Martha Thomases: Is Comics Distribution Sexy?

Comic Book Guy & Stan LeeOne of the most important but least sexy aspects of the comic book business is distribution. The people who get the comic books from the printer and then send them to your local comic book stores don’t have that aura of imagination we associate with artists and writers. They aren’t publicly literate, like editors and publishers.

(Note: I’m only talking about perceptions here. I know a bunch of people who work in distribution, and they are at least as interesting and varied as any other group of people.)

The first distributors I met were the ones who agreed to take on Comedy Magazine in 1980. The mix included those who specialized in newsstands and those who were more specialty oriented. The specialty mix included not just comic books but also zines and art magazines (we were an art magazine). Some of those became direct market distributors.

Then ten years went by, and I didn’t think about distribution much at all.

When I worked at DC, there were a bunch of direct market distributors. Some were regional. A few were not. They competed against each other. They would pit one publisher against another in an attempt to get more favorable deals. Publishers would do the same to them.

And then, there was only Diamond.

Mimi Cruz, the owner of Night Flight Comics in Salt Lake City, recently wrote an article about how frustrating it is to deal with Diamond. She talks about books that are ordered and never arrive, books that aren’t ordered but show up anyway, books that arrive damaged, and books that are late.

Distributors are only human, and humans make mistakes. We should be understanding of each other. However, one would think that at a time when print media are considered to be endangered species, that maybe self-interest would motivate Diamond to provide better (and therefore more profitable) service. Books that never get on the shelves never get sold. Mistakes that don’t get corrected cost everybody money.

And there is certainly money to be made. Brian Hibbs recently analyzed the most recent data from BookScan, which shows that graphic novel sales have risen more than 17 percent in bookstores. Yes, that’s a category of print media, on paper, with sales growing in the bookstore market. If print isn’t yet dead, that is in no small part due to stories told in pictures.

Savvy comic book stores already order books through book distributors as well as direct market distributors. The discounts may be less attractive, but the books are in stock and, sometimes, returnable if they can’t be sold. If Diamond has a bad week, the store can still get product on the shelves. There will still be new covers to attract attention.

I don’t really have a suggestion (other than, “Everybody! Get your shit together!”). I don’t know that more competition in the direct market would make everyone more efficient. I don’t know if investing in state-of-the-art tech would make a difference. I don’t know if there are things that we, as customers, can do to help.

I just know that when I go to a comic book store, I want to see the new books, and the old books, and books that sit there, quietly, waiting for me to find them.