Comics – The Problems With Distribution

Comic shop

Steve Taylor-Bryant knows nothing about making comics but that doesn't stop him diving head first into the problems facing creators with distribution...

What do you do when your wife is working overnight and your three year old decides he's having a sleepover in daddy’s bed where he falls to slumber on your arm so you can't read? Twitter. My default one handed thing I can do in bed when not on my own. Normally I'll just tweet my inane thoughts or get involved in some arguments that aren't arguments until I join in but recently I got an education. I learnt something about a business that I am involved in as a fan and as a reader but not as a businessman or creator and that business is selling comics. The two gentlemen I had my online conversation with were Peter Simeti of Alterna Comics, who I came to know during the Kickstarter campaign for The Chair movie, and Matt Lytwyn from Lytwyn Studios, who I spoke to for the very first time that night. Now, I'm not a huge comic book nut like some reviewers. I make no apologies for that, my upbringing wasn't being immersed in the genre like some and I'm also the kind of man that doesn't follow a crowd, I like what I like, it’s that simple. Maybe it's because of this that I know very little of how the industry works, perhaps I really am ignorant to the things that don't affect me, but I was stunned to find out how difficult it actually is to get a comic distributed to an expectant audience. Luckily for me, both Peter and Matt have been very generous with their time and hopefully we can get to the bottom of the issue and plan a brighter future in this article.

Guys, firstly my thanks for your patience the other night whilst you explained how this world works to me, I really appreciated the education. Let's start with some basics for our readers. If I learnt correctly there is one large distribution company, Diamond, and they are where the comic retailers order their stock for the physical shops?

Matt: No problem, the pleasure was all mine. I am always happy to talk comics, business, and pop culture really. You would be correct about the distribution. Currently there is really only one large/global distributor of comic books: Diamond. However, that doesn’t mean there aren't other smaller ones popping up which sell directly to the readers or in some cases, your typical book store. It's not exactly ‘true’ distribution, but it does the same thing really.

Peter: Yes, Diamond would be the biggest and most used when it comes to comic book distribution. In some ways, they're the only national distributor of comic book single issues (floppies). However, they are not the only graphic novel distributor as graphic novels tend to be spread across multiple distributors in the book market. While Diamond does distribute graphic novels through their comic distribution service, they also have Diamond BookShelf which distributes ONLY graphic novels and various books. Confused? Yeah it's kinda confusing. Alterna Comics (to which I'm the founder/publisher) is distributed by Diamond Comics Distribution but NOT distributed by Diamond BookShelf (but not for lack of trying). It's a little odd though because Alterna primarily publishes graphic novels and trades. Currently, we are distributed in the book market by Partners Publishers Group which has been around for a while but is still relatively new/unknown for distributing graphic novels. They sell and distribute our titles to Ingram and Baker & Taylor as well.

Another basic just for those of us that don't know. Once you have your comic and you’re happy with it what is the process as it stands to get that book into the hands of a reader?

Matt: Peter would probably be better suited to answer this question due to his 10 years of experience. But, in general, from our studio's end, we create the product and send it to the publisher for printing and distribution. They in turn register the product with Diamond, for example, which gets assigned a code for order. Retailers get these codes a few months in advance and then they can order the books as they need based on what they predict they will sell in their stores. Readers can pre-order books from their local comic shop with that code as well.

Peter: From a publisher stand point, the answer is both complex and simple. Here's a quick rundown: after the comic goes through prepress and everything is good to go, it gets submitted to our distributors. Diamond needs a book about 5 months before it is released, so let's say you want a book to sell in June – first you solicit in February (a solicit consists of all the book's information, cover image, etc.) - it's important to note that if you're relatively new to Diamond, they will require the whole book in order to size it up for retail, but if you've been around for a while, the book basically gets auto-approved – then after the title is solicited, the book gets listed in April Previews. Most publishers and creators spend the month in between a solicit and Previews, promoting the book and sending review copies (print or digital) and other press releases. Once Previews comes out, comic shops and customers can pre-order the book. It's at this point where the process becomes confusing for most people. Diamond has launched instructional videos and whatnot to try to educate consumers but the support for it has been next to none. It's buried on social media. Alterna is one of the only publishers to retweet and promote the video – every publisher should be retweeting that thing. Even the top 5 premier publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse) should be spreading the word, because there's a lot of confusion about what Previews is for and why it even exists in the first place.

What got my attention whilst the chat was going on was the figures that Peter published. 98.2% of books bought by retailers were from the Top 20 publishers just 1.8% were indie. Firstly, that can't be right surely? And second, is this because it's harder to order indie or are the shops just more comfortable with buying the bigger titles as it's guaranteed sales?

