Saturday, January 31, 2009

Being downsized has its merits

So, thanks to the horrible economy and the fact that I work in the newspaper publishing business I now find myself with a new work schedule which means I am down to a 3 1/2 day work week and might lose some money from my weekly paycheck at a time when my family can hardly pay its bills.... and I'm happy about that! I now have a 3-day weekend including a Monday where my wife will be working and my son will either be at school or daycare (where my wife works). I will have to work 11-12 hours days to make up the lost time taking Monday off so that will be a grind but I'm looking forward to it in a weird way. For the last year all my comics projects have ground to a halt because of work and life. I have a tough time coming up with ideas or sitting down drawing when also trying to listen to my son tell me about his battles in Star Wars Battlefront or my wife is talking to me about which kids in daycare wouldn't take their nap. So, I will enjoy the extra day off and the time to hopefully get off my dead arse and start producing some art!

Anyone who looks at my recent flurry of posting and compares it the archives will notice I've been trying to post more here lately, this was an effort to hit the ground running with my new schedule. I've also been posting a lot at my art blog for dirty pictures. Hopefully as I enjoy my increased time off and get more drawing done I can break out the scanner and post some more art here which is something I haven't done enough of in the past.

The piece I posted was from last year's sketchbook which I scanned and played around with in Photoshop. More to come!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The benefits of a monopoly: Free shipping!

Once again I was thinking about the news that Diamond is raising their minimum sales order threshold to $2500. I'll state right now that I've never solicited a comic through Diamond, although I've looked at their web site information in the past and read everything I can about the solicitation of a comic and the act of being a "vendor" to Diamond (that's how they refer to comics publishers and artists). I started to do some more research and found this page (that's a Firefox transcript of a PDF- if that link doesn't work then here is one to the PDF) which reaffirmed my understanding that a vendor is responsible for freight costs to Diamond. By the way, that site is a great step by step numbers guide for a person looking to publish comics.

Now, I'm also fairly certain that retailers are responsible for freight from Diamond to their stores. A little research backs up that suspicion. Wouldn't you like to be the middle man dealing in a product that didn't cost you money to get to you or out to the stores? All you have to do in that situation is provide shelf space for the short time product sits in your warehouse awaiting delivery to stores. Obviously, there are other costs but the physical transport of the product is usually a prohibitive cost in doing business. Diamond outsources shipping in both directions.

According to this article by Chuck Rozanski at Mile High Comics, one of the ways Steve Geppi took control over direct market comics distribution was that he bought his own trucking company and the savings in freight costs helped gain him a competitive advantage. I can't find much else on that with my feeble attempts at using the Google. Though I did find this interesting Business Week profile from 1997 that also includes a gem about Geppi being "an unpaid adviser to Marvel since investor Carl C. Icahn took control in June." The article glances over some of Geppi's history as a comic book baron...

Geppi constructed an elaborate--and flexible--system of air and truck shippers to whisk books to retail racks nationwide. If one carrier ran into trouble, another leaped in to haul the colorful cargo. Timely delivery was a big hit with avid readers, who wait eagerly for their comics to arrive at the store every Wednesday. Publishers liked it, too. Says Paul Levitz, executive vice-president at No.2 DC Comics Inc., home of Superman and Batman: "He does an incredible job moving the product."

Diamond's advance hasn't been trouble-free. Some store owners complain that his near-monopoly has let him hike prices. And in the early '90s, publishers pumped out too many titles, leading to a glut that damaged the entire industry, particularly Marvel. Geppi got hurt when Marvel, looking to save money, decided in 1993 to distribute its own books. Overnight, Geppi lost 30% of his business. He scrambled to make up the loss via DC. By dangling attractive discounts, he expanded from handling half of its deliveries to all of them. Geppi also branched into comics-related trading cards, video games, and collectibles.
Wow. So in one article we find that Geppi gives advice to Marvel while running a business in which he cut an exclusive deal with it's main competitor? Sometimes you just have to shake your head when reading about the comics industry.

But back to the point, if Diamond's shipping costs are completely outsourced to the vendors and the vendors to which Diamond vends then Diamond hasn't been hurting through recent fuel increases. So, what could possibly be Diamond's motive for squeezing the industry for few more pieces of gold? More from that Business Week article...

