Diamond Comics Distributors is an easy target, but it’s not really a fair one.
The company’s exclusive rights to distribute DC and Marvel to comic book stores effectively forces all comic book stores to maintain a Diamond account. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense for comic book stores to maintain multiple accounts, especially given how great a collective market share DC and Marvel represent. To critics, Diamond is a monopoly with all of the downsides of a monopoly, including shoddy performance.
Despite being one of the most talked-about subjects in American comic books today, few major comic book websites are willing to address the issue. When Diamond Comics recently announced minimum sales requirements, a number of independent comics creators and publishers complained bitterly. Comics gossip-monger Rich Johnston, published on ComicBookResources, was quick to point out how the news article on Newsarama contained inaccuracies that appeared to distort the case in favor of Diamond. Still, for all the controversy, it’s remarkable how few comics websites were willing to tackle — or even address — the matter.
Sequart.com has always tried to be a little different, and one of the ways in which this site was always supposed to be different was that it was always intended to bridge the gap between indy comics and mainstream comics, academic study and fandom. As a writer myself, I wanted vibrant writers working for the site in a friendly, anti-censorship environment.
Brian Graiser is one of those vibrant writers. He recently debuted his column, Tact is for the Weak, on this site. I personally love his work and have heard similar views from many others.
Brian’s bread and butter is to say what others won’t, and Diamond was an obvious target. There was a good degree of surprise that we would tackle this issue, but I stood by Brian, personally hating censorship.
I hadn’t thought that much about Diamond outside of vague musings, but reading Brian made me think more about the situation vis à vis the company’s status as a “monopoly.” This is, it occurs to me, the greatest form of flattery: Brian provoked thought, even if that thought came to disagree with him in several respects.
All this said, I’ve come to be a defender of Diamond.
There are two types of criticisms of Diamond, and the two are sometimes conflated. The first is that Diamond is a monopoly. The second is that Diamond isn’t good at its job: distributing comics.
Let’s address the second first. The criticism here stems from problems such as late shipments or shipments that don’t contain the correct issues. When I lived in the Midwest, the store I visited occasionally had a popular title excluded from their shipment, leading to frustrated calls to Diamond. I now live in Hawaii, where shipments can sometimes be delayed a day because of the distance from a distribution center.
Mistakes happen. Some delays are inevitable. The assumption is that Diamond makes mistakes because it lacks effective competition, but this has yet to be proven. It’s easy, when a mistake or even an unavoidable delay happens, to blame Diamond’s power in the marketplace. Power attracts criticism, which may account for why such vehemence is directed at Marvel and DC instead of indy comics, which are usually criticized in more polite tones.
Perhaps more important than whether a company makes mistakes is how that company handles those mistakes. Some have said otherwise, but I’ve always found my contacts with Diamond personnel to be not only cordial but almost unbelievably kind and polite. While I can’t speak to others’ experiences, my own experience with Diamond has biased me in favor of Diamond instead of the other way around.
There’s a reason why criticisms of Diamond as a monopoly focus on performance: few people would complain about the company’s status as a “monopoly” if they were happy with the service. But a deeper question than whether someone is happy is whether someone has legitimate grievances.
Consider the charges that Diamond doesn’t support indy books. Yes, Diamond lists “Premier Publishers” in its Previews catalogue before its general listings by company. On the other hand, these “Premier Publishers” account for around 90% of comic book sales through Diamond. Moreover, Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics have retained their place as “Premier Publishers” despite losing market share. As a result, Image’s Godland and other indy books that happen to be published through Dark Horse or Image get listed in the front of Previews as well. In fact, Godland gets listed before Marvel Comics — and Dark Horse’s Grendel and Concrete get listed before both DC and Marvel.
Moreover, the company offers various means of spotlighting those indies in the general section of Previews. Every month, I not only read every page of the general comics section but Diamond’s list of indy comics of note — which is exactly as long as its list of mainstream comics of note, which itself includes Dark Horse and Image as well. I’ve actually found many indy books through these features.
A great deal of criticism has recently been leveled at Diamond because of its new minimum order policy, which has reportedly forced a number of indy publishers from being distributed through Diamond. I certainly understand why this has caused concern. On the other hand, one simply cannot realistically expect Diamond to distribute titles that sell only a few copies. Moreover, the new order minimums seem remarkably low — difficult numbers for a few titles but certainly reasonable.
It’s ironic that this criticism of Diamond’s order minimums is often made along with accusations that Diamond is a monopoly. I say that this is ironic because a variety of distributors wouldn’t exactly help matters. Imagine if there were a dozen distributors all with $600 minimums. After all, a plethora of distributors would face greater competition, probably forcing them to raise minimums.
The result might well be random comic book stores finding their orders for indy titles cancelled because those titles failed to meet minimums through their chosen distributor. Meanwhile, the comic book store down the block would get those same titles because orders through that store’s chosen distributor met that distributor’s minimums. The independent publisher would suffer, finding his orders cut almost randomly — and it would become terribly difficult to meet minimums at distributor after distributor.
The only alternative would be to go through a distributor without minimums, which would probably do poorer in the marketplace. Such an indy-focused distributor — the likes of which exist today — would be easily ignored by comic book stores. The difference might well be that these indies might well not be available through most distributors at all, whereas they have a permanent and special place with Diamond.
In short, Diamond is good for independent publishers. Complaining is easy. Imagining the alternative is a little tougher.
I don’t know whether Diamond is a monopoly, but it’s certainly monopolistic. It has exclusive deals with the major publishers, essentially relegating other distributors to an inferior status.
But Diamond acquired these exclusives during the great distributor wars of the 1990s. Marvel Comics bought the distributor Heroes’ World as a means of distributing their own material. Comic book stores had to maintain accounts with Heroes’ World as well as their normal distributor. Diamond followed suit by signing exclusive agreements with DC, Image, and Dark Horse — effectively putting its competition out of business. Marvel later found Heroes’ World unsuited for its purposes and joined Diamond as well.
In other words, Diamond won the game fairly. In a capitalist environment, it played the best game and reaped the rewards. It’s the government’s job to act against monopolies, anyway — it’s not the company’s job to avoid winning.
You can’t blame Diamond for winning. Instead of decrying a monopoly over comic book distribution, those who want reform ought to condemn instead exclusive contracts between publishers and distributors — a novel idea that Marvel invented but that Diamond perfected to win the day.
The distribution wars actually demonstrate some of the advantages of a distribution “monopoly.” While Marvel was distributed exclusively through Heroes’ World, comic book stores bitched constantly about having to maintain two accounts — each with their own rules and levels of discounts. Some stores that got deep discounts under the old model found themselves getting shallow discounts because their orders were split between two distributors. The paperwork was crushing, especially for stores run by people who love comics but who might not be the best at handling two separate accounts with distributors.
The idea of a monopolistic distributor might not thrill us in theory, but the previous situation was worse.
What’s more, Diamond gets the job done.
From a consumer’s point-of-view, it’s far better to buy one catalogue than two. Previews has it all, is well-organized, and is mandatory reading for the serious study of comics. Some of the material solicited is embarrassing, but the catalogue itself is great.
Maybe comic book distribution is one of those areas, like light and power, wherein it makes sense to have a so-called “monopoly.” In this “light,” one has to concede that Diamond has shown nothing like the tyranny with which the electric companies abuse customers.
Frankly, Diamond does a good job. It may or may not be a monopoly, depending on how one defines the term. They’re an easy target, but they’re a kind one — including to indy comics.
I’m glad they’re around.