Hello! Once again, it’s been longer than I’d like. You’ve heard all this before of course, so I’ll spare you the sob story – just trust me. If I were to bore you with it, it’d be both good and convincing.
And before we start, let’s get some altruistic but still self serving stuff out of the way. Regular readers will remember that my dad, the wonderful Graham Rigby died last year, just twelve weeks after being diagnosed with a “Grade 4 Glyoma”, pretty much the most aggressive brain tumour there is. It was a difficult time, and if I’m honest I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with it even now.
My Dad wasn’t one for sobbing into a hanky though. He was an immensely practical man who was only really happy when he was doing something. Show him a problem and he’d find a solution. Usually sketched out on the back of a fag packet. And you know what? It would always work.
Well, however much I want to find a cure (or even an effective treatment) for the kind of tumour my dad had, I don’t have his flair for the impromptu solution. I’ve inherited some of his talent, but this challenge leaves me floundering. My degree is in English Language, not Medicine, so the blunt truth is I’m never going to find the cure I so desperately want. What I can do though is try to raise some money so that the people who are qualified to do the necessary research have the funding they need so badly.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
On April 26th I’ll be running the London Marathon in support of Brain Tumour UK. If you’d like to support me, you can sponsor my run through my Just Giving Page. Just follow this link and take a look. Any donation you feel able to make – however small – will help to develop treatments for this devastating disease. And of course while Brain Tumour UK is a UK charity, their work is shared world wide. If an effective treatment is found here, then it’ll benefit the rest of the world too.
Thank you for any assistance you can give.
But for now, let’s get back to comics.
More specifically, let’s get back onto an old hobby-horse of mine – the distribution company Diamond. Regular readers will remember me droning on about this issue before, but new issues have been brought to my attention and frankly I’m beginning to worry about the negative effect their monopoly position is having on the UK comics scene.*
First of all, if you’re in the UK, have you noticed how fast they’re going up in price? The price per comic that is being charged to retailers is rising inexorably, and I’m not sure why. I mean, I know that Sterling isn’t doing so well in the international currency markets, and if it weakens against the dollar that is bound to have an effect on prices. But the rise in prices to retailers (and as a result, in prices to customers too) seems to me to be disproportionate. My figures are a little shaky** but whatever the truth of the situation I definitely feel ripped off. I simply can’t get over the feeling that I’m paying more than I should be for my comics.
Now, in spite of appearances, I’m not stupid. I know that there are more factors governing the price of US comics in the UK than the simple exchange rate. If I’m going to have the opportunity to buy American comics then those comics have to get from one side of the Atlantic to the other somehow. I also acknowledge that this isn’t “the old days” anymore – and thank goodness! I’ve spent many happy hours in bars at conventions chatting to old timers from the UK scene about days of yore when American comics came to the UK as ballast on trans-atlantic freighters. In effect that meant that their transport costs were zero and American comics were cheaper than chips. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
Of course, it wasn’t. In fact it must’ve been bloody awful! You’d have had no idea what was coming in, or when. You would never have been sure whether the subsequent issue of the comic you were reading would ever make it to this side of the big pond, and of course the one thing you could be sure of was that the only comics that were destined for a future as ballast were the unpopular ones that hadn’t sold out in its home market.
Not to put too fine a point on it, generally speaking, we got all the shit. Often in the wrong order, and with random issues missing. I mean, I’m not all that old, but I remember a time when the availability of American comics was entirely random. We few devotees knew which stores would have the latest imports*** but we didn’t know when they’d arrive, or even if they would.
Diamond changed all that.
It would be churlish to say otherwise. Seriously, whatever my issues with Diamond might be, I have to say they sure as hell made sure that I never had to miss an issue of a favourite comic ever again. Really, I loved them for that. The weekly quest to find new issues of my favourite titles is a great tale of yore, but at the time it was a massive pain in the arse.
The current situation is, however, not the improvement I expected when Diamond first hit the UK market in the early nineties. Back then, if I recall correctly, Diamond was trumpeted as the one stop shop for all things comics related – and to be fair, that is exactly what they turned out to be. The problem with that is that Diamond became a monopoly, and anyone who ever studied economics knows how undesirable that is. History shows us that however good a service provider is, without competition the service provider comes to view itself as more important than those it serves. Seems to me that that’s exactly where Diamond UK is now.
