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News: Diamond and Small Press Series: Self-Publishers
posted December 31, 2000
 

Is Diamond Helpful?
The View from Those Other Small Publishers In Dealing with the Distribution Giant

Introduction

In the fourth article in a series of article examining aspects of the relationship between small-press publishers and Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., "Is Diamond Necessary?" we examined the problems and perspectives of small arts comics publishers. As a companion to that piece, this article is dedicated to the view from those tiny and self-publishers who share a market position similar to the smallest of those publishers: insignificant in terms of overall sales. But like the arts comics publisher, self-publishers of all types are driven by their own personal expectations and goals regarding the comics fields.

It is that panoply of goals that gives the small and self-publishers their vitality within the industry. The relationship of those companies with comics' largest distributor further
defines the nature of Diamond's commitment to publishing as its own creative enterprise, and reveals the company's attitude toward the kind of grass-roots mechanisms which may in turn shape the entire industry.

Motivations vary as widely as the individual involved. Self-publishers, or tiny publishers, include hopeful soon-to-be-professionals looking for an outlet for their creations or for work from their friends, dilettante creators who have no intention of quitting their day job, established professionals working on a side project, cartoonists who feel themselves naturally suited to work on the business end of the industry, those who feel it a matter of creative ethics, and those who feel the self-publishing arrangement is the best way to maximize returns on a book. What unites them is that their concerns as creators fuel their outlook on their business arrangements, from healthy doses of studied realism to flashes of occupational despair.

What the names and companies between the better known entries in Diamond's previews catalog contribute to the industry is the occasional rock-solid project and a constant turnover of talent and genre experimentation. Many successful self-publishers started out as completely ignored and neglected independent talent, and the impact of such break-out talents on the '80s and '90s comics industry as a whole is undeniable. The success of Dave Sim's Cerebus and Richard and Wendy Pini's Elfquest helped establish the direct market as a place to buy hard-to-purchase comics. David Lapham's Stray Bullets answered a question begun by Frank Miller, making crime books a viable genre in upper end mainstream work starting in the mid-1990s. Jeff Smith's Bone led to a reappraisal of both classic black and white art approaches and fantasy comics after that genre had fallen from favor, while his success confirmed the financial viability of a self-publishing approach.



Problems

The problems enjoyed by self-publishers and small publishers contacted by the Journal for this part of the series seemed to center on general misapprehensions regarding Diamond's role within the industry and specific difficulties with particulars of how business is conducted. Several of the publishers seemed to emenate a kind of jaded realism, a diminished set of expectation when it came to pushing their product through the distribution system. Perhaps the divided view is best summed up by G. Allan Holcomb, who told the Journal about publishing with the distributor, "It's not that bad, Diamond is a business," but admitting later that he found the act of publshing "too stressful" and quite after one issue.

Several of the publisher re-inforced the Journal's reportage of some difficulties understanding their exact status during the solictiation process, issues engaged in full in the first article in the series, "How Diamond Works," TCJ #215.

A perfect example of the kind of give-and-take in the early relationship regarding soliciations is provided by Justin Savage of Sabres Edge. From his story it wasn't the process of solicitation as much as trying to nail down his the health of his company's relationship with Diamond. "They didn't take our first book Scuttlebutt even though we drove all over the country promoting it and the other books we were working on at the time in that Spirits of Independence Tour. The note that time just stated that Anthologies don't sell." But Savage seemed to get the hang of those expectations soon enough, even if his situation with Diamond ended up souring. "[Diamond] took Cancer: The Crab Boy #1-6, but the numbers didn't go up on it enough. A steady decline would be a more accurate description. That wasn't their fault, though. We didn't do enough promotion and even though there a quite a few people who liked the book word of mouth only goes so far. We placed ads, but not nearly enough. I like to think it was a learning experience for us. However, both books we've published since then have been rejected outright. And both of them were given the same wishy washy responses that I described above. Mark grilled the rep and even though their official policy is to treat each new series on its own merits he was told that they had taken Cancer's sales into account on Andi: Raggedy Nation's solicitation. Since our lively hoods don't rely on Diamond listing our books we printed it anyway." The process itself, like man self-publishers, Savage described as reasonably clear and less complicated than other paperwork he had filled out during other types of employment, or trying to deal with other kinds of distribution. Like their small arts publisher counterparts, almost every publisher to whom the Journal spoke well of their individual brand managers and the availability of that person. Says Jim Ottaviani, "There was/is a representative available and my relationship with the two I've dealt with has been professional and cordial."

