-Advertisement-
Featuring art from Hawkeye #22 by David Aja

There’s far too much going on right now. Far too much, and not a lot at all, and it all makes the days roil and bubble and froth, and it sucks. It all sucks.

Today, I’m here to try and communicate a bit of what’s happening in the direct market retail community. This will feature my perspective and circumstance almost exclusively, because that’s the one I can speak to the best. This perspective and circumstance is not shared by many, but we’re all dealing with our own truths, trying our hardest to balance personal need with the needs of a whole, always coming up short.

There are no good answers right now, only hard questions. For the purposes of these journals, I’ll be focusing on the direct market, and the comic book industry (two very different things) and letting the larger questions of the world be puzzled by folks far more ambitious than myself. Please know that I’m aware of (gestures wildly) the state of the world and that fretting about an entertainment industry isn’t to the same scale as making sure society stands a fighting chance of emerging from this intact. If you want to listen to some great people tackling those ideas, I suggest listening to The Worst Year Ever podcast, a podcast named far in advance of the pandemic. Especially “The Reasonable Person’s Guide to Prepping”, which informs part of this series.

Also: what follows is more of a journal than anything else. I’ve spent far too much time trying to put together an essay that hangs together, but the times keep changing too fast, and the work to keep going doesn’t stop. So we’re rolling through the COVID-19 Era of the Direct Market through a transcription of things I wrote in various places, both physically and digitally, with embellishment for sake of context.

- Advertisement-

Diamond sent out an announcement stating they would be temporarily suspending single issue comics. They did this in inimitable Diamond style – with an e-mail stating that Wednesday, April 1st would see no comics, while their website stated April 8th would be the date. Within a short span of time, their website was adjusted, and April 1st was confirmed.

This all happens after an unscrupulous dingus reports about the whispers of Diamond shutting down before statements are ready. I’m not stating the person, or the site’s name here because the man tends to appear like the world’s most impatient version of Beetlejuice, pushing his way into a spotlight with just half a mention of his name. He is truly a drain on the industry, and I am really too tired to say otherwise. I’m sure if he comments on this in any way, shape or form, he’ll make it about himself, the star of his own show, or the victim of cruel humans who would call him on his bullshit.

As the store, we respond to several people before official word is out. We tell folks we’re waiting on official word, and it wastes a good chunk of time. We love chatting with folks about the industry, but have a policy of only confirming things that are officially announced. So we waste several hours that could have been better spent preparing for the future. I assume this same process occurred at many stores, meaning this man’s affinity for grandstanding has burned thousands upon thousands of hours that could have been better spent doing anything else. Truly.

I am really too tired to pretend like this carnival barker is a benefit to anyone at the moment, especially when he’s pushed half-baked articles with headlines and contents that stated or implied DC wouldn’t be distributing through Diamond anymore, which burned several more hours across the industry. A tip, you ghoulish ding-dong: yes, you matter. Congrats. But Spider-Man has his schtick for a reason, and power comes with responsibility. You crave and claim importance, yet balk at the responsibility that comes with it. This makes you a villain, and it would be chill if you could come to terms with that, thanks.

Where was I? Oh yes. Diamond officially announced they couldn’t confidently provide comic shops with shipments with their current structure in place, so they would not be accepting or shipping new content for the foreseeable future. We sent that information out, and started contacting files we knew didn’t get our newsletter. We also started bugging our Diamond representative, because Diamond’s announcement also included a statement about re-orders still taking place – only through a system that had yet to be made available to Canadian customers such as ourselves. In short order, we were told that Diamond would not be servicing areas outside of the United States until further notice as well – which meant we would have to rely on outside sources.

This turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to the store. More on that in a bit.

This was the day that the government of Alberta announced a shutdown of all non-essential businesses during its daily 3:30pm video address. This was effective… somewhat immediately? I say somewhat because a timeline wasn’t communicated, but we complied by our day’s end, just two hours after official word.

With the one-two punch of Diamond not shipping a drop of product to Canada, and not being able to bring customers in our shop, we immediately implemented a curbside pickup program, and rethought our in-city delivery service.

