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We almost skipped Free Comic Book Day this year.

From the moment the books were first solicited in March, straight through to running the event just a couple weeks back, we wondered if we were making the right choices. This year, it wasn’t just about figuring out quantities and drumming up a big crowd, it was about how the curve of the world would go and if we should be inviting a crowd at all.

In early May, our final orders were due. We tried to plot where we thought our province and city would be in terms of pandemic numbers while our provincial government made noice about completely re-opening things by July. We knew there was a significant chance things wouldn’t be okay by mid-August. Regardless, we placed some modest orders. And then we waited.

As time passed, we watched things get worse with our province’s COVID numbers. Still, Alberta was pretty gung-ho on removing any and all province-levied restrictions, placing the burden anywhere and everywhere else. For our part, we maintained a masking policy in our store for our community’s protection. History was telling us it was the safe bet, despite some light pushback from folks who were in no way regular customers. With COVID not coming close to us during this time, this seemed to be the right choice.

But what about Free Comic Book Day? With all of our general concerns, and with cases rising, would it be possible to put on the day without potentially adding to a problem we were actively concerned about? And how could we consciously ask folks to help out on the day when it would put them at potential risk themselves?

We spent days coming up with different plans, running through many different scenarios. Wracked with indecision, we were suddenly two days out from the event without many things we could actionably do. If we were to run the event, our lack of advertising was bound to keep things pretty low-key. That felt comfortable. For the amount of space we have, cramming 600+ folks through our doors would be unconscionable, full stop. We knew that wasn’t going to happen. But for the folks who did show up, no matter what we planned… what might we be able to put together?

Free Comic Book Day Space
I’m not good at taking pictures, so this… doesn’t do the space justice. It’s pretty rad.

In the end, we did something very small, utilizing an open breezeway just a few doors down from our shop. The idea would be to have Danica or myself in one of these spaces at all times, with some regulars providing direction. In the end, things went pretty well. Neither space ever got too crowded, and folks were cool with wearing masks in both spaces, sanitizing, and keeping their distance. More than a couple weeks removed, it seems like no one got sick, and we still managed to have a great day filled with awesome experiences.

That said… the whole experience wasn’t “normal”. Not much is these days.

DC is sending out messages to retailers talking about an impending paper shortage and its real and potential effects on their line. FedEx is warning of a year-end crunch unlike any before, which will necessitate an increase in their rates. Outfits like Ingram are sending out messages stating that 4th Quarter fulfilment is about to get wild, and gave some tips about ensuring a solid stock by the time the holidays get into full swing.

And that’s just what’s on the horizon for the comic book industry. Currently, there are reports from everywhere that Diamond and Lunar are having trouble delivering goods on time with increasing frequency. Viz and other manga companies are scrambling to try and get their popular books back in print on a consistent basis. If numbers are any indication, vaccines aren’t going to do much to curb infection rates this fall while the world deals with the harrowing results of distribution inequalities, anti-vaxxers, and idiot ideas like Alberta very nearly ending all tracing and mandatory insolation while our numbers skyrocket. (For his part, our Province’s Premier hasn’t been seen or heard from publicly since August 9th).

I know this will sound laughable to many of you out there, and I do try and keep my columns as neutral as possible, but I’m clearly having a hard time with this one.

Things are bad. Things aren’t going to get better. Normal? We’re done with that, in big ways that effect the world at large, like the heat dome that nearly cooked me alive, down to small ways, like how the comic industry is about to deal with some of the most tumultuous changes it has had to weather in its long existence.

Soon, it’s going to be more than just “is it a good idea to gather a crowd during a pandemic”.

As always with my columns these days, we will be focusing more on the micro than the macro. I do realize that there are bigger problems out in the world, but my experience only makes me somewhat qualified to talk about the comic book industry, and many would even debate me on that point.

First, we need to explore the space that we find ourselves in. Then, we can set about looking for a path through it.

Featuring art from Hawkeye #22 by David Aja

By Brandon Schatz, with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc

It’s the end of August, and several things are on the horizon.

