that Diamond has made a deal (i.e. sold advertising within PREVIEWS) to. By sending the news sites previews of each weeks solicitations, you’re reminding people of who you are and giving them more choices to buy something they’re going to miss in PREVIEWS.

Make the catalog available to both retailers and regular consumers.
With an online catalog, it also makes it very easy for the non-comic-retailer types to access the same information and place their own orders. So why not create two types of accounts: retailer and consumer? The consumers would be able to place their orders – at cover price (or a small discount. Remember, you’d also have to compete with companies like DCBS) – and pay for the shipping of their own books. The retailers would get their books at the standard retailer discount that Diamond offers and save on shipping costs. Retailer orders could be required in bulks of 5 to 10 depending on interest. That way there would be a minimum commitment and incentive to sell more than one copy of any particular title.

The goal here, however, is to give as many people as possible access to content. Diamond makes PREVIEWS available to the every-day comic reader. Why not make the online catalog equally available? And, as stated previously, you’re also going head to head with existing online distros.

That’s the nuts and bolts of it. Given what I’ve laid out here, I’ve anticipated a couple stumbling blocks:

Generating the content.
Admittedly, what we’re talking about is a serious full time job. The main issue is going coding the site and also making sure publishers know what format you wish to receive their 5-page previews in. But like I said, WordPress sites are fairly pain-free in terms of creating. And online catalogs are much easier to set up and ever. A moderate team of folks should be able to handle this in a timely manner.

The actual Distribution.
This is the best and worst problem to have. Because with the influx of demand one could potentially receive with this kind of model comes the hassle of having to actually stock product and expedite orders. It’s also what’s made Diamond such a powerhouse of a distributor. Let’s face it. They have huge warehouses all over the country. It’s going to be a hell of an undertaking, especially if you’re filling orders for both retailers and consumers. But this is the task of a distributor, and someone’s going to have to step up to the plate to compete. I know the comic book audience in general is ready for another choice.

Some of you may read what I’ve written here and say, “hey, we’re already doing that.” Well, if you are, no one’s heard of you. I certainly haven’t. So you must not be doing everything it takes to truly carve out your own presence as a distributor. Now is the time to rise up and capitalize on the gap that needs to be filled from Diamond’s unfair policies. I hope someone takes some of the pearls of wisdom here and runs with them.

There is such a marvelous legacy in independent comics. It’s an genre that has elevated the medium and made folks who may not be familiar with graphic storytelling find new things to read. It’s given us critically acclaimed gems like “Strangers in Paradise,” “Maus” and “Blankets.” With the current economic climate, it’s going to be even harder for these great stories to find the light of day through the piles and piles of superhero fluff that is overshadowing the current comic book marketplace. Don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes as much as the next person. But I also believe that the independent creator should have just as much of a voice and opportunity to reach their audience as the big corporate companies. Hopefully, sometime soon, someone will hear this simple plea and take matters into their own hands to combat the current distribution monopoly.

Philip Clark is a musician, comic book writer and creator currently living in Los Angeles. Follow his ever-entertaining Twitter stream here.

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12 Responses to “An Open Letter to Independent Comic Book Distributors”

  1. 1 Chad January 19, 2009 at 2:28 am

    As a Diamond customer and comic retailer, I agree with you completely. I would love to have a choice in suppliers, but there just isn’t any.

  2. 2 Von Allan January 20, 2009 at 1:29 am

    It’s an interesting piece but I really don’t see the mechanism changing anytime soon. Why? Well, I can’t really imagine a distributor that would have the ability or deep cash reserves to develop a nation-wide distribution system very quickly. On top of it, they wouldn’t have the title selection that would encourage many retailers to try them out. Keep in mind that from a retailer point of view Diamond actually operates quite well. Yes, it does have issues that frustrate retailers. And yup, Diamond does drop the ball sometimes. But being able to order from one single distributor has inherent advantages for many retailers.

