Not as long as many of the “lifers” I’ve met during that time—the men and occasional women who will retail comics and pop-culture ephemera until the day they die or quit in disgust—but long enough. Long enough to remember the Direct Market of comic book specialty stores the way it was before Marvel, Heroes World, and Diamond. The way it was more-or-less since it’s inception, before immense greed and short-sightedness closed 2/3s of comic stores in probably 3 or 4 years.
I wasn’t terribly invested in comics retail at the time, I was too interested in comics as a medium. The Invisibles! JLA! Sandman! Awesome. The bits and bobs of ordering, sell-through, inventory tracking, I learned all that on the job. I also learned to fear the collapse of comic book stores—and the loss of my job—there too. In the second year I’d worked in the comic book store, when Marvel bought Heroes World distribution and pulled their comics from every other distributor over the space of a few months, I have to admit that I just didn’t really grasp all of it… But I knew enough to know that if my store stayed open, things would be very different.
In a little over a year we were getting all of our comics from Diamond—who had until that point never distributed in Canada at all. All of the local distributors (previously the Kings of Comics) were reduced to selling comics supplies and diversifying into sports cards, magic, RPGs, and mountains of old comics stock. When they didn’t go out of business entirely (owing a lot of people a lot of money, I found out years later). The industry had been through a major shift, a number of stores closed up shop in the Toronto area. We stayed open (though there were quite a few lean weeks there), and I learned what it feels like to wonder if the comics will be coming out next week or not.
The thing about all of this is that during this time I spent a lot of time on the internet. A Lot. Listening to fans bitch, to retailers bitch, to publishers and creators bitch. The comics industry was a cacophony of bitchiness, and I jumped in guns blazing. Through it all, the one big narrative through in the discussion, was that it was somebody else’s fault. A fan buys 5 copies of X-Force #1, and then becomes disillusioned 12 months later when he realizes the books are shit and never going to be worth anything? The Retailer’s Fault. A retailer orders 100 cases of fucking Warriors of Plasm Trading Cards + Binders and can’t sell one? The Publisher’s Fault. Publisher sales drop through the floor across the board? The fans fault. DEATHMATE BLACK? God Has Forsaken Us. And the industry collapsed in on itself.
It’s about 15 years after all that nonsense today, and things seem “stable” but really, that’s just a convenient lie that we’ve all bought into. Things aren’t stable, behind the scenes (and sometimes spilling onto message boards and websites) people are very worried. Fans, Retailers, Publishers. Distributors. But the thing that to me is the most disconcerting and heralds the biggest change? Diamond Comics Distributors drastically raising their order minimums. They did this a few months back. This action has shaken a lot of publishers out of the industry, and it’s meant some pretty bad things for a lot of people. But really, and realistically, The Previews catalogue is not any better or of higher quality than it was a year ago. I am reminded of this the last Tuesday of every month, when I race through that thing at break-neck speed, It’s just as tough a slog with most of the same bright spots as before. Hell, 100 pages each of Marvel and DC is more than enough to depress you on its own. But what the increased order minimums have really done is make my job as a retailer much more difficult. Why? Because of the things have been taken out of the catalogue that I have to go hunting for. Let me give you the example that prompted me to post this in the first place:
Last month, a customer asked me for Cynical Orange Volume 8, a manwha title previously published by ICE/Kunion, and picked up by Yen Press a year or two back. I checked my computer, and saw that we’d never received Cynical Orange Volume 8, despite my customer’s insistence that it was out. According to the YEN website? It was in fact released. It just never got offered through Diamond. So we didn’t have it.
Now I want to point something out here, something that’s really, really important. This customer is asking for a title that isn’t a popular one for us. It’s called Cynical Orange, for heaven’s sake. It’s a Korean shoujo title, which from a sales point of view? Not the strongest seller. But this customer is not just a customer for Cynical Orange. This customer buys, on average, 10-20 different new manga from us in a month. She does this because our prices are good, because we get things in in a timely way, and because we carry everything. We’re competitive, timely, and comprehensive, and so she comes here and spends a few hundred bucks a month, every month. And now, we’d missed a volume of her favourite manga, that she saw on the shelves at one of our competitors. Not another comic shop of course, but of Borders, Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Indigo, our real competitors, big box retail chain stores. What happens to us when we’re not as competitive, or timely, or comprehensive? Any one of those? We lose the sale. And we MIGHT lose all of the sales.
Of course I assured her I’d have it next week, got on the phone to any number of other distributors who actually carry Yen’s full line, and ordered it there. Got it. She’s a happy reader.
