Sunday, August 26, 2007

Back Away From the Comics

Toy companies have been easy to deal with. They have their strange idiosyncrasies, like how you better be fully stocked before December or your hosed, or their bewildering pricing and billing methods, different for every company, but they've been genuinely nice people who are easy to deal with. Melissa & Doug offered free shipping and extended terms. RC2 with Thomas Wooden Railway gave us a very cool free rack with our order. Without a centralized toy distributor, people are pleasant to deal with and local sales reps work hard for you and personally visit your store to show off catalogs of wondrous items. Toys are fun!

Comics have been a problem. When I say comics, you know I mean Diamond Comics Distribution, the company that owns the comics distribution market. They've got an exclusive with Marvel, which is half the comics market. If you're in the game trade, imagine all the slightly annoying things about Alliance, such as how impersonal it is (overworked order takers), the sometimes funky online ordering system (much better now), the predatory exclusive deals and inventory grabs, the paranoid billing and credit department (I still have 7 day terms). Now imagine what they would be like without competition to keep them in line. That's Diamond.

Starting a diamond account is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of experience. On the one hand, comics are all about being in the know, so there are sub-cultural things you need to understand about the industry. These include their archaic "ice cart Tuesday" delivery schedule, the ordering of comics months in advance, including ordering issue two of something before issue one has even appeared, and a bewildering chart of discounts based on individual publishers, your time with Diamond, volume, and the color of your socks. Ordering is based on sifting through a phone book size catalog of everything new and preferably entering it into the suspect online ordering system.

This sort of complexity would be fine if there was someone to hold your hand through it, but the Hyde part of the equation is that Diamond is a giant, automated corporate entity that dwarfs their little Alliance game division. There will be a deluge of information from your initial handler who will then walk away, giving you to someone else to deal with. No relationship there. You're essentially on your own from day one. With a lot of effort, I was able to encourage my handler to help me with the initial order, but then he was gone. I was handed off to another rep, who apparently isn't in sales. Her requests for someone to help me with comic books has gone unanswered. Add to it all that the online ordering system is confusing and will tend to back-order books without letting you know (maybe it's in the fine print). The invoices arrive with no billing address. You're in the comics industry now, you should have that address tattooed to your wrist, right? The shipping is billed separately, although I haven't received any invoices. I'll wait for accounting to call and yell at me.

The bottom line for us is that we're done with comics almost before we started. We ordered in about 125 of the top trade paperbacks and then tried to do some re-ordering and back-fill with mixed results. We may try to cultivate the trades like so many bookstores and other comics opportunists attempt to do, but we'll be passing on anything deeper, such as monthly issues. If you're in the game industry, just remember what would happen if some game Armageddon wiped out all the various small distributors. Their mere existence is a hedge against monopoly behavior.

My hope is that if the game industry does implode, it takes everyone with it and we're left with a toy model, not a comics model.


  1. I've always held to the idea that comics need to be done by comic stores, all or nothing, and that it's extremely difficult to incorporate them into a game store model, regardless of the genre crossover. It's been tried here on more than one occasion when I've been AWOL for any length of time, and it's always failed, despite the pressing need for a store in our area. Throw in the Diamond madness you described in exacting detail, and it's a completely untenable venture.

  2. I feel the same way about Comic Stores who also sell games...but I am like that ;)