In less than two weeks time, the first full slate of items from Marvel will be available to order somewhat exclusively through Penguin Random House – moving the company’s exclusive single-issue distribution away from Diamond for the first time since 1997.

Last year, DC Comics did something similar, pulling their product away from Diamond and moving it hastily into the hands of Lunar Distribution and UCS. While only Lunar survived that ride (so far), this has left Diamond without direct access to the majority of product that once sustained them.

A brief side note: shops in Canada can obtain their DC and Marvel product through a wholeseller called “Universal”, who matches both Lunar and Marvel’s rate of discount. They also cost less shipping than Lunar, and will be matching the free shipping from PRH for Marvel products, something that Diamond has proven either unwilling or incapable of doing.

During this time of transition, Diamond recently attempted to adjust the shipping costs it was offering to retailers, effective when Marvel would jump to PRH in October. The offer included a “flat-rate” of 2.5% of the cost for all single issues, with an increase in percentage for other items. They combined this with the announcement of their abysmal discount rates on Marvel product that they would be offering retailers in hopes of keeping them on their side. Personally, if I continued with Diamond, our shop would be spending roughly 6% more per title IF the better shipping rates applied to stores in Canada, which is not ideal.

Diamond never got around to explaining what rates would be for their “international” customers, as they instead released a statement that, despite any drop in volume a retailer might experience in dealing with Diamond, their current rate of discount (always based off of volume) would be maintained through to the end of the year. To do that, however, Diamond would NOT be changing the way they charge for freight.

I know that was a lot of information, but it is vital to set the stage: Diamond is about to lose a lot of direct product base, and as a result, retailers will be ordering a lot less from them. While this happens, the base rate of shipping will not go down – which someone at Diamond seemed to realize. Instead of going through with a more of a fixed percentage model, retailers are going to experience the same problems they had shortly after Diamond’s shutdown last year, when the shipping costs ate up a sizeable portion of the profits to be made with fewer titles being produced.

This is not a good thing. It either means that Diamond can’t, or won’t, be able to provide cost-effective service. My money is on “can’t”, because the math on “maintaining your volume discount” gets a little wonky when you pair it with an immediate backpedal on what soon will be a ballooning cost of doing business.

Oh, and once more, Diamond and Lunar are already having problems getting product to stores on time. This is something that is just going to get worse, and more expensive as the 4th Quarter approaches. We saw it happen last year, and the world never did catch up. We’re all in various stages of re-entering some of the worst of the pandemic, albeit with less death and hospitalization due to the vaccines. Considering the time-sensitive nature of the product they deliver (generally speaking, the single issues) this will be a huge problem.

Outside of this, retailers are already struggling with the splintering of where they’re placing orders. Lunar still seems to be struggling to maintain a sense of customer service (admittedly, something I don’t have to deal with as the folks at Universal have treated me exemplary). Diamond no longer seems to have dedicated reps to deal with any problems that come up, which has caused long delays in any action being taken on any issues.

For their part, Penguin Random House has been working hard at building something approaching solid before launching everyone into the deep end. They’re providing a ton of resources for Comic Retailers, including a landing page that offers news to retailers and consumers. Their weird Final Order Cut Off Page had a bunch of problems (and still has a few!) but now items from different catalogues that happen to have the same FOC date are all on the same page and you can adjust those orders up or down. These might seem like simple, easy things, but when you look at the steady degradation of Diamond and the stagnant… whatever of Lunar’s customer service, any progress feels great.

Is that a sad thing to say? Sure. But this is where we are. The places to get the product are splintering, each has their own unique problems, and that’s all being placed on the plates of retailers. There isn’t more time, but there’s more and more to do and keep track of. Or at least there will be until possibly the paper shortage deems otherwise.

And that’s all before we get into some other aspects of how things are changing. When Diamond closed down during the early parts of the pandemic, it caused a lot of creators to second-guess their place in the industry and where their next meals were going to come from. Heck, Jonathan Hickman apparently drew up a proposal that would bring the entire X-Men line to digital if single issues didn’t continue as they had. Ed Brubaker has talked about how Image owed creators a bunch of money that might not be paid out if Diamond couldn’t pay Image what they were owed, and how the pandemic caused him to rethink his next project with Sean Phillips entirely.

