Saturday, October 2, 2021

One of the hardest things to resist saying is: "I told you so."

Guy came in the store yesterday while I was in back and said, "Where's the old guy?"

"Old guy!" I shout. "Who you calling an old guy!"

He was thoroughly embarrassed. Thing is, other than a few aches and pains and some forgetting of names and looking in the mirror, I don't feel like an old guy. But hey, I do have 40 years experience in the comic retailer trade.

Anyway, this is a long route to the main point of this post.

Penguin Random House's first week of distributing comics is next week, and it's looking like a disaster in the making. Apparently, they are shipping in thin cardboard boxes the size of the comics without any buffering. So, of course, most of the comics inside are being damaged. 

If true, this is even worse than I thought,  but I've always had my doubts that PRH was going to understand what needed to be done with comics. I experienced the Heroes World disaster, the small distributor that Marvel bought in the mid 90s to distribute their comics. It was a complete and utter fiasco. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

Turns out, distributing isn't as easy as it looks. 

A little history since then. We've been getting our comics from a single distributor, Diamond Comics, for the last 25 years or so. Diamond literally stepped into the wreckage left behind by Heroes World to prop up shaky retailers (including myself) and in my estimation has done an overall good job. I worried at first that they were a monopoly, but I think they handled it well.

But for most of the last 20 years, a lot of comic retailers have complained bitterly about Diamond for every little mistake. Shipping problems, publisher problems, and even retailer problems have all been blamed on Diamond. Worse, I do believe that many retailers have used Diamond as their whipping boy for their own mistakes. I winced every time a retailer would blame a shortage on Diamond when it was their own fault and I've made sure we never did that.

Believe me, Diamond hasn't been perfect, but in most ways they've tried to be responsive to some very malcontent retailers. In that same time, most publishers have shut out the retailers for their constant complaints.

There is one really legit complaint about Diamond and that is that they charge for shipping. PRH doesn't charge for shipping, but on the other hand, we've lost enough off our discount to completely wipe out any possible savings. 

OK. So many comic retailers are just older fanboys. But Diamond has always been willing to immediately replace damaged comics, or shortages, and usually they simply take our word for it. Sometimes the comics aren't available, but such is life. 

Frankly, I have been amazed that there was a system in place that allowed retailers to order a single unit of a single title that was worth probably no more than a dollar to the distributor. That instead of the 200 books a week I get from PRH, Diamond is shipping a couple thousand items that are flimsy and easily damaged. 

But over the years, comic retailers seemed to have become more and more aggrieved, constantly complaining. Publishers are always looking for someone to blame for falling sales and--since they can't really do anything about the comic retailer base (believe me, they've tried, putting comics in every conceivable big box store only to fail)--they blame the distributor. 

In my opinion, when there have been falling sales, it is strictly the publishers own fault. Constant #1s, constant mini-series, one-shots, and crossovers. Constant starting over. Constant raising of prices. Ever growing numbers of variant covers, many not available or affordable to the average customer--or average retailer, for that matter.   

Worse, this constant complaining by the retailers has trickled down to the average customer who blame Diamond for everything. 

So the inevitable happened. First DC decided to go to a different distributor, Lunar Dist. Never mind that the owners of this company are also our biggest mail-order competitors, this change has added to the amount of work and shipping costs as well as making it harder to order DC graphic novels and toys. They did seem to do a better job of shipping, at least at first. But of course, the actual labor of putting comics in boxes is part of the process, and no matter how protected, UPS and Fed Express can still manage to do significant damage. 

Worse, Lunar actually wants photographic proof of damages. Gone are the days when you simply reported to Diamond and they accepted your word.

Then Marvel decided to go with Penguin Random House, the biggest book publisher in America.

I've been ordering books from PRH for over a year now. I rarely get a shipment where there isn't at least one damage--and this is books, which can withstand much more jostling around. It's very hard to get a hold of an actual human when you have a problem. Biggest problem of all--what is supposed to take two days to ship actually often takes two weeks. (I'm hoping that is a Covid problem and will clear up eventually.)

But what a time to take on such a big task! As I said above, my average shipment from PRH for books is 200 units. My average shipment from Diamond is in the thousands. Each of those items have to be picked and packed and itemized. This at a time when PRH is already apparently shortstaffed. 


The ordering system for PRH has been very wonky. Not consolidated, slow, and confusing. OK. I was willing to see that as growing pains. PRH seemed to be listening to the retailers, but I have a feeling they were just nodding their heads and meanwhile planning to do what they were going to do. 

Ironically, I believe it at least as likely that PRH will give up on comics before comic retailers give up on PRH. I can't believe it is worth their time and money and, boy, how they are going to love dealing with malcontent comic retailers. 

We are a different breed of cat than book retailers. 

I have diversified to such an extent that such problems aren't dangerous to my business, just annoying. I really should take a wait and see attitude before I say, "I told you so."

But it's not looking good so far.

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