We were one of the very few shops doing in-city delivery for a few years already, having developed the program originally for low mobility customers. In between the launch and the plague, we expanded that to include folks who were low on time for a fee. Having this system already in operation already was huge – as was the fact that we had invested in developing an online shop for ourselves in the summer/fall of 2019. Both of these things have been extremely beneficial.

By this point, the good news was this: after nearly five years in business (our official anniversary is May 2nd, 2020 – which would have doubled as this year’s Free Comic Book Day), the math said we’d be okay until mid-June, and that was if we sold nothing else but roughly 80% of what was in our hold files. That would include our full rent for the store, and any and all expenses, including our wages. Since that date, we’ve sold quite a lot of product past this.

As it stands now, our “safe until” projection goes a lot further – though the specific distance depends on what Diamond and publishers will be publishing in the next few months. From the sound of things, companies that aren’t on Final Order Cut Off will have their products on hold until August – but that hasn’t been confirmed in any way, shape, or form. Regardless, if we keep things tight and see a response near 80% to what we’ve received through current outreach, we’ll be great on an ongoing basis.

Word arrived from DC about their general direction. This is when they officially announced intent to develop alternative distribution methods. There was also a comment that implied digital content without a physical component would be in the mix – but the comment itself didn’t specify anything in particular. Which is to say, DC has continued to publish certain items in the digital realm in front of a physical release, as they have done for years now. What they HAVEN’T done, is release new BATMAN: THE COMIC ACTUALLY NAMED BATMAN content, the idea of which had everyone in a tizzy.

Did DC actually intend to release digital single issues like, say, BATMAN #92 like it was no big deal? Maybe. SOMEONE knows, but they sure as hell won’t be talking any time soon. For the record, I think they, and all other companies, should have gone full speed ahead with digital single issues. I think that single issues should have been digital for a while now. But I would say that.

Looking back through the store numbers, stripping out what we’ve paid for and made from single issues over the past years, we’ve discovered that the store could have survived off of graphic novel sales alone for the past year now. This has continued during the pandemic, with access to various “book market” distributors providing a means to product. In fact, we haven’t had this much money in the business for such a sustained period of time since our old third partner ate through our initial business loan.

For the record, we split from him after a year and a half in business. Since then, we’ve won a national award for Most Outstanding Comic Retailer, and recently paid off our part of the initial business loan. He is still running a gaming store that has not been able to produce any kind of signage to let you know where you are shopping since the split over three years ago. They also aren’t offering any kind of curbside or in-city delivery service, despite promising solutions weeks ago.

Yes, I’m taking this moment to gloat a little. No, I’m not proud. A little pleased, but not proud.

Here’s where things start taking focus. The industry has had time to digest Diamond’s move along with rolling shutdown timelines in various countries, states and provinces. At the store, we had developed a rhythm that included a lot more deliveries, and a daily video check-in. Brian Hibbs came out with another insightful installment of Tilting at Windmills, and detailed his circumstances. He also included a link to a document that has since been made private, detailing a litany of direct market retailer demands to the industry. It is filled with mostly ludicrous requests. I say that for one reason, and one reason only: THE COMIC INDUSTRY DOES NOT NEED THE DIRECT MARKET, and in order to make demands, you need a position of leverage.

Don’t get me wrong: SOME of the comic industry needs the direct market. But as a whole? The system hasn’t worked properly in YEARS. Maybe even a decade or more. At this point in time, book market distributors are still sending out products. I’m receiving product and restocks faster than Diamond has ever turned something around since they shut down their Canadian warehouses quite some time back. Most of the discounts we receive are comparable or better than Diamond’s offerings, with free shipping and no penalties for reorders. When the discount isn’t comparable, the product is fully returnable, which makes sense. That’s the trade off for shouldering less risk on our end.

At this point, Danica and I started to realize more and more that we were going to be okay. That said, there was a reason for this: our whole operation was built upon the idea that Diamond wasn’t going to be around forever – and that single issues might not be long for this world. (Don’t believe me? Check out The Retailer’s View tag on this site. We haven’t been shy about this.)

