To highlight the brainless punch line that is the current state of affairs in the comics industry, let's examine two problems side by side.
First a stores problem- then a creators problem.
Comic stores are in fear of mass closings.
This seems to fly in the face of the public numbers and press releases. Diamond Comics, the monolith that effectively controls distribution, claims ever-higher sales in their shareholder-friendly industry reports. http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/alltime.html
Sales that just get better and better, how splendid.
Joe Field @flycojoe
Word on the street is there will be a round of #comics shop closings in early '17. Only the support of fans can prevent that! 6/8 pic.twitter.com/nxmABGfjOK
A recent newsletter from Vault of Midnight stated 2016 has been their lowest year in sales since the Great Recession. But this contradicts a rush of happy-talk publicity from Publishers Weekly and other industry outlets, who glowingly claim more comic stores (certainly not gaming stores!) than ever before are rising.
Are these concerned comic store owners simply confused? Perhaps their accounting is off. Diamond reports that sales are dynamite!
Of course, not one of those Diamond sales figures necessarily means that a customer actually bought a comic.
Diamond's figures only document bulk sales to the stores themselves.
And- funny little detail- Diamond mandates that shops order a high mandatory minimum for every single title they want to stock. If you have a smaller store that will only sell three copies of the latest She-Hulk? Too bad. You're buying a whole box or you get nothing.
And surprise- Diamond will then refuse to accept returns for any unsold merchandise. Because what could be the harm in offloading 100% of the risk to the little guy?
"...all merchandise is sold by DCD on a non-returnable basis unless otherwise authorized
in writing by DCD." https://retailer.diamondcomics.com/support/retailer_docs/newaccts/diamondtos.pdf
So you see, Diamond can brag about going gangbusters while stores are simply going bust.
...I'm beginning to understand why this reddit exists. https://www.reddit.com/r/diamondsucks/
"This one startled me a little bit, but I’ve heard multiple stories about the customers, including regulars, dropping out..." "...Enough people are agreeing this is happening for me to believe it, but the “why” is up for debate." Todd Allen, http://www.comicsbeat.com/why-are-the-comics-retailers-worried-about-mass-store-closings/
With the superhero crowd fading- for whatever reason- stores desperately need a fresh injection of new readers.
New readers! What a coincidence, that's exactly the problem so many online creators are grappling with currently.
Because you see, there isn't one comics market. There are two.
The world of comics today exists in two parallel dimensions which do not overlap.
When I started Vivid Publishing a decade ago, I called for the rise of a new market ( http://vividstuff.blogspot.com/2009/04/article-6-action-road-to-new-market.html ) and it has arrived.
There's the world of comic shops- and the world of crowdfunders.
Crowdfunding has spurred a genuine renaissance- young creators, new visions, new books, and a voraciously supportive mob of enthused new readers.
Patreon, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and similar platforms are fostering the next generation of talent. From the near- infinite churn of untrammeled creative experimentation in the cauldron of webcomics, viable careers are emerging, surging forth on ascendant standout works of art. Beautiful, captivating books- produced with professional touches that include hardcover, spot-foil and embossing. The art, story and production quality of renaissance creators is pristine, thanks to the support of the readers in the crowdfunding market.
But therein lies one of the biggest challenges facing crowdfunding creators- actually delivering their books to customers. There is not yet an infrastructure to make packaging, storage, fulfillment, and marketing easy- not to mention some kind of full-time platform to focus on sales, while the creators can focus on creating.
Rather, creators have to tackle these logistical issues single-handedly, or by assembling a patchwork of ad-hoc companies to fill in the gaps.
Fortunately readers love the books enough to fund them, and vault past these hurdles.
Partially because the books produced are often vastly more accessible to new readers: Standalone stories and coherent series, rather than the tangled, inextricably cross-referenced swarms of content endlessly spreading from Marvel and DC.
But Marvel and DC are basically all the comic stores have-within their brick walls, you'd never know the glimmering crowdfunding market even exists.
So those are the two problems, in the two separate markets:
We have a thriving crowdfunding market missing vital infrastructure to assist getting books from creators to readers, and we have a comic shop landscape starving for new books and readers.
Books that need stores and stores that need books.
