Trying to Find a Balance

A look at the current state of the direct market, and its resistance to change in certain corners

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

That saying has been on my mind lately as I’ve witnessed the direct market struggle to adjust to a new world order the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon it. Diamond Comic Distributors, the (previously) sole direct market distributor of single issues, temporarily closed because of the virus. 1 Retailers themselves have largely shut their doors as well because of shelter-in-place orders, outside of those that can deliver, offer curbside pickup, or mail inventory to readers. And because of those two bad beats, that side of the comics industry has largely halted.

That means there have been no new single-issue comics – print or digital, outside a smattering of digital first releases – since March 25th. That’s not to say there have been no comics, of course. There have been trade and graphic novel releases, webcomics, digital comics, and any number of other formats and delivery methods throughout. But turning off the flow of single issues has led to a seismic shift in the industry, and one with an area of effect that extends far beyond just the most frequently discussed players. As much as we seemingly want to look at this issue as a broader industry one, that’s ignoring the cost it has had on a micro scale.

Creators with pencils down. Employees at publishers being furloughed, or worse. Readers wondering where the comics went. 2 Retailers questioning whether or not they’ll ever open back up. These are the costs of one decision most everyone made at the outset of this, and that was that in the face of crisis, the best answer was to stop doing everything.

And as we’ve gotten further into this situation, I’ve started to wonder if that may been the wrong answer altogether.

Worth noting: this article isn’t meant to be the comic book equivalent of people who openly wonder questions like, “Is the solution worse than the problem?” when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. While that may seem the direction I’m heading, closing down segments of the economy in favor of, you know, reducing the number of people who die during this is a slam dunk move. Economies have a difficult time operating when everyone who participates in them is sick or dying, so no, the solution is not worse than the problem.

But that is in a situation where there largely aren’t other solutions. Comics? I’m not sure if there aren’t workable alternatives, even if they aren’t necessarily for everyone. Many of them match what the restaurant industry has had to do in the face of this, which is shift from dine-in to take-out and varying flavors of that idea.

Take Portland, Oregon’s Books with Pictures, which quickly became a mail-order, curbside pickup, and delivery-oriented shop, somehow managing to stay level with last year’s numbers because of its rapid adjustments. 3 Or Maryland and Virginia’s Third Eye Comics, who deployed many of the same ideas but also leveraged Facebook Live and an expanded version of the gift certificate concept to stay in good shape. Across the globe, we’ve seen countless shops take on ideas that were previously secondary or even foreign to them to survive, leveraging online stores, delivery, mail-order and beyond because that’s what the situation has asked of them. As several told me last week, that has also meant less money for more effort, but desperate times have called for desperate measures. Comic shops have performed valiantly in the face of the pandemic, discovering new ways of doing business that allowed them to not just survive, but thrive relative to expectations.

Like many other industries, these comic shops realized that they can’t just act like today is the same as yesterday. Adjustments needed to be made, so they made them, if possible. 4 Unfortunately, some have been resistant to change. While many shops have dealt with the amorphous nature of this pandemic with corresponding flexibility, that hasn’t always been the case, especially when new ideas are on the table. As other options have been presented, the only guarantee in regards to the response has been the velocity of the rebuke from certain corners.

Yanick Paquette and Nathan Fairbairn’s cover to The Dreaming #20, one of the first comics released under the new DC distribution plan

Whether you’re talking the quick-to-rise-and-quick-to-fall ComicHub plan 5 or DC’s decision to use alternative distribution methods via the two biggest retailers in DCBS and Midtown, anything that has resembled an alternative to “let’s change nothing and hope for the best” has been met with often vicious reactions. No matter what is said, there is always something to push back with. Sometimes the complaints are understandable, like how many would prefer to not order from their biggest competitors or the simple idea that the majority of shops are closed because of shelter-in-place orders so why should publishers sell them comics? Those are legit complaints about complicated ideas, and pushback is understandable.

But other times, the grievances evolve into less reasonable territory, whether it’s more confounding complaints like “this will help readers understand pirating comics exists” 6 or that DCBS/Midtown will use order information from shops to steal customers via social media advertising. 7 Whenever there was a new idea, it felt like the only certainty was that a litany of dismissals would soon follow, with the logic behind each varying dramatically.

The response was never “How can we make this better?” There was no “Okay, this is flawed, but maybe we could fix this.” What I’ve seen has instead been vehement denial, with little feedback in regards to how these solutions could be made workable. And hey, in some ways, I get it. The presented alternatives have been flawed. Choosing to simply not participate is a valid response, as many have selected to do with DC’s new distribution partners. But denying them with such fervor and without a willingness to work to improve anything feels counterproductive in a time that requires collaboration and sacrifice from everyone in every industry.

Bizarrely, the only item I’ve seen that resembles suggested alternatives from the biggest opponents of these ideas was when they shared a list of preferred actions by publishers, including regressive asks like “trades should be released later” and “digital shouldn’t be day-and-date.” 8 When I saw these suggestions, I thought my head was going to explode. I’m one of the more prolific comic readers you can find, and do you want to know what those solutions would do? They’d ensure that I’d buy less comics, not more.

In a time of crisis, the company line from some shops hasn’t been to find new solutions; it has been to try and desperately hold on to the way things once were. And that’s the opposite of what we should be doing.

That’s not to say we’re talking about all comic shops here. As noted before, most are just trying to find a way to survive amidst all this. That’s even the case for the ones who are pushing back the most against alternative solutions. This is an unprecedented situation, and everyone is trying to make this work however they can. And it hasn’t helped that their partners haven’t always made it easy on them.

