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Regarding Comics Distribution

These days, comics distribution means the same thing as saying "Diamond". And my reading list is abuzz with opinions and reactions and responses to the announcement that Diamond Distribution is raising the sales threshold to $2500 wholesale from $1500 wholesale.

There are people suggesting that due to Diamond's position as a virtual monopoly, they should be 'required' to carry everything offered to them, even if they might (or will) take a loss in doing so; on the opposite side are those saying that Diamond is a business dealing with a difficult market, and they should be allowed to do whatever they need to do to keep their own business viable.

This is going to come as a surprise to some people, but I support the latter viewpoint.

I've had more than my fair share of disputes with Diamond over the years. Some were private, some were public, some were epic-level public - as I was one of the few publishers, along with Viz and Kitchen Sink, to sign exclusives with 'the other side', Capital City, during the Distribution Wars. But I want to point out - and I cannot stress this too strongly - the only times I had a conflict with Diamond was when they had dropped the ball on something they were actually obligated to do, and then tried to sweep it under the rug, or when the reps we were dealing with treated I or my colleagues in an unprofessional manner. Never because they weren't doing something I simply wanted them to do, that they had no obligation to do.

What this usually meant - and why I have a LOT of sympathy for all of the smaller publishers right now - was that one Diamond rep or another was sloppy and/or arrogantly dismissive of whatever issue I or my other small press friends were having. Books would be listed incorrectly - and options to remedy this were limited to a low-priority correction (read as: retailer packing papers), or a re-listing for the next month - which would devastate our projections and cash flow. Shipments would go astray, which might hold up payment - which could break a small press if it happened at the wrong time. Situations like those were anger-inducing because they were errors in the actual business Diamond was engaged in: solicitation and distribution of product.

At one point, there was a rep (I know Colleen Doran and Rick Veitch can back me up on this) who said he would extend shipping dates on late books if we would literally beg him to do so. This extension was NOT an obligation - but professional treatment (which includes a polite but firm, "no, we won't") was an obligation. And it was attitudes like his which contributed to the general opinion of Diamond as a hostile business partner.

I do want to say this: I have known Bill Schanes, the Senior VP of Purchasing (and the engine on which Diamond runs) the entirety of my professional career; and when there was a legitimate problem or error on Diamond's part (and the occasional inept rep could be gotten around), Bill always made it good. We have had our heated moments, certainly - but we always respected each other professionally. And when I looked him in the eye and said there was a problem, he looked back at me and said he would fix it. And then he did. And that included complaints about how I and other publishers had been treated by other Diamond employees.

However, one thing was true then (amidst a dozen other active distributors) which is still true today: it's not Diamond's job to market and promote the books they distribute. That's the publisher's job. And the creator's, if they want this to be their profession.

Yes, there are levels of promotion withing the listing and sales process; different ways books can be highlighted, and made to stand out. But those opportunities are offered largely because of the publisher's past track record and/or the potential of a book - which Diamond is not obligated to contribute to. They have an internal process to determine which of the thousands of submissions from prospective publishers can be accepted for catalog listings (in addition to the thousands already being listed), and they screen out the ones they believe will not sell. Period. Sometimes they miss a good bet - and the market, and professional community, make that known to them, and they relent. But mostly they screen out Bad Stuff That Will Not Sell. Because if they DO list everything submitted, they would soon drown in lousy, poor selling badly-created books.

Now, all they are doing with the sales threshold is saying they cannot support listing books they HAVE accepted on the basis of quality and/or potential, but which cannot sell enough to support the effort needed to list and distribute them. It is nothing but a business decision - and a good one. Availability does not equal demand. Diamond is obligated to make books they list available, but they are not obligated to create a demand for those books. And they are saying that if the demand is not there, they cannot continue to make those items available.

Diamond is seen as a 'virtual' monopoly because they have locked-in deals with all of the major publishers - which means that retailers would have much less incentive to deal AT ALL with other distributors who can offer far less product, and what COULD be offered was going to be available through Diamond anyway. In that sense, what's happening now disproves the monopoly argument. The possibility that a plethora of smaller publishers won't be ABLE to sell books to Diamond (due to low orders) is being seen as a golden opportunity by some very smart people (Haven Distribution, Dan Vado) to start or augment other distribution setups. And while certain books may not sell enough to meet Diamond's new cutoffs - they WERE selling, and presumably (hopefully) would sell through other venues in the future. It's all a chaotic mix at the moment, and developing quickly.

The only thing thing that I can't quite countenance is that the rallying cry seems to be the wrong one: a lot of people are either railing against Diamond for not showing more support for lower-selling books, or banding together to formulate grand plans for how to continue the publication and distribution of lower-selling books - but there is far less kinetic energy being directed into actually increasing the sales of the books themselves.

Why couldn't this new threshold be met with a resolve to meet and surpass it? Why does it take Diamond dropping books or lines of books for new venues to be started or boosted? Yes, some books have shown great sales over time that may not be well served my Diamond's current processes - but why not raise our own standards not just for aesthetic and artistic quality, but for commercial potential and success?

In genre publishing (SF and Fantasy) self-publishing is looked on with outright scorn as the last refuge of an unpublishable author. Small presses there have a better reputation (depending on the press) and some outperform (in quality AND sales) the big companies. In comics, the lines are a lot more blurry, and the thresholds are much, much lower. It's very possible for an unknown to become a Hot Young Turk with a great comic they spent a month making and which they printed at a copy shop for five hundred bucks. It's also possible for a book with great potential to go absolutely nowhere because it wasn't properly published and promoted to begin with. And I can't see why this would be Diamond's fault or responsibility.

