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!
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.
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.)