The cover to Daphne Byrne #4, one of the initial releases via DC’s new distribution deal

Marvel and DC’s lack of transparency has both been fuel for heartburn for retailers and fear for the future amongst that same group. When DC presented its alternative distribution plan, they should have given shops more than three days to figure out a) whether they were going to participate and b) how much they were going to order. 9 It was an insane ask of shops to move that quickly, especially considering how many of them are still under shelter-in-place orders.

Collaboration has been lacking outside of second-tier publishers and below, most of whom effectively did exactly what shops asked and shut it down immediately. While shutting it down on the print side was arguably the right move to make – keeping orders flowing to shops when they can’t sell anything would ensure money goes out but rarely comes in, a perfect combination to harm or kill comic shops – it has its own cost too. Many publishers, even Marvel, have been forced to tighten their belts from a staffing standpoint, as I previously noted.

Diamond, whose move to close was utterly defensible especially in the wake of what happened at facilities like the Smithfield meat processing plant, 10 still proved itself as the weakest piece in the house of cards that is the direct market, with its closure having a cascading impact on comics. Granted, most comic shops are closed, so this forced closure has been a saving grace for many of them. But what happens if and when the virus returns and Diamond closes again? Do comics just stop like this time? I’m not sure, but to me, this has shown that for the direct market to be at its healthiest, relying entirely on one distributor can be problematic. 11

But it’s hard not to look at how poorly this situation has played out and wonder whether or not it largely stems from a single, broken idea: no one really knows who the audience is for comics. Ask yourself that question: who is the audience for direct market comics? Logically, you’d say readers, right? But that isn’t the case at all. In the current state of the direct market, the audience for comics is retailers. And typically, most comic shops I talk to advocate for readers, because if not them, then who? They talk about the predatory behavior of publishers like Marvel and DC, and how these houses are only trying to profit off of the non-returnable, collectability-fueled nature of this side of comics rather than trying to get new readers and more comics read by existing readers.

Tony Daniel’s cover to the third printing of Batman #89, one of the initial releases under DC’s new distribution plan

Bizarrely, the script has flipped during the pandemic. Publishers say they want to get new comics out to readers who are clamoring for them, and each and every time an idea is floated – digital-first, DC’s alternative distribution models, whatever – the pitchforks and torches come out. Certain retailers say, “We’re your customers, and you should be listening to us,” as they quickly kibosh these proposals. And yes, publishers should listen to retailers, as they understand the market in a way many publishers do not. But there might be a cost to that, as it runs in conflict to the direction shops normally push in.

To me, what has been missing from throughout this experience has been something that always lacks in the direct market: balance. Smaller publishers went all in on what retailers wanted. DC has done its own thing, and retailers can deal with it. Marvel is a perpetual question mark, with its actions for the next week being determined seemingly in the days preceding it. Sides have formed, and many involved have been left behind in the process. What of the creators who are out of work now? What of the staff from varying publishers who have been furloughed or let go altogether? What of the readers that just don’t understand why this is happening and may never return to comic shops because the faucet was turned off? How are they factored in?

If anything, some of the choices the broader direct market has made during this time feel like they could have made the road harder in the future for everyone. Fewer stores. A more fragmented base. 12 Jobs lost within the industry. Creators without work. Disappearing readers. Reinforcement of predatory ideas. 13 Instead of trying to find ways to make potential alternatives better, the world of comics has decided to wait for the perfect answer, letting time erode its foundation in a potentially more effective way than proposed alternatives ever could.

And I get it. It’s a scary time. Making wholesale changes now might cost everyone in the future, especially with stores largely closed. This sword cuts both ways, and if anyone who writes for a comic site empathizes with the plight of comic shops, it’s me. These are tough moves to make. But the world is changing. Scratch that, the world has changed. The way we do things will forever be altered by the coronavirus pandemic, whether we want them to be or not. That’s why now isn’t the time to try and ensure that everything stays the same as it always has been.

Now is the time to find new answers to old questions, to envision the way things could be going forward, and to build a future that strikes a better balance for everyone.

  1. They are aiming to reopen in mid to late May, with May 20th looking like the probable date from what I’ve heard.

  2. My local comic book shop reopened this week, and the number one question on its Facebook page was: do you have new comics? None of them knew that comics stopped. All of them had no idea what was going on. The comics internet has awareness of things the average comic reader just doesn’t know.

  3. Its owner Katie Proctor has even become a personal shopper for customers, providing curated collections of graphic novels for readers based off their interests.

  4. Many shops are under far more strict shelter-in-place rules and have been unable to do much more than mail-order or eBay sales without putting their own health at risk.

  5. Which, if you don’t know, was an idea that would allow customers to pre-order print comics now, get a digital copy today, and your print copy later. It went from a potential savior to extinct in about 24 hours.

  6. A real point I saw from a retailer in regards to the ComicHub idea!

  7. As a social media professional, let me just say this: DCBS and Midtown already have everything they need to do this right now, without any order data.

  8. That list has since been made private.

  9. It didn’t help that the first order was for three different weeks at the same time, adding even more difficulty to this endeavor.

  10. Not to mention it stopped the flow, which is good.

  11. Worth noting: some have hypothesized that retailers would love the breakup of the Diamond monopoly because shops hate Diamond. That idea is overstated in my experience. Diamond is imperfect in retailers’ eyes, but they’ve also helped the direct market and comic shops in far more expansive ways than many know.

  12. I can’t remember a time where comic shops I talked to had more divisive opinions than now.

  13. I saw one shop suggest that DC’s plan was flawed because the copies ordered through DCBS/Midtown would be second prints, making them less desirable to collectors. But that idea feels like tacit support of comics as collectables, which previously retailers pushed back on. Mixed messages!