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News: Diamond and Small Press Series: Minor Minors
posted June 26, 2000
Is Diamond Necessary? -- Small Arts Comics Publishers and their Relationships with Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc.
In the fifth part of a series of articles on the relationship between small press publishers and Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., we will look at the problems experienced by a specific sub-set of publisher: the small arts or alternative comics publisher.
For many reasons, the small arts comic publisher is a crucial element in determining the nature of Diamond's relationship vis-Ã -vis the comics medium. Such publishers test two items of long-standing conventional wisdom concerning the distributor: first, that Diamond has little interest in working with small publishers, and second, Diamond has little to no interest in making any distinctions about the quality of work offered to them to distribute, beyond a rough idea of the competence necessary in order to make for a salable product.
Small arts publisher run the gamut from longtime comics fans entering the market with their first major enterprises (Brett Warnock and Chris Staros of Top Shelf), publishing veterans launching a personal enterprise (Robert Boyd of Westhampton House), and those experienced in other facets of the industry turning to their attention to publishing (longtime Million Year Picnic employee Tom Devlin, of Highwater Books). So in addition to the issues specifically discussed, and their implication for arts comics, the approachability of Diamond also becomes an issue. In other words, how hard is it to work with Diamond, and is it all worth it? The answers from small arts comics publishers run the gamut.
Step One: Having Books Listed
A common concern among small publishers (see the first segment of the series, "How Diamond Works," TCJ #215), is having one's product listed in Diamond's catalog. Listings are hardly guaranteed. There are two primary obstacles. The distributor makes decisions on whether or not to carry product based on a potential $1000 purchase order. In other words, Diamond must believe that the item will lead to at least $2500 in sales from comics retailers. This is in some ways a rough estimate of profitability -- certainly any books with less than a $1000 purchase won't make in-house standards of breaking even -- but is a standard by which Diamond assures the retail market of a streamlined catalog of potentially profitable items. Because what is profitable in the comics market is generally not the same kind of book as that which attracts the small alternative comics publisher, breaking into the Diamond catalog is a real concern.
Most of the books offered by small arts comic publishers have been accepted in the past few years. Robert Boyd of Westhampton House, a Massachusetts-based company who has offered independent movie tie-ins (the Dean Haspiel-drawn SLC Punk! comic book) and high-end imported work (books from the Israeli comics collective Actus Tragicus), told the Journal that Diamond has solicited every book from Westhampton offered to the distributor, and that meeting sales standards has not been a problem.
Highwater Books, Tom Devlin's books-only imprint that has offered work from Brian Ralph, Megan Kelso and James Kochalka, has nearly as high a success rate when it comes to having work carried by Diamond. However, work from the 'zine artist Jef Czekaj, the cartoonist behind "R2D2 Was a Punk Rocker" was declined by Diamond, and Devlin has received an initial rejection on the forthcoming Boys by Joan Reidy and Ron Rege, Jr. Still, Devlin told the Journal that his experience placing books with Diamond has been a good one, and that his problems with the distributor are in different areas. Commenting on his current relationship, Devlin said, "I don't have any titles planned for release with them right now. While I have found getting titles listed to be relatively easy (with the exception of Jef Czekaj's Hypertruck - they refused to carry it), I don't feel the books are reaching a very wide audience."
In contrast, both Top Shelf, the Georgia-based publisher and distributor, and Robot Publishing, the Los Angeles business of Robert Goodin that has specialized in work from animation-oriented cartoonists, told the Journal about experiences where past distribution efforts from each company have colored their current relationship with Diamond.
For Top Shelf's Chris Staros, that means everything is rosy. "At this point, Top Shelf Productions has built a reputation with Diamond such that they will solicit everything we give them, sight unseen. In the early days, they wanted to first see complete copies, but since then we've earned their trust." Staros cited only one book that Diamond refused to carry, and that was an annual magazine he published before joining forces with Brett Warnock in 1998. "In truth, the only thing that Diamond ever rejected was an early digest-sized version of The Staros Report (issue #2, in 1995). And, in retrospect, they were right to pass on it. It wasn't ready to compete on a national level at that point."
