Distribution Breakdowns

By | Thursday, June 24, 2021 1 comment
Dimaond Comics Boxes
I've seen several instances the past few weeks on significant problems comics retailers have been having with comics being delivered. Boxes being sent late, boxes getting lost, woefully incomplete orders, damaged books, damaged books that are replaced incorrectly... I've heard complaints of just about every problem related to shipping books from a warehouse to a retailer in the past few weeks. Of course, there's always going to be some measure of that. If you've got hundreds of thousands of comics being shipped to thousands of retailers across the entire United States on a weekly basis, there are inevitably going to be some problems based on pure chance alone before you even bring human error into the mix. But I seem to have heard about more and more significant problems lately and, given that I haven't especially been paying attention to distribution or retail discussions for several months yet these complaints still crossed my virtual desk, it seems to me this might be indicative of something big.

The most significant issues I've seen recently seem to revolve around delays. Retailers have been posting notices along the lines of, "This week's DC books won't be available until Saturday" or "The following titles weren't included with our delivery, so we'll have to wait until next week's shipment" or whatever. Basically, retailers apologizing to their customers for distribution problems beyond their control and trying to set expectations as best they're able. Undoubtedly, though, there will be customers who don't see those messages and show up at their local shops today, only to be disappointed that the latest issues of Superman and Action Comics aren't in their pull box.

The past year has seen some dramatic upheavals in comics distribution. Diamond no longer has the monopoly it once did. Normally, I would expect the additional competition from this type of situation to force everyone to up their game and we'd see much more effeciency, but the changes were rather sudden on the heels of everything going sideways because of the pandemic. I got the impression last year that several multi-year plans from publishers got condensed into a matter of months, so details they had expected to iron out later suddenly had to be resolved almost overnight. Which naturally leads to imperfect solutions. Add on top of all that a delivery service (the US post office) that is/was deliberately being hamstrung by its own director. So while perhaps not exactly a perfect storm, there's definitely plenty going on here to throw everything into a barely constrained chaos.

What all this means, I think, is that we're looking at a distribution system of monthly comics that, while not wholly unreliable, is not able to nationally guarantee release dates. Even a popular title might be widely available on a given date, but not necessarily at every retail location. If we're not able to resolve these delivery problems in a timely fashion, then the question that I don't have a solid answer for is: how do fans respond if they can't count on ship dates for their favorite titles? I can think of several different scenarios...
  1. Unwilling to risk having plot points spoiled, they begin to pick up digital comics. This could be instead of the physical comics, but I think the majority of fans who might make that switch have already done so. I suspect if spoilers are a primary concern when it comes to reading new comics, readers would only pick up digital copies of the comics that they're unable to get physical copies of on the initial day of release. All of the major publishers have simultaneous physical/digital releases these days, so these fans could ensure they're as up to speed as possible, even when they can't get a physical copy of the book. They'd go to their shop, see the issue isn't avaialble, and get the digital version in the meantime. In effect, they'd be buying the issue twice. I would hope this doesn't happen much, because if publishers saw this, that would incentivize them into delierately creating sporadic, regional scarcities in order to goose digital sales. Which, if that became publicly known, would result in a huge backlash.
  2. Understanding the problem is with pamphlet distribution specifically and not as concerned about spoilers in the short term, they switch to a wait-for-the-trade approach. Here again, I suspect the majority of fans who might make this switch have already done so. The thinking would be that, if they're being sporadically forced to read the book out of sync with everyone else, why not just wait for the format that the story is actually written for anyway? The longer term down side to this is that publishers generally subsidize their collected versions via monthly issue sales; if those monthly sales aren't there to begin with, many collections don't make financial sense. (At least from the perspective of publishers who mostly produce serial comics. Obviously, publishers who focus more on original TPBs/HCs have figured out a different model in order to keep their books profitable.)
  3. I can also see the fandom shifting away from comics entirely. Many of these fans are not, in fact, fans of comic books but they're fans of superheroes, or perhaps a specific superhero. But we've seen, over the past decade, a huge increase in the superhero genre in other media formats, in movies and TV in particular. There was no such thing as a "cinematic universe" prior to Marvel's movies but fans bought into the concept very quickly. We did have multiple movies/shows within a broad IP prior to Marvel -- Star Wars being a prime example -- but until recently, they weren't held cohesively. There is little connection between, for example, the original Star Wars movie trilogy and the Droids cartoon or Caravan of Courage -- they may as well be fanfic. But with this newer type of storytelling now relatively common in TV and movies, and with the superhero genre being reasonably popular, I can easily see many "comic book fans" dropping monthly comics in favor of watching Loki and Black Widow and Supergirl and whatever else. There might not be a new episode of The Flash every week all year, but it is always delivered consistently. If your aspiration, as a fan, is being more in-the-know about the stories and their details, it really doesn't matter if your canon is what's printed in the comics or what's shown on a screen.
Those are the options I'm able to think of and, yes, none of them bode well for comic direct market. (Note: that is not the same as the comics industry!) But those are only if the distribution issues aren't resolved unilaterally. It's not just about one company; this isn't all Diamond's fault. There are, as I noted at the outset here, several major factors at play in where these problems stem from. Yes, there are issues at Diamond, but also the major publishers, and also their new distributors, and also the post office. There's no one thing you can point to as THE problem here. But that's what makes this almost worse because ALL these places need improvement and, if one or two of them don't make any adjustments, things could be very bad for the direct market.
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TOONROG99 said...

Lack of leadership on all ends is the possible prob, and the nasty P.O. postmaster general Mr. Dejoy is sucking out alla joy also....heh, somebody hadda say it.