Matt: There are few ways to look at statistics, what Peter was referring to can be found here at this link. It is the sales for the month of August from Diamond. 

Essentially, anything that isn’t in the main stream, or top 20 publishers, is considered ‘indie’. Secondly, this is where it becomes sticky per se. I don’t believe it is harder for shops to order indie books at all. I routinely get some pretty unknown books here is Winnipeg at my local comic shop. I believe it has to do with two parts; the first being sales from the retailers perspective and two, readers demand. It is all, however, basic economy. Retailers need to make a living and to make a living they need to sell product. At the end of the day, retailers are taking a risk buying the books. If they don’t sell, they’re the ones that have the surplus products. So if you put, let us say one of our books, Bullet in My Hand for example, against the newest Spawn, even I would say that 99% of retailers would dish out the money for the Spawn book over ours because they know they will see a return much quicker. The same can be said for publishers, a book with the Image ‘I’ on it will outsell a relatively unknown book. The nice thing, however, is it is easier to get retailers to take a risk on graphic novels though because the rise in comic popularity is creating a demand for more unique stories.

Peter: Yes those are true figures in terms of what is distributed by Diamond. Shops can order direct from publishers/creators/other book distributors and that information is not represented on that chart, but when it comes to the product that comes out of Diamond (once again, the biggest and sometimes only distributor for a shop) those numbers are accurate.

Some of this can be attributed to the way Previews works. You would be surprised at how many comic creators that submit to Alterna, have no idea of how Previews works. So let's think about that for a second. If people who are involved or hoping to be involved in the comic book business, have no idea how Previews works or what it even looks like, how many customers or potential customers know about it? The customer education process on what Previews is, how to use Previews, etc. is probably too much of a giant headache to most people, to actually end up turning a new-to-the-comic-shop consumer into an immediate pull-lister. Especially when sites like TFAW, Midtown Comics, and DCBS contain the entire Previews catalog and strip away the confusion of order numbers, printable forms, and giant telephone book-sized catalogs that cost as much a comic book – all just to pre-order items they may or may not want. Tried and true core customers are the lifeblood of any business but NEW customers are what helps a business grow. It would be fantastic to see Diamond put the entire Previews catalog online and make it orderable – using the comic shop locator service to send your order to your local comic shop of choice with funds being directed TO that comic shop's account. What a revolutionary thing that would do for the comic retail industry.

But back to your question, it's not necessarily harder to order an independent book. But the heavy focus on pre-orders is what generally kills an independent book (or any book outside of the top 5 publishers, though sometimes books from the bigger publishers do suffer and get cancelled based on lack of pre-orders). All product is a risk, but independent books are an obvious bigger gamble. The thing is though, big publisher books are also a gamble. A shop doesn't need to order 100 of an indie book that sounds and looks good – they can order 1 or 2. I think I can safely say that everyone that's been in a comic shop has seen way more overstock on big publisher books than they do of indie titles. Obviously this is because they order more from the premier publishers – but if a shop notices that they're stuck, consistently, with stacks and stacks of an event that didn't work out or the latest #1 issue from the Big Two – why continue to keep ordering them in droves just to discount them at a loss later on? It's a misconception that indie books don't sell – which is often the popular answer. After all – what IS an indie book anyway? Something that isn't from Marvel or DC? Something that is creator-owned? Something that is licensed but not licensed by Marvel or DC? Something that is obscure and deals with untraditional subject matter in comic book form? Alterna's been around for 10 years and we're actually doing better than ever, yet we only have books in about 10% of the comic shops out there. So people are reading and buying our books elsewhere if they aren't going to get them in a comic shop. People will find an item they are looking for. I've worked out direct deals in the past with comic shops, I'm not opposed to doing that, but you'd be surprised at how few of them actually want to do that, even if it means receiving a bigger discount to stay competitive with online mega giants like Amazon which combines ease of use, cheaper prices, and a large selection. I want everyone to succeed – creator, distributors, publishers, retailers, etc. - because then the readers get to reap the rewards of a high quality and diverse selection of amazing talent. At the same time, there is competition for shelf space, there's also enough room for all to co-exist. We don't have to take each other out of the game and out play each other, we're only out playing ourselves in the end and comic book readers at large.


Diamond seem to have the distribution market pretty sewn up. Is this on an exclusivity arrangement or is there just no other distribution options open to creators? It seems to the outsider quite the unfair arrangement?