Once those initial hurdles were cleared, many of the complaints cited by self- and small publishers were structural in nature. All of the self-publishers cited the quick payments indicted by Tom Devlin in this series' fourth part (he wasn't citing their promptness, but their regularity as an addictive business relationship), although Daren White indicated to the Journal that Diamond's sheer size may have played a factor in trying to get a billing change accomplished for his company, Dee Vee. "My problem is specific to non-US publishers. Diamond only pay in US funds. It currently takes up to 3 months for an overseas check to clear in Australian funds and so I have requested that checks be sent directly to Chris Staros at Top Shelf. The accounting department at Diamond do not seem able to update their payee records to do this."

None of the publishers seemed very concerned about their placement in the catalog beyond some general disatisfaction at is pecularities: alphabetical listing rather than by genre, the ghetto of the non-exclusive listings, the garishness of some of the ads. But one, Bill Knapp, pointed out to the Journal just how severely the kind of regular catalog decisions Diamond has to make to publish their catalog can have a severe impact on a struggling business venture. "I did get a 'Spotlight' with the first issue, which I hadn't expected. Then with issue two, I didn't get any picture at all. At that time, not everything did get a picture and, of course, they were in black & white for the most part. It was explained to me then that it was more a 'luck of the draw' situation regarding who did or did not get a picture. For a second issue, though, it was a huge blow to my sales, as the first had done fairly decently." For Knapp, it was almost as if his solicitation hadn't run. "It's extremely difficult in the first place to get noticed in the 'phone book' that is Previews. Without a picture, you don't stand a chance. I had people months later contacting me looking for issue two, they hadn't seen it in their store since their retailer had completely missed the entry. Most entries seemed to run on the right-hand page, outside edge which is where you want to be in the first place. So I can't complain about much, but that second issue listing dug a hole for me that I'm not sure was possible to get out."

More substantive complaints came when the smaller publishers tried to make use of those policies not designed to meet needs at their specific slaes level. Jim Ottaviani describes a re-order system that depends on thresholds and minimum orders. If a retailer only orders a couple of copies of a book, then that might not be enough to satisfy an order from distributor to publisher. "I can understand this policy," Ottaviani told the Journal. "Ordering, receiving, processing, and shipping one copy of a 32 page comic each month to 10 different retailers isn't profitable for them."

The problems came in how the retailer is informed, says the publisher. "However, there is (or at least was) one serious problem with the way Diamond handled this threshold order policy in the past: When the order is canceled the notice on the cancellation says something to the effect of 'unavailable from publisher' and not to the effect of 'does not meet our minimum order level'. I don't remember the exact wording, but it definitely implied that Diamond tried to get the book but couldn't. And that may not be the case.

"It certainly wasn't for me: A retailer visiting my table at a convention looked surprised when I was selling books he had ordered months before from Diamond, who had in turn sent him a cancellation notice that made him believe I didn't have any more. He gave me a copy of the notice and I took the issue up with my Diamond representative. He told me that they were planning to change the wording on the notice some time soon, but I haven't had occasion to check back to see what they changed it to or if indeed they changed it at all. Things I've heard via e.g. the Delphi retailers forum make it sound like they may not have made the change, or that their computer generates a different but equally misleading message. But I must stress that I don't know for sure.

"So while in theory your book is always available from Diamond (since their order codes never go away), in practice that may not be the case."

The experience of the self-publishers contacted by the Journal seems to contradict the likelihood of sales pressure, due to Diamond offering sales services while at the same time deciding whether or not to run a book. White and Ottaviani were both made aware of services such as advertisements and marketing research, and didn't report any undue pressure when they turned such offers down. Of course, even if the services were bought provides no guarantee of utility. Says publisher Andy Fish of Blue Monkey Comics about one of his initial offerings. "Diamond was very high on the book. They really thought it stood out, when the initial numbers came in, we were disappointed. Diamond said the numbers were good for a new small press book, but we weren't happy with them. We've had tremendous response from people that actually sat down and read the book, so we felt that's what needed to happen with retailers. Diamond told me to send them $150 and they'd get their sales force out there showing the book to retailers. If the orders didn't go up, we'd get a report back with retailer comments. We sent the money and then never heard a thing. Orders didn't go up either. I should have bought $150 in scratch tickets!"