And now you’re seeing more and more creators making deals with places like SubStack and ComiXology. Physical copies are being promised, but that’s not where you’re going to get the first taste of many products from some of the industry’s absolute biggest names. 

Meanwhile, you have a platform like Webtoon boasting regular readership in the millions while print comics rely on variants to sell and the overprints that result to satisfy the needs of the thousands. You see mapping from years ago about how (pandemic notwithstanding) the middle class in so called “western” nations was going to shrink, while the so-called “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) would see their middle classes all grow and thrive, necessitating a turn of attention from some of the biggest players around us. That’s a tidbit I learned from listening to an old episode of Under the Influence – a Canadian radio show about advertising and marketing – from 2012, and folks? It caused me to rethink many of the recent initiatives we’ve seen from folks like Marvel, DC, WWE, and pretty much every movie company and production agency out there. This is data that’s just been sitting around.

The comic industry is at a crossroads. The direct market? Is in danger. The things that the direct market requires as food and structure are eroding, and eroding faster because of the pandemic. The circumstances we considered normal, both within this industry, and the world itself, are not just changing, but in many ways they have already changed, forever.

There are so many big things to think about. Some of them are looking at things like Marvel’s initial press release about their partnership with PRH and seeing the line (emphasis mine):

“After a thorough analysis of the market environment, Marvel has chosen PRHPS as its distribution partner to create a sustainable, productive supply chain and enhanced infrastructure for Marvel publications that will benefit comics retailers and fans alike for years to come.”

Some of them scale bigger, like the idea of the single issue itself – why can’t Diamond and Lunar offer a delivery model in line with the free shipping that is almost industry standard for graphic novels? Is it because they can’t? The amount of fine-tuning required to get single issues out doesn’t make a lot of money for a distributor. If it did, during this graphic novel boom, you’d be seeing companies tripping over one another to offer their solution. But no one did. Except PRH – the absolute biggest in the game. With them also in the process of purchasing Simon and Shuster (and with them, another bevy of book market contracts with folks like Viz and Boom and so many more), they stand a lot to gain from having a strong position on single issues, so that graphic novels continue to run unabated. You might say that they and Marvel have taken a look at what the future holds, and set about to “create a sustainable, productive supply chain”, because our current one is dangerously close to not existing.

There’s a lot to think about right now. Creators are thinking about it. Publishers are thinking about it. Heck, from the tenor of those coming into our shop, readers are thinking about it. What is going to happen next? With shortages, with heat domes and wilder cold temperatures and hurricanes and the whole deal. What might an industry look at for cuts?

If I were a betting man, I’d look at what someone like Marvel is seeing, and see what Penguin’s goals might be. They publish and distribute books. Graphic novels. Single issues? They’ve talked about how they view it as a value add for the publishers they distribute. When creators are getting deals to produce content digitally, when people publishing on Webtoon are sometimes making seven figures, why wouldn’t digital just… become a better option? Especially if you might be making the decision between using the paper to print today’s single issue, or tomorrow’s graphic novel?

We’re not in normal times. Normal’s done. Normal’s gone. Everything is changing around us, and as much as I don’t want it to, as much as it would be easier if things just stayed the way they were, that’s not the future we face. One way or another, this industry is bracing for impact. Should print single issues survive that impact? All the better. But if they don’t? If shortages, if the shipping costs, if the intense dominance of the graphic novel and the money available to produce these items – money that comes FAR cheaper than producing a movie or TV show – is here (and it is)…

Then we all have to entertain the idea that we’re heading for a post-normal that we should really be preparing for.

NEXT TIME…

There won’t be a next time. This was the last edition of The Retailer’s View, although it won’t be my last column for The Beat. The reason for this is multifaceted, but suffice to say, I’m changing the direction this (my) particular ship is pointing.

If you want to argue with me on the internet, you’ll either have to have my contact info and be in somewhat regular contact, or pay me. Any and all interactions outside of that will get a “thanks for reading”. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a shop to run, and a future to think about.

We’ll talk in a couple of weeks.

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