-Advertisement-

One of the great non-secret secrets of the comic book business is that DC at one time had a clause that would allow them to buy Diamond. This goes back to the dawn of the “exclusive distribution” era in the late 90s. As I recall it, someone leaked DC’s contract with Diamond to The Comics Journal, and this revealed that DC had an option to buy Diamond under certain circumstances. The origianl story was written by Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds, who was then a reporter for TCJ. The story ran in early 1996, and was also referenced by Michael Dean in the story “Will DC Buy Diamond?” in the April 2002 issue.

Since then you will often see DC and Diamond’s relationship mentioned as part of some “deep state” doomsday clock scenario for some aspect of comics.

I don’t include it in my own doomsday clock countdown’s because it’s my understanding that this clause was removed when DC and Diamond renegotiated their deal some years back.  The DC-buys-Diamond scenario has been debunked before, but heck, you’re sitting at home with nothing to do so let’s debunk it again.

And just to confirm this, in the comments on a Facebook post by Brian Hibbs about DC’s plans for digital distribution,  the matter is brought up again, by Reynods himself!

- Advertisement-

Hibbs replies:

My understanding is that the last (or one before) renegotiation of the contract between Diamond and DC comics removed the ability of DC to buy Diamond. I *think* this is what ultimately prompted the recent Diamond restructuring as “Geppi Family Enterprises”. Steve or Josh could maybe confirm this (though I swear I read it in a public interview… just can’t remember exact source)

And then, just to add a verifiable source, Steve Geppi, the founder of Diamond Comics, steps in and states:

That is correct Brian it was removed

So there you go: there are many terrifying Doomsday Clock theories for comics you can dig into, but DC buying Diamond is off the table.

This thread is a goldmine for bold statements. Bill Schanes, himself one of the founders of the direct market and for many years the VP of purchasing at Diamond, posted his own response to the book channel getting into comics:

Thoughts on the book distributors continuing their distribution operations

With Diamond Comic Distributors and Diamond Book Distributors both temporally halting all shipments of products to both the comic book specialty retailers and the book channel, for the reasons stated (concern for the health of their employees and non essential government mandated closures), I find it more than curious as the traditional book channel publishers and distributors continue to operate as if there is no pandemic happening on a global basis.

So while they appear to be champions of their wholesale accounts, they are putting their employees at risk to exposure of the Coronavirus, plus their employees families, friends and people they potentially come in contact with…..profits over public safety. Not to mention, it’s only a matter of time until all 50 US states order mandatory shut down for all but essential businesses.

It also provides an uneven advantage/disadvantage to those retailers who can still open their doors Vs those who aren’t allowed to do so. Plus, the large .coms stand to benefit the most, taking sales and profits out of the comic book and book store sectors, who desperately need these sales now, more than ever.

I view the book publishers and book distributors as being irresponsible to the overall public health and safety, and would urge those publishers who sell books through these book distributors and their customers to discontinue until such time as the worst of the pandemic has subsided.

Bill Schanes
48+ years in the comic book business

Elsewhere, someone called for a return to newsstands, which prompted John Jackson Miller to explain why newsstands don’t work any more:

…be advised that the drugstore sector’s wretched performance record selling comics was one of the very reasons the comics shop market was created. Those outlets grew sick of having to stock three or four copies to sell one, and before the end many had shifted to Whitman’s three-copy grab bags, which were stocked not with magazines but in the toy department. Even Walmart’s few copies now aren’t sold in the magazine section, but are stocked by a jobber in the collectibles department. It’s not an option for a 500-issue-a-month slate that requires high sell-throughs and retailers willing to keep subscription files.

(The idea of sending masses of people to drugstores for discretionary items in a pandemic, as well, may not be the right idea for the times.)

Gamestop is down to stocking one-twosie copies of $10 specials like Marvel #1000; the profit margin and turn rate is too low on regular comics to be worth doing otherwise. Barnes & Noble treats comics similarly now, with piles of Detective #1000 in the shop, all treated as books rather than magazines.

Jobbers have long handled newsstand racking, but what they found years ago is that not enough profit can be made on returnable comics relative to other items. Which puts comics in a catch-22, because part of the reason sales rates declined there is because newsstand comics are bought, when they’re bought, not by fans who understand what a comic book costs, but by price-sensitive parents and grandparents who all remember when comics cost a dime/quarter/dollar.

The only real holdout in the newsstand, then, is Archie’s digests, partly by virtue of their perceived value proposition and the grandfathered CMAA-era deal that gives them slots in the checkout aisles. The only other magazines that make money there are either printed on toilet paper (like the tabloids) or are $14 magazine “special editions.”

