Haven director confirms distributor is closing, but says he'll return

Lance Stahlberg, director of Haven Distributors, has confirmed to Robot 6 that the independent-comics distributor will shutdown at the end of the month after more than three years in operation. He also pledged that, "I do intend to come back."

Haven was launched in March 2008 by Chicago-based publisher Rogue Wolf Entertainment a month after it purchased the assets of longtime reorder distributor Cold Cut. Stahlberg, who was vice president of Rogue Wolf, became first chief operating officer and then director of Haven, which signed agreements with such publishers as BOOM! Studios, SLG Publishing, Top Shelf Productions and Red 5 Comics.

On Tuesday, Stahlberg sent an e-mail to retailers stating that he will continue to take orders through Oct. 23 and will fill all orders for October-shipping releases. He also said that most of the back stock had been marked down for liquidation.

In the e-mail, sent to Robot 6 by a third party but confirmed by Stahlberg, he emphasized that he isn't the owner of Haven Distribution, and he added:

That's an important distinction to make because I feel that closing the company is a very foolish move on the owner's part. I still get regular requests for books that our competition claims is out of stock, or failed to carry at all. I still get new customer account requests.

To that end, it is my intent to return to the distribution business at some point in the (hopefully near) future with a business partner who shares at least some of my commitment to the comics industry and shows the desire to properly finance the operation and provide the resources it needs to succeed.

Stahlberg declined to name Haven's owner to Robot 6, but he did say, "All I can say is, he is not a comics guy."

"There is still, I feel, unbelievable potential in this market," he said. "I still get orders, I still get requests for books that Diamond either doesn't carry or claims they sold out of, and I know that there are a lot of disenfranchised publishers and retailers who want to work with another distributor. I still see that potential."

As to why Haven failed, Stahlberg said,"There's the economy in general, but it largely, like 90 percent, falls on the feet of the owner. The company was not properly financed. I did not have the resources to take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me.

"This industry is sometimes literally screaming for a new distributor, and I want to get started up in a new operation, but with a partner who is committed to the business actually succeeding."

Beyond the problems at Haven, Stahlberg said the the direct market must diversify in order to survive. "When I look at the market as a whole and the way it is structured, it is in desperate need of an overhaul," he said, "but when you look at individual stores, some are struggling but some are talking about expansion. So it's tough to gauge when you are looking directly at the stores and you are on a first name basis with customers."

Still, he sees a need for structural change. "The idea of revolving everything around the next big thing I think is very shortsighted," he said. "More stores need to adopt more of a long tail approach and radically widen the options rather than dumping all their money into the next big thing only for their distributor to short them on it or sales not go where they want. Dumping everything onto the shoulders of two companies is foolish. A lot of it is hand selling for independent books. A lot of people say you have to work harder for the sale, the operative word is work."

He said that while his top 30 publishers were the "active movers," he worked with almost 200 publishers altogether and he did his best to promote the smaller, more obscure titles.

Stahlberg sees the economy, the trend toward digital comics, and the movement from periodicals to trades as factors putting pressure on retailers. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. "There are a lot of forward-thinking retailers," he said. "There are new retailers popping up, even in this tough market -- it's been great working with them and seeing a lot of them grow. But it's tough when I still see some stores that are unable to break the inertia that has set in from working in the current structure as long as they have."

And he hopes to translate that optimism into action. "I do intend to come back," he said. "I have had amazing support from my customers and suppliers, and I am not ready to walk away from them yet."

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