With Monday’s announcement that Diamond Comic Distributors will be suspending delivery of new comics as of April 1, comic book retailers across the country are expecting to shut their doors.
And most believe publishers should not release content digitally until the direct market returns.
“I think this needs to be a pause for all comics, regardless of format — meaning no new comics for digital retailers either,” said Benn Ray, owner of Atomic Books in Baltimore, Md. “Otherwise it gives them an unfair advantage and makes any books stalled in the pipeline utterly unsellable, not to mention turning this into an opportunity to cut shops out altogether and get more folks to buy digital comics.”
“Digital release will keep the comic readers interested, but it won’t put any money in the shops that provide these collectibles and a source for parents to keep their kids off the iPads or computer 24/7,” said Luis Nieves, owner of Aegis Comics in Alaska. “Our customers, many of them eBay sellers, can no longer support their hobby by flipping a digital copy. The removal of the physical print copy disrupts this ‘geek echo system.’”
Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio, feels torn on whether publishers should release comics digitally while shops are unable to get new product.
“On one hand, material will still be getting into the hands of readers, which is good,” he said. “The downside is this may be the first step to phasing out hard copies all together. We need to keep readers interested and engaged at almost any cost.
“Both Marvel and DC have done digital-first comics then followed up with hard copies and have been successful to an extent with that. If they did something along those lines for the comics being discussed and offered to make them returnable or add some cool comic exclusive content to the hard copies, I feel like that would be really solid middle ground that would satisfy almost all parties,” he said.
As Newsarama has already reported, Free Comic Book Day founder Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif., believes that if publishers continue to produce digital comics while shops are closed, it will hurt comic book retailers.
But an option suggested by Ryan Higgins, owner of Comics Conspiracy in Sunnyvale, Calif., might allow physical shops to sell “codes” that would get readers a digital comic as well as a printed one, delivered later.
Lack of communication
But there’s still no answer from the largest direct market publishers, Marvel Comics and DC, about what comes next for digital release or comic book stores – and the lack of communication is frustrating for retailers.
“Fear and confusion are my two primary feelings at the moment,” Seymore admitted. “The lack of transparency and candor from Diamond and the big two really is mind-boggling. This change could be a result of their chosen printer companies closing down. Maybe it is a financial thing, where Diamond cannot cover their expenses or that publishers are not extending any credit?
“All I know is that there will be no new books for some number of weeks,” Seymore said. “This has led to me laying off staff that I care for and customers fearing that the industry is dead. It just feels like there should have been some kind of middle ground between business as usual and I told you I would pull the car over.”
Alan LaMont, owner of Grumpy Old Man’s Comics in Seattle, agreed that communication in the publishing and distribution network has been disappointing.
“For Diamond to leak this out to Bleeding Cool and other news outlets without first contacting the retailers is highly irresponsible and shows the overall lack of respect Diamond has towards retailers in general, if in fact they did,” he said. “While several vendors have made some effort to help out with returnability, additional discounts, etcetera, it seems for naught.”
LaMont said he understands that Diamond must protect their employees, but given he feels like they could have just offered even a limited service while so many stores are closed — “just one center to take care of any accounts that still wanted books.”
“I guess that was not a consideration on their part, or at least not one they asked us about,” he said.
Ray also said he understands why Diamond had to make this move, even though it will hurt his business. “If you think of the flow of new comics as a stream, as retailers start closing down, all of those comics are going to start pooling up somewhere,” he said. “If the stores aren’t open to receive books (where they would likely just sit), that means if Diamond doesn’t cease receiving, they’ll be pooling up at Diamond warehouses, which only have finite space.”
Kyle Puttkammer, owner of Galactic Quest in Buford and Lawrenceville, Ga., is currently open for customers to pick up items at the curbside, but without new comics, he said the store will have to “wait out the storm.”
But he’s optimistic about the future: “Remember, Superman returned. I’m confident we will too.”
Up in Alaska, Luis Nieves has kept Aegis Comics store open for business, but he’s offering online and curbside service.
“A freeze on new books will hurt business even more, as we have all seen a significant decline in business,” he said.
Seymore of Columbus, Ohio, said he’s one of many comic book retailers whose state governments required them to close.
“We are following the governor of Ohio’s order to close down all non-essential businesses,” Seymore said. “I am at the shop processing this week’s books, possibly the last time for awhile, in order to mail our guests’ subscriptions to them.”
LaMont just opened his Seattle store in 2017, creating what he calls “a niche” in the back-issue market.
“Up until last week, I was still open, providing gloves and the like to people coming into the store while also offering mailings, curbside, and delivery,” LaMont said. “Business has slowed by at least 60% in just one week.”
LaMont said that, although he sells a lot of back issues, the lack of new product from Diamond will probably force him to close, whether temporarily or not – and, he expects, most comic book stores across the country.
“As we face eventual closing of all non-essential businesses, the further elimination of new books will be the death knell for many of us,” he said. “Mail order of new books would have at least kept me afloat for a few months, possibly until this blows over. But without it and the ability for people to come into the store for back issues, I face a very uncertain future that does not look good.”
Ray said his Baltimore store has been closed to the public for more than a week, but he transitioned to a mail order/delivery/curbside pickup model.
“Our Governor (Hogan in Maryland) just announced a closure of all non-essential businesses in the state, catching the whole state up to where we have been,” Ray said. “As the situation continues to remain fluid, I’m not sure what tomorrow will be like.”
Direct Market Future
LaMont believes the overall direct market will come back after the pause, but some shops will be forced to close. “I know I am not the only store looking at it this way,” he said. “I will be surprised if, when the dust settles, there will be 50% or less of direct market stores left.”
Ray said he also expects fewer shops to be around when the emergency ends – and maybe even fewer publishers and fewer books for the immediate future. “The bigger publishers and retailers will likely be okay,” he said. “The smaller, marginal ones might not exist anymore.”
But other retailers have more hope. “We’ll struggle like the rest of the country, but at least we have a chance to get ahead of this virus,” said Putkammer of Lawrenceville, Ga.
“I believe the market will return,” he added. “People love a good comeback story.”
Seymore said he’s also hopeful – particularly because of the response he’s seen from smaller publishers and his own customers.
“My guests and friends of the shop have humbled me and reminded me that I am not just someone who sells them stuff,” Seymore said. “They have offered to pay for weeks in advance, signal boost our online sales portals and spent time talking via messenger about how we all will make it through this. It has been bonding, uplifting and at times I am pretty sure someone was in the shop dicing onions because my eyes were watering up from the love.
Seymore hopes the entire direct market can get back up and running within a few weeks.
“If it doesn’t, things might switch to digital for awhile from the big two, but seeing the grassroots movement of smaller press and indy publishers networking and finding ways to get their physical books into shops gives me faith for the future.
“It reminds me of the ’80s when skateboarding was underground and DYI ‘Zines kept the faith going,” he said. “That hustle and passion cannot be stopped.”