'The Changes Are Going to be Profound and Permanent'
Posted by ICv2 on May 28, 2020 @ 3:23 am CT
For over 40 years, you have been a publisher, a retailer, and mail-order company, how does this crisis compare to the crash in the early nineties?
Man, that is a tough question!!
Certainly, from a human perspective the situation we find ourselves in now is far, FAR worse than the 90s comic crash. On that level there really is no comparison. During the 90s crash we did not worry about dying when we opened up our shop every day. This is life and death and an unprecedented disruption of EVERYTHING. The direct sales market is just a tiny little piece of this much bigger and far more important event.
It’s only when we separate out just the pure business aspect of the comic market that a comparison could possibly be made. And I think in comparing the economics of the current store closures and the ramifications of the 90s crash that the 90s crash had more casualties.
First, the crash lasted a bare minimum of two years in most parts of the country. That was YEARS of ever decreasing sales. Stores closed, businesses died, jobs were lost, marriages crumbled, and many lives were thrown into turmoil. I know literally dozens of casualties from that crash.
Second, and most importantly, the 90s crash was comic market-specific. It was not something that affected the entire United States like now. During the 90s crash no bank was going to lend you money because your comic sales faltered, the SBA wasn’t going to help you and certainly the Fed was not going to send you a check to try and help out. Nope, during the 90s crash we were expected to just suck it up and live with it. Many could not do it.
It was just awful. Store sales plummeted and contracted for years; our mail order business simply dried up and order numbers for independent comics became miniscule.
It may take some time, but once this shutdown has ended I believe the comic market will return to a far healthier state than we had in the early 90s. Comic shop owners are an intrepid bunch. I am optimistic; cautious, but optimistic.
How did you and FantaCo dealing with this Direct Market shut down?
During this shutdown we have concentrated on our website and on lining up projects for the next 12 months. Sales have been down sharply, but we have enough cash to make it through. Two months before this shutdown, we had decided to take a two to three month break from publishing to concentrate on completing projects for the Fall. We received our last Diamond payment the day before they announced that they would temporarily stop distributing. So we had unknowingly timed our operations perfectly. It was sheer luck.
Do you see the marketplace returning to business as usual?
No. The changes are going to be profound and permanent, just like in society as a whole. The social distancing situation is going to have far-reaching implications for the operation of retail shops. Many conventions seem to think they will just start up again like normal but is that even possible? I just don't see how they will be organized to handle the number of people involved under all the new safety guidelines. MAJOR changes are going to have to take place.
And then we have the distributor situation. At this point in time there are three but I don't think it will stop there. If we have learned just one thing from all of this it is that having a single distributor does not work in a crisis. The market needs backup to backup to backup and even deeper than that. There is safety in numbers.
You were there at the beginning of the direct market, watched it evolve, change, could you have ever seen this coming, and where would you like to see it going?
I am simply stunned by the size and breadth of this market compared to when we started.
In 1973 and 1974 the direct sales order form was the front of a single sheet of paper!! No I am not kidding. That single sided paper listed ALL the comics, magazines, fanzines and other items available to the direct market. It took me about 10 minutes to order our new comics each month.
Phil Seuling and Jonni Levas had no way of knowing the behemoth they were creating in 1973!! I know that, had he lived, Phil would be both delighted and dismayed at what the direct market has become because he often told me his hopes and his predictions. He would be absolutely delighted by the entrance of film companies into the comic market, as he had predicted to me back in the 70s that this would happen. He would have been dismayed that the market dropped to one distributor for 25 years because Phil believed that more than one distributor was needed to effectively supply all the stores.
As for my hopes, I would like to see the direct market return to a multi-distributor model the way Phil envisioned it. I think that between 5 and 10 regional distributors would be extremely beneficial to the overall market.
Where do you see FantaCo positioned in the coming marketplace?
I see us strengthening our direct sales position as a publisher. Looking at the top 500 sales we are consistently in the 300s and I see us moving up maybe 50 to 100 points. We have some very exciting and unique comics, magazines and books being prepared for the next 12 months. These are projects that have been in production for one to two years, one even longer than that. Overall, I see us positioned in between the underground and mainstream category. That's where I’d like to stay.
(One of my favorite Phil Seuling predictions from the 1970’s: Phil told me he wanted to publish a magazine called "Twenty Dollars". The magazine would have lavish printing and all kinds of extras like pull outs, gold leaf sections and animations. The cover price would be $20.00. Now this was when magazines were 60 cents. He envisioned all kinds of press coverage and interest due to the outrageous cover price of $20.00!!! Of course, now we are entering a time with magazine prices where this story seems almost quaint!!!)
The opinions expressed in this Talk Back are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.