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Of Cabbages & Kings

Brian Hibbs

Tom Spurgeon has Yet Another Excellent Essay on Diamond’s new benchmarks. You should go read it.

Here’s the thing though: let’s assume that every rational human in the world agrees with the central premises of the argument — every work deserves a chance on the market. I’ll stipulate that; I certainly believe it personally.

Now how does that happen?

This isn’t just an idle question — the answer to that is, possibly, the most important question you might answer all day.

Tom, God love him, doesn’t have any answers. Saying “it shouldn’t be this way” really isn’t enough.

Let’s look at the components of the Direct Market, after the jump.

CONSUMERS: Honestly, a fair chunk of the issue is your own fault — you, collectively, have decided that you aren’t as interested in buying serialized comics as you once were. That’s fair enough, and I Get It — there’s more being produced than you can possibly keep up with, and the Collected Edition is (nearly) always a better package: no ads, no waiting for the Rest, typically cheaper than its components, and so on. Like I said, I Get It.

But if you say “I’ll just wait for the trade”, you’re automatically decreasing the size of the audience. Why? Because: x% of you will keep waiting even once the work is out. Another x% of you is going to balk at the prices needed to finance “OGN” work. Another x% of you are going to completely forget that the work is being produced — if LOVE & ROCKETS is produced only once a year, where’s the percentage for the Hernandez Brother’s readership to come in looking for L&R more than once a year? ONCE YOU BREAK THAT PURCHASING HABIT, it is extremely hard to get it going again. If you’re only looking once a year for something, then you’re just as likely to only think of it every 18 months, 24 months, whatever.

You CAN change consumer behavior: make it clear that material will NOT be collected until x months, or by providing material in the serialization that will NOT be collected, maybe even ever. But what most needs to be done is to DRIVE CONSUMERS INTO THE STORES ON A REGULAR BASIS. “Alternative” and “art” comics have done a, frankly, shit job of that in the last decade. I suspect that war is already lost.

RETAILERS: Yes, some suck. Maybe even “many”. Potentially (though, really, I don’t think so, but let’s grant the possibility) “Most”.

Also: there aren’t enough retailers, not by half. Tom’s got to drive two hours to find one that may or may not have the item he wants in stock. The guy he links to on DC’s “Wednesday Comics” project can’t even get a good answer on whether or not his order will get filled — that’s mediocre (at best) customer service.

But retailers in hard goods are, by their very nature, conservative creatures. It is much more difficult to go out of business by selling out of something than it is from having far too much stock. This is just the reality of how things work. Even IF the store is dedicated to having the widest, most diverse stock, and is aggressive about tracking down as many things they can and making it trivial for the customer to find or reserve the item they want is going to have holes. I know I sure do. I can’t stock EVERY comic. I don’t have the physical room to do so.

There are ways around retailer’s natural conservatism: free copies, returnable copies, extra discounts, well-orchestrated promotional plans designed to drive consumer interest and drive consumers into stores (be they DM or not), but all of those things cost money, time, and effort; things that, generally, are out of the range of some/many/most publishers to do.

But, seriously, look at the titles that have been impacted by the Diamond policy — how many of them have had any particular lever designed to drive consumer and retailer interest?

PUBLISHERS: “I published it” is not a marketing plan.

I have all of the love and respect in the world for an outfit like Slave Labor — they’ve been in the game long enough, and Vado’s got reasonably good aesthetic instincts. And if someone wanted to advance the argument that, say, “if you’ve been a profitable publisher for [10, 15, 20] years, then Diamond should automatically distribute anything you care to print”, I’d probably be willing to fight for that POV.

But “I published it” is not a marketing plan.

Heidi has a thread on this topic, too, and there’s a comment over there from a consumer who talks about how he dutifully reads PREVIEWS every month, and fills out preorders, and he’s a motivated and interested purchaser of James Turner and he still missed the “special” (sorta-#0) version of the book.

The orders on that version were low enough that Diamond decided not to stock the mini-series.

Cause, meet effect?

DISTRIBUTORS: Look, the central problem is Diamond has a semi-monopoly lock on Direct Market sales on four of the top five producers of comics (IDW, who was #3 for at least one month, is not a brokered publisher through Diamond, though I believe they ARE “exclusive” through Diamond within the DM). Or to put it another way: they control well over 80% of the volume that DM stores order through Diamond.

