Please note that this article has been edited and updated since it was originally published.
COVID-19 is jamming itself into everyone’s lives in increasingly strange ways. Last week we covered how COVID-19 may factor into the webcomic community and just recently some shocking news hit from Diamond Comic Distributors: The company, the largest distributor of comic books in the world, will be halting any new distribution starting April 1st. The comic book industry as a whole seems to be adapting as best it can. Despite the anxiety and chaos brought on by COVID-19, however, there is a larger opportunity present here that is unfolding for webcomic creators. A pause on new books from major publishers winding up in shops means many comic fans may be seeking out new material to read.
The Fine Print
Founder, Chairman, and CEO Steve Geppi outlined the immediate effects on comic distribution given the announced distribution halt:
Product distributed by Diamond and slated for an on-sale date of April 1st or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice. For the time being, however, we have been able to develop procedures with our teams at the distribution center in Olive Branch, MS to safely continue fulfillment of direct ship reorders for the retailers who are able to receive new product and need it to service their customers. It’s unlikely that orders will be filled on the same day they are placed, and these plans are subject to change if any point we no longer feel that we can safeguard our teams while fulfilling orders.
Product distributed by Diamond UK and slated for an on-sale date of March 25th or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice. Further updates with regard to reorders and other Diamond UK-specific information will be communicated directly to their customers as information becomes available.Press Release
For some consumers, there is a belief that this leaves a lot of comic book retailers in dire straights as there will be virtually no new inventory by which to drive sales in their shops. Geppi suggests to retailers that they focus on existing stock and utilize creativity and promotion. For how long this will be the current reality for comic book retailers, however, is currently unknown. Free Comic Book Day has already been pushed back and many conventions have been delayed or outright canceled. It is a strange time for many people in the industry and there are a number of measures being discussed.
A great deal of the problems arising from the comic market right now revolves around Diamond Comic Distributors being the only game in town. The company has effectively had a monopoly on the distribution of comics to a degree that the majority of the industry makes its sales through direct market shops rather than utilizing retailers such as grocery stores and big box stores. That’s an issue for another time, however.
Some retailers, however, indicate this distribution freeze is not necessarily a bad thing. The pause on shipments is something that has been wanted for weeks. It presents an opportunity to deal with existing inventory through methods such as curbside pickup (such as with Digger’s Comics) or offering mail-order service (such as with SoCal Games and Comics). The greatest threat to retailers, it seems, is not the lack of distribution, but rather the push to keep citizens from leaving their homes in order to flatten the curve.
This isolation, however, creates a captive audience for webcomics, for a lack of a better phrase.
How Does This Affect Webcomics?
There are two major ways by which the ceasing of distribution through Diamond Comics Distribution will play out for webcomic creators. The first way is that any webcomic creators who have printed editions of material on the way to be distributed through shops are, for now, out of luck. Even comic publishers on the indie scene who do not distribute through Diamond, for example, are also facing delays and temporary shuttering of operations.
For the vast majority of webcomic authors, this won’t be a significant problem, particularly if COVID-19 response accelerates and reduces the need for social distancing and allows for companies to begin operating at the level they were at prior to COVID-19.
The second major way Diamond’s temporary distribution freeze will play out for webcomic creators is that it creates a marketing opportunity for creators. Digital comics are a point of anxiety for brick and mortar retailers. There is some demand that publishers avoid e-book production on new books entirely in an attempt to weather the storm and maintain a level of exclusivity of comics with direct distribution shops. Simply stated, if the new comic is not available in shops it is not available online.
What this means is that for always-online comics, such as what is on offer at Comicadia, Hiveworks, and Spider Forest, a lack of access to traditional comic titles can make webcomics far more attractive for those stuck at home. In the U.S. many states have already instituted mandatory shelter-in-place orders. That means that there are a lot of people are browsing the internet. This is, potentially, a massively untapped market generated through unfortunate circumstances.
As to best appeal to this new pool of readers, however, is a topic for another post.