If I took a book to a retailer, and asked him to put it on the shelf for sale, and it doesn't sell, and my response was to expect him to give me another slot on the shelf for another copy, which also doesn't sell, and then I repeat the process again and again, and the books STILL don't sell - he would take down the books. I'm not entitled to his shelf space. Similarly, I'm not entitled to a listing in Diamond's catalog, if the books they list don't sell enough copies. Diamond has the infrastructure; they have the databases; they have the warehouse; they have the retailer list; all of which other distributors have (or can obtain) to a much smaller degree. Diamond is not obligated to carry my book because no other distributor can offer Superman and The Hulk to retailers.

Diamond statements/interviews have implied or outright stated that there may be exceptions to the threshold, based again on potential and other factors.  It's possible that were I to offer a new book to them under either my Coppervale imprint, or through my most recent publishers (Desperado, or Image), it would fall into that particular Twilight Zone - but I think, in my case, that it would be the fault of the creator and the publisher, if we did it the way it was largely done before.

I'm not going on at such length because I'm just an opinionated observer: I am, in Jim Valentino's words, a "Lifer". I'm a comics guy. My career started in comics, and for years my sole livelihood was derived from comics. The bulk of my work and income now is illustrated novels, but I still keep my hand in the comics world, with short work for things like DOOMED, and COMIC BOOK TATTOO, and covers for FEAR AGENT, and whatnot. And last year, I even released a new edition of my STARCHILD book via Desperado (which Diamond incorrectly listed as a trade paperback because of the squarebound format). The second issue was solicited - and we, the publisher and I, canceled it. Because we chose not to do it the wrong way, and then put the blame on others.

STARCHILD has always been a smaller book in the industry; decent selling, and respected by creators and retailers (the diplomatic term for this is "cult favorite"). Some years were better than others; in the early 90's, Jeff Smith, Colleen Doran, Rick Veitch, Batton Lash, and I (and several others) were poised to buy our own country somewhere. But still, even in the off years, I had a fanbase, and title recognition, and tenure as a creator. So I could get things listed, and always maintained a relationship with comics - and with Diamond.

Desperado listed the first issue of STARCHILD: MYTHOPOLIS II #1 as a squarebound, 96 page pseudo-anthology of my stories for the retail price of $6.95. Diamond DID mistake it for a trade paperback, and listed it as such - which we only discovered when we got the catalog. The sales were low, not even 500 copies, which the publisher attributed in part to the mistaken listing. The fan and retailer reaction was good, because of the format, and the price point. There was concern that the schedule - quarterly - would not be kept (and it  wasn't) because there had been false starts before. But the package was good, and longtime retailers and fans were vocally supportive. But those initial orders meant no real income, which meant that doing more would be a negative-return proposition. However, I take the blame (as both the packager, and well, advisor, to Desperado on my own book) for having gone about it the wrong way - because it had - and still has - the potential to reach a far, far larger audience.

In the last three years I have been writing and illustrating a series of novels called The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica for the publisher Simon & Schuster, and among other things, have gotten a schooling in the how-to's of Professional Publishing.

The sales and marketing process for a book is approximately 18 months long - and starts AFTER the book is largely in-house, completed. To be doing ANYTHING on the book a year from release is skirting a schedule crash. There are trade show visits, and sales conferences, and advance copies and postcard campaigns, and all manner of things that sales and marketing reps do to make booksellers aware of the new book. And so when it is finally released, the retailers KNOW THE BOOK backwards and forwards. They KNOW how to sell it, and to whom. And if the creator is doing their part, there's been active grassroots marketing among potential readers, who can then go in and ask for the book the retailers are prepared to sell.

My publisher puts a lot more money into my books now, because they're selling well - but for the first book, HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, there was not much more available than in small press comics, except for the fact that the reps had the whole year to market and promote the book. So there was an awareness of it long before release - but more importantly, there was a demand. And demand facilitates availability.

HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS was announced with a first printing in hardcover of 100,000 copies; it's now in it's sixth hardcover printing. The trade paperback had a printing of 75,000 copies. The third book in the series, THE INDIGO KING, went into a second and third printing before release. The series is now being published in more than twenty languages. And because someone at Borders realized the first chapter of a prequel to HTBD was included in STARCHILD: MYTHOPOLIS II, they ordered 1500 copies - three times the entire direct market order via Diamond. And that was in no way Diamond's fault.

Even the listing error would not have been an issue if we had prepared better; as it was, that listing may have been the sole source of information for retailers, if not readers themselves. And we did not adequately even begin to make the connections between that book and the thousands of my readers who would love to buy it - if only they knew it existed, and where it could be found.

A number of people (most notably retailer Robert Scott) have made these arguments before - and if it was just a matter of poor work not selling, that's one thing. But when it's good work selling poorly, there has to be a reason; and I would rather discover and remedy that reason than try to argue that another business has an obligation to continue selling commercially produced work which is not making anyone in the chain any profit.

I have more stories I want to tell in comics. I have more projects like the STARCHILD book that I want to see published. But I don't want to put them out at the last minute, with no real expectation of how they will sell.  I don't want to be grateful/worried about what Diamond's cutoff for late books is; I want it to be irrelevant. I don't want to worry about Diamond invoking the threshold on orders, because I want them to know that the efforts to market the book have been sufficient to justify a listing, and a reciprocal effort on their part. And most of all, I want the work I do to be read by as many people as possible, and I would like to make a good living from that work. The processes, publishing/promotion cycle, and markets may differ - but there are a lot of things which can be brought from my experiences with S&S to what I hope to do in the future in the comics market. And I will.


Feb. 4th, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
They've had some difficulties, true - but they do good work. So, yes. That's the plan.