Talking to retailers I get the impression that most – if not all – of them see Diamond as more of a foe than a friend. There are tales of orders with key components missing, of restrictions, cancellations and general poor service, all delivered with a shrug that says “but what can you do?”. If you’re in the UK, there is almost nowhere else you can go to get American comics. A couple of small retailers have considered importing stuff themselves, something they are convinced they could do at a fraction of the cost charged by Diamond, but they can’t see a way of finding the required time or warehouse space. It’s just too big a risk, and so Diamond’s monopoly remains.
It’s not just retailers who are affected by this lack of competition either. As regular readers will be aware, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the comic creating business. Many of them are clearly good enough at it to break out into the “big time”****. But being good is simply not enough, is it? You could create the most ground breaking, life changing, genre defining comic there ever was, but it would make no impact on the world at all if it remained in your desk drawer. If you want to gather readers, they have to be able to get at your work.
How do get your work in front of readers?
Well, obviously you can toddle around your local comics stores and ask them to put your opus on their shelves. You can set up a website. You can send your comic to people like me in the hope that we’ll review it, or plug it and bring it to people’s attention. Every little helps, as they say. But at the end of the day, if you want to reach enough readers to make your work viable, to get you noticed and to start to carve yourself a career, you have to get your comic into Previews. You have to be listed. And that’s hard to do if you’re unknown.
Again, in many ways that’s no bad thing. It’s good that Diamond put up some hurdles to ensure that books that are solicited actually do come out to a reasonable schedule*****. It’s good that they ensure the books they list in Previews actually exist.
But it’s not good that they can, apparently on a whim, suddenly decide that they won’t list a comic after all – as has happened to a couple of people I’ve spoken to recently. Not getting into Previews is a disappointment, and a blow to any plans you might have had for world domination, but it isn’t the end of the world. Suddenly discovering you’re not going into Previews when you thought you were though, that’s a different thing entirely. That can really mess you up.
There are financial and planning implications, for a start. On the expectation that you’re going to be marketing to the whole of the UK comics buying market, you might splash out on glossy full colour covers, for example. You might even sell some advertising to help you cover your costs, taking money from people in good faith on the understanding that the ads will appear in a publication which will reach a potentially large audience. Then that particular rug gets pulled from under you – what do you do? Give back some of the money? Pull the ads and give it all back? Carry on as though nothing had happened and potentially upset advertisers who are now not gwtting quite what they thought they’d paid for.
You know the more I think about this, the more potentially complicated it all gets.
Because of course there is also the potential damage to your credibility as a creator that such a reversal of fortune can entail. You email all your contacts in comics retail and comics journalism. You plaster banners reading “See us in Previews!” all over your website. You tell everybody you can think of – including people you don’t even know very well. Why not? You’re excited – especially if this is your first time out in the glare of Previews acceptability.
And then it doesn’t happen. Which means an awful lot of people are potentially thinking “yeah, right”. And a bunch of other people are potentially thinking “Hmmmm. So what’s wrong with this book then? What do Diamond know that I don’t? Probably going to be unreliable. I’ll not order it.”
Now, I’m not saying that any of this is deliberate. I’m sure that Diamond is full of people who work hard and care deeply about providing a good service to creators, retailers and readers alike. But just because the problems are not intentional doesn’t mean that they’re not problems. Just because there are people in a company who work hard to achieve customer satisfaction doesn’t mean that the customers are satisfied.
It’s not really Diamond’s fault either, not really. You can’t blame a company for wanting to be successful – indeed, that is rather the point of going into business in the first place isn’t it? You can’t blame a company for being the only people doing what it does either. But competition is not just healthy, it’s vital, and Diamond need a challenger. Anybody out there want to take them on?
Expect me to come back to this. And Diamond? You absolutely have right of response – I’d be interested to debate this with you. In the meantime, I’ll see you in seven. Or so. And don’t forget www.justgiving.com/regierigby. Cheers!
*I should at this point make the point that I’m talking entirely about my experience of the situation in the UK. I have no idea what Diamond is like in the US, or anywhere else it might be operating. “Your mileage may vary”, as they say. In fact, if you have a more positive experience of Diamond I’d love to hear it. This is an expression of concern, not a vendetta.
**Although if you have any data that might help me firm them up to either prove or disprove my opinion I’d love to hear from you.
***For myself, I always favoured the news agents store in the Doncaster Northern Bus Station. Hardly ever let me down – although an honourable mention goes to Mr Aziz on Doncaster’s East Laithe Gate, who was always a great supplier of last resort – and who also sold be my first ever copy of 2000AD. You spawned a monster Mr A!
****And it’s not just me saying that – several of them have won important industry awards.
*****Because we know how well that works. Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk, anyone?