Matt: Comic distribution actually has quite the history. There actually was more than one distributor up until the 1990's really. In a nut shell, Diamond was able to always provide a larger purchase value for major comic companies such as Marvel and DC per book, while providing a cheaper sell rate to retailers. This allowed them to grow rapidly and when the comic industry started to collapse, they were able to quickly buy up competitors. So it is not really an exclusivity arrangement, but more of the way the industry turned out. As of right now, there are no real alternatives to Diamond if you want get into a lot of shops without going door‐to‐door. The issue is Diamond will be in complete control of what books they want to push retailers to buy through incentives; that typically means indie or smaller comics get left behind. To look at the other side of the coin, Diamond can also be under influence to keep its main clients (large studios) happy as well. Again, it really boils down to money.

Peter: Alterna and many other publishers, do not have an exclusive agreement with Diamond. Some publishers do though. There's also very few distribution options to begin with, at least in terms of comic shop distribution. Comixology is arguably the world's largest retailer (and kind of like a distributor) of comics, albeit in digital form, and their parent company is Amazon – arguably the world's largest retailer. So there are other avenues out there. Kickstarter is also fast becoming a complete closed circuit “means to an end” for many creators. “Fair” is in the eye of the beholder and something that rarely exists in business. Even Comixology strikes me as a little unfair – or at least unclear – when it comes to some things. Take for instance the Comixology Submit line. At first it seemed to be offering a service to self-publishers that wasn't available to them beforehand (at least not without publisher support), but it's grown to become something more than just a way for a single creator to get their books sold by the digital retailer. They've got entire publishers and their books on there now, under the Submit label – which ends up ensuring more exposure for a Submit comic than a publisher would get on their own in the Publisher section. Submit comics are featured on the front pages every day on Comixology – again – something that isn't afforded to everyone. There's no “revolving Publisher of the week or month” kinda thing, so there's no chance of another indie publisher (and that's basically what Comixology Submit, is) getting the same featured press. There's also a no-holds-barred approach to the FREE COMICS section when it comes to Submit titles. It's a curated section (at least that's what Comixology tells me) and they limited Alterna to just 2 titles on there, though I tried to push for 5. Comixology Submit – as a publisher – has almost 20 titles on there, front and center, ready to download and essentially promote the rest of that lineup. They also told us that we can't have our FCBD books featured in the FREE COMICS section, yet I see books on there that sport the FCBD logo. The fact that there's no publisher/middle man involved also doesn't bode well for indie publishers looking to attract creators to their label for digital distribution on Comixology. As a comic book creator, I'd wonder why I should bother submitting to a publisher when I can just wait for Comixology to add me to their extensive Submit lineup. How can we compete when it comes to this system?

What if Diamond created their own publishing line and pushed it just as heavily as Comixology pushes the Submit line? Would that be OK? I really doubt that it would. So, it can be seen as a bit of an issue as publishers are going to be forced to compete with what is basically their distributor/retailer.

Do you think Diamond takes indie seriously? It seems they carry the titles as a sort of 'we're helping the small guy' badge of honour rather than actually pushing the titles.

Matt: I can’t say to be honest. When it comes to most things that involve business I see two parts: 1) the drive to put the best product out and 2) the need to put a product out that will make money. I can’t see distribution being any different. I think they want to help the indie guys, but you have to remember, they may be under a lot of pressure from large comic companies to put their products front and centre as well which can have order lists in the millions of dollars per month.

Peter: Well, I think Diamond does take indies seriously. I think Diamond is fully aware that comic books outside of the top 5 publishers have die-hard cult followings. I also think that they know if they cut ties with everyone other than the top 5, it would give rise to a new distributor which in turn would create competition in the same market space. Distributors have tried to step up to the plate, but generally they have all fallen. Whether it's lack of publisher or retailer support, or both, every distributor that's tried in the past 15 years or so, has gone under. So Diamond is all there is, if you want your book distributed into shops. It's not necessarily good or bad – it's just the way it is.

There has always been a level of creativity in indie that appeals to me but I get that across the mediums the larger companies may not want to take a risk on something untested so I'm not anti‐ studio, anti‐big published and the like. However, with the rise of Amazon and Goodreads in books, Audible for the audiobook market, and streaming to back up a very strong festival circuit in films, it's getting a lot easier for the consumer to try something new (easier is still a long way from perfect) but with comics you guys don't seem to have anything like this? Yet your medium is older than television and modern cinema. Is this a series of bad business practices or a lack of audience?
Matt: It is coming, and you can see the push now as the audience (I would say the latter) grows. I routinely compare the comic industry to the video game industry based on trends. For years playing a video game was shunned upon and came with a lot of stigma. Now, however, gaming is considered acceptable so more and more people are looking for those unique gaming experiences and indie games. Comics, I believe, are going through the same thing. With the rise in popularity of Marvel and DC movies there is now an entire generation of people who never knew what comic books were and are buying books. Eventually they start looking for local creators and crowd funding which will expose them to the smaller indie books. This in turn will cause them to create a demand in their local comic stores for smaller publishers and creators to get noticed.

