THE DIAMOND RANTWell, the Department of Justice sent me a curveball this week.
I had the column all written talking about the ills of Diamond as a monopolistic force inside the comics industry. Then the Justice people come back and say that Diamond doesn't, in essence, violate in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
They're not off the hook completely yet. They're just on a really short leash.
The fact of the matter is that Diamond is at the center of most everything that's wrong with the comics market today. Most of the wacky decisions that are made in the business are often due to Diamond and the structure of the direct market. Without any competition in the direct market, there's no reason for Diamond to change its economic model, or for them to even bother looking into it. Without the introduction of new ideas, we're going to be fairly static on this front. That's a dying shame.
As it stands right now, the only way to try something new would be to go completely around Diamond. That's going to take a heck of a lot of money and a large infrastructure. These aren't things that pop up over night, and in the depressed market that comics now occupy, I wouldn't be looking for anything like that in the near future.
So what are the problems?
There are much fewer distribution centers around the country today than there were in the days when you had several larger distributors - and at least three major ones. This means fewer options for retailers, and potentially slower delivery, particularly when it comes to reorders. Restocking one warehouse with another's stock becomes an issue. The warehouses are further away, the amount of manpower is lessened, and the distances are greater.
Fewer warehouses makes perfect sense for Diamond's business model. It cuts down overhead tremendously to have fewer outlets for comics. It just doesn't serve the retailer and, thus, the consumer.
That's just the large-scale physical issues to be dealt with. There's more. PREVIEWS is the best possible example of Diamond's power. PREVIEWS is now the sole ordering catalogue retailers use to stock their stores every week. It becomes imperative for a book to appear in PREVIEWS if it has any chance to succeed. You can put aside the issues with product placement. I won't fault Diamond on this case for separating its exclusive (ha!) publishers from the "also-rans." Those are contractual obligations it has to be concerned with. Setting reasonable limits on the books that get solicited is probably not a bad idea, either. They have to be published on time, and first issues need to be completed before they're solicited.
That's all well and good. (Even that's iffy. Many indy creators might complain that the fine levied on late books is too great for a small company like themselves but not enough for a large company like Image or DC to even notice.)
There's some gray area, however, in all of this. One of the classic cases was LETHARGIC LAD. After appearing in numerous PREVIEWS catalogues, Diamond suddenly decided it didn't want to solicit the next issue because it didn't look professional. This is insane. The book sold. It made money for Diamond. It was a professional publication. But Diamond wouldn't run with it. (Someone's going to have to refresh my memory on this - did Diamond ever back down from this?)
To place Diamond in the subjective role of determining professionalism is a bit scary. I can understand their not wanting to be bothered distributing books photocopies on copier paper and colored in by hand with markers. They don't want to be a laughing stock. But there needs to be some better standards and guidelines. It's also a subjective term that could be used to cover a multitude of sins.
There are stories out there of creators whose books wouldn't be solicited unless they bought a costly full-page ad in the catalog. Being the main vessel of sales that it is, PREVIEWS ad pages do not come cheaply. I once received an e-mail from a creator who thanked me for mentioning his book's appearance in PREVIEWS. He wouldn't give in to the kind of black mail I mentioned above and though he'd never see his book listed. It was, but after some months delay, and in the light of a Department of Justice investigation, mayhaps. (Or maybe Diamond just needed to fill the page count?)
I invite all the retailers and publishers reading this now who'd like to go on record with their horror stories to write me now. I'd be interested in showing some good examples of the problems with the system, as a whole. No system is perfect, but this one has some major problems.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Charlie Novinskie, former sales and promotions manager for the once-great entity known as Topps Comics. Here's an interesting example of a system gone awry:
When X-Files #1 came out Topps printed approximately 80,000 copies (as I recall, about 10,000 over our direct order). The book sold out instantly. Steve Milo at American Entertainment bought out what we had left over--immediately!
Topps went out on a limb, we bought back as many newsstand copies as possible from Kable News (as I recall we were able to buy back about 10,000 copies) and offered them for $5 each to anyone that wanted to buy them (i.e. fans, retailers, or distributors--we sold them directly to anyone that wanted them). And for the record, the reason we did it that way was because the folks holding the license (FOX) wanted it that way so that the book got into the hands of fans of the show!
And I should mention, at $5 each, it was a steal. Topps not only paid for printing the books, paid Kable to get them back, paid for the distribution, and paid to have them shipped back to us, but the $5 bucks also included shipping and handling. Want to guess how much money Topps actually made off of selling a $2.95 book for $5--nothing, zilch--but we did get the books out there!
And after all of the dust settled I had a store owner accuse us (Topps) of under printing the X-Files #1 book to "teach the retailers a lesson" for under ordering all of the other Topps books. Let's both hope and pray that that retailer has long since gone out of business.
Think about it, if Topps were selling books, on a non-returnable basis, why would we under print the orders? Just another example of a retailer passing the blame on to someone else. We did our best to get the books out to the folks that wanted it.
Yup, that would be a stupid retailer, but it also goes to show a larger problem with the distribution system and the whole way this industry works. Of course, second printings aren't wanted. For some insane reason, even today they're often considered untouchable. People want to read the books, but only the first printings. (Yes, we've walked into a strong reason why the readers are to blame for everything!)
I say, what does it matter?!? The regular book market has collectible first editions, but I don't see people shying away from reading the last Steven King or Michael Crichton book because it's a second printing.
If Marvel had gone back to print with ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN to fill the orders, I don't think too many people would have turned the book away because it had "second printing" stamped on the inside. (The sad thing is that there are people who'd sooner pay $50 for the first printing on eBay.) But that's not going to hold true with too many books. Marvel isn't helping anything by not going to a second printing for the purposes of promoting collectability. Nor is Wizard helping, for that matter, in trying to bring about a return of the speculator's market. (Gareb Shamus has been on CNN promoting this. The recently redesigned WizardWorld.com is centered on this whole concept.)
The point is, there's plenty of blame to go around, from the readers straight up to the comic producers and everyone in between. I think the key to worthwhile change lies in the distribution system, but I fear that the only way to change that is for someone with deep pockets to step up, take a huge hit, and establish their business as the leading contender. I sincerely doubt we're going to see that.
All I can tell you to do at this point is to pre-order your comics, and hope your retailer is listening to your guaranteed sales.
BITS OF BUSINESSULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #3 came out last week, not #4 as stated in yesterday's column.
And it was Bat-Mite who uttered the pirate line in WORLD'S FUNNEST. (Again, I'd recommend this book. I just flipped through it again and chuckled quite a bit.)
Thanks for all your e-mails. It's been particularly voluminous in the past three weeks or so since this series began. I've read a lot of heart-felt e-mail from retailers and fans alike. I'm sorry I haven't been able to respond to it all. Rest assured it has all been read and considered and I haven't deleted it. You may just get a response yet. =)
I'll be at the National Con tomorrow in New York City. Look for the tall guy in the black CBR t-shirt.
Finally, stop by next Friday for another edition of Pipeline2. If I get a large response to this column, I'm sure you'll see that. Otherwise, I'll fly by the seat of my pants as always and whip up something special at the last minute, as Jonah grinds his teeth, wondering if I'm ever going to make deadline.