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.
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.
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.
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.