The Direct Market system, I think, works pretty damn well when all participants respect what the other legs of the table need — but it’s pretty easy to stress and overtax it, and even to absolutely break it.
Historically, I’d argue that we were always able to regroup because the stewards at the largest publishers were mostly loyal to comics, so when crashes came, the publishers dialed back; I don’t know that I believe that is true, exactly, any longer. Oh, people at Marvel and DC are still (largely) comics-loyalists, but they don’t make the final decisions any longer — it is very easy to envision a situation where some bean counter at the parent companies say “What? You only made fifty million dollars profit this year? Why do we bother with this division at all?”
It’s an interesting article, and certainly worth reading. My problem with it, though, is that it conflates “the comics industry” with “the direct market” and that presupposes a by-conditional relationship between Marvel and DC and the “comics industry” and Marvel/DC.
The basic gist of Bryan’s article is that we should be careful because Marvel and DC could crash the comics industry again. But the comics industry doesn’t function as simply as “Two big birds rule the roost.” Right? Don’t get me wrong, I understand how most comic shops function/order and the types of books they primarily, or in some cases exclusively, order, and so yeah, Marvel and DC could by coincidence or enemy action crash the direct market. But the idea the entirety of the comics industry is composed solely of the direct market is naive.
If the direct market crashed, publishers like (just off the top of my head) Nobrow, Uncivilized Books, Koyama Press, Pantheon, First Second, Picador, and every manga publisher wouldn’t feel much of a impact at all. Humanoids would probably hurt a little, but not as much as one might think. Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly might hurt a little, but probably not as much as you’d think. The bookstore market—venues like Barnes & Noble and Amazon—have completely changed the comics industry, and the fact that manga makes up a larger financial contingent than American comics, and that fact that the majority of manga is sold through a bookseller—not to mention digital comics, which have a completely different cost structure (or they should? They exist in a post-scarcity sub-economy and have a completely different cost-of-production breakdown); and these are just the things I can think of without doing too much work. What I’m getting at is this: the comics industry has expanded so much (it’s got a long way to go, believe me) that it does enough business outside of Marvel and DC and outside the DM that it would survive (again, it would be hurt but not killed by) a crash of the DM.
Even Image! Image still deals primarily in pamphlet comics. But I’d be willing to wager that their bookshelf comic sales are going up and up each year, and that those sales are coming from outside the DM. So Image, which again deals primarily through the DM, would survive a crash of the direct market.
My point is this: fuck Marvel and DC. They aren’t all that comics are or could be. Hell, they’re not even all the comics industry is or could be. So yeah, Marvel or DC could drive a crash of the direct market, and that crash could prove fatal for the DM and/or those two publishers. But I think it prove fatal for those two publishers. And a crash of the DM would be bad for comics, but it wouldn’t destroy the industry like it might’ve even five years ago—and in five years, it would probably do even less damage—and it sure as shit wouldn’t disrupt the medium.
One last note of equal import: Hibbs appears to put the onus of not crashing the DM on Marvel and DC, but…they’re not gonna change their behavior. They’re going to keep pushing their dumb fucking lenticular covers, which…that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. But they’re going to keep doing it. They’re going to keep triple-shipping a book or redoing 30-year old cross-overs, or shipping an event book 9 times in 3 months at $5 a piece, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Hibbs seems to think that this behavior will inevitably lead to a crash, and he’s probably right (I can personally verify all the speculation he talks about in that article, because I was working in a shop when those events were taking place, among others). But a crash of Marvel or DC doesn’t have to lead to a DM crash. All retailers have to do is try and diversify and broaden their customer base. They have to make themselves less reliant on two publishers who are headed towards a fiery explosion and a watery grave. Push more Fanta, D&Q, Koyama, Nobrow, manga from the dozens of publishers, Humanoids, Titan, NBM, First Second, et al. Get more, and more different, readers through those doors—basically, function more like bookstore! and less like a uber-niche place that only offers a narrow bandwith of bullshit to a narrow range of person.
P.s. Oh, oh, and the direct market system doesn’t work at-fucking-all. Diamond is a literal monopoly and dictates terms as such. Not to mention all their bureaucratic fuck ups, payment fuck-ups, software fuck-ups, shipping and packing fuck-ups… FOC’s are stupid, and the idea that comic retailers have to assume risk for product in ways that book distributors would never expect booksellers to is absurd.(via sheahisself)