But the individual problems aside, all of the publishers contacted by the Journal were insistent that Diamond remained an important part of their comics sales efforts. Said White, "Specifically as an Australian publication, there is no credible alternative for DeeVee. Australian news agent distribution is not viable. We are to far away from the US to mount a viable book store initiative. Self-publisher Marshall Dillon concurs. "They [Diamond] are the only REAL place for American small publishers to make a large sales, and in turn to make a large chunk of their publishing costs back. Remember... Diamond doesn't owe us anything." Holcomb and Savage did maintain the need for multiple competitors for the distributing giant, regardless of working relationship.

In general, the self-publisher tended to keep the distributor in perspective, even if the distributor seems to be the difference between publishing and not (White) or the experience working with them helped the creator come to the conclusion that "I found self-publishing to suck." (Holcomb) Bill Knapp was effusive about Diamond's professionalism and enthusiasm for his books, but Jim Ottaviani was more typically even-handed. "When it comes to the book trade, it's quite the reverse, frankly. If you think it's hard dealing with Diamond, try a bookstore distributor some time. They're the only game in town for getting into stores outside the comics specialty market, though, so you have to work under their terms (90 day payment, complete returnability, etc.) They're essential for making sure my books are available outside of comics stores, but I sure wish they weren't." In all, self-publishers seem to balance an appreciation for access to an international network of stores with wish lists that may start and end with having them carry their books or may speak of specific paperwork that changes how their books status is reported to potential clients.

13. Are there things those distributors did you wish Diamond would do?

Case Study: Linda Medley

The case of Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Linda Medley provides a signature example of the types of issues affecting an artist who has embraced the self-publishing paradigm. Despite winning multiple awards, receiving attention from comics magazine including the Journal, and joining the high-profile Trilogy Tour, the year 2000 marks the release of books from her "Castle Waiting" title not from Medley's Olio Press but from Trilogy member Jeff Smith's more-established Cartoon Books. In May, the first Cartoon Books offering was a collection of Medley's self-published material, while the first of a new series of comics is schedule to debut at Comic-Con International.

For Medley, the opportunity to self-publish was in conflict with her need to make comics. "I'd actually decided I couldn't keep up with -- I wanted to do the book bi-monthly -- I couldn't keep up with doing the creative part of it and doing the business part of it. If I want to keep up with it, I'm going to have to find someone to do the chore part of it." These feelings were fueled in part by financial considerations: Medley told the Journal she preferred to work under a system where she received page rate as an advance rather than profiting solely on the sales of her work. But the decision to join up with Smith had more to do with general feelings that the self-publishing model was no longer viable.

Medley's view is that without major promotional money to increase her presence in Previews, she would never substantially increase her profile as a self-publisher within those pages. "I reached a saturation point without marketing through Diamond," Medley said. And, because of her view of those tasks to which she was suited, Medley only too happy to turn over any increased marketing presence, Diamond or outside of Diamond, to more capable hands. "Most of my difficulties in being a self-publisher was the promotion. I'm real uncomfortable with the feeling of promoting myself. I'm like, 'No, no, no, that's nothing.'"

But as a self-publisher who enjoyed initial success with Diamond, Medley is able to offer a unique view of her working relationship with the company. Surprisingly, her overall experience was a good one. "When I was self-publishing, I had no problems at all with Diamond, but I may be the exception." Medley told the Journal that the support of the purchasing team and her brand managers -- starting with the now Director of Purchasing Mark Herr -- were supportive of the work being done. "I think a lot of it was some of the guys at Diamond. I think some of the guys at Diamond decided they liked my book early on and decided to support it."

Medley describes her brand manager as available and professional, and the process of soliciting her work as reasonably straight-forward. She credits some of her ease in working with Diamond to paying attention to professional particulars. "I was very business-like, took care of the business, and had professional looking invoices," Medley told the Journal. In fact, she sympathizes with the distributor in their dealings with other self-publishers who are not as cognizant of those basic responsibilities. "I understand Diamond's point of view when they're dealing with people who maybe don't have the ability to do even these things." It may also have helped things that her book did well with Diamond, the cartoonist having been told that Castle Waiting was one of the few titles whose sales increased per issue.