It is a hard truth to confront, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time. Ever since our store opened in 2015 – and even long before that – we’ve been hearing about how comic shops were having a hard time, and would threaten to close. The direct market has been a hair away from catastrophe for years, but something always popped up to keep the plates spinning. It was just a matter of time before something occurred that would take it down, and the options ranged from “a bad year of sales” to “Marvel and/or DC deciding not to print single issues anymore”.

As everyone keeps saying, margins are slim in this industry, and there isn’t much wiggle room. In any other industry, that would be a huge warning sign. In here? We’re all blinded by love enough to let things slide, and… well, here we are. There are reports that only HALF of Diamond’s current accounts might survive this. At a guess, less than that will if Diamond closes up shop.

THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING, BUT IT IS A POSSIBLE REALITY.

Which is always a thing that folks seem to ignore in the comic book industry. So many people say “it can’t happen” as though that can change reality. It’s like being told you have cancer, and the response being “that can’t happen, because I might die”. That isn’t how reality works. The fact of the matter is… the direct market has been in rough shape for  FAR LONGER than the current pandemic. Oh, and I say “current” pandemic, because chances are we’re due for at least another one like this within the decade, and even more in the longer future. Which is a fun thing to contemplate.

Cover to “Breathers #1” by Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt

The DIRECT MARKET needs to go. It has been JUST BARELY handling stress tests for years, and can not take any form of large pressure. And I say DIRECT MARKET quite deliberately, because the comic industry is a lot bigger than this chunk of real estate. Graphic novels are taking hold more than ever before, and in significant ways. Between Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey alone, the industry moves millions upon millions yearly. Which is to say nothing of all of the strong releases that occur otherwise.

Things have progressed so far from what was, and yet there are so many there that keep pushing for what was, even today. For the past month, I’ve been watching folks yell at companies attempting to make adjustments for the future, pushing to keep the status quo, and it has been infuriating. THE STATUS QUO WAS NOT WORKING, FULL STOP. It was surviving through inertia, and that inertia was going to come to an end eventually. The stopper just happened to be COVID-19.

What happens next, has to be different… because we can’t go back. The past DOES NOT WORK ANYMORE and the only way forward is by MOVING FORWARD. A lot of folks don’t like that idea for one reason or another. I’ve heard folks talk about how they hate mail order and selling online when THE TWO BIGGEST ACCOUNTS AT DIAMOND ARE MAIL ORDER AND ONLINE ACCOUNTS and I just… do not understand how folks can look at those data points and think “it’s the SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE who are wrong!” That makes no sense.

Anyway.

That about wraps up this installment of THE CORONAVIRUS JOURNAL. Next week, we’ll dig into DC’s alternative distribution plans and their general roll out plan, as well as our distinct response.

As 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, so y’all just… talk amongst yourselves.

-Advertisement-

17 COMMENTS

  1. “The past DOES NOT WORK ANYMORE and the only way forward is by MOVING FORWARD.”

    About time someone said this. I’ve heard enough fans say the entire comics industry will collapse without the sale of periodicals at specialty shops. That might have been true 30 years ago. It’s not true now.

    I don’t expect comics on paper to disappear in my lifetime (I’m 60), but the internet is here to stay. It’s sad to hear retailers describing online as The Enemy. Too many retailers AND fans take pride in being fossils.

    An article in The Guardian noted that Mile High Comics’ website looks like a relic from 1998. Are fans proud of that?

  2. Well, I’m glad that this guy reports that he’s weathering the situation well financially. Disposing of the direct market? Hell, there is SUCH a wealth of material out there in collected form, reprinted form, however you call it, that in my opinion (at least as a reader), were comics no longer available on a monthly basis I would not be lacking in alternative entertainments, even if it meant mining the past. For that matter, I’ve been retired for five years already, living overseas, and I have had no difficulty in keeping up with comics that caught my interest (certainly very little at DC or Marvel, I will admit).