This is a real simple problem to solve- isn't it?
There's one rock-hard ossified obstacle lodged between retailers and hope:
Diamond Comics Distribution.
Diamond is, in the words of underground journalist Jude Terror, a "distribution monopoly [that] enables Marvel and DC to churn out endless gimmick-based garbage to dwindling readership with no economic repercussions because they control the entire market." https://twitter.com/judeterror
Let those last words sink in- they control the entire market.
But it gets worse- not only do they control the ring, but they have a dog in the fight.
Diamond eliminated the competition and seized control of the entire comics market during the brutal Exclusivity Wars in the mid 1990's. There used to be dozens of other distributors serving comic shops-
And they were all mercilessly crushed.
Very strange timing for those Exclusivity Wars. In the old field with more distributors and more indie publishers- you know, this little thing called "competition"- DC and especially Marvel were seeing a cataclysmic drop in their market share.
They were going down, and going down fast.
But poof- like magic! After the trade war and their insider deals with Diamond, that frown turned upside down. Their market share trend immediately, dramatically, and permanently spiked upwards.
Have you ever wondered why Marvel and DC seem to be so ubiquitous in stores, while anything different struggles and slips off the shelves?
Because Diamond not only controls the market, but has an incentive to tilt it in favor of their exclusive business partners. Hard.
Diamond has engineered special advantages for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image- acting as their exclusive sales agent and rigging an insider discount structure, easier profit thresholds, and uncontested premium placement in their PREVIEWS catalog.
These insider kickbacks were agreed upon when they murdered the competing distributors, and all shook hands together over their graves. Who wants to bet there was a lightning strike in the background?
This exclusive relationship places perverse incentives in place. Diamond cuts their logistical headaches working with a few huge companies, and makes more profit. They want to keep Marvel and DC from looking at greener pastures- and they have total control over the retail landscape. So they make sure it's landscaped just special for Marvel and DC, without any viable competition having a chance to erode their agreed-upon market share.
For decades now the Diamond monopoly has curated, for itself and its special interests, a withering, impenetrable market.
I'm all for capitalism- but the Achilles heel of the system is the tendency to devolve into a stagnant monopoly with no competition. And the comic industry now is feeling the frustrating crystallization of life within an unchallenged monopoly.
I think it might be high time for just a little challenging.
Those of us creating, reading, and selling comics can do better. We can successfully bypass Diamond and bring new life to comic shops. Together we can implement a rescue system- we're producing a video about one possible solution, the ComicShopList. A decentralized, modular, crowdsourced pre-order catalog that incurs no financial risk to store owners.
But the simple truth is, nobody gets motivated to solve a problem they don't even perceive. Most readers have never even heard of Diamond Distribution. They don't understand why comic shops always seem to be struggling.
Most creators just take it for granted that their customers are all online, and they write off comic shops as inaccessible without really considering why. So let's talk about why.
Let's talk about Diamond!
After all this time, after their uncontested dominance and control ,and in light of these chronic industry problems, isn't it fair to think that perhaps we could have the temerity to ask a few questions, and get a few answers? Isn't answering a few questions the least they could do?
Questions like, exactly how much are the exclusive advantages worth that Marvel and DC enjoy? What are the precise rates, factoring in the accrued marketing value of the preferential Previews placements, what rates do they make outside authors pay, and how many smaller publishers have gone out of business during Diamond's reign?
Questions like, didn't anyone think it was the least bit creepy for their logo to be a rendition of the entire planet earth locked within an angular prison?
Questions like, why did they raise the minimum profit benchmarks for smaller publishers in recent years, and who was involved with the US Justice Department investigation of Diamond in the late 90's?
But Diamond doesn't seem to be in the business of answering questions- not even for journalists. Their entire PR department couldn't be bothered to provide a comment for a recent Bezinga article discussing the fallout of Diamond's monopoly.
"Sullivan is among an almost unanimity of comic book retailers who say Diamond is bad news. Retailers must pre-order a set number of issues, which makes new titles a gamble. Everybody orders "Spider-Man" or "Batman," naturally."
And one big question we should all be asking:
What did they do to the "Comics Whisperer?"
Because, you see, someone else DID try to set up an alternate distribution service.
And they promptly vanished.