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To Spite One’s Face

Brian Hibbs

I don’t really have time to do this (I should be working on the BookScan stuff… next column is due in like a week, ugh!), but Lester bugged me about it, and I am also spurred by Chris Butcher’s excellent post on the subject.

This is a little “insider baseball” so I am going to hide most of it behind the jump…

Some of this appeared in a post on the CBIA forum, but that’s gated and most of you can’t see that, so with a little editing, let me start…

One thing that I’ve always believed is that one of the mighty mighty strengths of the Direct Market was that anyone with a Pen and Paper, and a little talent, could get national distribution and Make a Name for themselves. That’s (historically) very different than almost any other media where the barriers to entry are ginormous, and that the majority of both wholesale and retail clients are simply not interested in dealing with anyone who isn’t already established. What we in the DM call “the small press” is usually referred to “vanity press” in other media.

I *liked* that the barriers to entry were generally low, because it brought us a regular influx of new talent producing exciting work on a regular basis. Much of that potential is now going to disappear with Diamond’s new minimums and reorder rules (Periodical comics WILL NOT be available after 60 days, yikes!)

Part of the problem is probably that post-DC-exclusive Diamond was really really freaked out about being seen as “fair” to everyone (Understandable!), so they accepted a lot of items that were probably not the most rational to accept in the first place, things that WEREN’T ready for Prime Time, or brought nothing new to the market — that, as much as anything else, has led to the catalog bloat.

PREVIEWS *is* a bloated, horrible beast. Despite Chris’ assertion that, for The Beguiling, orders from the “back” of the catalog were higher than Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image combined, that’s nowhere near the case for me — most of the “back of the bus” items suck. No, not D&Q or Top Shelf or Fantagraphics or Viz or whomever you want to say… but all of those shitty shitty micro-press books that are NOT marketed or promoted, or anything other than weaker less interesting poorly created knockoffs of things that Front of the Catalog publishers are already doing. No, really, we don’t need your shitty zombie comic book. We don’t need your adaptation of some William Shatner novel, and we sure as fuck don’t need your half-baked superhero universe.

What we DO need is “the next BONE”, the “next” STRANGERS IN PARADISE, or CEREBUS or EIGHTBALL or GRENDEL or whatever title you want to fill-in-the-blanks with as a paradigm of slow-build-to-significance item.

Here’s the real problem: Diamond’s purchasing department. There are some really great guys working there, but they don’t really have a great aesthetic judgment. That’s not a knock, necessarily, but in 20 years of buying from Diamond I don’t believe that they’ve EVER had a year where they had the entirety of, say, the Eisner nominees in stock at or around the time of the nominations.

I don’t believe that Diamond would recognize the “next BONE”. Not from hatred or anything, but because they have policies in place to be “fair”, that for a decade or more essentially treats all projects as interchangeable widgets.

Those of you who have been doing this for a long time will recall that the late Capital City Distribution used to have actual opinion in their catalogs — it was common to see “Looks amateurish, be careful”, or the opposite in the listings, because THEIR purchasing department was encouraged to share their opinions to help sell more comics (or steer people from lesser work).

That’s a GOOD thing. Distributors SHOULD be trying to sell the things they believe in, trying to take books up to their proper next level of sales. Keeping everything carefully neutral is likely to make you less enemies, maybe, but does both your client retailers and your listed publishers a pretty big disservice.

Diamond does have a few “spotlight” indications in the catalog — “Spotlight” “certified cool”, whatever… but they’re not applied in what appears to be a rigorous manner, and there’s no editorializing whatsoever.

Here’s what I might do if I were Diamond: I’d try to hire Bob Shreck to be Czar of the Catalog. Not setting the orders or doing any of that, but going through the submissions to see what has promise and what doesn’t. If there was someone there whose aesthetic judgment I implicitly trusted to be the advocate for stocking innovative work, with an eye towards finding and selling the “next BONE”, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic towards this new policy.

I don’t have any PROBLEM with Diamond wanting to get rid of unprofitable items, any more than I’d have a problem with a retailer deciding not to rack anything that he doesn’t think he can sell 3 or more copies of, but I do think that Diamond’s historical aesthetic judgment, and stocking support of that judgment, is clearly on the poor side. Diamond is TOO bottom line oriented when it comes to what they sell and support.

What I think is that if you are a guardian at the gate of a medium, there are things that you need to do to help support that medium. Maybe that’s Pollyanna-ish, I don’t know. But there are things that I carry that don’t actually make me any PROFIT, but I carry them because it is what expected in a comic book store (or, at least, a good one in San Francisco).

Let me try this from another angle: Diamond, for maybe a decade there, didn’t carry ASTERIX or TINTIN. I believe them when they said that they don’t sell very well nationally for Diamond, but I don’t think you can actually be a specialty comics distributor and not carry TINTIN and ASTERIX! Even if you only sell 10 copies a year.

I’m virtually certain we’re going to lose the “next BONE”, the “next SiP”; I’m afraid we won’t have a place any longer for the next Dan Clowes of the world.

Heh, I was chatting with someone last week about the real unfairness (TO THE CREATOR!) if this business totally shifted to an OGN model — how many 22-23 year old kids have the patience and discipline to get through the production of 100+ pages of comics content without reader and market feedback?

I flashed to LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON, with was originally serialized in EIGHTBALL. This is a DEEPLY FLAWED work — Clowes just didn’t know how to end it, and it shows — but I’ve still sold HUNDREDS of copies of this over the years. Knowing Clowes from that time, I suspect that had it been a GN-only work, he would have gotten to the point where it stopped working… and just stopped working on it.

And, flaws and all, I think we’d be poorer for it.

It’s all supposition, I know, and I totally hope I am wrong, but I think lack of easy I-can-do-this-out-of-my-kitchen access to the marketplace is really going to come back and kick us in the nuts in ten years.

Some say “Well, BONE would still have happened because it had two things going for it: Jeff & Vijaya!” Yeah, maybe.

Other say, “Aw nertz to you, BONE would just be on the web.” Mm, maybe, and maybe it would have continued enough to do the collections, and maybe, maaaaaaybe they still would have gotten the Scholastic deal.

But I’m just not sure about that, I really am not.

And even if they did, I, personally, don’t just want to cede all of the sweet long green that we made from BOTH the serialization and collection of BONE. BONE used to sell 50-60 copies an issue for us. That’s serious money, even compared to the overwhelming majority of Marvel and DC titles.

Diamond shouldn’t be pushing away people from comics — they should be trying, actively, passionately, enthusiastically trying to find that “next BONE”. Because even if you make 100 mistakes trying to get there, it MORE THAN pays off once you find it.

Anyway, yeah, they need to hire Shreck!


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