Our latest Rocking and Drawing Video Podcast contains a great discussion on the history of comic book distribution.
Here’s a synopsis:
For more than two decades comic book shops were supplied by a network of regional wholesale distributors that served specific geographic regions based on the location of their warehouses.
- Then, Marvel buys “Hero’s World Distribution” and runs the regionals out of business.
- In retaliation to this, DC, Darkhorse, image, etc. each sign an exclusive distribution deal with Diamond to get equal footing with Marvel and “Hero’s World.”
- Marvel goes bankrupt.
- Marvel sells off a lot of its ancillary businesses including “Hero’s World.”
- Marvel signs an exclusive distribution deal with Diamond.
- Diamond becomes a defacto monopoly of comic book distribution even though there was an investigation with the Department of Justice to determine if it was, indeed, a monopoly. The Department of Justice concluded that it was just a small portion of the book industry.
- Diamond, as did “Hero’s Word”, dealt exclusively with comic book shops. This distribution model cut out previous venues that sold comic books such as gas stations, grocery stores, drug stores, big box stores, etc. all of which are considered essential businesses.
- COVID-19 hits
- Comic shops are shuttered while previously mentioned essential businesses remain open. This causes Diamond to stop distributing because there were no payments coming in from closed comic book shops and there were no places to distribute the comics because they were all closed. So, it became a snake eating its tail.
- Image, Aftershock, Archie, and others offer returnables to comic shops but Marvel and DC do not. Returnables mean that the comic book shops can return unsold issues to the distributor or publisher for 100% value; there, comic shops get money back for unsold comic books.
- Returnables in the book industry were enacted after the Great Depression of the 1920s.
- Marvel only offers deep order discounts, no returnables, and is stopping all but a very few essential digital comics.
- DC exercised a clause in their contract with diamond that released them from their exclusivity 60 days before their contract renewal. After this, DC announced that they would offer some returnables and decided to seek out alternative distribution networks echoing a return to a distribution model like what it had before its exclusivity with comic shops which allowed them to distribute to comic shops that remained open during the initial covid-19 shutdown. In addition, to their new distribution method, DC is continuing to publish digitally thus allowing them to keep most of their creators working.
- Comic shops that are shuttered due to covid-19 want to see the alternative distribution and digital publishing of comics to stop in order to make it fair for all comic shops. They fear that if digital comics continue to be published and alternative distribution methods continue to thrive they will lose customers and be stuck with unsalable returnables.
- On a related note, during the covid-19 shutdown graphic novel sales are up 43% in bookstores which adds another worry to the direct market comic book shops. Marvel has been distributing their graphic novels with Hachette books while many of the others are still using diamond book distributors instead of diamond comic distributors.
- Is this the end of the comic shop? Is it time for the single-issue pamphlet to end? Will comics now only be published as graphic novels or digitally? How will this change comic book conventions going forward? Will there be new customers? Will the old customers remain?