Staros adds that Top Shelf has been careful not to take advantage of having the distributor carry work sight unseen. The one exception led to a policy change on the part of the publisher. "They've always solicited the books when we've asked them to, and -- except for one instance where an artist didn't produce his book -- we've always delivered our books on time, as well. Interesting note: When Diamond justifiably canceled that title, we ended up changing our policy so that now, we don't solicit books until they are 'in the can'," he told the Journal.
Robot Publishing's experience with placing books in Diamond's catalog shows the reverse side of that relationship, as it may relate to sales. Publisher Robert Goodin told the Journal that his first efforts with Diamond came in 1998. "Diamond carried the first book that Robot published called Oden in 1998. After Oden sold rather poorly (I assume it was because of the $18 price for a book filled with unknown artists) Robot printed 6 little books at once in 1999. Those books were Binibus Barnabus, Patter Contraries, The Envelope Liqueur, Howdy Pardoner (little one), Howdy Pardoner Comic Adventures #1, and Clint Flicker. All of these books were $3 or less and I thought that it might be a better introduction to our work."
Taking this strategy further, Goodin developed a monthly release schedule for the second wave of Robot comics. "I worked out a schedule that we would solicit through Diamond," he said. "The first month we would offer Binibus Barnabus and Pater Contrarious, month two would be Howdy Pardoner Comic Adventures #1 and then on the third month we'd have The Envelope Liqueur, the little Howdy and Clint Flicker (Clint is a porn story so I wasn't sure if they would take it)." So far so good, but when initial sales reports came back, Goodie's carefully conceived-of schedule was put into jeopardy. "Everything was O.K. for the first two months, but when it came time to solicit for the third month I got a call from Diamond saying that they were going to drop us because the sales were so low."
Goodin confirmed the sales levels to the Journal, which he also stated were between 33-50% of total sales. Speaking of Diamond, Goodin says. "They were right, our orders were very low. Binibus and Pater Contrarious [had sales through Diamond of] 500; Howdy Pardner Comic Adventures #1, 200." So despite sharing the same reasonably positive evaluation of his overall experience with Diamond in those solicitations (he calls the process of selecting books to be solicited "acceptable" and notes that Diamond originally solicited the material), the eventual turn in the relationship left Goodin looking for answers.
The loss of one book, or one cycle of books, has the opportunity to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of a small publisher. While both Devlin and Goodin cite a number of factors in their current attitudes towards Diamond in general, and their relationships with the distributor specifically, both experiences of having books denied listing had an undeniable impact. Robert Boyd, asked about Devlin's relationship with Diamond, gave credence to the effect a single disruption in publishing plans can have. In an aside on the issue of arts-championing publishers like himself and others having to work with such a large distributor as Diamond, Boyd told the Journal, "Tom [Devlin] had an order canceled on a great book, Boys, so he might be a tad angry about that. That has a lot to do with his decision. I might be angry if I had an order canceled, too. It hasn't happened yet, though."
Working With Diamond
Most of the small arts comics publishers are reasonably happy with their working relationship with Diamond representatives. Staros was the most effusive in his positive comments, going so far as praising the distributor even during those times they were rejecting his work. He began with special praise for Diamond employees from his publisher's representatives to the purchasing
managers to the vice president in charge.
"From Steve Leaf, to Glen Folland, to Mark Herr, to Bill Schanes, everyone I've dealt with there has always treated me fairly and professionally," he said. Staros expressed sympathy for the professional obligations of his Diamond representatives. "When I've requested a big push, because I've believed strongly in something, they've tried to accommodate my requests," he told the Journal. "But even more importantly, when they've had to call me back and say 'no,' I understand that that is a business decision on their part, and I have to respect that. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pick up a phone and tell someone 'no', when a livelihood and a dream is at stake? When they call to say 'no' -- and they say "yes" just as often, by the way â€“ oddly enough, I even appreciate that. I'd rather someone have the guts to tell me 'no,' than not return my phone calls (or just plain ol' ignore my request). I'll give them credit for that as well â€“ being professional."
Westhampton's Boyd told the Journal that his company-directed liaison, Steve Leaf, returns phone calls and e-mails in an extremely timely fashion: "My product rep is very, very accessible." While Devlin and Goodin both had had difficulties with the distributor, neither one cited the individual representatives with whom they worked as a problem. "I've always been able to talk to my rep," Robot Publishing's Goodin told the Journal. "He's always been friendly and is a nice fella, but they still don't carry our books."
