When word hit over a week ago that IDW Publishing had advanced to the level of Premier Publisher with Direct Market juggernaut Diamond Comic Distributors – earning a coveted space in the front of Diamond's "Previews" catalog and the right to extend final order cutoffs for retailers to later in the monthly business cycle – the news was obviously a big deal for IDW and how the company will continue to grow its business into its second decade. What's less immediately know is what the deal means for Diamond and the market as a whole.
As the primary (and arguably the only) distributor to comics specialty shops in North America, Diamond remains one of the most important companies for the entire comics industry and the most powerful player for a Direct Market whose survival is essential for a significant portion of publishers. To help get a clear perspective on how IDW's Premier status will change things for the distribution giant, CBR News reached out to Diamond's Vice President of Purchasing Bill Schanes for an interview on the deal. Below, Schanes explains why now was the time to let IDW into the Premier club, what specific practices and strategies have led to the company's independent growth in the DM and whether or not more, stronger publishers is a trend that will continue in the years ahead.
CBR News: People were surprised, and I think pleasantly so, that Diamond was bringing IDW up to the status of Premier Publisher. Is this something you've been looking into do – inviting any publisher or IDW specifically up to that level – for a while?
Bill Schanes: Well first of all to give IDW the credit they deserve, they were able to put together a very talented executive team, and on top of that they've got very good editors, and the content they've been able to acquire over the last couple of years really is fantastic. Content is king in our kind of business, so you have to tip your hat to them and say they're doing the things they're supposed to be doing – building a sound company, getting good properties, being very sound financially. They've done a good job.
I've been talking to Ted Adams over there and Robbie [Robbins] for years now about the business and how it's going. It's been growing at a very steady pace every year, very responsible. It seems very well-orchestrated and well-defined. And I talked to them a while back about the basic need to grow the business with really sound business strategies and how that could change the partnership at some time in the future. It just seemed that with this round of contract talks, the time was right to get into those kinds of details. This seemed like the right thing to do.
A lot of people had noted that IDW made significant gains in the past year or two in terms of landing as the #4 publisher certain months, regularly netting 4% of the market share and generally being viewed as a very vital part of the Direct Market. Was there a tipping point in all this, or was it just the combined weight of where everything was going with their business?
It really was how [they operated] in the pub program. It wasn't like I said, "Oh, here's something that's caught my eye." I've had this conversation with IDW for a couple of years now, not about whether they could be in the front of the book or the Premier section, but if they could continue to grow responsibly and manage the business in the way they've been doing...then I think there are things to talk about. I can say, "We can give you more coverage in the book than we've managed to do in the past." So I think they're pretty sharp guys over there. They handle what's going on, and Ted Adams specifically I think is one of the leading future-seers with the whole digital initiative. IDW had the lead in digital comics, and he's got his eye on the ball on that very well, maybe more than anyone else in publishing at this point.
And they're real good listeners. We suggest ideas to IDW all the time just as we do to other publishers, and the difference is that IDW just executes them promptly, efficiently and on time with almost perfect execution. It's something you want to reward with more.
The change means a lot for IDW in terms of how they'll be seen by retailers and they hope in terms of how people will order their books, but does it change much about how Diamond operates month to month? Or does this mean anything for the Direct Market in general?
I think first of all, this is an acknowledgment of IDW's efforts. In comics, the previous four Premier Publishers – Dark Horse, DC, Image and Marvel – all have a, what I call "heightened coverage" across all of Diamond's vehicles whether it's print, online, trade shows or consumer shows. So IDW will start having some increased presence in those things we do signifying their increased stature in where things exist. I think they've earned that right, and we'll acknowledge that. For us, it's not really more work. It's really acknowledgement of what they've done, and we'll be repurposing our efforts to make a bigger showing for them than we might have done in the past, which was already pretty significant. But we'll ramp up our efforts to help them out.
Sometimes in a market like this, one publisher raising up can come at the detriment of other players in the market, but it seems as though IDW's growth has been more independent and hasn't had too much of an impact on other publishers in the same category.