Part of what seems to color Medley's experience is that she experienced few structural or mechanical difficulties in her dealings with the distributor. She recalls one or two reports of damaged books. "I think maybe there was once or twice where there was a damaged shipment, but even that always give you doubts there's no way to know when the books were damaged." Diamond's practice of making large re-orders all at once can be a particular hazard for a self-publisher. "I had to mail off half my body weight in books last time," she told the Journal. "That's a few boxes." Medley attributed her attitude about the distributor in part to an outlook that made Diamond a business reality one had to deal with, rather than a system in need of input which could to improvement. When asked about a catalog placement that hid her book in the depths of the alphabetical listings, Medley laughs remembering her proximity to Old Towne, and breathes a sigh of relief that Olio didn't suffer through proximity to an "Image-style" publisher and their inevitable full-page advertisements. Interestingly one structural impediment Medley cited was one she wasn't able to engage: advertisements. Not only did Medley lack capital for such an investment, but she told the Journal that the difference in schedule and mailing addresses (the advertisements were to be sent to California) would have been a discouraging complication in her business duties.

However, Medley's new perspective does lead her to speak to the sort of broad issues that Diamond's position of power within the market engenders, and a few peculiarities of their way of doing business. Although as a self-publisher she enjoyed the support of the distributor, her eventual sales of 8000 copies of book one were never reflected in sales figure that depend on an initial pre-order (approximately 1300, for the boon in question.) In general, Medley questions how Diamond and publishers and stores of all kinds exist in a relationship completely focused on the present economic models rather than what may be healthy long-term for the industry and art form. "Something that has kind of bothered me: Diamond does kind of feed the status quo. The whole thing you have to come out with your work -- the art form of comics, you're doing this thing that's words and pictures -- why does it have to come out six times a year. Why can't you do a book a year? Diamond does it part to keep the market like that. It keeps everything to the status quo, when it doesn't have to be done that way at all."

So while Medley's depth of experience in other forms of distribution suggest that comics distribution isn't alone when it comes to selling services and representation at bookselling show, that Geppi may have more to gain by being "more philanthropic" toward different aspects of the business. That means not only supporting the kind of self-published material that might be able to help the industry grow, but by more aggressively seeking to distribute comics to gift shops, airports, and schools and libraries. "I can't take Previews to schoolteachers, no matter how positive the schoolteacher are. And schools and libraries are generally very positive," Medley told the Journal.

As Medley moves into a situation where she has to deal with the "chore" aspects of her work, including Diamond, much less frequently, her attitude towards the people with whom she worked at Diamond remain strong. "Many of them are just as frustrated as we are," she said.

Diamond Responds

Medley's first brand manager at Diamond, now-Director of Purchasing Mark Herr, responded to several of the Journal's question regarding issues expressed by small and self-publishers.

When the Journal attempted to gain some sort of insight into how Diamond might view the special needs of such publishers as a group, Diamond responded with an answer that reflected little in the way of direct interest in how those publishers' needs were related. Diamond characterized self-publishers not as an area of special interest within their company as a group, but as of individual publishers each with their own needs. "Diamond realizes that every publisher has special needs, and the role of our Brand Manager is to help each publisher with his or her individual needs. Of course, Diamond has its own set of needs and our Brand Managers work hard to help publishers meet our needs as well."

To show how much the industry has changed since self-publishers were more likely to band together under common cause, Herr told the Journal that eighty percent or more of today's publishers were not active when Dave Sim had his initial disputes with Diamond regarding sales of his trades and distribution of Puma Blues, adding, "The industry as a whole has a very long memory, and it is usually the people who seek to find fault with Diamond that often reach back as far as they can for examples." In fact, Herr points out that the sections of Sim's Guide to Self-Publishing were written after Sim spent an afternoon with Diamond higher-ups Bill Schanes, Glen Folland, and himself. Thus the antagonistic relationship which may have defined the public view of publisher-distributors relationship has been subsumed into a less advertised partnership on key issues.

