Wednesday, January 21, 2009

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Diamond raises independent pubisher sales thresholds PART 2: beneath the surface

First be sure and read part 1, my reaction yesterday to the news of the changes to Diamond's indpendent publisher policy. Now, here are some more in depth thoughts on the topic...

Comics are a business.
However, comics, and by that we mean the US comics industry/direct market, have become increasingly a business about the large publishers.
There was a time when small press was a viable percentage of what the direct market was about, ushering in new creators, ideas, characters, companies, and franchises, offering a diversity beyond the spandex and cape comics that had conquered the newsstands, and growing the medium to it's current more mature existence.
Let's not forget, there once was a time that comics were truly for kids, and while Stan Lee and the modern Marvel universe may have played a large role in changing that, we certainly wouldn't have gotten to where we are today without the small press and creator-owned comic books of the 1980's and beyond.

It's easy to point to Diamond, and their handling of this material, being vastly the sole distributor to comic books shops, as the guilty party, but lets not forget, it's accross the board. Somewhere along the line, there was tipping point - most likely when the big two publishers realized they had a captive, and importantly, static market, and catered their publishing around that, increasing output and gimmicks to take more and more of their fanbase's comic spending dollars, leaving less money for everyone, accross the board, to spend on independent offerings. In turn, driving interest further in their direction, and therefore affecting every aspect of the industry, including print and web coverage. You see, it's not just tough to sell a book via Diamond, it's also become increasingly difficult to get any press whatsoever for the small press, as comic news sites become more and more corporate, and hit/traffic based revenue driven. They simply no longer afford much coverage at all to anything outside the larger publishers, as they need to drive their traffic based revenue, with the advertising rates rising, along with their hit counts, and the industries largest and main print publication, Wizard, fancying itself a media magazine, with coverage and expensive ad rates to coincide with it's bloated distribution numbers. There's increasingly no where for the smaller voices to turn, or even be heard, and increasingly more product from the large publishers, with high level, high volume exposure, competing against them.

The entire industry has become self serving to these larger publishers, and there's no one with any power, championing indpendent comics and the small press. Sure, the web is infinite, but small press centric sites come and go, and no real voice has emerged. (This has been a point I often muse about, and would love to address, putting together and pitching some sort of small press column to the big sites, but something I unfortunately haven't found the time for.)

In recent years, one can sight the emergence of the "indy" scene, and/or market, that's largely driven by those like-minded creators, and a growing convention circuit, arguably, mostly buoyed by, themselves. But yes, the indy market does exist, and is also linked to the growing alt/lit style book market. Both this convention circuit, and bookstore market, are unique, and mostly seperate from the comic book store direct market though, and therefore still leave a void in presence there. Most any independent publisher that traffics in this material will openly point out that Diamond and the direct market are just a fraction or subset of their business.

There is a real void of support for small press comic books across the board in the direct market, and no one to champion them. Readers can't be the ones to drive this effort, and Diamond is a business, simply reacting to the reality of their market (and, not deciding to invest in, or cultivate their back catalog). That leaves the retailers, and the publishers with the most interest, and power in this situation. If either doesn't band together and make an effort, to bring more focus to small press product, the ability for the market to offer it may slip away completely.

Or, perhaps it's all just a cycle, and it takes the fall of small press completely, and a clean slate, for some new publisher to enter the mix post collapse (like PC comics, or Eclipse in the 1980's), and get the attention small press used to draw, from lack of competition and renewed need for that material, for the whole small press boom to start again.

It's our choice, a proactive effort to bring visibility to this portion of the medium, to fight the control the large publishers are exerting on the market, or sit idiley by, do nothing, and see if fate, and the market, deem another rise from the ashes.

Of course, changing paradigms like digital distribution, and the switch in format to trade/graphic novel length material are large factors in where things go from here too, but that still doesn't change the current climate of the direct market and it's complete focus on the upper tier Diamond clients, which means any efforts in it's direction will face similar disadvantages seen in the current model.

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