I think that's probably true. They've really taken the lead on licensed properties. They're very licensed-driven. Marvel and DC pretty much publisher their own universes with a few other properties, but it's mostly their own material. Image is either a partner studio or what I call "Friends or Family" coming in to publish under their banner, which is good stuff. Dark Horse is a good mix of licensed properties and their own creator-owned stuff. IDW really took the lead on a wide range licenses and concepts. They've taken licenses that would normally go with other people and instead of publishing one title, they've published almost micro-universe. It's a plan for each license and not just a single title. There's usually two or three series as it progresses out the gate. Some of them follow the current movie or TV project, whatever it may be, and some of them do things that are kind of a "What If?" scenario or take things to off-screen adventures. What they're good at is building single licenses into three or four properties, which gives the consumers and retailers more to talk about also. It gets them more invested in "Star Trek" or whatever it might be.
One thing about the announcement that stood out, but from my understanding might be more of a logistics and paperwork issue is how Diamond and IDW are keeping their current "Buy/Sell" relationship with how you guys get their books to distribute. Is that more or less you saying that you have to figure out how to get the books printed later on to meet the new final order cutoffs while keeping the physical distribution system already in place?
Well, from a financial angle the logistics of how IDW and Diamond work together have not changed at all. We still represent them. They present new product to us each month, and we offer it in the catalog. Based on our customers purchase orders, we pay for that product to be sold, which is fine. Obviously they've got increased space in our catalog because they've earned that right, but really the structural things about final order cutoff is something that we're not really ready to start on – though I think IDW is pretty enthusiastic about joining that club as we haven't had what we call our "buy/sell" vendors allowed to do that. I'm not quite finished tinkering with it yet. But it will allow retailers to wait until the very last minute to place a final order.
In IDW's case, they have one unique challenge that almost no one has, and that's that they print all their books overseas rather than in America or Canada. So their print wait is much longer than most publishers. But the thing is, to their credit, they're one of our most consistent shippers of any publisher we deal with. Probably the best publisher in terms of shipping is Archie who publishes like 15 to 20 titles a month and pretty much always ships on time. People don't give Archie a lot of credit, but they really get out books – that are maybe not as "sexy" as with the high-spandex superhero guys – that are very sound. IDW is very similar in nature. They print the books overseas and can time out exactly when they're going to go on sale. They're amazing accurate. And it helps to get brand loyalty with retailers and consumers when you announce that a book is going to ship on June 22 and they know it's pretty much going to ship June 22. So pretty much all the marketing and sales promotions and stuff that publishers and retailers do actually work out as opposed to some other publishers who don't ship on time. All these efforts aren't lost in the wind.
We got a kind of silly question via e-mail after the initial announcement was made, but with IDW alphabetically falling in between some of the other Premier Publishers, will you be slotting them into the middle of Previews between DC and Image or at the back as the new kids on the block?
Alphabetically, absolutely. And the front of the catalogue is prime real estate that's pretty choice, so I don't think consumer or retailers will have any trouble finding them.
What's the first month IDW will be in the front of Previews? Will it start in June?
They're in Previews #259, which I actually have here on my desk and is on sale at the end of this week. You'll see IDW in the front of the book there.
I think it's very hard for anybody to argue against IDW being a publisher deserving of this bump up in terms of what they've done with their market share and visibility as compared to some of the other "mid major" publishers...
And there are a lot of good publishers out there doing a fine job. There's just not so many doing it at such a high level of intensity right now as IDW is doing it.
Well, that's just the question I was going to ask. Do you think that in the next few years, some of these other publishers who are out there holding on to around 3 or 4% market share will be able to grow enough to become a Premier Publisher, or will this be a much more rare announcement?
I don't really know. When we first started out with the whole catalog system, we used to have Acclaim in there when Acclaim was still around, and they were a Premier Publisher. So for a while there we actually had five publishers until they sort of fell off the bandwagon, so to speak. I think it's really dependent on how the market conditions change and what publishers step up to the plate and really put forth the required effort. I think publishers like Dynamite and BOOM! and some other publishers are doing a really good job. They're just significantly smaller now. If they continue those positive trends, there's a time in the future where we could possibly have this discussion with them.
I think some of them may take that as a challenge.
I think BOOM!'s taken it as a challenge already.