Herr is quick to point out that self-publishing successes like Sim and Jeff Smith are important lenses which Diamond may use to view the smaller self-publishers of today. And in understanding what led to successful work with those type of creators Herr was reluctant to place more weight on the type of publishing arrangement than on standard measures of success such as hard work, establishing a name within the industry before the project is attempted, and sales momentum. "David Lapham was a well-known creator before he did Stray Bullets. Strangers In Paradise was originally published by Antarctic Press, and by the time Terry Moore went the self-publishing route, he had already built a buzz around the title. Jeff Smith worked very hard to get support and coverage for his title. If a publisher is self-motivated, they do better." Herr rightfully points out that the self-publishing successes of the last 12 months may be closer to Moore and Lapham than Smith. "There are new successful self-publishers, but they are by and large like
David Lapham, people who built up name recognition before they self-published. People like Mike Allred with Atomics and Jim Balent with Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose both have successfully self-published in 2000." But Herr is quick to assert that any work that has the potential to "catch fire" with fans makes self-made self-publishing success possible, even if less likely than 10 years ago.

When asked about structural difficulties, Herr takes two approaches. The first is to point out, as has been explained in past articles in this series, what Diamond believes to be low sales threshold for a continued presence in the Previews catalog and multiple possibilities for initial inclusion. According to Herr, this easy access to the market must be taken into account when describing any sins that result. The other is to express confidence in the general workings of Diamond's business relationships with self-publishers, dismissing the occasional complaint as an expected "case of crossed wires or someone not firing on all cylinders at work one day." Herr goes further to point out that the easy access to the marketplace is what contributes to the issues of catalog placement. "Maintaining open access for as many publishers as possible leads to a catalog with a lot of choices, which makes it more of a challenge to get noticed."

As to complaints about policies which mislead or confuse the buyer at the expense of the publisher, Herr paints a similar picture of Diamond policy that stresses reasonably low stress points and the ongoing potential for human error. Speaking to the issue of how order cancellations are communicated to retailers, Herr told the Journal, "If we solicit a title, we will cut the purchase order for it, even if worldwide sales come back for one copy. We cancel a purchase order thirty days after expected receipt (for example, titles solicited for January release are up for cancellation at the end of February.) When we cancel a title, we have different codes as to why it was canceled. 'Canceled by publisher', 'Canceled due to lateness', etc., etc. We feel that this system works, and while it is possible that an isolated cancellation was misquoted, I personally have never heard this." The wording, however, seems less clear on re-orders. In fact, the policy seems designed to keep the retailer in a loop with Diamond that may never have an off-ramp. "Diamond cuts purchase orders each week. If the publisher hasn't established
a higher reorder minimum, we use $20.00 retail as an internal guideline. If we don't get this many reorders, company-wide, within a given cycle, we will inform retailers that their order has been canceled due to order expiration. But they have the opportunity to place a new reorder, which will be filled if we meet the $20.00 threshold in the current cycle."

Herr decline to comment on other cases in general, but spoke to such concerns by characterizing Diamond as a company where changes for the better continue to be put into corporate practice. As to other questions regarding order forms, Herr said, "I do want to state that late last year we looked at our internal procedures on processing initial order forms and made some adjustments. For the last six months, we have been releasing purchase orders a week earlier than we did in 1999."

As in past discussions with the Journal, Diamond re-iterates its commitment to the industry in its entirety. Asked about the general feared trend that self-publishers and small publishers could be eliminated on the basis of attrition caused by market factors, disinterest in the art form, and Diamond shifting its business to other items, Herr replied in pro-comics fashion. "We have no intention of reducing the prominence of comics in our catalog, and unlike some pessimistic pundits, we remain bullish on comics. Every
potential new vendor we talk to, we hope that they have a great comic. When we get an email inquiry or a phone call, we treat the person on the other end like they will become a valuable trading partner with us."

Conclusion

So what is the view from small and self-publishers, the kind the average comics fan skips over in a casual reading of Previews? It's surprisingly realistic and jaded, with a recognition of the market and Diamond's role in it for what they are. What concerns expressed by most self-publishers are concerns for the entire industry, and how that defines one's specific place in it. For their part, Diamond rests comfortably in a position where the relative ease of access it provides markets still allows for the potential of growth as defined by market realities. If small arts publishers and Diamond are frustrated potential lovers, then other small publishers have with Diamond a realization that any date, at least for now, is "just friends."