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Is Diamond Comics the Devil?

by  in Comic News Comment

It sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a bit of a kerfuffle over Diamond and its refusal to feature certain items in Previews. I thought I’d weigh in with the “ignorant” point of view, as I’m not a retailer nor a particularly good investigative reporter. But that’s why you come here – for Cronin’s brilliance and my ignorance!

Diamond’s new policy was announced back in January, when they raised the purchase order benchmark that comics would have to meet in order to be featured in Previews. The fear was that small publishers would be driven out of business, making us all much sadder. What does “purchase order benchmark” mean? Well, let’s check it out. According to several sources, this means that a comic needs to make about $6000-$6500 in retail business for Diamond to keep listing it. The chain, in case you don’t know, is this: Publisher sells to Diamond, Diamond sells to retailer, retailer sells to consumer. However, if the retailers don’t order enough of the comic, even if it’s listed in Previews, Diamond won’t issue a purchase order to get the books from the publisher. The publisher gets screwed and the consumers get screwed. The retailers, however, won’t get screwed because they haven’t paid for the book yet. Here’s the interesting part: What Diamond pays the publisher for the comic is subject to debate. I’ve asked my retailer how much they pay for their comics. Marvel and DC give him a 55% discount – meaning for a $2.99 comic, he pays Diamond (who buys the book from the publisher, remember) $1.34. In order for Diamond to make a profit, they have to pay less than that to Marvel and DC. The worst discount my retailer gets from a publisher is 42% – meaning they pay Diamond 58% of the cover price. Theoretically, this means the retailer could charge anything he wants over $1.34 for the comic – the $2.99 price is MSRP, to an extent. This is why my retailer offers a 20% discount on his comics, and why, if you’re buying your books at cover price (plus tax), you’re getting screwed.

That’s the numbers part of it (although, as noted, I can’t find how much Diamond pays the publishers). Back when the new benchmark was announced, several people had apocalyptic things to say about the new policy. Heidi McDonald and Johanna Draper Carlson brought it up, while Tom Spurgeon published a letter sent to him by Dan Vado, the owner of SLG (ironically, SLG will be important later in this post). Vado predicts that Marvel and DC, which have a different relationship with Diamond due to their size, might be the only publishers to survive. He also points out that books don’t have to hit the benchmark every time, but if they consistently fall short, Diamond will kick them to the curb. Initial orders are given a lower threshold, but Diamond insists that the book move more copies or it will drop it from the catalog. Simon Jones breaks it down pretty well:

Comic Ace issue #1 has a cover price of $5, and retailers order 1000 copies, putting its retail value at $5000. It surpasses both the sales threshhold and the purchase order minimum. A purchase order for 1000 copies is issued by Diamond, and Comic Ace issue #2 appears in the next Previews catalog.

Comic Bee issue #1 only garners orders for 500 copies, totalling $2500 retail. Diamond issues a purchase order for 500 copies, but warns the publisher that if orders for issue 2 does not increase, they would not allow issue 3 to appear in Previews.

Comic Cee issue #1 gets an abysmal 200 orders, for a total value of $1000. Despite retailers ordering 200 copies, they will never receive them … Diamond refuses to issue a purchase order at all for Comic Cee because it missed the PO benchmark.

Verstehen sie? Yeah, it’s confusing.

This has all come to a head recently because of the poor sales performance of The Warlord of Io and Other Stories by James Turner, published by SLG. This is, as far as I have seen, the first comic by an established publisher that has been rejected by Diamond. According to the other, cooler blog at CBR, Robot 6, Diamond told SLG that the sales on the one-shot meant that they (Diamond) would not solicit the new mini-series that the one-shot sets up. This means that SLG will not publish it, although you can buy both the one-shot and the first issue of the mini-series at SLG’s web site as a PDF file (the first issue is here for 99 cents, while the one-shot is here for $1.49). The Warlord of Io got good reviews (Parkin naturally links to one on his own blog, but damn it, I’ll link to mine!), but as usual, good reviews mean nothing when it comes to sales. That’s really neither here nor there, except to I’d like to note once again that James Turner is freakin’ awesome.

The problem with Turner and SLG being rejected by Diamond has led to all sorts of reactions from the usual suspects: Tom Spurgeon discusses it, Heidi McDonald weighs in here and here, and Brian Hibbs checks in. Hibbs, as a retailer, offers an interesting point of view, but he shoots himself in the foot a bit by beginning his essay with “CONSUMERS: Honestly, a fair chunk of the issue is your own fault.” It vexes me whenever vendors blame the consumers for not buying what they think the consumers should be buying, but Hibbs does go on to qualify that statement. He takes everyone in the chain to task, too, so there’s that. He brings up the idea of the “mercy fuck” – if only distributors and retailers would order a lot more copies of, say, The Warlord of Io, and put it right next to Generic Superhero Shit Comic #57, then all the fans of Generic Superhero Shit Comic #57 would see it and see the light and buy it! Yeah, that’s pretty stupid. Maybe we should blame the consumer …

