By Brandon Schatz, with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
Hey there folks. You can call me Staind, because “it’s been a while” since my last column. I would apologize for that introduction, but I’m already tired and shame is for squares and those moments when I’ve spent too much time inside my own head.
To start: as is the case with every Coronavirus Journal, what I’m about to present exists as a chronicle of specific circumstance, and the experience of someone who has been working within this fine industry for over thirteen years. Much of this was scribbled into one of my journals and has been reproduced here with embellishments for the sake of context.
This is also intended to be specific to the comic book industry. There are absolutely larger problems out there and the fate of this form of entertainment is infinitesimal compared to those issues. Other people are more equipped to talk about those larger issues, and as always, I suggest you seek out The Worst Year Ever podcast, as they are doing fine work in this field.
But also, the world is a hellscape, and the only way forward is forming small, strong bonds in our communities, as those in power will never want to erode what they have in order to help the greater good.
This also applies to the comic industry. But we’ll get to that.
(Admit it. You missed this.)
At 9:53am Pacific (the DC office time zone), a communication from DC was blasted across all their retailer communication channels informing folks that DC would no longer be working with Diamond (with a few caveats). We’re not going to dig into the hows and whys of that this time, as we covered that quite extensively in the previous installment of this column. This time around is going to be more of a “nuts and bolts” affair – light on the commentary (or rather, lighter than I usually am) with a focus more on how the DC shift affected our day to day business at Variant Edition.
As with any big shift in the industry, the immediate concern was wool-gathering. We immediately set about getting the lay of the land in order to set ourselves up for what was to come and come up with reasonable answers for the deluge of questions that were on our way from customers.
Right at the top, we confirmed our status as a client of Lunar Distribution. We had opened our account when Diamond was still shut down and DC had made moves to see if shipping single issues would be viable without them. At the time, we decided to wait for Diamond to reopen as the cost of shipping to Canada was quite cost-prohibitive for the amount of product being offered. With the “Diamond” option off the table, we knew we had to take steps to see how we could make the shipping position more palatable, but first and foremost we had to ensure our unused account was still active. It was.
From there, we set about contacting some local shops that we were friendly with to see if they would be interested in pooling shipping. Once we had this plan in place, we decided to see what we could do about helping out on a broader scale.
For shipping to Canada, Diamond had always sent the entirety of Canada’s comics up in one huge lump of boxes, in order to make duty costs negligible. The comics would arrive out east and then be sent to various drop points around the country, where the product would either be picked up, or shipped to even smaller communities. Our goal was to set up something similar for that through Lunar — ideally using out local drop point guy as the point man.
This plan was gladly worked upon (and somewhat taken over) by the largest outfit in town, who set about using their clout to get everyone in the city on board. This was something they had been doing unprompted from my end, and I want to state that so it doesn’t sound like I’m taking credit for that hustle.
As time progressed, things seemed to be lining up, although Lunar was always slow to confirm. We worked out an agreement with the large store that no matter what, if Lunar couldn’t confirm a drop point style delivery system, we would combine our orders for the foreseeable future. A general sense of calm was reached. Then all hell broke loose once again.
When DC announced their big change, they gave retailers a little over a week to get their ducks in order. In the grand scheme of things, this is not enough time, full stop. In talking with a DC rep, I was informed that the termination of their working relationship with Diamond wasn’t something they wanted on that tight of a time frame, but a necessity when Diamond refused to work with the company on a requested extension of terms. Diamond intimated that they were expecting response from DC on certain matters, but instead received the termination notice. At a guess, there are truths to both version of this story, but the result was a 10-11 day span of time where a lot had to happen.
We thought we had nailed this particular transition when we got a phone call. The other shop in town had uncovered a third option for Canadians — an outfit called Universal. They informed us that they were going to order their product through them, and that the deadline was in a couple of hours. They were gracious enough to offer us the ability to piggyback off their order for the week while we set up our own account, which we did that very day without issue.