There are some cases of Direct Market retailers that act as jobbers, curating sections for other kinds of stores; that was being done for Books-a-Million, and Diamond unveiled a spinner-rack program for such efforts a couple years ago. But again that generally requires the higher profits of nonreturnability to work, and comics get physically manhandled when there isn’t a shop-owner present. Either way, the point is that, barring special editions like the Walmart books, it generally takes a comics retailer to sell a comic book.

This view of “newsstands” is one I endorse – just putting periodical comics where people can see them does not mean there will suddenly be a greater demand for them, even when there’s not a pandemic.

Which brings me to another “what might have been” in comics history which I’ve alluded to before here at The Beat. I always get the details wrong, and Kurt Busiek will probably be along to correct me. On a long ago radio broadcast, that Busiek and I were on, Busiek (who got his start in Marvel’s direct sales department) opined that when paper prices started going up in the 40s and 50, comics publishers made a fateful decision: to lower the page count and keep the price low, rather than keep the page count high and raise the price.

Thus, page cut by page cut, the 32-page floppy was born, a format that was sturdy where artistic achievement was concerned. However, from a retailer standpoint, Miller is correct: stocking and restocking a small, cheap and (sorry) flimsy item that has to change every month is not most retailers’ idea of an awesome profit center.

And so we come back to Diamond, the source of and cure for all the ills of the direct market. As monopolies go, Diamond is a benevolent one, and I’ve seen many people there over the years (including Schanes) display a regard for the entire ecosystem of comics that goes far beyond what is necessary to keep their own business going. And Diamond puts up with more petty headaches from vendors and suppliers than any decent monopoly would like to have. Yet, as I also point out, the business model is stagnant. The entire industry – even Diamond –  would probably benefit from some form of competition to spur innovation.

Yesterday’s rumor – that PRC Random House was interested in buying Diamond – was also squelched by Geppi who said that Diamond is not for sale. I can’t say that I never heard this rumor, but when I did I dismissed it out of hand. Random House distributes books, not periodicals – unless the idea was to buy Diamond BOOKS, the move seems pointless. Of course I could be wrong and crazier things have happened, but the whole world is kind of crazy right now.

As Jackson’s summary of history suggests, the comics periodical is a strange, atavistic item, buoyed by nostalgia but somehow the lynchpin of a whole social structure.

That structure, and many many others, are in danger of extinction in this pandemic. I can see the comic book surviving the way record albums have survived – a physical object with a beautiful cover that’s nice to own, like a big, square LP. A collector’s item, in other words. And whether that can fund an entire network of speciality stores, I’m not certain of.

Anyway those are some rambling thoughts at 4 in the morning. More to come on all of this.

(This story has been updated to reflect who origianlly ran the Comics Journal story with the DC/Diamond deal memo.)

 

-Advertisement-

20 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with Busiek that shrinking the comic book down to 32 pages in order to keep it at 10 cents was not wise. What also wasn’t wise was keeping it at that size and increasing the price over and over again. Comics probably should have morphed into full color and full sized magazines, like Heavy Metal. For some reason the publishers always chickened out of investing in that format. The most they would do was black and white magazines because that worked for the under financed Jim Warren.

  2. Warren pushed hard enough into magazines in the 1960s that Marvel tried to follow, with the two-issue Spectacular Spider-Man book in ’68 and then a magazine line that was more robust than people remembered. But full color for magazines generally meant slick paper, and that was expensive enough that you’d only get a few color signatures within magazines that even had massive circulations. That MAD did so little color when it had circulations in the millions suggests they didn’t think the associated price increase would be helpful.

    I also think there’s a sort of expectations game with entertainment collectibles: once you add a feature, you can never go back. Sportscards went shiny; that was it for the old way. Comic books taught newspaper comics readers that comics should be in color every day, not just Sunday; that’s what they’d have to be from then on. Comics left newsprint; they can never go back (though some have tried without much success). So I think at a minimum, any shift to magazines in the middle of the last century would have required SOME black and white signatures, and the humor magazines notwithstanding, only a portion of American comics readers probably were willing to go there.

    (All that said, if you laser-focus on those readers who ARE wiling to go there, things can work, as certain B&W magazines had remarkably stable sales. SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN hung in there throughout the 1980s, even as the comic book lost half its readership. The magazine was outselling the comic book by 1990.)

  3. The black-and-white explosion of the 1980s might seem to be a contra-indicator to the “expectations game” — though the one thing I’m finding as I post more 1980s data on Comichron is that while there were an extraordinary number of titles placing new logistical burdens on retailers and distributors, the combined market share involved was not that large. And clearly most indy publishers went to color as soon as it was technically and financially feasible.