This really doesn’t give any other DM distribution choice anything to work from except for “the crumbs”

[I added the “DM” qualifiers above because you can certainly order Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, FBI, etc etc from someone OTHER than Diamond, but you’d have to be fairly mental to do so, given the differences in discount between Diamond and other “ID” distributors (B&T, Ingram, whoever)]

Distribution is a hard game in the best of times — its a really thin margin you’re working on — but I’d call it nigh impossible when you can’t even access 80%+ of the potential sales.

Diamond believes that they need to cut unprofitable items from distribution. THIS IS SOMETHING VERY HARD TO ARGUE WITH. I sure can’t suggest that one of my partners do something that doesn’t make them enough money to continue operations. The only real argument is that they’re cutting their nose to spite their faces — that by knocking down books without giving them a viable and honest chance they’re running a real risk of losing out on million copy sellers eventually down the line (otherwise known as the BONE argument), but I certainly can get why a distributor might not be interested in, y’know, playing the lottery. It seems to me that just a single BONE-level success MORE THAN outweighs the nickle-and-dime losses of a hundred other books, but the wrinkle is that by being contractually obligated to distribute whatever the fuck the “Big Four” decide to crap out means they’re almost certainly losing money on a huge swath of THAT material.

(Like, say, most 1:10 variants — those almost certainly are money losers for Diamond in most cases)

In other words, The Big Four are probably eating up most of Diamond’s “mercy fuck” budget by overproducing a bunch of marginal shit that no one really wants. In a way, I feel like Diamond’s policies are nearly aimed at Marvel and DC, but they contractually CAN’T dictate shit to Marvel and DC, so they have to do it where they’re contractually able to do so.

This is changeable. Not easily so, but it is theoretically possible.

Possible scenario #1: The REASON the “Big Four” have brokered exclusive deals with Diamond, and the “next big ten” have non-brokered exclusive deals is because Diamond is basically the only viable choice. One publisher confided in me that virtually every non-Diamond attempt to distribute in the DM ended up going out of business owing that publisher huge sums of money.

So, possibility #1 is someone with stupidly big piles of money, and a WHOLE lot of patience sets up with the goal of directly competing, head-to-head, with Diamond. This person would be GUARANTEED to lose money (big huge scary towering piles of money) for AT LEAST three years. It is my understanding that Diamond brokerage deals are on something like 3-year revolving contracts. IF there was someone with equivalent infrastructure and staffing and knowledge and ability they’d at least have the possibility of luring Marvel away, and possibly several of the others, but, yeah, you could maybe get Marvel at contract renewal time, IF you could convince Perlmutter that they could save a few thousand dollars a quarter.

I don’t see this scenario playing out because there probably isn’t anyone rich enough who is also STUPID enough to try and take Diamond on head-to-head, on the POSSIBILITY that some pubs might switch… especially since they’d almost certainly have to UNDERCUT Diamond, and my understanding has been that Diamond wrote themselves a really stupid deal where they really don’t make THAT much from distributing The Big Four. But it COULD happen, I guess.


Possible Scenario #2a: Geppi’s non-Diamond empire continues to do what it appears to be doing right now: collapse. The Pop Culture Museum, Gemstone, whatever else, and they collapse hard enough to “Take Diamond With Them”, and DC *has* to play its “too big to fail” clause that is reportedly in their contract, buying Diamond outright.

In this scenario, Marvel pulls out as soon as they POSSIBLY can, because they don’t want their fortunes tied to their #1 competitor (especially when said competitor has become just a fraction of their new comics sales). Marvel finds someone else to distribute their comics, and, assuming said company doesn’t completely fuck everything up, sending hundreds or thousands of comics retailers directly out of business (Cf: Heroes World) — and that’s a REALLY BAD ASSUMPTION — then maybe just maybe you can start a viable second national distribution option.



Possible Scenario #2b: With no external prompting, Marvel decides to try the HWD option again. It could happen. Some of the people in charge are just nuts enough to try.

There would be a REALLY ugly couple of months though, but it, conceptually could lead to a second viable national distributor.

The real problem with either 2a or 2b is that you’d still be looking at NON-INDEPENDENT distribution — both Marvel and DC, from good intentions or poor ones, are likely to make a lot of moves that would benefit themselves, but no one else. History, I think, is on my side on that one!


