Friday, December 28, 2007

Graphic Realities

I wrote a post last week about Graphic novels related to an article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. My post generated this comment from Van Allan and it is a post in and of itself about the developing graphic novel marketplace:

It is amazing to see how much the medium of graphic novels have grown over the past 20 years. And it's been fascinating to see Hollywood come calling. However, I do believe quite strongly that there are some major barriers on the distribution side of things that have inhibited this growth and have prevented comics from growing as much as they could. The main issue isn’t in the book trade, however, but rather in the Direct Market (the “comic shops”).

Diamond's monopoly on the Direct Market has become far too onerous for any of the non-brokered publishers. It boggles my mind that so many of these publishers signed exclusive distribution deals with Diamond that have really gotten them nothing at all. Diamond will still not take an inventory position on titles and "out of stock" titles become defacto "out of print" in many, many cases. Getting re-orders flowing through Diamond in a way that I'm familiar as a bookseller with would seem to be nearly impossible. From this point of view, Diamond is not a distributor at all, but rather a freight-forwarder. And since they are the exclusive supplier in the Direct Market, they really are the only game in town. Certainly the ability to use just-in-time inventory management is a major problem on the retail level as a result of this. Factor in low discounts to retailers and you have a situation that leads to conservatism in ordering. It is fascinating to me that a title like Persepolis performed so much better in the book trade channel. I think the same can be said for manga.

Just to drive this point home even further: it is no surprise to me whatsoever that both Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have set-up retail operations (in Seattle and Montreal respectfully. The distribution situation is fundamentally untenable as it stands right now and publishers are trying to find alternatives. This all means that if a small press title (and really, that means anything published by anyone save for Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse) has small initial orders from Diamond, growing sales long-term is almost impossible. A title is dead right out of the gate.

In my own case, I know that if I tried to launch my graphic novel through Diamond tomorrow I'd be facing initial orders of no more than 300 copies. I'd be looking at re-orders at only another 100-200 if I was very lucky. Even if I managed to get into Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, North 49, etc..., orders would most likely be very poor. Printing 1000 copies of my graphic novel is about the minimum I can shoot for with offset printers like Lebonfon. I suspect the odds are long that I'd sell that many over the course of a year.

I think this partially explains why so many graphic novelists are turning to the web and trying to gain traction that way. It certainly does in my case. While I think the diversity in what is being brought to market is truly amazing, I suspect we’re heading towards a schism between the two channels (if we’re not experiencing it already). And that is a somewhat scary proposition for those of us trying to earn a living in this medium.

1 comment:

Von Allan said...

Oh, thanks for that. I do think that having run a bookstore for a number of years before doing a graphic novel gives me a bit of a different perspective than other cartoonists. I became very accustomed to the book trade's numerous distributor options (albeit the Canadian book trade) and my research on Diamond certainly gave me pause. I, like many other creators and/or publishers, have not figured out a way to make the Direct Market (as represented by Diamond Distribution) viable.

While some may regard my feelings about Diamond as alarmist or reactionary, I thought I'd add some comments from Tony Panaccio (formerly the Vice-President of Product Development at the now defunct Cross Generation Entertainment). This is taken from Todd Allen's Business of Content website:

"It is my belief – and I am not alone in this belief, but I am sure that many of my colleagues feel it is not in their best interests to voice their opinions on this matter – that the Department of Justice blew it when they initially investigated Diamond to examine its compliance with the anti-trust laws on the books right now," Panaccio said. "While many analysts within the DOJ could see the argument for technical compliance, especially when it is presented solely by Diamond’s lawyers, I believe that any sitting judge would have seen through Diamond’s definitions of ‘broker’ and ‘distributor’ in relation to their vendors, and ruled that Diamond was indeed in violation of anti-trust laws. In my mind, Diamond is one of the worst-case scenarios of monopoly in American publishing, and the resulting power and influence wielded by Diamond in the marketplace is unfair and illegal. It is fundamentally unjust that this criminal conduct is allowed to continue while thousands of retailers, thousands of creators and dozens of publishers locked outside the premier vendor club suffer under a system that was constructed solely for the purpose of entrenching and rewarding a select minority."

Now, I do realize that is one hell of an accusation, but he is certainly not alone. Brian Hibbs, owner of the San Francisco based comic store Comix Experience said the following in an interview with the Comics Journal, "Now that FMI has cut back to reorders only, Diamond has zero competition. It's a really bad situation. I'm a longtime proponent of Diamond, but I strongly believe the Justice Department needs to come in and slice them up. I think this is probably the biggest issue of 2006."

Unfortunately, this situation has not been resolved in 2006 nor in 2007 and I believe that it will continue to be a major concern over the next few years. As wonderful as the medium of comics are, these obstacles on the distribution side need to be resolved urgently. I just don't see that resolution occuring any time soon.

Oh, by the by: I really enjoy the blog. :)