Since the coronavirus crisis began, the comics industry has been in a scary place. With publishers doing their best to keep operations running smoothly using remote and telecommuting processes, the often reclusive work of comic book creators seems like it should be one of the few safe and stable jobs to have during this time. But when Diamond–the sole distributor of single issue comic books to comic shops around the world–announced that they wouldn’t be accepting or distributing new comics, the industry essentially came to a standstill.
Update: Today DC Comics announced that they would be utilizing two alternative distributors to deliver comics to shops, essentially breaking the exclusive hold that Diamond has on the industry for two decades. Newsarama has more info about the two new distributors, but read our piece below to understand why this is such a big deal and what it could mean for the industry!
Readers, creators, and those interested in the business have been holding their breath to see what the ramifications of this decision would be, for better or worse. To understand how a shut down of Diamond Comic Distributors could actually end up being a good thing you need to understand the legacy and impact of the company. Here’s a potted history of the so-called Direct Market that I wrote when putting together my “So You’re Making a Comic Book” flowchart:
“The Direct Market was the name given to the distribution channel that stocked the shelves of the fledgling comic shop network in the 1970s. It was ‘direct’ because the books were shipped from printers straight to the stores on a non-returnable basis, bypassing messy corporate newsstand distributors.
“Over time, different companies have helped to supply this Direct Market chain of sales. But for just over 20 years, only one company has been the primary middle man between publishers and comic book stores: Diamond Comic Distributors. DCD is essentially a Direct Market monopoly, though technicalities have allowed them to dodge legal ramifications.”
It should be doubly highlighted that Diamond’s role now is essentially the definition of a middle man. The books are printed and before they can go to the shop they have to go through Diamond’s warehouse. So simply, if Diamond isn’t distributing then comics won’t get to shops.
The other important thing to note here is that, for more than two decades, Diamond has been running a monopoly in the comics industry that has made it incredibly hard for both stores and publishers to make any kind of radical change to how comics are bought and sold. Now that might not seem like such a problem if we were still in the speculator heyday of the ’90s when comics like X-Men #1 sold 8 million copies (most of which can still be found in discount back issue bins at every comic shop you frequent). But for a long, long time, comics have not been selling millions, publishers have not been making money off anything but stealing and selling IPs, and comic shops have been closing each and every year.
The Diamond model is flawed at the highest level of comics, affecting both Marvel and DC as well as other — what we call “front of the book” — publishers like Boom, Dark Horse, Dynamite, IDW, and Image. But the biggest obstacle that Diamond represents is to young, lesser known, or independent creators who struggle to get placed in the pages of the company’s massive $3.99 catalog, Previews–even reportedly now charging for a PDF of the huge monthly tome–which is how readers and shops choose the comics that they’re going to buy.
All of this essentially means if you aren’t in Previews and you have a single issue comic that you want to sell, you’ll have to personally reach out to every shop and convince them your comic–which you’ve also made, printed, and will ship–is worth stocking. In the last couple of years, Diamond has realized that they’re a dying dinosaur and has made it a little easier for smaller publishers and creators to enter the catalog, although the specific details of those contracts are unknown to this writer.
With comic creators talking about getting “pencils down” notices and the announcement that DC, Marvel, Image, and other big publishers do not intend to release comics digitally during Diamond’s hiatus [ed: DC has since updated retailers that they are intending to continue digital releases], it looked like the monopoly was once again causing massive harm. On March 28, though, DC Comics released a letter to retailers that included some information that lit a spark of hope in anyone who has long been waiting for the Diamond monopoly to be broken.
You can read the full letter over at Newsarama but there are a couple of lines which are both hopeful, thoughtful, and potentially industry-shaking. The letter reads: “Periodicals and books with in-store dates between March 18, 2020 and June 24, 2020 will be fully returnable. We’ll even provide credit for your separate return shipping of these items only.”
This is a big deal, as one of the reasons that comic shops have long suffered under Diamond is the company’s policy to make all single issue comic books non-returnable, barring excessively late releases or select issues that are part of marketing promotions. What that means is, if fans get really excited for Batman Kisses the Joker #1 and pre-order lots of copies during the months-long solicit window, your comic shop could end up with hundreds of that issue. Now that’s great if your customers all pick those up, but if they don’t then you’re left with a lot of dead stock. That is the most simple version of this problem, which is exasperated by things like incentive variants–where shops have to order a certain amount of copies before they can access a variant–and speculation culture which drives the trend of high numbers on first issues.
Although it’s not unheard of for publishers to make comics returnable due to disasters or industry shifts, this is a long period of time for a big publisher like DC. What’s even more radical here is the fact that DC is offering to offset the price of those returns for retailers, which is nigh unprecedented. It might seem odd to celebrate a multi-billion-dollar corporation for doing something that seems like common sense but it’s a rare move and should be recognized.
The part of the letter which really has the potential to change everything, though, is this: “Additionally, because we anticipate that continued disruption to business operations will create regional volatility, DC is exploring a multi-distributor model to provide us with the flexibility needed during this crisis to get new content to our readers on an ongoing basis.”
Talking about a multi-distributor model in comics has been unmentionable for years. Diamond is known for punishing retailers that try to buy graphic novels from Amazon–who they had a short-lived business relationship with in the 2010s–or other alternative distribution channels. The company has had a stranglehold on the industry and its publishers since the Marvel-owned Heroes World Distribution shut down in 1997. The fact that DC is even mentioning the concept of other distributors is a huge step forward. It seems to be a sign that the company is more afraid of losing the business of local comic shops than it is of losing its connection with Diamond.
This is particularly interesting as after Heroes World folded it’s rumored DC signed an exclusive deal with Diamond that gave DC the option to purchase the distributor in the future. Who knows where that currently stands, but it’s interesting to note that DC’s official letter to retailers also states that “in the short-term, we continue to engage in active conversations with Diamond to help us solve the distribution issues that have arisen,” which, along with the mention of multi-distributors above, implies that if those issues are not solved then in the long term DC is not committed to working with Diamond or protecting their place as the sole comics distributor.
If this does end up being more than a statement to assuage the nerves of understandably worried retailers, it could shake up the industry. With massive corporations like Disney and AT&T/Warner Bros. behind the two biggest publishers, the idea of a truly direct market where publishers sell their comics to shops directly rather than through the proverbial middleman of Diamond seems like it makes a lot of sense. Bay Area indie publisher Silver Sprocket has been shipping directly to stores since Diamond’s announcement, and plenty of non-Diamond listed indie publishers like Short Box ship to stores around the world. Basically, it can be done and huge corporations have the resources and infrastructure to do it.
Currently, the biggest question mark around this issue is the status of Transcontinental, the Canadian company that prints and ships most single issue comics to Diamond’s facilities. DC mentioned in an earlier statement that the company would cease printing for three weeks, which will likely be extended due to the crisis. There are other printers, of course; many publishers get their graphic novels printed in China where costs are lower and, relative to many other countries in the world, it looks like the coronavirus crisis is beginning to trend downwards.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what DC’s multi-distribution model would look like if it comes to pass, but what’s certain is if their distinguished competition finds a way to get comics to shops, then Marvel will likely follow suit. Perhaps that competitive capitalism could finally do something good for the comics industry by breaking the Diamond monopoly once and for all.
Header Image: Jareed via Flikr Creative Commons