    On top of it, Diamond has exclusivity with a large number of publishers. Not just the four brokered publishers (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image) but a number of other ones, too (Fantagraphics, Oni Press, etc…). This is the main challenge that any new distributor would face – they wouldn’t have access to these publishers at all. Unless, of course, this new company went to a full graphic novel/trade paperback model. But that poses more problems: While Diamond doesn’t have exclusivity in this area (in fact, Diamond Book Distributors is a small fish), there are massively well-organized book trade distributors that fill this gap quite well (Baker and Taylor and Ingram being the big two). A number of comic book shops are already using Baker and Taylor to diversify they’re ordering and minimize their reliance on Diamond for graphic novels.

    What’s the answer? I don’t have one right now. If Marvel or DC ends their exclusivity with Diamond and either starts a new company or shifts their support to an existing one, then the distributor situation may change. For now, though? And the immediate future? Nah…

  3. 3 David Lillie January 20, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Fantastic suggestions!

    As a new creator and self publisher, I must admit that my research into Diamond leads me to conclude that this latest news is far from a disaster. I’m glad there’s someone else that sees the silver lining here!

    Mediocrity in comic selection has persisted for so long under Diamond’s rule, that perhaps the official elimination of Diamond as a viable distribution option will finally spur independents to make a serious effort in opening new markets. And I don’t mean alternate ways of accessing the withered Direct Market, I mean *new* markets.

    As an independent creator working to build something outside of Diamond and it’s system, most people in the world of comics have likely never heard of me or my series. But over the last couple of years, my title ‘Dreamkeepers’ has sold hundreds upon hundreds of copies, in TPB format at over $20 per issue. Sales are not lagging – rather, they are accelerating.

    Based on the statistics I’ve been seeing in blogs today, it would seem I’ve already surpassed what I could have hoped for by submitting and struggling to contort within Diamond’s rates. And rather than have my books marketed to a limited and stagnant pool, they’re just beginning to see the brim of a potential customer base – the customer base that doesn’t care about comic shops.

    I’m not trying to brag about my ‘success’ – I mean, I’m working a night shift to make ends meet. But I do want to emphasize that there is a whole world outside of Diamond, full of people who want to buy good work. I would encourage all creators and small publishers to start discovering it – and for any business minded distributors out there, bear in mind that the audience outside of Diamond’s regulars is untapped and potentially vast.

    I’ve actually just finished publishing a series of articles about Diamond and the future of comics, for any who are interested in my amateur two cents worth…

    COMICS: The Banished Medium

    HPCP: The Infection

    Score One for Idiocy

    The Creator Revolution

  4. 4 sequential minded January 28, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    I agree that it’s a good ideal for distributors to use the internet better.

    though I don’t know if they NEED to go with wordpress as much as you seem to be pushing it. Nothing wrong with wordpress it’s just that there are ways to get your content online besides word press. a company should pick the method that is best for them.

  5. 5 dreamchilde January 28, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    The main point of using a CMS like WordPress would be for RSS feeds. It doesn’t have to be WordPress, but I think having site updates broadcast on RSS would be crucial.

  6. 6 Editions Tchai July 23, 2012 at 2:18 am

    Viva la independent market!

  1. 1 Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 20, 2009: Utterly filthy and ridiculous Trackback on January 20, 2009 at 2:55 pm
  2. 2 Long Tail Fail « Black Ships Trackback on January 21, 2009 at 7:35 am
  3. 3 La cuarta crisis del mercado directo Norteamericano « Comicopia Trackback on January 22, 2009 at 1:26 am
  4. 4 Strip News 1-23-09 — Trackback on January 23, 2009 at 2:14 pm
  5. 5 February 15, 2009 Morning Pages « Dreamchilde’s Weblog Trackback on February 15, 2009 at 7:52 pm
  6. 6 An Open Letter to Independent Comic Book Distributors « Dreamchilde’s Weblog « editionstchai Trackback on July 23, 2012 at 2:22 am

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