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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:





That’s the problem with a biweekly schedule. First column of the year and I’m already far enough away from the whole New Year’s thing that talking about hope and renewal is far enough away in the past that it seems a touch ridiculous.

Particularly when you go through the news of the last couple of weeks. And really, the big one dropped on Friday. Diamond is raising its minimums on purchase orders from $1500 (the benchmark that they set in 2005, which caused a great deal of consternation) to $2500. That’s a 60% increase according to my math. This, for those of you not aware of how these things work, means that for a book to be listed with Diamond, a book has to generate $2500 in business.

For Diamond. And their cut means that the book really needs to do more than $6000 in orders total (tip of the hat to Dan Vado for doing the math on that and saving me the embarrassment – read his response to the new order of things at http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/cr_sunday_feature_dan_vados_informal_letter_on_diamonds_new_edicts/ - oh geez, there’s no way that this is going to make it in one piece. Just go over to http://www.comicsreporter.com/ and look for yourself – I’m sure this will be discussed a lot in the coming days.) Now, $6000 gross isn’t too tough for Dark Horse, say, even in their single issue sales. And sure, THE WALKING DEAD isn’t going to get anywhere near that low. But what of other Image books?

And what about the small startup books? I don’t see a way for them to clear the minimum bar of 1500 units shipped (assuming a now-mandatory $4 cover price, which will cause a lot of squawking from readers and retailers alike.) Nobody squawks about a $4 book that sells, but without a substantial audience to pre-order that book, it’s just gonna wither, assuming it gets picked up in the first place. The independently-published single issue was already beginning a press into rarity. This merely hastens it. Well, not “merely”. More like “majorly.” As it stood, serial publication of a new project, unknown team or not, was already a losing proposition. This just sorta puts it into stone.

A personal digression: when the 2005 minimums were announced, I’d decided that my own book, STRANGEWAYS, wouldn’t see life as a serial. Speakeasy serialization (or the near-possibility thereof) aside, I didn’t want to get two or three issues into a five-issue story out and then have Diamond say “Hey, Matt. Sorry, but issue #4 didn’t make the cut. We can’t carry it.” That kills the story dead, since people are gonna feel cheated that they had to buy a graphic novel to finish out the last two issues of story that never came out.

And honestly, the first STRANGEWAYS graphic novel made the minimums with the pre-order. Which is nice. But those were the $1500 minimums. The numbers I got wouldn’t support the new benchmark. Where does that leave me? Good question. I haven’t been contacted by a brand manager, but then I’m a super-small publisher and probably way down their list to get a hold of. Since I’m not depending on monthly issue sales (thank goodness), this doesn’t affect me nearly as strongly as it does a lot of other publishers. I guess that’s good, right?

But anyone who’s putting out black and white material in a single issue format is probably looking very closely at their numbers, or seeing if they can make any alliances that would boost their numbers, or maybe they’re thinking that they’ll have to lean more heavily on their convention sales to make up the shortfall (and even have a place to sell the book.) Conventions will become a much more important place for small publishers (and already, they were pretty important.) That may be interesting this year, given the downsizing that’s going on. Thankfully, none of the shows that I look forward to have undergone that. Yet. Granted, Wizard World in LA is suspended this year (as is their Dallas show, I think.)

Okay, Wizard World is hardly synonymous with BIG INDIE COMICS SHOW, but they were an outlet for your printed indie comic. Hey, I made a couple sales there, so you could too. The other shows that are booked, well, let’s hope that they do well even in the downturn. I have expectations that they will do okay, but then expectations and what actually happens are different things.

One thing that I do expect is that publishers will more and more come to look at the internet as their loss leader (much like single issues really are) and their advertising medium of choice. Have you priced print ads lately? Printing ads in the “real” world is expensive. And when that bites into your already low bottom line, well, it leaves a mark. Now I wouldn’t know much about this whole internet thing. But I know a little (like the second chapter of STRANGEWAYS: THE THIRSTY has started its run at the Robot 6 weblog at Comic Book Resources) and the dollar investment to potential (and I reiterate that potential) return can be pretty good.

So maybe those indie comics collections won’t be serialized with Diamond in the first place. Perhaps the thicker books will. I’d like to say that perhaps they’ll go to actual book distributors and try to find a wider market at the same time they go into the Direct Market, but I’m not entirely sure that’ll happen at this point. Perhaps we’ll solve the platform issue and find that the internet is a better way to publish and distribute books and skip Diamond altogether. But that one’s a ways off yet. I keep waiting for the product designers at Apple to work on a tablet computer/book reader.

In the meantime, we in the indie comics world all have to deal with belt-tightening at the top of the food chain. I figure it’ll hasten some people’s flight from the Direct Market, if not cause them to be unceremoniously dropped. I’d have hoped that this kind of move would merely have hastened a transformation to a book-based rather than pamphlet-based comics marketplace, but something else happened a little while ago. Diamond announced that they were tightening restrictions on material under the “offered again” category. That means that backlist material, particularly backlist collections of an ongoing series, will not be as easily visible as it once was. This will chill any kind of development of a backlist-driven model. But it’s Diamond’s choice to make (and by the same token, you’ll always be able to find brokered publishers’ backlist to be available—meaning Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image.)

Is this fair? The universe isn’t concerned with fair. These are Diamond’s rules to make and enforce. Like others, I’m not really angry with Diamond. That’s like getting angry at the rain. The Direct Market and Diamond are completely intertwined. Diamond can’t exist without the Direct Market to sell books into. The Direct Market can’t exist without the books that Diamond provides them to sell. If you want to sell books into the Direct Market, which is primed to sell comics material (and has an audience that’s ready to buy comics) then you adapt to the rain or find shelter elsewhere.

As a medium, comics will ride this out. The delivery system for them, however, isn’t going to be the same. Often the steps we take that we think will stabilize the patient merely hasten the inevitable. Remember folks, compact discs and digital music were going to make the record companies triumphant forever and ever. Ask most record executives what they think of digital music now…

Back in a couple weeks. Happy New Year, everybody.

Matt Maxwell

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