  3. These days, I’d rather order (by mail) collections of old newspaper strips from IDW’s Library of American Comics. Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Rip Kirby … Who needs X-Men and Batman? Not me.

  4. I’m happy these two are doing well, though I’m not sure people who’ve been in business for five years are necessarily all-knowing about an industry that’s been around for more than three decades. I mean, this is literally the first economic downturn their shop has ever had to weather.

    I checked out their website and saw a whole lot of Direct Market graphic novels while still offering a whole lot fewer options than my local shop offers through their EBay page. But I guess it’s a common flaw to think the entire world is just your own particular circumstances writ large.

    Mike

  5. I don’t know where I stand in the whole direct market debate. I don’t know where I stand on physical vs digital (other than I’m never going to give Amazon-owned Comixology all of my comics allotted budget). I’m just glad to see some positivity right now. BTW, really starting to gain an appreciation for European comics, so this period really hasn’t been all bad comics-wise for me.

  6. Re: The Unnamed Dingus. I could not agree more with your views on this. I have wasted so much time at the shop trying to do reality checks from people who feel “in the know” because of this loser. Plus, there have been publisher programs that benefited retailers that have been withdrawn because he’s the living embodiment of someone saying “First!” in the comments section (paired with sources who feed him, of course). The industry is a much poorer place because of him.

  7. MBunge – We started the store during a recession in our province. We split from a business partner, and restarted at a new location with nothing. Don’t assume this is the first time money has been an issue.

    Our web store is curated. It isn’t EBay, and shouldn’t be. There may be what you call Direct Market books listed, but (again) don’t assume we order only through Diamond.

    And since Brandon isn’t going to be commenting, I will add that he’s the one with 15 years in the industry. You want to slam someone for being new. That would be me with 5. We’re both here for the long run.

  8. It’s not exactly clear to me what you mean by “DIRECT MARKET” when you say things like “The DIRECT MARKET needs to go.”

    I assume you don’t mean there will no longer be specialty stores selling primarily comics. So are you referring to just the distribution system? Or something more than that?

  9. “BTW, really starting to gain an appreciation for European comics, so this period really hasn’t been all bad comics-wise for me.”

    Yeah, there’s a whole world of comics out there beyond Marvel and DC superhero comics. But for too many fan-collectors, all that matters are the Big Two’s $4 pamphlets. These are the folks who still go to their local comic shop for their weekly fix. Everyone else is going to bookstores for graphic novels and trades (not just manga, Mike) or using mail order and online sources.

    These days, monthly comics are like jazz records or radio drama — something from the past that once had a mass audience, and is now kept alive (more or less) by dedicated fans and collectors. It’s a fringe interest, and will likely remain so.

    The comic shops that survive will be the ones that have diversified into graphic novels, trades, used records, books, DVDs, etc. Just selling floppies won’t cut it anymore.

  10. This is a great read. Thank you.

    I wish that the comic book industry would switch to a more durable, less ephemeral format. I mean both in their content and their format. I like the European bande-dessinee format– denser stories, longer page-counts, contained stories. I am in the process of getting rid of thousands of individual comics, and I realize that half of these stories would have been better if they’d been printed in a format that sat on a bookshelf (like graphic novels by Jason, Ashley Wood’s Popbot, or Fantagraphics’ Ignatz imprint), and most of the rest are disposable, not worth the $3 or $4 I paid for them individually. Maybe this is will help publishers (particularly the Big Two) to publish less fluff– whether they go digital, or just cut back on the sheer number of Batman or X-Men titles– and make a more sustainable model.

  11. Only entering this because you invoked my name. I will say this: that list was IN NO WAY a list of “demands”, it was a list of things that a wide swath of retailers thought would help make the periodical release portion of the market a stronger and more balanced thing.

    What I think you mean by “The Direct Market” is the periodicals portion of it, and while I firmly agree that its now the weaker edge of the industry, it still drives an ENORMOUS percentage of the business, whether directly in comic book stores, or indirectly by amortizing the costs of production so that creator-owned graphic novels can release at $20 and under, rather than at $30 and higher, and thus can enter the book market as “viable” in the first place.