Despite the provocative title of this post, I don’t necessarily blame Diamond. They’re a business, trying to stay in business in tough economic times. What is annoying, however, is that they aren’t more forthcoming (as far as I can tell). I suppose it’s their business how they do business (I can still joke about this!), but when they say it’s unprofitable for them to list a comic in Previews, I wonder why. Consider: I submit my comic book, Angst-Filled Days in 1980s Suburbia, my trenchant memoir about growing up white, male, and middle-class and how that totally fucked me up, to Diamond for review. They agree to put it in Previews. Here’s where things become secretive. How much does it cost Diamond to put an inch-high blurb in Previews about my awesome autobiography? I don’t know. Let’s say it’s not much. Then, because I have a large extended family, 100 people order my comic. I charge $5 for it, because you’re privileged to read about my summer days watching Star Blazers while wracked by adolescent ennui, bitches! Diamond pays me $1.75 for it, the retailer pays Diamond $2.25 for it, Diamond makes a profit of $50. Does it cost more than $50 to put my tiny blurb in Previews and to ship it? I assume that shipping the books makes up the largest part of Diamond’s expenses, but I don’t know. Now, I wouldn’t expect a comic selling 100 copies to make it into Previews. According to SLG’s web site, The Warlord of Io and Other Stories sold 900 copies through the Direct Market. Yes, that sucks, but the question remains: How much money did Diamond lose to advertise the product? I’m sure I’m missing something, but if the only money they lose is to put a short solicit in their catalog and the shipping costs (which I’m sure they get a bulk discount on), it seems like it wouldn’t take that much for them to turn a profit. Again, I must point out that I don’t have all the information. I welcome people with more knowledge to come here and tear me a new one.

The question remains (and this is where I want to look at solutions, as wrong-headed as they may be): What can we, as readers, do? Well, on-line seems to be the place to go. I’m sure many creators have made this point, but Scott Sava shows up to comment on one of Heidi’s posts, and he mentions how much better it is to build an audience through the web, then offer a trade paperback of the collection (I know Brian Clevinger, for one, espouses this, although I can’t find where he mentioned it, and I’m sure other creators feel this way too). This, of course, leads to the problem of reading comics on-line, something we’ve debated before. I HATE reading comics on-line, mostly because of the format, but also because (old man alert!) it hurts my eyes. I suppose I could learn to live with it, if we have a revolution in the way comics on-line are produced. That’s one option, of course.

Diamond, presumably, isn’t going away, unless there’s a cataclysm in the industry. If you’re hooked on your Wednesday single-issue fix, there is something you can do. Basically, consumers need to be more proactive (a word I hate, but it fits here). In the comments thread of one of Heidi’s post, customers who use Previews show up. Ray Cornwall writes: “So the first book, Warlord of Io and Other Stories, did go through Diamond? Huh. If that’s true, I’m upset, because I would have pre-ordered had I known it was James Turner. Bleh.” Yes, it’s true, Ray – it was offered in Previews. He later writes:

“I’m a guy who fills out the form, and have for years. Do you [he’s addressing a retailer who commented before he did] do anything to help them fill out the form? Do you offer a newsletter offering favorites or specials to those who pre-order? Pre-ordering is a lot of work. It takes me two hours to go through the catalog. In return, MOC gives me 30-50% off my order. If you want your customers to pre-order, offer an incentive!”

I’ve said something along this lines ever since I started writing about Previews here on the blog. My retailer, as I’ve pointed out several times, gives Previews away. He pays Diamond $3 for it. As I’ve pointed out above, your retailer is making plenty of money on the comics they order, so retailers really ought to offer some kind of incentive for you to order from Previews. Ask your retailer to give it to you for free, people! His point about the time it takes is backed up by another commenter, Nate Horn, who writes:

Ryan,

Honestly, filling out the Previews order is a bit of a pain. Nothing against you, but I work two jobs – one corporate and one freelance – and I don’t want to spend 3 of my free hours each month going through a catalog looking for oddball independent books that interest me.

Now, it takes me less than an hour to fill out my Previews “order form” (the quotes are because I use my own paper, as Previews’ short order form is far too short), and I order quite a lot of comics. For example, for April I ordered 39 items, and that’s a fairly standard month. 11 of those were from DC, and 3 were from Marvel (3 were from Dark Horse, and 5 were from Image, while the rest were other publishers). The DC and Marvel books are mostly trade paperbacks or original graphic novels (I pre-ordered Batman and Robin #1 even though I’m confident there will be enough, and the other single issues are Vertigo books, because occasionally my store doesn’t get enough copies of those). I don’t know how many comics those gentlemen are ordering, but 2-3 hours to go through the catalog? Wow. They’re hard core. But it really shouldn’t take too long, and if you’re serious about comics, why wouldn’t you use Previews? I get that people have jobs (I don’t), but if Mr. Horn, for instance, doesn’t have an hour to go through the catalog, I wonder when he has time to actually read comics. I don’t mean that snarkily, because I appreciate that he wants to use Previews, but I do wonder how he finds the time.