Devlin shared a similar observation about his publisher's representative: "Steve Leaf has been pretty responsive when I've called and had questions."
Also cited positively were Diamond's prompt payments and its timeliness in general. Boyd characterized Diamond's schedule of payments and solicitation as "lock-step" when asked about the speed with which the distributor does business, and, while he admitted to some problems with invoicing, the Westhampton publisher acknowledged, "They've always been fixed when I pointed them out." Top Shelf's Staros has had an even better experience concerning invoices. "As for our invoices, they've been absolutely flawless â€“ never a lost one, never a late one. No complaints there."
Only Highwater's Devlin was able to elaborate on specific difficulties. He told the Journal of a specific error with a re-listing of his initial books from Kochalka and Megan Kelso. "They refused to re-list Tiny Bubbles and Queen of the Black Black when through a mis-communication they accidentally listed them under Westhampton House," and also cited the length of the appeals process for books as an unappealing factor. As reported in this series' first article ("How Diamond Works," TCJ #215) books like Boys and Hypertruck which don't make Diamond's original distribution list may undergo an appeals process of several weeks through which stores examine books for potential salability. Although frustrated with the length of that process, Devlin had few complaints regarding the comportment of Diamond employees.
Knowing Your Place
In addition to generally positive words for Diamond representatives, all of the publishers spoken to by the Journal seem to be realists when it comes to their place within Diamond's larger business. Unlike complaints made by larger publishers, for someone publishing arts comics such things as exclusive covers and guaranteed catalog space are business decisions that have little bearing on their own section of the comics world.
"It's no big secret that the whole industry is still structured around superheroes and the monthly pamphlet comic book," Top Shelf's Staros told the Journal. "And just because Top Shelf (and other alternative publishers) would like to shift the entire[paragraph]industry to other subjects and the graphic novel format as well, doesn't mean that I'm blind to how this industry got to where it is today."
Westhampton's Robert Boyd sees the thrust of Diamond as less structural impediment than accident of history. "I guess the fact that Diamond operates on a monthly schedule that is essentially periodical-based hurts my more graphic-novel-based operation. But they still carry graphic novels and more comic stores are buying them. I think Diamond's structure is based on the 50-year-old practice of publishing monthly comic books. I don't blame Diamond for that."
In a similar vein, Staros told the Journal, "Even if Top Shelf ends up one of the martyrs for a future generation of publishers and artist and consumers, so be it. You're born when you're born, and you make the best of your life at that particular time. Diamond is a large company with a large overhead, and their focus has to be on what they can generate a lot of money from. A change in direction for them is dangerous and therefore has to be approached cautiously and slowly. It's our function to let them see the potential in the kinds of work that we do, so that eventually our books end up on the cover of Previews. With recent graphic novels like Good-bye, Chunky Rice and From Hell, Top Shelf (and Eddie Campbell Comics) have shown Diamond the potential explosion that can occur when 'Art' and 'Commerce' actually meet up. And that's really our goal: to produce 'Art' that can, on occasion, really meet up with 'Commerce.'"
Robot's Robert Goodin acknowledges the focus of the distributor as it relates to their decision to carry his books. "Diamond is a big company and their attention is where the money is. That's understandable. I don't expect them to promote, advertise or necessarily push my books. I just wish that they would carry them since even with our[paragraph]horrible sales through them, it was still half of our total [sales]." Goodin speaks not only in terms of his company's self-interest, but in terms of wider strategies by the distributor and its clients to deal with the downward spiraling market.
Asked whether Diamond has any appreciation of quality in books like his own, Gooding spoke in terms of general market issues. "Although my rep told me that he did like our books, I still don't feel that Diamond even understands what quality is (look at their catalog). I have never sensed any sort of passion for a well produced, innovative comic from anyone there. I meet people from other distribution companies, printers, store owners and there is a sense of excitement from them in their feelings for what Robot and other small publishers (Highwater, Top Shelf, Red Ink) are doing. I believe that we are all part of a movement to see all aspects of comics (writing, drawing, printing, paper) elevated (following Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly and about a dozen European publishers). As far as I know, Diamond simply doesn't get it."
