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Newsmaker Interview: Tony Shenton
posted May 28, 2008

As noted in our coverage and elsewhere, independent sales representative Tony Shenton lost the Fantagraphics account when that company signed its recent exclusivity deal with Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. I checked in with Tony to see how he was taking the news, and what his future plans were. My thanks to Vito Delsante for putting us in touch.

TOM SPURGEON: How did you hear about Fantagraphics going exclusive with Diamond? What was your initial reaction?

TONY SHENTON: Tom, I was called by Jason Miles on May 9th. While I was shocked and saddened, I also felt that it was a logical decision considering the frustrations of most publishers. If you do business with shops directly, the picking, packing, invoicing, accounting, and collections process can wear you down eventually. Whether the decision will have the intended results... selling more books with fewer problems doing it... is the gamble.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an idea of how wide-ranging your representation was? For instance, how many stores were there to whom you repped Fantagraphics?

SHENTON: I'm unsure of the actual number of shops that placed orders for Fantagraphics. Between the comics trade and the adult trade, I think around 130 shops are on my email list for small presses. The greater part of that number placed at least one order. Some were regular customers.

SPURGEON: Is it possible for you to continue doing what you're doing without Fantagraphics as a prestige client?

SHENTON: This is going to be a very rough stretch. If I just sat still, I would say that I should just pack it in, but I am presently pursuing other potential clients, and I am actively inviting and approaching others. It's too early to tell if I'll have to start eating cat food.

SPURGEON: Do you think the historical moment may have passed for independent sales reps? Is there a sales level where what you do actually sustains itself effectively in the long-term, or is the math loaded against you?

SHENTON: Well, as I think I am the only indy sales rep in the comics industry, I would be hard pressed to say that a historical moment has passed. Then again, those involved in making history are often blind to that fact. In the book industry, the trend is for indy reps to band together to retain clients and increase their publisher lists. I don't really have that option in the comics industry, but there are still options available.

As far as the math goes, it's always been stacked against me, I think. Not all retailers or small presses like the idea of a sales rep. There are a limited number of publishers I can actively and effectively represent, and a limited number of shops with whom I can have a personal relationship. I've found that to be successful, one has to have that personal touch.

I've often called Diamond the shotgun, while I'm the rifle. Some publishers are satisfied with the shotgun. Others need the rifle because they know there are shops that choose to do as little business with Diamond as possible, for any number of reasons, or they recognize that there are many quality comics in the market that Diamond doesn't sell for logistic and financial reasons. Retailers recognize the limitations of Diamond as well; some want another alternative and are willing to deal with the increased accounting and correspondence in order to have better access to products they know they can sell, or to have access to items that are in limited release, like mini-comics, to diversify their shops.

SPURGEON: Have you paid any attention to the way the story has broke, and how people have reacted to what happens to you under this deal? What have you been hearing from your clients?

SHENTON: I think it's impossible for one person whose job isn't to follow the news to see the track of news items today, but I was not unaware of what was going on. I'm not comfortable with reading about myself much, but most of what I've seen posted and the correspondence I have received shows concern for my business and my personal welfare, which is humbling.

SPURGEON: What's next for you, Tony? Will you continue this aspect of your business?

SHENTON: For the foreseeable future: I will attempt to alter and add to my product line to find items that will appeal to a broader retailer base, and try to weather the storm. This isn't just something that can be dropped overnight for a new career.

This isn't the worst possible disaster. After the 9/11 attacks, customers stayed out of comic shops in droves, which was what led me to approach Fantagraphics in the first place, and there have been other more personal tragedies that have affected work. I'm still repping the excellent graphic novels and comics from NBM/Papercutz and Drawn & Quarterly, and about 100 other small presses. I'll just have to try a bit harder to sell what I do have, and find those retailers who care enough to keep a good stock of indy titles in their stores.