Peter: There's a large disconnect in the popularity of comic book properties as films, tv shows, and merchandise and comic book sales themselves. Again, at least in terms of who is coming to a comic shop and how large a readership is, comic book readership pales in comparison to a tv or film audience. The sales figures we spoke of earlier – those are just numbers of books sold to shops. Those aren't numbers of books sold to readers. No one really knows those numbers (though they'd be interesting to see) but from the “eye test” in your average shop, I'd say it's probably about 75% or so of all product pre-ordered, gets sold that month. Don't hold me to that though as I only have one or two shops to judge by.

Interpreting some trends here, if the highest selling comic generally sells about 200,000 copies (and usually it's a #1…) and then the readership falls to about 50% with each issue until it averages out at about 25% or so of the initial #1 order, then the core readership of what was once the “highest selling book” is now at about 50,000 copies. That's a HUGE drop-off. It's partly why so many comics end up getting cancelled at around issue 5 or 6 and why so many others are now re-launched constantly. Most people are noticing a trend in major publishers piling on the #1's of a new series. Well, this is why they do it. I'm not 100% sure if retailers are forced to order tremendous amounts of issues that they know they'll be stuck with or forced to sell at a loss, but if they aren't forced into ordering – then why order so much to begin with? As a publisher, it would be like ordering a print run for 10,000 copies of a book, just to get a cheaper per unit cost, knowing full well that I can only sell 2,000 books. So unless I hit the comic book sales lottery here and the book is a runaway hit, chances are, I'm stuck with 8,000 copies that I'm going to take a very large loss on – completing negating the positive effects of the larger print run. This is kinda like what's going on with the over-ordering of books in the comic market. Supply and demand economics are way way off and instead of a shop diversifying (just like in investing), many shops are putting all their funds into stocking a perceived “sure thing” time and time again – instead of broadening their audience with indie publishers that have quality well-made titles, motivated creators, and the means and desire to direct people to their local comic shop. As an indie publisher and creator, it's next to impossible to tell a customer, “go to your local comic shop, they'll have our book”, because 9 out of 10 shops aren't carrying the book. So publishers offer online options, because who wants to force a potential reader to take a drive to 10 different comic shops in hopes of finding a book that they know they can just order online? Some shops are very very understanding and supportive of publishers and creators doing whatever it takes to get their books out there, but there's quite a few that are absolutely against things like this. The answer is simple though – put the book in your shop and let the publisher do the publishing and you can do the selling. By not stocking the book, you force a publisher or creator to do what is necessary to survive and get their books into eager hands.

Peter, the statistics for Mother Russia intrigued me. I got to know you via the Kickstarter for The Chair and crowdfunding seems to be something you're comfortable with. $90k for a comic book seems really impressive but it only equated to a small number of your target audience as the financial support was die hard fans, supporters and the like. Is that a fair comment? And once those 1500 or so have their copy how do you then market the book to the wider audience?

Matt: I know this question was for Peter, but social media and cons are the way to go. I came across Peter’s work via twitter and been reading it ever since!

Peter: Thanks guys! While I can't take credit for the Mother Russia kickstarter (Jeff McComsey's baby), but the disconnect of retail sales to kickstarter sales is massively jarring. We would have to sell roughly 20,000 Mother Russia graphic novels into distribution, in order to make $90,000 on it. We are poised to sell about 1,000 as of the time of this interview (and that's WITH book distribution numbers in there…). There's always incentives with Kickstarter, like signed books, artwork, other books, etc. etc. that make it appealing to backers (maybe those should be offered to retailers too?