Goodin is careful to indict the entire sales culture, and not just the distributor. He told the Journal, "One of the other reasons that [Diamond] stopped carrying our books were that they were oddly sized and retailers were complaining that they were difficult to[paragraph]display. I find it ironic that in a time when a giant like Marvel is going bankrupt, a distributor (and retailers alike) aren't more willing to try new things. I've yet to go into a bookstore where all of the books are the same size and of one or two fringe genres. I don't believe that this kind of thinking is going to lead to any kind of long-term success for any company or industry."
The overall "taste" of the distributor is where Staros at Top Shelf and Boyd at Westhampton have more clearly defined differences of opinion. Staros, as perhaps befits a publisher with such a solid relationship with Diamond, sees Diamond as very open to small publishers in a manner which Goodin might approve, albeit with reservations. Speaking of Diamond's view of his own line, Staros told the Journal, "It would be impossible to expect an individual buyer to personally appreciate each alternative graphic novel or comic book like each title's most rabid fan would. In the past, they've loved some of our books and been lukewarm on others. But, they've always appreciated that what we do is an important part of the industry and have supported our line across the[paragraph]board. Again, the fact that they let us participate at all suggests that they truly do love comics, and they're not just there to sell widgets. I come from the world of big business, and many big businesses sell things that none of their employees give a crap about, because they're just there to turn a profit. Diamond must love what they do in order to give free catalog space to titles that don't generate the kinds of revenue that their big titles do. In the end, they recognize that the future superstars of the industry are very likely to come out of the things we do."
Boyd's view, on the other hand, separates the taste of individuals in the corporation from the corporation's goals. "I don't think quality enters into their decision-making at all, except I suppose when they turn down something where the presentation is amateurish," the publisher told the Journal. "Diamond is a corporation -- corporations don't have taste, they have sales goals. The people I work with there have never said that they like or dislike a certain book of mine, but they do often ask for freebies--which implies a certain liking, I guess."
Goodin wishes that some of that liking led to being carried in Diamond's catalog. "You never know," Goodin said, "someday Robot may be a bigger player in the market, but we have to be given a chance."
When the question was put to Diamond's Mark Herr, who told the Journal in his initial interview that small publishers were important because one could develop into a major industry player like perennial top 5 publisher Dark Horse Comics, the company's Purchasing Manager reiterated Diamond's general statement of support towards potential larger clients. "When Diamond sees a new publisher who has potential, we do everything we can to help them grow. It is in our best interest to nurture the small publishers who seem to have potential."
Tom Devlin's criticisms of the distributor fall somewhere between the two shores represented by Top Shelf and Westhampton on one side and Robot on another, incorporating aspects of both. Like Staros and Boyd, Devlin seems to have a realistic view of books like his own within Diamond's larger business picture. But like Goodin at Robot, he's more openly critical of the result.
The result is Devlin may end up leaving Diamond altogether. "I haven't been able to test this yet but I think if I work with Last Gasp, FM and Cold Cut (with them having the knowledge that my books aren't available through Diamond) I will be able to make up those numbers easy. Considering that Diamond is the only game in town, their market penetration for small press really seems to be lousy. My belief is that they are simply not necessary for a small publisher like Highwater."
That last sentence is the key to Devlin's critique: Devlin sees a company whose overall aims and specific policies do not work to meet the needs of his business.
A source of general frustration for Devlin, and one major reason why leaving Diamond could be a possibility for Highwater is that the distributor reflects very little of his overall sales. Devlin told the Journal that Diamond sales on his books generally account for 10 percent of a book's overall sales. The most successful Highwater offering through Diamond, the James Kochalka book Kissers, had Diamond sales accounting for 20 percent of total sales. "Orders in general have been pretty low," said Devlin.
Judging from re-orders and his best guess as publisher and retailer, Devlin believes that Diamond is not only selling very few Highwater Books, it is selling these books to a handful of its clients. "My guess is that there are 20 stores that account for 90 percent of my orders through Diamond," Devlin told the Journal. "That means that with my best-selling title (600 copies through Diamond), 60 copies are spread out through the remaining 2980 retailers. That's terrible." Devlin said that other avenues have been more successful for him. "I've done best at conventions where people can actually see the books, and through direct reorder. Last Gasp and LPC, my bookstore distributor, have numbers equaling and sometimes surpassing Diamond. I have probably sold a tenth of what I've sold on Cave-In through the Million Year Picnic alone."