Known more for its gaming distribution, Universal was an outfit that had actually been working with Diamond for quite a few years as a sanctioned sub-distributor who provided their clients with Diamond product. One of their warehouses was located quite close to where Diamond would ship all of Canada’s comics on a weekly basis, and a mutually beneficial situation was brokered, allowing Universal to be its own distributor of sorts to gaming stores looking for comic product.
At some point during the expansion of DC’s distribution efforts, Universal brokered a similar deal with UCS, with approval from DC itself. As we discovered in short order, we would give Universal our numbers, and in turn, they would receive the stock from UCS and get it to us. They would do this while honouring our current terms with DC Comics, and would eat the entirety of the duty charges of shipping the comics up to Canada. This would save us a remarkable amount on shipping, and would reduce that cost back down to what we were getting from Diamond. There were just two catches: Universal would be charging us upon shipment, and that shipment would occur once they received the product from UCS.
These terms seemed amicable in the face of hearing other stores planning to charge an extra 30% to their customers on all of their DC titles due to the jump in shipping costs. Admittedly, we did NOT dig into whether or not we could delay payments like we can with every other distributor we utilize, but this is something we plan on revisiting now that things have calmed down a bit.
I am proud to state that this relationship with Universal has been quite amazing. While other stores have reported getting product in as early as the Friday before release, ours tend to show up on Monday or Tuesday, depending on when UCS has pushed the product up north. Early in August, on the Canadian long weekend, we did receive our shipment mid-Wednesday, but that was a relatively small stress in comparison to having to charge our folks a great deal more for their DC books.
Other small (in my opinion) things to look out for if you’re a Canadian retailer looking to save some money on your DC shipment: Universal functions as its own account with UCS in many ways, and DC hasn’t worked out a system to get promos to all the accounts served by Universal as a result. They also need to get their final orders to UCS by Sunday night, and are closed on the weekend… which means they require your numbers by 12pm EST on Fridays.
I’ve been talking with DC as time allows in an attempt to make Universal a full distribution partner for Canadians to hopefully mitigate those issues, and because it makes practical sense. DC still prints many of their single issue comics in Montreal, and that is where Universal is based. It seems wild to ship the comics down to the States, only to ship them right back up again, when you have a viable and competent distributor, who has been working with Diamond for years already with a proven track record of excellence.
A side note: in talking with DC about this, other than my thoughts on the matter, they hadn’t heard much about Universal from folks beyond the fact they were a cheaper option. I responded by saying that in times like these, the fact that they weren’t receiving bad feedback spoke volumes… especially given what is spewed in various private retailer forums. I say to DC again: wouldn’t it be nice to have a distribution partner whose feedback read “they are wildly competent and cost effective”? Make this happen.
The switch with DC also prompted us to think long and hard about our structures, and our reliance on institutions we had always found unreliable, such as Diamond. I want to preface the rest of this by saying I adore quite a few people who work for Diamond, and I hope they are doing well despite all that is happening. This isn’t about the people, so much as it is about the structure.
At the end of March, Diamond shut down their operations, furloughing many workers, and subsequently stopping payment to their various vendors. This was done in an attempt to figure out how to push forward in a time of crisis. I can say unequivocally that this pause in distribution changed the game for our store. We had been moving a lot of our purchasing away from Diamond and into book distribution channels, but single issues were unshakably tied to Diamond. During their pause, we confirmed two extremely important things:
1) Due to how we structured the store, we discovered we could survive and pay all of our bills through graphic novel sales alone. Which led to…
2) While they prop up a significant part of the market, physical single issues in their current format are more of a burden than they are a help. Truly, if you want proof of this, look around to retailer columns and commentary for the past 25 years (seriously – I’m reading stuff from 1995 in between pushing words outta my hands), and try and find someone who is happy with the pricing and needs of distribution for new print single issues. It is incredibly rare.
