Monday, January 26, 2009

Comic Zirconia

My first reaction to the news that Diamond Distribution was increasing the minimum order requirement to carry comics in its Previews catalogue was my typical response to an awful lot of comic industry news this last few years: frustration.

Diamond's in a no-win situation. There's no doubt they were losing money carrying many titles that are deficient in some ways--either underpromoted by the publisher/creators, or just not of sufficient quality to be commercially feasible. As terrifying as the new guidelines seemed to someone who's always been in the small press, I can't blame them for not wanting to expend resources on such material.

Some maintain that Diamond has a moral responsibility to carry as wide a breadth of comic material as possible.* As the effective monopoly for direct market comics distribution (the primary feeder system for material to comic-centric retailers), soliciting through Previews has long been considered a must for small press publishers. At least, it has been for those publishers I've heard talk about it. One of my big arguments in favour of the comics medium has long been the relatively (in the case of some stuff that got into Previews, the obscenely) low barrier of entry for newcomers. Unlike the prose novel industry, direct market comics have a history of successful self-publishers, from the Pinis and Dave Sim up through Jeff Smith.

I can't recall a new successful self-publisher springing into existence in the direct market in the last few years, but I suspect the idea that it was at least possible gave a lot of creators and would-be creators some much-needed (if undeserved) hope. As a hopelessly unorganized introvert, self-publishing through Diamond was always an option of last resort, but until now, it always felt like it was an option.** That, it seemed, was now gone.

DONE TO DEATH, the last comic I had published in the direct market, with art by Rising Superstar Artist of SECRET HISTORY OF THE AUTHORITY: JACK HAWKSMOOR Fiona Staples, hadn't come anywhere near the minimum Diamond was setting for its books. Come to think of it, it hadn't come anywhere near the previous limit, partly for reasons I'm prevented from going into and partly because Diamond hadn't done a great job distributing it. Stories of unfilled orders, claims comics the publisher still had hundreds of copies of were sold out, and other such problems happened with stomach-churning regularity.

Even so, the new requirements seemed designed to kill the small press comic, at least in the traditional, 32 page monthly/bimonthly/whatever floppy. People smarter than I am seemed to be saying as much (The Beguiling's Chris Butcher and columnist Steven Grant among them). The optimistic view seemed to be that the small pressers would now be forced to focus on the trade paperback format to meet the requirements. The pessimistic saw Marvel and DC crushing all other direct market companies. Crushing them more than they already do, that is. Somewhere in the middle was a world where webcomics took over as the primary mode of serial delivery and creators sold directly to their audience, which for good or ill would take Diamond and retailers out of the equation almost entirely.

Happy Harbor owner Jay Bardyla offered an alternate viewpoint I hadn't seriously considered. In his opinion, Diamond's new moves were the best thing that could happen for people who disliked the company's perceived monopoly on the direct market (by which he meant me, as I've never heard anyone else go on about it in the store for any length of time.) As he saw it (or as I understand him to be seeing it), by threatening to cut a substantial number of small pressers, the company was effectively forcing publishers to either step up and properly promote their product, or find another distributor, the obvious candidate being Haven Distributors, formerly known as Cold Cut Distribution.

I was, to put it mildly, skeptical of whether Haven getting a bunch of new publishers who couldn't sell a couple thousand copies of their comic through Diamond would have much of an effect on either the distributor or the publishers. Jay argued that one of Haven's major problems to date is that they haven't had sufficient product available to make it worthwhile for a retailer to order through their service, if only on a shipping cost level. A thicker catalogue would force retailers like him to take another look at Haven and reevaluate whether it's worth dealing with them.

I'm still not sure that's going to fly. When we'd discussed/argued the merits of Diamond's position in the past, I always got the impression he was hesitant to deal with more than one distributor unless it was absolutely necessary--finding enough time in a day to keep track of everything going on at Diamond was hard enough.

That said, if put in a position where he felt he had to do it for the sake of the business, he'd do it even if he didn't want to. Jay's one of the hardest-nosed business people I know; he's also always looking to one-up himself when it comes to Happy Harbor's Next Thing, whatever it may be (this year's tenth anniversary celebration + Free Comic Book Day is going to be something.) Maintaining the Harbor's edge isn't all that matters to him, but it's a Big, Big Thing. I have a hard time believing there are many retailers out there who'll be willing to do what Happy Harbor will. If there were, there'd be a hell of a lot more comic shops currently in existence.

Jay's position did shine a light on the major flaw in the current Comics' End is Nighers point of view, which is: Diamond cutting out a lot of small press publishers is only a disaster for the direct market if one accepts that Diamond and Diamond alone is the direct market. For many in the industry, up till now, that belief has simply been a given. There's no upside to believing it, and honestly, I'm thinking there hasn't been for some time--it's just one of those things publishers and creators clung to because they couldn't envision anything else. Now, they/we have no choice. If we continue to see Diamond as the Only Option, we are indeed doomed.

The one thing Jay didn't understand when we last talked was why Haven wasn't stepping up and making some noise about their suddenly much more attractive services. Since then, Haven owner Lance Stahlberg's done at least one interview at Newsarama. I mailed Jay the link this morning, and got this in reply:

"See, it’s not the end of the world. If anything, my job just got that much more difficult."


*I'm not one of them. I always thought it'd be nice if Diamond were a bit more supportive of the small press, but never for a second believed it should be required of them.

**In fairness to Diamond, from what I've been reading in the last week or so, it still might very well be. But this post deals with my initial thoughts almost immediately after coming upon the subject.

1 comment:

G-man said...

Well - Diamond is but one of many.
I certainly do well enough with out them.

If things continue for me as they have, I expect ... my next comment applies to other self made creatives... at some point Independent creators will have distributors going to them.

Digital media slowly draws printed books down as well. a paper bound any thing could be a part of the digital dark ages.
-Richard Grzela

P.S. Well put thoughts Andrew