Here’s the thing: This wasn’t something that had been offered and then cancelled. We get little reports from Diamond when something we ordered from Diamond isn’t coming out. We then use that information to track down the item through another source (if it’s still coming out) or to disappoint a customer (if it’s not). This is something Diamond simply never solicited, despite soliciting other books from that publisher. This was, and I mean this in “comics retailer terms” and not to be too hyperbolic, but this was chilling. What else had I missed from Yen? From other publishers? Was I serving my customers or had I dropped the ball?
Of course the next thing I did was go through the Diamond catalogues for May, June, July, and August, and tried to figure out WHAT ELSE I was missing by ordering Yen’s books through Diamond. It was a good handful of books. Despite Yen being an imprint of the single largest publisher of books in the world, Diamond wasn’t carrying them all.
So Then I cut all of my orders of Yen Press books from Diamond. I’ve started ordering Yen Press through alternate distribution arrangements. It turns out that now I get Yen’s full line, I get them on time, and for more-or-less the same price as Diamond. It means another hour of work gets piled on me every few months, and it’s certainly not as convenient as just ticking more boxes on the massive Previews order I have to do anyway. But it means that I can still serve my customers, and keep them in my store, where I want them to spend money. I can do my job as a Direct Market Comic Book Specialty Store by going outside of the Distributor of the Direct Market of Comic Book Stores. You gotta admit, that’s pretty fucked-up.
It means that Diamond is losing that money. It’s no great shakes, admittedly, a few hundred dollars a month retail, more when it’s something big like James Patterson’s Maximum Ride or Svetlana Chmakova’s Night School. But I’m not going to be comparing and contrasting orders between two or three sources because of those sources is dropping the ball—my time is too valuable for that nonsense. I’ve talked to other retailers who, forced with the same conundrum, simply stop ordering lines like this altogether, letting the sales go to other comic stores, or chain stores, or the internet. That’s money out of Diamond’s pocket too.
What happens when Direct Market retailers can’t trust Diamond to keep them stocked?
For us, it means going elsewhere with surprising frequency. It means that the Direct Market has started to fade, losing relevancy, immediacy, its massive buying power and its ability to be heard. Instead of comic book retailers asking Diamond to bargain with pubs on their behalf for the common good, it becomes up to those same retailers to bargain for themselves with the great big publishers of material. It gives rise to direct market retailer organizations like COMICSPRO, who are attempting to fill the gap left by Diamond but honestly, I’ve never really found we had much in common with the concerns they’ve expressed publically.
I feel like it was Diamond’s (thankless) job to stabilize the Direct Market following the Marvel/Heroes World clusterfuck. I feel like, once stabilized, Diamond decided it was their job to maintain the status quo of distributing Marvel and DC Comics—and their closest imitators—to stores and retailers who’ve never really been educated on how to stock or sell anything else. Has there been a self-publishing success story like Bone since Diamond assumed control of the Direct Market? Could their be? My feeling is, institutionally, no. I feel like Diamond closed that door, and now the radical innovation (and radical success) happens entirely online, in webcomics. Which as I’ve mentioned before, doesn’t generally help me as a direct market retailer.
I’ve said this before, but: The idea of the direct market really is great, a specialized comics distribution network that caters to thousands of stores with a specific interest in them? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the actuality of the DM stopped living up to the ideals of the DM a long time ago.
With the back of the catalogue shrinking every month, the front of the catalogue bloating more and more to maintain the illusion of stability or “growth”, and extrapolating my own ordering practices of pulling orders away from Diamond, I feel like we’re just about done with the notion of a “Direct Market”. I feel like in the very near future, Diamond will exist as a mechanism to on one side distribute graphic novels from their clients to bookstores (Diamond Books), and on the other to distribute superhero comics to comic book stores (Diamond Comics), and everything else will exist through other distribution channels, or working direct with the content producers themselves. I feel like we’re 75% of the way there now.
And I admit, I’m pretty cynical. But honestly? With Amazon best-seller lists, and New York Times Graphic Novels Bestseller lists, and the popularity of manga, and graphic novels, and the big movie tie-ins and the rapid-fire collection of superhero stories into graphic novels, and THE INTERNET in all its forms (pirates especially), one day we’re going to look around and realize that no one really cares about the notion of a “Direct Market.” Everyone else will have moved on to the idea of graphic novels as a mass-market medium, available in all kinds of formats, from all kinds of venues.
Except the lifers, like me.