Mimi Cruz is the manager of Salt Lake City's Night Flight Comics. A major figure in getting comic books into libraries over a number of decades, she has made the Bleeding Cool Power List on the back of it.
But she doesn't feel very powerful now.
It's common for retailers to complain about Diamond Comic Distributors, who have a monopoly (though it's a word senior Diamond staff dispute with me using), of distribution of Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Boom and more into the direct market, and a growing presence in bookstores. Orders will arrive unfulfilled, in the wrong numbers, with the wrong books, or there's a missing box, an unexpected outbreak of ebola, but this is generally accepted as part of business and for most retailers it's not life or death and is usually rectified.
Mimi does seem to have been having a bit of a time of it though. She writes:
This year (last 18 months actually) have been hell on earth when it comes to dealing with DCD. It is not just us either, when I find the opportunity to speak to other comic stores near and far, we all seem to have the same problems with DCD. While some stores accuse DCD of targeting them for failure by not sending them what they have ordered, I insist that DCD has never been worse at their job (pack and ship our comic orders) and in order for them to "target" any one store for failure by not sending them their orders correctly would take organized competent distribution systems and DCD has not been capable of that for years.
Diamond's destructive practices are taking a toll on our industry. Sloppy fulfillment of orders and regular overages and shortages of product have become characteristic of Diamond's service. Replacements that are confirmed are often later revised as unable to be filled and just the weekly over-ships of random products which we never ordered is currently resulting in a minimum of 6 to 8 hours each week in labor; the time to report it all, repackage, and travel time to send back.
Frustratingly for us, valuable time is being wasted, time that could be better spent on more constructive activities. Multiplied by all the other stores across the country receiving similar service and you see an industry moving in reverse. With continued demand generated from comic movies and conventions, we have a little wiggle room for poor distribution, but if lean times hit then we will have a real disaster on our hands if something isn't done about securing a better distribution service.
One of the typical examples of this phenomenon was last September when we were shipped 60 extra copies of the Death of Wolverine #1 instead of Batman Eternal #22. Since Batman Eternal is a weekly title (more and more common now in the industry), the hiccup of a missing title is even more profound. Diamond can take up to two weeks now for an "emergency ship" creating an increasingly characteristic mess which still months later we are resolving the associated accounting issues for the screw-up. Just last week they sent us twenty-five copies of Thor #2 (which we didn't need) in place of the billed-and-needed re-order of twenty-five copies of Thor #1 and that's just a single invoice item in a week full of them.
Consolidating all their distribution to Olive Branch in Mississippi may look like a real win for them on paper but the available work force, software management issues, and combined warehouse snafus have proven disastrous. Not to mention, the lack of will or incentive to fix or improve their distribution capabilities. For years, Cindy Fournier has admonished me for ever mentioning the worldwide "monopoly" DCD enjoys, but we all suffer the negative results of that monopoly with increasingly poor service. It is harmful to the commerce of our industry as a whole.
Last November, Dave Hawksworth, DCD's rep for the western United States stopped by the store for his annual visit. He discussed a new Image Comics program that would provide us with substantial (typically thirty-five copies) over-ships of returnable books each week. We discussed the details and realized that despite Image's attractive willingness to accept returns that we would have no time to be managing such a program in addition to the massive time consumption of dealing with Diamond's weekly distribution headaches. We elected not to sign up for the program but Mr. Hawksworth still submitted paperwork for us to be pre-approved in case we changed our minds at some later date. Unfortunately, due to Diamond's inability to complete such simple tasks, we were placed in the program and now receive bushels of additional comics each week that need to be returned while Diamond has struggled for the past few months just to remove us from the program. They literally can't get us out even though everyone agrees it was a mistake for us to have been put in. Again, endless time on our part with emails and phone calls and Diamond personnel badgering us with charges for returning books that we never asked for in the first place. The whole dilemma is, of course, none of our doing.
DCD has substantially cut customer service personnel, as well as their available hours. They have cancelled their toll free number and frequently do not provide invoices for weekly shipments. Their Maryland offices are supposedly running things but they are unable to get their Mississippi distribution to effectively distribute. Its like the head can't control the hand and it continues to get worse. We've held out hope for the past couple of years that Diamond will get its act together but it seems like it's not going to happen and their monopoly is firmly in place.
We (the comic book store) are one part of this whole industry, yet how are the other parts coping? The publishers? They surely also suffer when their product cannot get to the marketplace. What happens to all that lost product? Store sales are lost when we don't get the books on time and in quantities expected. How is that affecting the publishers? Then of course, there are the writers, artists, editors, everyone else to consider. When their books do not arrive and at times, never arrive, how do the artists cope? As I see it, their work is sabotaged when DCD does not fill orders correctly. Example: a few years ago, Steve Niles had commented on Twitter/FB that he didn't understand why orders for Creator-Owned Heroes numbers were dropping when there had been so much positive feedback at the conventions. He did not know (until I reached out to him) that DCD had neglected to fill one-half of our 3rd issue, even though for months we were assured it would ship, but it never shipped. I learned later that no comic store across the country got one of the two covers for that issue. Essentially cutting all comic store orders in half permanently. What was the result of that snafu? We lost customers for the series and never got them back to it. Even if unintentional, if that isn't sabotage, then what is? That is one of several titles that we have had this happen to since 2012. It isn't just the effort talented artists make, our staff get behind titles and their enthusiasm draws attention to titles, their efforts are worth considering when building a readership for any title. Then to have it all chucked into the bin when we are shorted the books and are assured we will get them until it is way to late to ever find them another way, it makes me want to weep.
We did reach out to Diamond who told us,
We're sorry that Mimi is frustrated with our service and we wish that every shipment that leaves our building could be perfect. But we ship over 2 million units per week, and we're human, and mistakes do occur. We understand that quality control – shipping our customers the items they ordered, in the quantities they ordered them, in good condition – is our number one job, and we take it very seriously. We monitor our error rate each week, and strive for it to be consistently under 1%, and do constant training and retraining of our staff to emphasize the importance of quality control. We're not perfect, but we are constantly striving to improve, and will continue to do so.