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The Creative Comics Shop: Diamond and the industry’s push for survival

Diamond Comic Distributors

The moment comic book shops started transitioning to mail orders and curbside pick-ups due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans and owners alike have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. On March 23, 2020, the drop came in the form of a letter from Diamond’s chairman Steve Geppi. In it, we learned that the distributor would not be taking orders on new products. Anything slated for an on-sale date of April 1st would not be shipped.

Given that local comics shops rely on weekly comics sales to stay alive (although some stores have done wonders with their backlogs to make them an even more essential part of their business model), this sounded off an alarm many expected but no one wanted to hear.

The letter goes on to specify what exactly it is that this means for Diamond. Geppi spoke about how hard it was to make the decision and explained that it boiled down to the safety of his team and shop owners alike. Health in the workplace is essential and no one can fault Diamond for taking measures to ensure its workers remain safe, but the decision to stop distribution didn’t hurt any less because of it. One thing did stand out from the letter, though.

In his message, Geppi offered some advice to owners that continue to operate remotely: get creative. He says:

For those retailers who remain open in various forms, I encourage you to let loose your own creativity. For the time being, you will be able to replenish your perennials from Diamond and/or Alliance, but you should also remember the stock you already have in your stores. If your doors remain open, it’s likely you will have customers who will continue to seek diversion from events of the world. Special sales, promotions, and even eBay can help you bring in cash during this trying time.

Initially, this sounded to me a bit like “you’re on your own.” To be fair, Diamond did state it will be evaluating debt accrued and credit options to help out stores affected the most by the economic pressures of the pandemic. But the stores that might receive any help from Diamond are those that would’ve already survived the pandemic’s hit on the market, in all its dimensions. This consideration made it difficult to take Geppi’s words as the rallying cry for comic shops that I think it was intended to be.

I should clarify, I’m commenting on this situation as a concerned comic book fan who buys weekly periodicals, the bread and butter of the current comics market in America. I’m standing on the outside of this, given I’m not a shop owner, but following industry developments and writing about comics has given me some insight into the workings of Diamond and just how difficult it is to rely on one major distributor of the product.

All of this led me to think about the concept of creativity in sales, which the letter alludes to. I remember thinking that shops were getting creative with their stock well before the pandemic hit and that many stores had already put certain ideas in motion to stave off closure because of economic constraints coming from many different shifts and outdated ways of thinking from multiple sides of the industry. Diamond is not the only entity to carry the blame here (lack of unions, the volatility of freelance work, and the state of print media, in general, are important factors as well).

This pandemic, though, did put the spotlight once more on one of the comic book industry’s biggest problems, market-wise: weekly periodicals cannot continue to depend almost entirely on Diamond if comics are to survive in print. We need more options.

As this pandemic has shown (and if nothing changes, it’s possible we see a repeat of this), a single comic book distributor cannot account for the survivability of an entire industry.

The comic shop owners that adjusted to the new normal—and responded in kind by fully embracing outside-the-box problem solving—have shown that creativity isn’t choice but a rule if they are keep their doors open, even before a pandemic forced them into stretching that creative streak further.

There’ve already been a lot of stores that have found that becoming more of a community-driven space (invested in creating local shop culture through reading, talks, author events, and creative discussions) results in a loyal customer base that will do most of its comic book purchases with them.

Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, for instance, has been churning out social distance events to keep its customers ‘in the store,’ if you will. They hosted a social distance signing with writer Vita Ayala on March 26, complete with Q&A and the promise of customers getting free signed books with regular orders; Midtown Comics in New York has offered generous discounts on entire purchases to motivate buyers; and Challengers Comics in Chicago has teamed with SKTCHD to give customers the chance to win a new Hoth Battle scene Star Wars sketch by Daniel Warren Johnson.

If anything, the chaos that the Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed will make many of these stores stronger once we get clear of it. But not everyone is going to survive. One of the reasons survival isn’t guaranteed lies in Diamond remaining a necessary evil for weekly periodical distribution.

Competition is key, and stores all around the country have shown they are willing to experiment in order to keep selling comics well into the future. Back issues can be made appealing again, trades can be discounted, and figures can be sold in fairly priced bundles. But having a diversified market is essential as we move forward, with a mind to prepare for any other crisis that might come our way. We can’t assume nothing like this will ever happen again.

I’m not calling for the dissolution of Diamond nor for it to close its doors to let others take over. I just think it can do better and it should focus on contingency plans that don’t require the suspension of sales in times when stores need them the most. It can be via limiting the size of orders, coordinating with shops to ship the product in strategic spots to replenish stock, or even offering more generous discounts for local comic shop owners when certain social conditions call for them.

Comic shops are doing their part, putting ideas out there to keep customers happy and satisfied. Maybe it’s time Diamond took their own advice to heart and start getting creative.

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