If you’re an independent comics creator in the Seattle region, Anne Bean wants to stock you. Bean—a comics writer, indie publisher and freelance writer—is launching Emerald Comics Distribution, a solo operation that will represent and distribute indie comics regionally.
Towards the end of 2016 Bean realized she had all the tools to make distribution a viable business, and to fill what she saw as a much-needed distribution gap for independent creators in Seattle.
“As an indie creator I know it’s a full-time job to market and distribute,” Bean told me over coffee. “I think a lot of creative folk don’t necessarily sign up to be business people when they make art. There’s production, consignment, making money—some are really good at it. And others…others are not.”
“I have a car. I have a basement. I can represent a stable of creators to comics sellers, drive their work from store to store and check the stock levels. I’ll make sure the consignments checks are correct, and hang onto their overstock. I’ll let stores know what the hot new shit is, and they can deal with one representative instead of every single solo creator.”
Comics production has changed massively over the last fifteen years, with the rate of change increasing since the advent of crowdfunding. Webcomics hit the scene just over twenty years ago, allowing creators to set their own schedules, no longer beholden to a publisher who needed monthly content to hit shelves. Social media allows creators to amass widespread fan bases, while year-round conventions let them vend clothing and chapbooks, glossy trades and enamel pins. And creators are leveraging Kickstarter and Patreon to not only fund print runs of high-quality work, but garner a living wage between projects.
However, one element hasn’t changed at all: distribution.
Emerald Versus Diamond
Once you’ve printed your comic—whether it was a massive success on Kickstarter with hundreds of backers, or a private passion project—the process of getting it to stores is old-school. That’s due to the monopoly held by Diamond Comic Distributors, widely considered the industry’s supervillain.
“Every shop owner I’ve ever talked to has had something negative to say about Diamond,” Bean says. “I spoke with a local owner recently who said he’s had the business twenty years, and never seen a correct order from them. Or the boxes are damaged, or the comics are ripped, or they’re shorted. But it’s the only game in town.”
Diamond is the sole survivor of the “comic book distributor wars” of the 1990s, when the company successfully bought out all of its rivals. It ended up with distribution rights to all “big five” publishers: Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and IDW. That prompted a federal investigation by the Department of Justice into a possible violation of antitrust laws. That investigation was closed in 2000, not because the company isn’t a monopoly of comics distribution, but because breaking it up would endanger the health of the entire comics industry.
If you’re a big enough publisher, who can guarantee that sales will top a threshold of $6,000 in retail sales, you’re in with Diamond. But woe to anyone publishing “questionable” themes or scenes. Diamond exercises the right to deny any comic they just plain don’t like. If you’re a small fry, you’ll represent and distribute your own work—a process so random and chaotic to store owners that some comic shops won’t even deal with the hassle.
Bringing the Outside In
Bean is hoping to change minds about indie comics on both sides of the comic shop counter. Once Emerald Comics Distribution has enough creators signed on, Bean plans to curate themed packs of comics for stores to sell. As we talk, she pulls comic after comic out of her bag, illustrating what could make up the Goo Monsters Pack, the Lesbian Action Adventure Pack, or the Depression Pack.
It’s a clever method of selling work by artists with high name-recognition, and bundling along lesser-known artists for the ride. The bundles also provide an entry point to newbies who might be intimidated by—or ignored by—comic shop staff.
A week after our coffee talk, Bean and I walk into Outsider Comics in Fremont, a shop launched in November 2016. Bean is here for recon: She’s been interviewing artists to see what they need in a representative, and talking with owners to understand how best to help. I’m here to shadow Bean…and also because I’ve heard they have nerdy scented candles that smell like The Shire and Winterfell.
Outsider Comics bills itself as a queer and woman-friendly shop focused on inclusivity and assistance. Just inside the door we’re greeted by racks of high-quality geek-themed clothing by Elhoffer Designs. I’m immediately distracted by a Spider Gwen dress and Captain Marvel hoodie, then entranced by a row of nerdy nail polishes and wraps. Bean discovers their LGBTQ and Civil Rights sections, and I can practically see the heart emojis in her eyes. Target audience acquired.
I join Bean at the counter, where she’s talking distribution with Outsider general manager Andrew Funk. Funk is describing his woes with Diamond’s back-end ordering system—a familiar refrain. I notice a table of indie and local comics with pride of place, right in the center of the room. Even better, their Local Artist comic packs bound in plastic sleeves, like the ones Bean plans to curate. I point them out to her.
“Oh yeah,” she says with a smile. “I think I’m gonna get along with these guys just fine.”
Emerald Comics Distribution is currently building their roster of represented creators. Creators can contact Bean and submit work at http://www.emeraldcomicsdistro.com/