With these things in mind, we decided to abandon a few programs that we had been relying upon, such as Diamond’s ComicSuite program, and the Pullbox Beta. This necessitated several weeks of work sessions that lasted from after work, ’til 2am. We moved all of our customers and their information from ComicSuite over to Manage Comics, a wonderful program that handles subscriptions and special orders. Despite the ease of a mass information upload that the folks at Manage handled on their own, we had to double-check and move a few things around on our end. It was a colossal amount of work, but in the end, we were glad to do it.
When the COVID-19 shutdowns started in full, we were a store that had been doing in-city delivery for three years prior. We had built a nice online system, and we had a robust social media presense that made communicating with our customers a snap. When trouble happened, we were already ready, and we thrived because of it. Taking a look at the landscape and the world’s history of pandemics, we figured we couldn’t trust Diamond not to shut down again this fall or winter, and take down the direct market as we know it. So we’ve prepared for that possibility. I honestly think everyone else should too.
Steve Geppi (the owner of Diamond) has talked around the fact that Diamond is at a breaking point. The company itself is still over a month behind getting us our reorders (at least to us in Canada), and their own reports suggest that they are running their warehouses at a 50-75% worker level — NOT because of COVID requirements, but because they haven’t been able to retain the staff needed. In fact, they are hiring out to a temp agency to get positions filled and product out the door. This is all before the fall and winter arrives, and with it, another big wave built off the back of whatever infection numbers are currently out there. The history of pandemics say that things are about to get a whole lot worse, and there are no programs yet in place to help with what’s to come.
While Diamond has in fact been a helpful partner to many, they have placed themselves in a untenable position. As graphic novels have taken over as the industry’s driving revenue source (with the $$$-made gap widening year to year), Diamond did not adjust their model. This has been an industry shift that has happened over the past decade plus, but the company has been so focused on single issues, that they did not build out structures to ensure their relevance today. As it stands, every single graphic novel product I can get through other vendors comes into the store faster that Diamond can turn around, in better condition, and at a better price point. This was even the case pre-COVID. They became, through their own complacency, the worst place to order graphic novels from, and they are in no condition to make that pivot today.
Beyond that, Discount Comic Book Service (who runs Lunar) and Midtown Comics (who runs UCS) did manage to keep their operations going during the first impactful days of the pandemic in North America, and did so seemingly without spreading infection. When I look at the future of this industry in the immediate? I see a company like DC that made a tough choice for the future of the industry… one that they took a lot of heat for. I see a company that has looked at the sales charts and are pushing forward, instead of looking backwards, building out when they are still in a position to do so, to ensure their place tomorrow.
I hope that I am doing the same thing too. Our numbers this year would suggest that we are. We don’t play the back issue game at all, so these numbers don’t come from selling hot books for bonus dollars. It comes purely from the connection to story, and a lot of hard work. It comes from looking at the reality of business, and pushing forward, instead of pushing against.
It comes from a desire to make sure this medium is here for many, many generations to come, and not just the ones who are here today.
A lot has happened in the past few months… but strangely? I feel like it has all been for the best. COVID-19 has been a burden for sure, but I can’t lie: the industry needed an accelerant to slough off the bits that weren’t working. The unfortunate side effect will always be good people finding themselves in troubled times, but… looking through to tomorrow, I see an industry ready to take the next step.
Comics will never die. But if you’re not being realistic with what the future is about to bring us, you might just have a hard time surviving along with it as things change.
Don’t worry. You can do this. You just gotta walk forward instead of clinging to the past.
Once again, we’ll end this entry just like the ones that came before, with a note:
I will not be reading any comments on this article, nor will I be responding to any social media contact regarding it outside of “thanks for reading”, if that response suits. This is more for personal time and sanity reasons. Danica, however, will be free to answer and respond as time allows.
(And that said, folks who have my proper contact info are always welcome to drop a line. I may or may not respond with anything beyond “thanks for reading”, but you can try.)
We’ll talk with you all soon.
[Note: yes, DC is currently being distributed in the UK through Diamond UK through to the end of December 2020. This wasn’t included in the timeline because, as stated above, this was focused on how we specifically had to confront changes ourselves. We figured we’d pop that in there because someone was gonna point that out.]