  4. I think the fact that both Diamond and Penguin Random House are both headquartered in Maryland, makes them logical partners. DC Comics/Time Warner should have at least explored flipping Diamond when they sold Time Warner Books to Hachette.

  5. The only thing I’ll correct your recollections about, Heidi, is that I didn’t get my start in the Direct Sales Department.

    I broke in as a writer in 1982, a couple of months after Carol Kalish joined the Direct Sales Department, which was only two people strong when she joined it, and shortly after that I think it was just her for a while.

    I joined the Direct Sales Department in October 1988, and stayed until September 1990.

    But yes, comics publishers were thriving during the war years, when most magazines had that same ten-cent cover price. Comics weren’t “cheap,” they were priced like other magazines, sold like other magazines, racked with other magazines and made the same kind of profit for retailers as other magazines.

    After the war, they chose to cut pages rather than maintain price parity with other magazines (which were raising prices), and the result was that comics became less economically competitive with other magazines. So retailers didn’t want them on the same rack space any more, where they we’re taking up space that could go to more profitable-per-copy units.

    So comics got ghettoized to the spinner racks, and then later, the spinner racks started to get junked in favor of video games, and comics had to be rescued by the direct market. When instead, they could have stayed competitive in price with other magazines, as comics did in France and Japan, where they continued to thrive.

    Ah, missed opportunities.

    And the newsstand market collapsed anyway, for magazines in general, so that would have been a problem too. But not as soon — and we wouldn’t be saddled now with a primary format that has never been economically competitive.

    Stay healthy, everyone.

  6. What also wasn’t wise was keeping it at that size and increasing the price over and over again.>>

    Well, they tried, at times. Dell Giants, DC 100-pagers, Dollar Comics, digest comics and more.

    Comics probably should have morphed into full color and full sized magazines, like Heavy Metal. For some reason the publishers always chickened out of investing in that format. The most they would do was black and white magazines because that worked for the under financed Jim Warren.>>

    You’re forgetting THE HULK! Magazine in color, and a bunch of other color Marvel magazines.

    But they never really made a financially-well-backed effort in that regard, just sidelines.

  7. One thing to point out is that without the Direct Market, an ENORMOUS amount of comics that have been hailed as masterpieces, groundbreaking, and revolutionary would never have made it to print if publishers were competing for a mainstream-sized audience in the same marketplace as other entertainment. Of course, we also wouldn’t have the Frankenstein-ish mess of modern super-hero comics where childlike concepts and supposedly adult subject matter is smashed together without rhyme or reason.

    Mike

  8. Kurt: I believe the shrinking of comics began during the war years due to paper restrictions. From 64 to 60, to 52, etc.. the price they kept the same and had no problem selling them. Then when sales started dropping in the 50’s, cutting costs was in order not increasing them by moving to a magazine format. There may have been other factors involved like mobbed up distributors wanting to keep the way it was for other reasons.

    THE HULK! was a close attempt, but at 64 pages it was pretty thin compared to Heavy Metals 100 pages – and at the same price $1.50 price too.

  9. I assume the drive to keep prices low (compared to other periodicals) was because most comic book readers in the ’50s and ’60s were children. And the Comics Code, which had teeth in those days, made sure the material was suitable for kids.

  10. The drive to keep prices low predates the Code. And those children had bought lots of comics when the price was the same as other magazines, so staying competitive with other magazines would not have been a n economic change. Keeping the price low so it dropped below the price of other magazines did, though, and it led to the ghettoization of comics, as they no longer “earned” rack space alongside other magazines. That, I’d argue, was one of the drivers of that sales decline.

  11. The industry probably should have scrapped the pamphlet and switched to trade, graphic novel and album formats in the mid to late ’80s, when it became clear that little kids and casual readers were no longer buying comics. In those days, at least, there was a young adult audience that would have paid more for a quality product.

    Of course, that would have bee resisted by many older fans and retailers, who tend to have a sentimental attachment to pamphlets — because that’s what they grew up with, and that’s what a “comic” is to them. I’ve actually heard that from retailers and aging fans.

    Now we still have pamphlets, but they’re no longer what I consider cheap. There are apparently still enough aging fans buying them to keep Marvel and DC’s publishing arms afloat. And when those fans are gone? They’re apparently not being replaced.

  12. Not to mention, George, that there was no will or budget among publishers to prepay writers and artists to go away for six months to produce full-length graphic novels. Original graphic novels came mostly from the superstars who rated advances, or independent artists working in their spare time.