This has three potential ramifications. The first is that such figures are an indictment of Diamond's ability to reach any level of market saturation with certain books. Second, the kinds of stores that Devlin names are those that traditionally order from sources other than Diamond, making them available from sources other than Diamond. Third, the figures from personal sales indicate that there are markets to be tapped that aren't being touched by current methods.
Devlin indicts some specific policies as contributing to a sales culture that has very little to do with the aims of a small publisher like Highwater. As discussed in the "How Diamond Works" (TCJ #215), sales aids are offered to publishers on a by-purchase basis rather than as sales aids offered to all publishers without cost. Devlin, a former manager at Cambridge's Million Year Picnic comics store, contrasts this with his experiences working with other publishers. "When I worked at the Million Year Picnic I would receive weekly calls from Jon Longhi (Last Gasp) and Tony Shenton (NBM, Highwater, Robot, Red Ink, the IMP) telling us about new product and taking reorders on old stuff," he said. "Diamond has nothing like this. The sales force they have is mostly DC-hired reps or the 'toy guy'. They could easily have a small staff educated in the small press and making an effort to push that stuff."
Like Robot's Goodin, Devlin believes that growth techniques aimed at small publishers would be good business for Diamond. "Taking a longer view is in their own interest but they go for the short dollar all the time. I certainly don't think it's their responsibility to advance the medium, but from a business point it's just short-sighted. They should be a little bit smarter than that. Most businesses look at the long-term as well as the short term. Diamond's long term business plan is probably something along the line of 'keep looking for stuff to make dolls out of.'"
Devlin feels that his publisher's representative with Diamond is focused on this system rather than on the common goal of increased sales for his books. He told the Journal, "I don't think any of the work I've done with Diamond has had any real effect on sales. I've certainly never been coached by anyone at Diamond on how to increase sales. Usually, they're just trying to find ways for publishers to spend money on advertising in Previews or to buy lists of stores that carry the publisher's book. My book distributor LPC mails me that information every month as a standard service so I can tailor advertising to those retailers."
Specific policies of Diamond also play a role in making it a less-suitable business partner for Devlin. The publisher told the Journal he believes that Highwater's lack of periodical comics of any kind limits its business, by eliminating it from consideration by stores that are focused primarily or exclusively on periodicals. In addition, the ramifications of Diamond servicing that kind of business make for policies that have an unnecessary consequence on Highwater product. Says Devlin of Diamond, "I think they over-emphasize lateness as a detriment to sales especially when it concerns art-comics/trade-paperbacks. I know how important timeliness is for a 'hot' title like Danger Girl or Battle Chasers and I also realize this would be a tricky policy to enforce. 'You can't be late unless you publish art comics then we'll let you slide.'"
So while Devlin realizes his place in Diamond's overall business plans, his conclusion is that this is a choice on Diamond's part as well. "I'm not so naÃ¯ve as to think that Diamond is making any money off me," he said. "Most of their cash is generated by the majors and toys. But I do think that if they chose to nurture art comic sales, they could increase them."
Diamond Purchasing Manager Mark Herr agrees with Devlin and the conventional wisdom held by several small publishers that there are very few stores buying small press alternative material. "There does seem to be a hard-core group of comic book specialty stores that support the small press art comic heavily. Every title is different, so it is very hard to make a 10/90 statement, but there are fewer stores willing to take a chance on a complete unknown these days, with a larger group supporting the established small press." Herr believes that as much as that figure holds true, individual books have a chance of breaking out of that smaller constituency in the manner of Bone's sales gain after its initial years of publication. Citing a more current example, Herr told the Journal, "Of course, every rule has its exception, and one current example is Liberty Meadows from Insight Studios. Their numbers are far beyond 20% of the stores."
In a couple of the circumstance, Diamond pleads for a more comprehensive understanding of how they serve their clients. Speaking to the charge that timeliness with an alternative trade does not suffer from sales degradation in the manner of a mainstream monthly or bi-monthly, Herr pointed to other factors: "The lateness policy is not just about degradation in sales, but budgeting on the part of the retailers, and sales cycles he may have. A James Kochalka title, to use your example, will sell a lot less in a college town in July then it will in April, as most of that retailer's customer base has gone home for the summer. When the publisher is soliciting a title, he should feel confident that he can hit his marks. Diamond still gives every publisher a 30-day late grace period, and some retailers say that is too much. But, we understand that unexpected things can happen, and there should be a grace period of some sort. That said, if the publisher or creator is not confident that they can hit their marks, they are probably better off waiting another month to solicit their title."