Possible Scenario #3: The Justice Department investigation of Diamond that Chuck Rosanski instigated was never CLOSED (to my understanding), but rather, put into abeyance. There’s probably a much better legal term, but I don’t know it.

Justice COULD reopen that investigation, and with a new administration in charge that is potentially much less pro-Big Business Monopoly, they could decide to split Diamond up.

I’m not so sure that this idea doesn’t scare me more than 2a and 2b combined, in terms of short term fallout, but I guess it could lead to 2 viable national distribution organizations that would actually be open to potential competition. Probably not, but maybe.


Possible Scenario #4:

Someone like an Ingram or a B&T decide to try and court the DM, and to add periodicals and DM-like terms to their portfolio of services.

I think this is unlikely because there aren’t enough viable free-agents amongst publishers to make enough of a profit from, but I suppose it COULD happen. Again, you’d be losing money for a good long while in getting this established, but, if you already have “a” distribution infrastructure in place (though one VERY DIFFERENT than what DM retailers would require!), you’d probably be losing a lot less money.


Possible Scenario #5:

Something Happens to make Diamond Realize the risk they’re taking with Our Future. Like if, somehow, WARLORD OF IO becomes some sort of major international hit, on the level of TWILIGHT or something, and everyone could point at Diamond and say “See…?”

50/50 odds that would cause them to turtle even more, but, hey, you never know!


Possible Scenario #6:

Publishers of all shapes and sizes actively promote what they publish, creating consumer pre-order demand for all manner of “non-traditional” works, which spurs retailers to take more chances, and makes it so that Diamond’s benchmarks never even come into play in the first place.

At the same time, publishers take a serious look at their offerings, and knock off all of the crap there really isn’t any audience for (and yes, I’m including shit like DC doing a TP of the most recent EL DIABLO mini-series, which sold all of 4k copies of its last issue, sheesh!)

See, I sorta think that if you can’t generate at least $30k retail in sales on your initial offering, then you probably shouldn’t be publishing nationally anyway. That’s like $10 per store! That’s also WAY above Diamond’s benchmarks, but what I’m advocating is publishers taking this kind of tack themselves, not having it imposed from the outside. AND I WOULD EQUALLY SUPPORT THIS THINKING FOR MARVEL & DC!

While this will never happen, this is the one genuinely plausible scenario which would basically guarantee material making it to market — if you create a real and significant interest in and for your work, then it is likely to work for ALL participants.


Potential Scenario #7: the retailers all lose their minds tomorrow, and we mercy fuck the hell out of everything — we order every single thing offered to us, in strong quantities, just because we want to see books survive. This is about as likely as a gigantic rainbow meteorite striking the earth, transforming us into a race of prancing unicorns who crap chocolate ice cream, but lets keep it on the table anyway. If I, and every other retailer who ordered rack copies of the WARLORD OF IO special, simply doubled our orders, we could have kept the mini-series alive. [Put aside that I still haven’t SOLD all of the rack copies of WoIO that I bought!]

I actually DO have a Mercy Fuck budget… well, not “budget” per se, but I am willing to MF some books some times, if they’re the kinds of things that I want to encourage my industry to become… but I don’t think anyone is well-capitalized enough to sustainably do that over the long haul we’d be talking about, and it would only encourage more people with LESS talent to try to hop on our sweet sweet MF train.


Possible Scenario #8: People say “Aw fuck it”, and just skip the DM altogether.

I wish these people luck.

Obviously it IS doable, because there ARE a tiny handful of people able to earn out and cash in whether that’s through a mainstream book publisher or through the internet in some fashion, but I truly think that for every success that way there are going to be twenty crash-and-burn failures.

At the end of the day, I kinda don’t think that if you can’t get x thousand people to buy your physical, tangible $x comic book, that you’re probably not going to be able to get enough sales from your digital version that only costs a fraction of $x to make up the same kind of revenue stream.


I really didn’t structure this right — I should have #6 be the concluding thought, because that’s the only actually VIABLE plan in the bunch. AND, more importantly, it is the only one that doesn’t rely on SOMEONE ELSE COMING TO SAVE YOU.

I might have missed one though, it’s possible. Do YOU have any better ideas?



One Response to “ Of Cabbages & Kings ”

  1. […] Hibbs explains how the direct market works these days, examining changes in consumer, retailer, publisher, and distributor behavior. If […]

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