    That’s why I think the drive should be to FIX (and GROW!!) the periodicals-portion of the market while we’re in a moment where pivoting and changing basic assumptions can actually make sense and can be pulled off.

    I will say this: we are also predominately a “graphic novel store”, and I think we probably “could survive” without periodicals; but I don’t see a lot of sense in writing off a mechanism that, clearly, a large number of customers enjoy and support. But I do know that until we’re allowed to reopen we have no choice but to only order “subs only” for periodicals, and that when we are allowed to finally reopen we are exceedingly unlikely to be racking more than, say, the top 20 or so titles from any publisher that isn’t offering those to use fully affidavit returnable all of the time.

    -B

  12. “I am in the process of getting rid of thousands of individual comics, and I realize that half of these stories would have been better if they’d been printed in a format that sat on a bookshelf”

    Several years ago, I disposed of several longboxes full of pamphlets. I preferred having those stories in a format that I could put on a bookshelf — Marvel Essentials, DC Showcases, etc.

    Digging through boxes and taking pamphlets out of plastic bags became really annoying as I got older. At a certain point I stopped doing it, and those floppies sat unread until I got rid of them.

  13. Outstanding article. Best and most lucid breakdown of the comic book Industry’s current situation that I’ve read recently. Thanks to Warren Ellis’ Orbital Operations newsletter for pointing this article out to me. Kudos!

    There won’t be a”going back to normal”. For anyone. This situation won’t be over until a vaccine that works shows up. And according to Epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm, this won’t happen for at least 18 months in the best case scenario. That’s almost two years.

    So you have to ask yourself if your business is prepared to weather that.

    As others have said previously, graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and hardbound collections are the American comic book industry’s future. The reality is that most people who buy print comics will ALWAYS buy print comics. But the truth of the matter, and especially considering a lot of people’s current economic situations, is that $3.99 for 10 minutes at most entertainment time is no longer financially viable for most fans, and hasn’t been for a long time. Especially in this day and age of Crunchyroll, Disney+, Netflix, youTube, PS4, and X-Box. This is why sales numbers on single titles continue to shrink.

    The graphic novel, trade paperback, and hardbound formats gives more bang for the buck to print comic readers. And from a practical standpoint, they tend to take up less space where we live.

    Digital comics will just be one of the tools utilized by the big two publishers’ parent companies to grow the audiences for their IP in between movies, and TV shows. Only hardcore comic book fans and people who love print books read hard copies of anything these days. People read, view, play, and share their content on their phones, laptops, Kindles, Tablets, Smart TVs, and Desktops. Or through audiobooks.

    Again, a number of comic book stores will disappear during this event. The same thing is happening in all areas of retail, and will continue to do so for quite some time to come. But the stores that can both see and have prepared for the future that is now will thrive. Cheers!

  14. There’s an old saying, when a medium ceases to be popular it becomes art. That certainly is the case with comics, and has been for at least the last couple of decades.

    As Brian has pointed out, just because a market is fringe or specialized doesn’t mean ot serves a useful function. Beyond what Brian said above, it also serves to provide a variety of material. Without it, all we would have would be Superman, Batman, and Wonder woman comics.

    Do people really prefer reading digital? I read Sherlock Frankenstein on my phone and it left a lot ot be desired. What surprised me was how the form impacted layout. Bigger panels were a lot harder to read than smaller one. An artist laying out a digital page has to do it very differently than if he was doing it for print.

  15. I wouldn’t say I prefer digital, but I don’t object to it. I wish the source for most digital comics wasn’t Comixology (I know there’s more out there, but that’s the best optimized for reading comics, outside of possibly Marvel Unlimited. Not a Marvel guy, particularly, however), but that’s my only issue with digital. I’m not particularly attached to any one format or delivery system. I’m also younger than I imagine most, if not all, of those who insist on the monthly issue format, so keep the age factor in mind.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.