Another commenter, Joe Williams, is an artist who creates comics (click the link to check them out!). He’s fairly grumpy:

I think it’s ridiculous to force people to pre-order comics. When I go to the grocery store I can pretty much expect them to carry 30 varieties of salsa and 50 varieties of potato chips and 50 cereals (or more), they don’t just fill the store with Pop Tarts and Coke. When (if) I go to the video store it’s a safe bet they won’t just have 50 titles of the new Hollywood blockbuster but they’ll also have a copy or two of many of the low budget and indy titles I want to get. Comic shops think they can just sell Coke and Pop Tarts and they’re doing their job because anyone who wants celery or pickles had better fill out a form every month to let them know that some people want something besides Coke and Pop Tarts.

While I agree with his sentiment, I would argue that the video stores often DON’T have quirky independent titles, or at least they don’t last long on the shelves (it’s been years since I went to a video store, so I could be wrong; someone makes this point later in the comments). Yes, they have more indie offerings than a comics store usually does, but it’s still an imperfect system. You can extend the metaphor to video stores, music stores, and book stores. I’ve mentioned that my favorite band EVER is Marillion (much to Mr. Apodaca’s chagrin). You basically can’t find a Marillion CD in U. S. stores, because they don’t sell very well. Years ago, Marillion went with a business model where fans could pre-order their discs and they would use that money to fund the actual recording. They offered a lot of bonuses for this (my name is printed in two different discs, as that was one of the perks) and once the disc was recorded, it could go to music stores in a stripped-down, “normal” version (one disc, no fancy packaging). If you’re a hard core fan, you pony up the dough, man! It works well enough for Marillion that they’ve been able to release at least five studio albums in this way (they began it in 1998-99) and, of course, keep all the profits and retain all the rights. But you won’t find Marillion discs in many actual locations, although you can get them on-line. This is true of a lot of bands I like – I’ve never bought a Hamell on Trial disc in a store, for instance – which puts the onus on me to find the discs. I’m not as huge a fan of music as I am of comics, but I don’t know of a nice, handy catalog where I can find all the new music releases – even the tiny ones – in a given month. I’m sure it exists, but I don’t go looking for it, because I don’t care that much. But I like the fact that Previews exists, and I like the fact that I can pre-order comics. Joe Williams has a good point that stores ought to stock more weird stuff, but the fact is, most people want to buy DC and Marvel superhero comics, and comic book stores are, after all, businesses. This gets back to the “mercy fuck” idea, and most stores have no interest in that. If I want a furshlugginer comic, I’m going to order the confounded thing.

People respond to Joe and it becomes slightly contentious (it’s the Internet, after all), but before that, Joe continues a few comments later:

Also, why can’t Diamond offer their catalog on-line in non-PDF form? It’s ridiculous the price they charge for a monthly catalog [This gets back to my point that retailers should give it away, or at least offer it at cost]. If there was an easier way to pre-order comics I might try it but most on-line places that offer previews of monthly titles don’t list the Fantagraphics, AdHouse, etc. stuff I’d want to pre-order.

Diamond actually has this. It’s not a very good system (it’s kind of all over the place), and it seems like it would take a hell of a lot longer than getting the catalog. Plus, they don’t list all the books they do in the printed version. But it’s there, certainly, and if Diamond is losing so much damned money printing the catalog, streamline the one on-line, for crying out loud!

Ultimately, comics fans have to be aggressive. Most fans have become passive, accepting whatever their stores put out for them, which, at my store, means mainstream DC and Marvel, a few Image books (not all, just a few, usually Kirkman’s), a few Dark Horse books, a few Boom! books, a few Dynamite books, and a few random issues from other publishers like Zenescope, because apparently tarted-up fairy tales sell well. You could have a decent reading experience picking up just what my store puts out, but if you’re not that interested in superheroes anymore, the offerings are, admittedly, slim. They will order anything you ask them too, however. I’ve gotten some books based on what reviewers write on blogs, too, and I’ve written before about how nice it is when someone comments to me that I got them hooked on a book they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I like to think I’m an aggressive comics reader. I’m not to the point where I follow stuff on-line, but I will, however, get a collection of, say, Kevin Colden’s I Rule the Night when it gets collected. I had already known about Colden from Fishtown, but I found out about his new project from a comic blog – Tim Callahan’s, to be specific.

I may disagree with Brian Hibbs claiming that it’s my fault, but I do think comics fans need to stop blindly accepting what’s given to them and start demanding what they want. Diamond certainly isn’t the Devil. It’s a business, and even Dan Vado doesn’t hold a grudge for dropping Turner’s latest. I think they could cut some costs without necessarily ditching smaller comics (like the on-line catalog idea). I don’t have any really great ideas, but I do want to stress that, as always, it’s up to you. Yes, it sucks, but comics are a hobby, and every hobby takes some work, doesn’t it?

As always, fire away at me in the comments. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood the arcane nature of distribution and retailing, so let me know!