Herr was less analytical and more defensive when it came to a counter-argument about increased small-publisher presence in the Star System and re-listings. "Primarily, we see Previews as a front-list publication," he told the Journal. "We are not opposed[paragraph]to doing re-lists on occasion, but they have to make sense for us. Ultimately, Diamond needs profitable items in our catalog. There is a lot of small press out there and if we opened up aggressive re-lists to everyone, our catalog would practically double in size while the sales per item would drop dramatically. We would most likely get complaints from the retailer side, as some already feel our catalog is too big. As for the Star System, we currently focus on self-contained trade paperbacks, rather then periodicals, and we feel that we support the better-selling small press through Star System listings. We have also recently begun re-listing some of the other backlist titles from various publisher through Previews to see if the demand warrants us adding more of these titles to Star, or re-adding them, in some cases."
Asked by the Journal to comment on the fact that Diamond's services are available to the highest bidder rather than by need or according to a standard that promoted certain books within the art form, Herr made an appeal. Said the Purchasing Manager, "Our services are cheap! We do feel that we work with many of the small press and help them in different ways. There are programs like the Small Press Samplers, which Diamond does not make a profit on, and actually winds up costing us money, that is open to the small press as a simple way to help build sales. There are real costs involved with the different services we offer, and to do them for free on any kind of large scale would be impractical." Herr simply disagrees with Devlin about the effectiveness of small press salesmen, citing cost. "Again, most of these have real costs associated with them, and it would take a lot of $2.95 comics to be sold to pay that sales rep's salary. We do[paragraph]employ all different kinds of reps in sales and customer service; with many of them being fans of the small press. There are other opportunities and avenues that we can help support titles. With most small press, we have found that physical samples do much better then a phone call, as most of our retailers are going to be unfamiliar with titles just by a list of names."
Overall, Herr argued Diamond's sales obligation was to the entirety of its business and not to a specific segment, regardless of the case made for potential benefits.
"The other can of worms with this scenario, is wherever we draw the line, someone won't be happy," Herr told the Journal. "Either by judging "potential growth" or judging who qualifies as needy. In today's market, money is tight for every size publisher, and all publishers would appreciate anything we could do for free. At the same time, we have to watch how we spend our resources and use them where they make the most sense to us.
Is Leaving Necessary?
Even some of Devlin's friends in the comics business are less than convinced by Devlin's arguments against working with Diamond at all. Staros gave figures to the Journal that indicated Diamond played a more important role with his company than with Devlin's, but not by much. "As for the percentage of our gross," he said, "Diamond represents about 30% of our gross income; with our other comic book distributors and LPC (our book trade distributor) representing another 30%, and the sales that Brett and I do personally representing the other 40%." However, he has come to a radically different conclusion.
Staros sees Diamond much as Diamond portrays itself in its dealing with smaller publishers -- as one option among many. "Each distributor we use â€“ including Diamond, Last Gasp, FM, Cold Cut, Red Route, LPC, BugPowder, Bries, Bud Plant, BTP, etc. â€“ all are slices of a bigger pie," he told the Journal. "Without all of them working together we would cease to exist altogether. And that's why we try to support all of them, morally and physically. Sure, some sell more of our products than others, and each have their own marketing schemes that provide some plusses and minuses here and there. But they're all doing the best they can with our products. Some charge us for catalog space, but go out with sales reps and market our products for free. While others don't charge for catalog space, but charge fees to go out and market our books. Everybody's set up differently, strengths and minuses all around. I don't think there's a perfect model to compare one to another."
Staros reinforced Diamond's portrait of itself by citing the speed and timeliness of its payments. "Diamond's 30% is actually the most important part of the equation," the Top Shelf publisher told the Journal, "as their checks are so quick and reliable, that they've become the most crucial element of our cash flow. We use the Diamond checks to help (if not) pay for the print runs of our books."