Would that get order numbers up?). A Kickstarter is hardly ever just a pre-order fest. BUT a successful Kickstarter does provide something that retailers should take notice of – proof of concept, exposure, and a core fan base that is very vocal about supporting. Seeing the Mother Russia single issue numbers (about 2500 of #1, 1700 of #2, and 1100 of #3), there is a tremendous disconnect yet again. I know of a few retailers that believe Kickstarter sucks the oxygen out of the room and kills a product in terms of retail. But the whole point of Kickstarter is to LAUNCH products! Kickstarter is not an endgame and Kickstarter should NOT provide more exposure and distribution than getting your book to a distributor YET that's what we're seeing in the world of indie comics. That's just so so wrong. The reason creators and publishers give a 60%+ discount on their books is because we're expecting sales in volume. If distribution is so poor that it can only sell 200-300 copies of a book – then what's the point of the discount and larger print run? You can sell 70-100 copies direct to your audience using ebay, amazon, social media, website, conventions, etc. etc. and make roughly the same amount of money. It's hard to market to a “wider audience” when the wider audience needs to be directed elsewhere (which is what we have to end up doing) such as signings, conventions, websites, online sellers, etc. That's the problem indie publishers are facing. Because distribution should provide some sense of a guarantee – it does anything but do that. In some ways, distribution can effectively kill your business. The catalog is called Previews – a preview is basically thought of as “this is what's to come regardless of whether or not you order it… so here's a sneak peek”. If it was called PreOrders – then maybe it'd get the point across that nothing in the book is guaranteed. If you don't pre-order what you like, then you probably won't see it in a store.

In an ideal world what is it we need to fix the market, or at least makes the odds slightly more favourable? Diamond taking you seriously? Another company investing in just Indie? Something more like Amazon just for comics?

Matt: Saying the market needs to be fixed may not be 100% correct. I think there needs to be a showcase from larger companies such as Diamond on indie comic books. Have write-ups about indie comics in their Previews (monthly publication) magazine from creators around the world. (Make sure they have never worked for a major studio to be fair). Much like Steam does with their Greenlight games for PC. Alternatively, retailers should take a chance on the smaller titles as well, allocating some order space to smaller titles. You never know when the next Walking Dead may appear from someone you have never heard of. There are small online retailers that really allow small creators to push their product as well (Drive-Thru Comics is one for example) where the focus is only comics. The demand just needs to be created, as the trend for indie comics continues to rise, in my opinion, you will see Diamond and other companies putting the indie community front and centre.

Peter: I think I've covered that question a lot in this interview, so I'll save everyone some time and just say: “...what Matt said.” :)

I’d like to thank Matt and Peter for their time, I know how busy these guys are and explaining a complex situation to a man who doesn't really understand the trade takes a lot of patience. Have I learnt anything? Well of course I have and I think the main thing is that the responsibility does not lie with just one person or corporate entity as I believed. The system to the outsider does still seem fixed in the distributor's favour but I think the most worrying elements that have come from my discussion with the guys is that everyone’s lack of knowledge in the system is contributing to status quo. I didn't know how previews work, and as a reviewer perhaps I should have, but the fact that creators don’t know how the system works either really doesn't help anyone. The submission process to the companies that distribute seems to need tweaking slightly, the fact Peter can't get a book into the book side of a distributor seems very strange and is another sales avenue that is closed, and the shops themselves seem to be doing both themselves and the readers a disservice with their own stocking policies.

I entered this article hoping for a quick fix, a company to come along and throw some dollar bills at the problem and make it go away. Yes I'm aware that is incredibly simplistic but you get my point, which is I believed it was Diamond’s fault so let's start our own company. What I think now is that an awful lot of education has to be the priority. Reviewers like me should learn the process from the idea in a creator's brain to the finished product in a customer's hands to give us and our readers a better understanding of the trials and tribulations that have occurred to get the book to you. Creators need to learn the business. Not the drawing and writing business, as the products are great, but learn how to get your book into the marketplace correctly, learn how which systems are good and which aren’t for them. Comic shops and the part they play really confuses me. If I ran the restaurants I used to own like they appear to run their ordering I'd have had kilos of quality steak spoiling and no salad ingredients. The shops need to realise that not everyone wants DC et al and adjust their ordering accordingly. We, as fans of the creators, the buyers of the products need to understand at least the basics. We need to buy our books so, instead of bemoaning the lack of creativity in comics (yes this happens a lot), how about we ask our shops for something different? Let's tell these people you don’t want a Batman #1 this month you want you want a Mother Russia or you want a Papercuts and Inkstains, let's seek out the creators on social media and see where they sell their products, if enough people started buying the comics direct from companies like Alterna then distributors and shops would have to change the game.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy fix and that is a shame. But today I learnt a lot and I hope you have too?

Find out more about what Matt and Peter are up to by hitting up their sites and social media here:

Alterna Comics

Image - YouOnlyLiveOnce, Alterna, LytwynStudio.
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