Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 13, 2005

Diamond Sets Stricter Sales Terms

It's been talked about unofficially via e-mail for a few days now, then on public chat sites, and now Rich Johnston has I think the first mention of it on a major site with a discussion in his popular gossip column. Essentially, it looks like Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., by far the dominant distributor of comic books and related material to English-language comic book shops, has decided to 1) raise the bar a bit for what it expects sales-wise from books it carries, 2) stop orders mid-process for those books that fall way below those expectations, and 3) to potentially extend those expectations to O/A or "offered again" books. O/A is a way publishers have been able to sell certain books through several month's worth of listings that lead to incremental orders rather than the bulk in one shot upon initial release.

I've just begun to fashion a coherent opinion on this; in fact I haven't seen anything first-hand to confirm the story. But the mind races ahead and the Internet gobbles it up, so last night I fell easily into a speculative mood about this or any future attempt to limit access to the direct market in some way through Diamond.

My reporter's version of Spider-Sense (aka "Hangover Sense") applied to the above scenario says that it's how strictly Diamond enforces any potential O/A portion of a new policy that will be key. My guess is that even if enacted there will be some leeway in enforcement on any O/A orders, particularly for publishers trying to float one or two books that fail to meet levels among a sea of those that safely do. I could be totally wrong. In general, if Diamond really gets what I think is their desired result, a streamlined Previews catalog that ostensibly makes it easier for retailers to focus money and attention on works with a greater chance for success, then as a comics historian I'll likely look back and be sort of amazed that it took them this long to make the attempt.

Don't get me wrong. As a fan of art, this kind of thing always makes my stomach hurt. I'm a supporter of the North American small press. Limiting these works' access to the Direct Market could cost that market some excellent material, foil an endearing tradition inherent to the Direct Market of odd material winding up in unlikely places, and even keep works that could one day become profitable over the long term from ever finding needed traction. There's an argument to be made that comics has no business closing any doors that could potentially lead to the next big wave of successful, medium-defining works. There is a moral consideration, too. Due in great part to its aggressive business moves in the early to mid-1990s seeking exclusive partnerships with large publishers, Diamond has become the sole distributor of its size and market penetration. In an intimate field like comics, it's not too much to expect that Diamond recognize the historical circumstances that have given it full control over an entire segment of the business and, as a result, seek policies that mitigate restrictions on participation that may result.

On the other hand, I sympathize with Diamond's desire to move in this direction. It's not only lazy retailers complaining that Previews is much too big and contains too many books of dubious professional quality. Many excellent retailers have conveyed to me some variation of this; many medium-sized publishers and their representatives complain about this off the record, and many creators do, too. I think the desire for a thinner catalog -- or at least the idea of a thinner catalog representing a higher bar for participation -- is out there in significant force. I'm not sure it's the kind of idea that really precedes a change in ordering behavior. I don't expect the owner of Don's Danger Room to suddenly exclaim, "With all those micro-press titles clogging my view, I never noticed this Kevin Huizenga fellow until just now. I must have 100 copies of his latest pamphlet." I do, however, feel for anyone having to wade through so much muck when a non-returnable order is at stake. If Diamond's move came with the promise of further policy changes to make publishers better partners for the retailers they serve, that might be a great positive. Although I don't think anyone's track record goes beyond recognizing a possibility, sometimes first steps take place on their own, months and years ahead of time.

I also feel for Diamond simply wanting to make a forceful impact, to kick-start the market. The culture of comics enjoys this strange proclivity for falling into static ways of doing business that lets apologists excuse lousy business practices as "just the way things are" and leads others to expect certain arrived-at business arrangements as benefits to which they have a right simply by showing up. Does any entertainment industry have a lower threshold of participation or a more refined sense of entitlement? With the direct market slightly moribund for a while now, and with growth in other market areas, it's difficult to automatically fault Diamond for a move or two that could potentially shake up all that's logy, even if the moves end up being terribly misguided or if they conveniently apply that principle to the end of a market that can't fight back.

There are the art versus commerce arguments, too. It's not like great work goes all the way away if there's a higher threshold for participation in certain markets; idiosyncratic personal expression finally has a modest commercial foothold in an industry that resisted it for a long, long time; it won't likely be wiped out by any one policy change. One holds out hope that what would be hit hardest is the four-color, 3-AM-on-HBO movie pitches on papers from unctuous mini-moguls. And what do suppliers lose that they weren't already doing without? If, as it's believed, a certain percentage of stores are outright hostile to anything other than a small selection of comic books starring Spider-Man or superhero lobotomies or whatever, are they any more likely to order small-run books just because they're in Previews? It isn't 1987 any longer; no one's ordering everything. Is there a noteworthy advantage to having a two-graph blurb on your work thumbed through by some scowling comic shop guy for 0.35 seconds? Won't the good stores order books they're passionate about anyway? Don't we really just lose those 1- and 2-copy pity orders that many stores make because they wish to support new efforts on principle?

Yeah, I don't know, either.

What I do know is that this particular clock's been ticking since 1995. A ringing noise shouldn't surprise anyone.

Postscript -- According to this post on cartoonist Jason Marcy's LiveJournal, one small press company has just decided to call it a day, although if and how much this policy announcement might have had an effect isn't known.
posted 4:25 am PST | Permalink

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