Robert Boyd simply sees no logic in cutting off a portion of his business, even if it were unsatisfactory in some ways. Speaking to Devlin's decision to try and do without Diamond, Boyd told the Journal, "I just don't see the upside to this strategy. Whatever problems Diamond has as a distributor, they do have some benefits -- fast payment for one. But more important, they're one distribution option out of many. It seems pointless not to sell your books to someone who wants them and is willing to pay for them. I mean, if Diamond wasn't the big bad monopoly distributor, but just a small distributor, Tom wouldn't think twice about staying with them. And since Diamond is an increasingly small part of his sales, he should think of them as just another 'small' distributor.
Picking up on some of the arguments his fellow arts comics publishers make but with a different interpretation, Devlin pointed to a few additional reasons beyond dissatisfaction with Diamond to concentrate his business elsewhere. One is based on the prompt payments as cited by Staros, which Devlin sees as potentially bad for the future overall growth of his company. "Diamond is really easy to work with in many respects," he told the Journal. "They have things worked out with Quebecor (the main comics printer), and you just send off a purchase order, shipping is taken care of, you get the big fat Diamond check without any worries. I'm not sure how healthy this is, though. I think it makes small publishers less aggressive towards other methods of distribution."
Devlin also confirmed Boyd's suspicion that a lot of his problems with Diamond have to do with its size and position in the market -- a "Because I Can" philosophy. "What it comes down to is I think I can cover those sales with distributors that actually care about my books. That is pretty much it. The idea of not working with Diamond does appeal to me. They're just a big behemoth that doesn't care about art comics. And if I can make up those sales otherwise, then why do I need Diamond? I also think I'm sort of in a position to make that stand, where Fantagraphics Books and Drawn & Quarterly aren't. They get Diamond orders just from having been there so long, and that isn't a concern for Highwater."
Staros and Boyd both dismissed that the danger of becoming dependent on Diamond as long as a publisher pursues a variety of distribution outlets. In fact, Boyd even sees Diamond becoming less important to his overall business over the long term. "I see them becoming less important over time."
Staros summarized by emphasizing slow growth. "Look, I love Tom Devlin; I love Highwater; and I love the books he publishes. We're also good friends. But we both know that we feel differently on this topic. I'm willing to work with Diamond over the long term to get them more and more behind our books â€“ and they're doing just that. And anyway, I will always want to be distributed by the largest distributors, because, in the end, they are the most likely to distribute the largest quantity of our books. Simple. Brett and I are publishing so many books a year now, that any shortfalls are way beyond our personal ability to shore up anymore. Therefore, it's imperative that Top Shelf stand on its own. The only way to do this is to use every distributor possible to[paragraph]move our products. As I said earlier, Diamond moves 30% of our product at present. In any other industry, that would call for a case of Scotch to be sent to them annually. Thankfully, they aren't that thirsty."
Boyd said, "I think his dropping of Diamond is more of a publicity stunt than a necessary business decision."
Distributor, Stores Weigh In
Speaking to other small distributors and five or six major comics stores, the Journal investigated the overall necessity of a small arts comic publisher staying with Diamond Comic Distributors.
For distributors, there exists a trade-off between potential business from former Diamond clients, and the free publicity of appearing in Diamond's Previews. Wayne Markeley at FM International, a small distributor which specializes in doing business with the small comics publishers mentioned in this article, explained, "We have found that when we list a book and Diamond does not list it we sell a certain number of copies. If we [then] list the same book six months later at the same time when Diamond lists it then we will sell ten times the original number. I think this is because most retailers look at both our catalog and at Previews in determining what to purchase. We are selling to the top 10 percent of retailers and our client list is a who's who of the biggest stores in the world, but unless it is listed in Previews most retailers are very hesitant to buy a new book."
Markeley did admit that the subject hadn't really come up before. "On the other hand, we have never heavily pushed and advertised that we are the only source for a book except in the pages of our monthly catalog," he said. "We don't know if an ad campaign in Comics Retailer or Comics Journal, etc would bring a book to retailer's attention. We also have never had an exclusive book which had a strong following to begin with. If we had an exclusive that was at the interest level of a Spawn or X-Men or Pokemon, or whatever this weeks "must have" book is, then it would probably draw retailers to us and we could sell huge numbers."
Mark Thompson of Cold Cut Distribution was more blunt. "Frankly, I think refusing to go through Diamond is foolish," he told the Journal. "It doesn't gain the publisher any preferential treatment through us, but it's bound to cost them sales. On the one hand, it clearly results in higher sales (and hence higher profits) for us, so I suppose I should be in favor of it. But I think it hurts the long-term viability of a book if it doesn't go through the main pipeline - and where we really make our money is in supporting books over the long haul and helping stores restock comics on an ongoing basis."