Now, as an adviser to Marvel, Geppi is pushing the company to bring out new characters and freshen its mix. Marvel had pared its 200-title list to 45. Geppi feels that's going too far. And he thinks Marvel should use its clout to get special rates from printing companies for new titles, which tend to lose money. Although it's too early to tell what the impact of his counsel will be, there's little doubt that Marvel values his expertise. Geppi's free advice is hardly selfless: A robust Marvel will boost his business.
Read that last sentence again and maybe a couple more times.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Diamond gives New Year's lump of coal

According to Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon, comics direct market distributor/monopoly Diamond has announced that they will end the practice of publishing their Adult Previews catalog. On the surface this seems like no big deal and just a reaction to the current economic situation. But dig a little into and it's another sign Diamond is using its marketplace position to do what it wants, when it wants without concern for anything except its own ability to milk the comic book direct market for every penny. I guess Steve Geppi's love of those old Donald Duck comics taught a couple of things courtesy of Uncle Scrooge.

I'm sure the market for adult comics in North America have tanked over the years. Once upon a time it was the naughty funny books that saved Fantagraphics from extinction and allowed some creators a way to hone their skills and make a few bucks. Since the explosion of the internet comic books as stroke material seems silly now but once upon a time it wasn't as easy as entering some key words in Google. Except for erotic manga, I think the proper term is "ero," I think the market for these books was small though obviously it was strong enough to keep Diamond printing the extra supplement until now.

Strangely, the only extra supplements of the monthly Previews catalog that Diamond publishers were the adult stuff and the stuff from Marvel which was the end of the Distributor Wars that kicked off when Marvel went exclusive with Heroes World and set off a series of dominoes that resulted in Diamond acquiring exclusive rights to everything by DC, Dark Horse, Image and anyone else of any sufficient size who saw the writing on the wall. Diamond made them sign exclusive deals with promised they'd be featured in the front of the catalog- a practice today that continues to inhibit the creative destruction and entrepenuerial spirit which have always made comics one of the most vibrant art forms. The adult catalog was the only place where smaller publishers were able to gain an equal footing with more established companies and exclusivity wasn't a big deal since none of the exclusive publishers were pron publishers.

The problem here is that Diamond is the exclusive distributor of most comics to the direct market and forces you to pay upwards of $5 every single month to see what comics you might like to buy in 3 months. Due to the fallout of the Distributor Wars which resulted in many shops going under and others being pushed to the brink, most comics shops no longer take chances of products that might not sell and are non-returnable, forcing customers with odd tastes to order their product sight unseen. The Previews catalog has been a way to find out what's coming for those customers who like product that's not a top seller.

It's been my contention for a long time that Diamond needed not less catalog, but more! Many comic shops owners don't bother to look at anything but the Marvel catalog of the exclusive publisher front half of the monthly catalog. Those that do wade into the rest of the catalog find hundreds of pages, mostly made up of collectible kitsch and licensed garbage with a few small indie publishers buried somewhere in the mess. For years, I've begged that Diamond either put the toys & collectibles or the indie publishers or both into their own catalog. Many argued it would cost them money but given that they charge money for their own catalog or they could simply choose to post it on-line I find that argument without merit.

In fact, the biggest problem here is the fact that Diamond posts a copy of their catalog order form on-line and the text-only listing of its contents without any solicitation information! Yes, its another example of how they use their monopoly to squeeze money from the industry without care or concern of the long-term health of the market. Diamond could easily post a PDF of the monthly catalog on-line or add the solicitation info to it's website but it chooses not to so it can charge you money to find out information which might help you make a decision to buy more of its product. This is a tell-take sign of an abusive monopoly.

Steve Geppi is the robber baron of comics and ending the practice of publishing the adult catalog is simply another example of this which will be ignored by most of the comics press which has long ago turned a blind eye to Diamond's abuses. Most "serious and unbiased" comics commentators will buy the excuse this is economic-based, which it may partly be. The "mainstream" comics press doesn't care because they get the comics they want without problem (and because they're scared to lose access to the big 2 publishers) and the snobby art comix crowd buys all their comics at the big city comics festivals or at the few decent comics shops and doesn't care about the 90% of the country that doesn't live near the coasts or in Chicago or a handful of cities with premium comic shops.

In other words, ho hum... just another example of why comics suck and nobody cares because it probably doesn't affect their ability to buy Secret Invasion or Kramer's Ergot.