    Serialization solves that, allowing work to go forward, creators to be paid and publishers to be earning money while a work is still in production. It’s almost a patronage system, with people paying to receive the work in progress.

    I strongly believe that in your scenario we would have only a small fraction of the comics stories on bookstore shelves that we do today.

  13. Tangent: What if comics publishers had followed MAD’s lead and published comics magazines at 25 cents aimed at an adult readership, to avoid the Code?

    The CMAA had a spinner rack program in the early 50s to get comics sold in places that didn’t have a newsstand, like supermarkets. (Source: CMAA newsletter, NYPL collections)

  14. John Jackson MIller’s comments typify what’s wrong with comics — this defense of the status quo, of the way things have always been. i guess Miller and other old fans will be clinging to the holy pamphlet as the industry goes down the drain.

    When a Marvel or DC comic that sells 30,000 copies is considered a hit, things are pretty bad. There was a time they canceled anything that sold less than 100,000. But to hear Miller talk, everything is great, wonderful and terrific.

    Fantagraphics has not followed the Marvel/DC model, and it was still in business last time I checked.

  15. As a billion-dollar annual business (more than half of which comes from the comics shops), the status quo already justifies its continuation on a weekly basis. New ways are absolutely welcome in comics — the Direct Market and graphic novels are two — but both had to prove themselves over decades, and came from people who either already had skin in the game, or were willing to invest in their ideas.

    It’s not what the circulations are, and never has been: it’s always been whether the works are profitable. Collected editions reduce what the sales numbers have to be on periodicals; periodicals advertise and amortize the collected editions. The comics of old didn’t have that going for them at all. Studying what numbers were once upon a time is a significant part of the Comichron site’s mission — but so is giving context about how poor the margins were, and how much waste went into achieving those numbers.

    I’ve said here before these debates often spring from people having different ideas of the “goal state” they want to see. I operate believing the likely consensus goal-state is anything that allows as many people as possible to make livings in the comics hobby, whether that’s creating them, publishing them, celebrating them at conventions, writing about them on the internet, or, yes, buying, selling, and trading them for profit. Implicit in that: the goal needs to employ at a minimum everyone who’s currently employed now. If a plan’s starting position doesn’t include all of those, it might be a neat idea, but it’s not likely to be quickly embraced.

  16. The statement that book distributors are putting their warehouse workers health and safety at risk, is, according to first-hand accounts, false. My editors have told me (I have not seen it myself as I’ve been locked down for over a month) that workers are staggered in sections, shifts, and given proper safety equipment. They’ve had plans in place for physical distancing since before it was a commonly used term. Just because one company couldn’t find a way to make it work, does not mean it’s impossible across the board.

  17. Also, I was told PRH had the opportunity to purchase Diamond and turned it down because the profit margins were too low and “not worth the trouble of acquiring them”. I trust the person who told me that, but they were not directly involved with the deal as far as I know—so I can’t say with 100% confidence that was the case.

  18. I’d say that you cannot compare Diamonds decision to close down, with other book distributors decision to stay open. I might be wrong, but I do not think safety of their own work-force while being on the job was Diamonds main problem. Avoiding unnecessary travel was a priority, but that didn’t mean working at Diamond wasn’t safe, or that safe working conditions weren’t organisable on short notice.
    Everything stopped precisely because of the way the Direct Market works. You cannot ship pallets full of books to shops that might not even be able to recieve them (or when they can recieve them the shipment will contain orders based on customer-expectations that pre-date the outbreak) and still attach an invoice stating ‘please pay within 30 days’. Because if you ship, they will have to pay, because you shipped. That would mean willfully driving many accounts to bankruptcy.
    Other book suppliers work with returnability, so when stuff doesn’t sell, the can return it and get credit. For those distributors, shipping books to their accounts isn’t the same as serving them a Death penalty, for books can be returned if not sold, and money gets returned or re-invested.
    But it also wasn’t possible to give the stores extra time for paying the bills, because they were dealing with a unknown phenomenom, so it couldn’t be safely predicted what amount of extra time would be sufficiënt. And Diamond would need the money to pay their own creditors (the Publishers)
    So I think it was absolutely necessary for Diamond to halt shipments, and to get together with all partjes involved and find a way out of this problem that would be as beneficial as possible to the largest possible part of this industry. Now you can point out all that is wrong about how this strangely grown interconnected mallfunctioning flyspeck of a cottage industry does it’s business, but that’s just how it is. This was the right call to make.
    Yes, that does imply that a lot of things are functioning a lot less than optimal in the comic book field, and ‘the right call’ is simply pointing that out.

Comments are closed.