The stores contacted by the Journal refused to discount Devlin's potential business strategy, saying that the potential for direct sales existed, but cited concerns. Ralph Mathieu, of the Las Vegas comics store Alternate Reality is one of those stores that carries titles from all the publishers cited in this article, and one that works through Diamond almost exclusively. "Presently I order only through Diamond, but a couple of times a year and at San Diego Con I order direct from the smaller companies for stuff Diamond no longer has in stock." He told the Journal he had no problems with initial orders or re-orders from small companies in his store, but would be willing to go the extra mile if those books were no longer available through Diamond due to the importance of alternative comics in his store. "Companies such as Fantagraphics, Slave Labor, Highwater, and Top Shelf (to name a few) are very important to the identity of my store, the retailer told the Journal. "If a company which publishes books I carry stopped going through Diamond I wouldn't have a problem ordering direct with that company."
Neither would Ilia Carson-Letelier, of Los Angeles' Meltdown Comics. However, Carson-Letelier is careful to point out potential impediments for a small publisher to make a strategy work with his store. "It would only make it difficult if they did not[paragraph]do a good enough job publicizing that they were no longer with Diamond. I would also suggest that they hire account reps to personally contact their individual accounts to make sure they are aware of the new titles coming out (and get orders directly over the phone... e-mail is OK too, but so much junk comes in it is hard to sort through what is a solicitation and what is just noise)."
Frank Hussey, manager of Olympia Washington's Danger Room Comics, another store that counts alternative comics and small arts comic specifically as important sales growth tools, also sees a mixed bag for a company that tried to go without Diamond. "I don't think that would negatively affect our orders from the publisher so long as they e-mailed us an order form every month along with a list of everything available for back-order. In fact, I could see potential benefit to the publisher as it would make us more aware exactly which books were theirs and make us more likely to do direct re-orders. And obviously, the publisher retains the money that would have gone to the distributor." Where Hussey is skeptical is not with existing stores, but in expanding a publisher's business: "On the other hand, it might make it more difficult for the publisher to reach new stores."
A potential business move from Tom Devlin may cause only ripples in the larger picture. In fact, Diamond's public stance that they are one option amongst many would in many ways be supported by the occasional publisher who decides to make do without their services. A deeper issue, the frustration of someone like Robert Goodin, is more difficult to cast aside. Without a deep understanding of the comics market and its history -- the jaded view of a Devlin or a Boyd, what remains is honest attempt to make art in the hopes that some sort of reciprocal effort existed in the business structure separate from bottom-line concerns.
"I don't think that it should be forgotten that our orders were abysmal and based on that I can understand why Diamond got nervous," Goodin said. "I'm sure that they are sent absolute shit for solicitation every day that doesn't sell and they need to be aware of this problem and cut things that don't perform. My problem is this: we aren't producing shit and I think that given time we will find an audience. We are a completely unknown group of artists producing books that are non-genre in odd sizes. It doesn't completely surprise me that we were not immediately embraced. What I don't understand is that no one at Diamond looked at what we are doing and thought that this is something that is worthwhile and it's going to take time to be successful. It's much like movies today. If a movie doesn't do well in it's first weekend, it's gone.
"I believe that a book like Howdy Pardoner, which is well written, drawn and produced; which is enjoyable by all ages and by people who would not normally read comics, has a much greater potential for big sales numbers than the majority of alienating superhero books. I'm not talking about success in comic stores, but in the much bigger ocean of bookstores, which is where all of us want to be.
"That was an argument about money and financial success. There is also the more obvious one of: support quality comics because they should be supported. I would assume that Diamond was started by people who loved comics and wanted to support them. Where is that passion now? I never started publishing comics to get rich (there are much better ways to do that), but because of a love for the medium and seeing a large untapped potential there. It seems to me that Diamond has little to lose and plenty to gain by taking a chance by helping these little guys (like myself) now. I suppose that this sends us back to the question: Does Diamond appreciate higher quality material? Sadly, I don't think that they do. Worse still, I don't know if there is any business incentive to care, at least not until the entire superhero market finally collapses."