On Friday, Jan. 16, the recession hit our comics industry.
In comics, Marvel and D.C. may be the "Big Two," but Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. is the Big One, the exclusive comic store distributor of monthly series from Marvel, D.C., Dark Horse, Image and others. If a comic isn't in Previews, the monthly catalog Diamond sends to stores all over the country, that comic likely won't be in those stores.
So when Maryland-based Diamond announced changes to its system that will make it harder for comics by unproven creators or companies to get widespread distribution, dozens of small publishers had to figure out a new way to get their books into the hands of the public. Depending on whom you talk to in Portland's comics industry, it's either business as usual, a blessing in disguise or, as industry website ICv2.com put it, "the death of independent comics."
The cause of the hubbub is Diamond's order benchmark, the minimum dollar amount it must receive in orders from comic stores to bother selling a publisher's product. The benchmark was set at $1,500 per item in 2005; as made public Jan. 16th, it will go up to $2,500 in February. That's a wholesale figure; it means that every product has to make around $6,250 in actual sales, moving about 2,000 issues of a $2.99 comic or 400 copies of a $14.99 graphic novel.
An order amount of $2,500 might not sound like much, but there are months when the bottom performers in Diamond's Top 300 Comics ranking don't make that. And the Top 300 list covers only a tiny portion of the industry.
The reaction to the benchmark hike from the comics blogosphere was quick and loud: "I'm fucked," Dan Nadel, publisher of Brooklyn art-comics line PictureBox, told the Comics Reporter blog. AdHouse Books publisher Chris Pitzer declared, "Comics are dead, long live OGNs"—referring to original graphic novels, long comics bound as books.
Hype aside, local industry leaders say they're unscathed.
"It won't really affect us or our friends at [Milwaukie publisher] Dark Horse," says Jim Valentino, Portland-based publisher of the Image Comics imprint Shadowline. Likewise, Oni Press publisher Joe Nozemack tells WW that Oni's books sell well above the benchmark. And while Chris Staros, co-publisher of Top Shelf Productions, wouldn't comment on the hike, he estimates only a third of the company's business comes from shops served by Diamond.
But the Diamond changes are already affecting the region's newest publisher.
"We kind of fall into that beige area where some of our titles sell below the benchmark, and then some of them don't," says Darren Davis, president of Bluewater Publishing. Bluewater has watched its numbers steadily decrease since the company's first book, 10th Muse, debuted at No. 6 in Diamond's monthly sales in 2000. "We sold 100,000-some-odd copies," Davis says, "and now [we're] struggling to just get 1,000 copies."
Local writer Joshua Williamson is safe—barely. "If this had happened three years ago, I know for a fact I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. Williamson has several books with Shadowline, but the one that got him his big break was published by Atlanta's Desperado Publishing, and didn't sell enough to meet the new minimum.
There's no straightforward way into the industry for new creators. Talent "trickles up," with self-publishing and small press working as farm leagues for publishers further up the ladder. And you have to climb if you want to eat.
"Very few people actually do earn a living from independent comics," says Steve Lieber of Periscope Studios, Portland's renowned comics-art studio. For indie artists, he says, "this represents an opportunity to go from losing a lot of money to losing a little bit more money."
Many comic stores aren't friendly to indie titles, but some, like Floating World Comics in Chinatown, specialize in them. PictureBox, the "fucked" publisher mentioned earlier, is one of store owner Jason Leivian's favorites.
"I know it's going to affect my store," Leivian says, "especially if they cut some of the more avant-garde selections." He knows he'll still be able to get the books from smaller distributors, but that's an expensive monthly hassle that many shops just won't bother with.
Over at Bluewater Publishing, Davis sees the increase as an opportunity for indie comics to find a distribution method that suits them. He's already made arrangements to distribute his issues through Haven, one of at least a few companies who are already retooling their business to serve the market Diamond is no longer covering.
Davis says he worries about his business twice a month—when he sees the last month's sales figures, and when he sees the new issue of Previews. But he thinks it won't take publishers long to figure out a solution.
"It's going to be two to three months," he says. The rest of the Portland industry is hoping he's right.