The shape of pre-exclusivity distribution, April 1995

Seventeen years ago, the comics industry was in the waning days of its multi-distributor model. Marvel had purchased Heroes World Distribution, and would in July make it the only place where comics shops could buy its comics. And on April 28, 1995, DC and Diamond Comic Distributors announced their exclusivity pact — one which would be followed by many others. By the summer of 1996, all the other distributors were out of the comics business — and in April 1997, Marvel folded Heroes World and returned to Diamond. (Read earlier posts about the Exclusivity Wars.)

It was clear to all at this point in 1995 that things were about to change dramatically, and as editor of Comics Retailer magazine at the time, I was looking to get a snapshot of how things were before. Now, only five of the ten or so distributors at the time were regularly releasing Top Sellers lists — Diamond, Heroes World, Capital City Distribution, Friendly Frank’s, and Canadian-based Styx Publications. And only Diamond and Capital went out to 300 items. So only the Top 100s from April 1995 were compared for the piece I did in Comics Retailer #40 (July 1995) — and even then, things didn’t add up exactly, because the three smaller distributors included some non-comics items on their lists.

You can see Diamond’s 100 titles (and the next 200) for the month here — but for comparison, here’s how many titles the publishers placed in each distributor’s top 100, followed by the top-ranking book each publisher placed with each distributor:

Publishers’ Comics In Each Distributor’s Top 100,
April 1995
Diamond Capital
Styx Average
Marvel 35 37 37 37 42 37.6
DC 24 23 23 23 23 23.2
Image 25 23 25 25 16 22.8
Dark Horse 5 5 4 4 7 5
Tekno 4 4 1 4 2 3
Acclaim 2 3 3 2 3 2.6
Harris 2 1 1 1 1 1.2
Crusade 1 1 1 1 1 1
Topps 1 1 1 1 1 1
Bongo 2 2 2
London Night 1 1
Hamilton 1 1
Publishers’ Highest Rankings At Each Distributor, April 1995
Diamond Capital
Styx Average
Marvel 1 1 1 1 1 1
DC 13 14 13 13 20 15
Image 11 11 11 11 3 9
Dark Horse 19 22 27 22 13 21
Tekno 60 62 75 70 78 69
Acclaim 23 13 25 23 34 24
Harris 45 46 39 49 61 48
Crusade 33 34 33 46 49 39
Topps 40 39 49 51 41 44
Bongo 107 81 92 93
London Night 97 101 99
Hamilton 120 147 74 114
Cartoon 112 106 109

As we can see, there is a lot of uniformity between Diamond and Capital — at least at the top of the charts. (Click to compare two Diamond and Capital months, from earlier in 1995.) The TeknoComix books are almost identically placed, midlist. The big difference is Acclaim (formerly Valiant),  whose top-ranking Ice Age: Magic The Gathering #2 placed ten slots higher at Capital than at Diamond; Capital had a lot of game stores in its customer base who were early adopters of collectible card games. And Bongo‘s Lisa Comics #1 did much better at Capital than at Diamond. But otherwise the two distributors were in pretty close to lock-step.

The same is mostly true for Heroes World, the regional northeastern distributor that Marvel had already purchased — though Dark Horse’s industry leader for the month, Star Wars: Dark Empire II #5, fared worse there, as did ToppsX-Files #4. On the other hand, Harris’s industry leader for the month, Vengeance of Vampirella #13, did better there than anywhere else, and Hamilton’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers #6 placed 74th, where it didn’t make the Top 100 at all at Diamond and Capital.

But Tekno, publisher of comics by celebrity writers, fared much worse at Heroes World than anywhere else, with only one of its books, Neil Gaiman’s Teknophage #1, cracking the Top 100. Tekno’s titles ranked lower at all three of the smaller distributors seen here — which is likely attributable to marketing. Tekno reportedly dumped a million dollars in its launch ad campaign, and a lot of attention was paid to the largest distributors, which had more opportunities to promote individual titles.

At Friendly Frank’s, likely the fourth largest U.S. distributor, the numbers were similar to two largest distributors but for Tekno and Topps. Styx, one of several Canadian distributors, has the list most different from the others. Marvel and Dark Horse placed more items on the list — Dark Horse’s highest ranking was here — and Image ranked fewer titles in the Top 100 (but its top title, Spawn #31, ranked higher here than at the other distributors). Then the top titles for Acclaim, Crusade and Harris ranked lower at Styx than at the larger distributors as well.

This is far from a complete picture of pre-exclusivity distribution, and it is not intended as such. It’s a snapshot using some handy data, and it’s limited to the information we were able to see from the distributors that provided it. There do, however, seem to be a couple of takeaways. While over the years Diamond and Capital performed relatively better or worse with specific publishers as relationships and discounts offered changed, as of 1995, the sales rankings at the two publishers were fairly similar.

And the Top 100 breakdown by publisher was reasonably similar at the regional distributors as well — with perhaps a positive ranking bias in favor of the most familiar publishing houses. That effect, if in fact present over time and throughout the parts of the charts we can’t see, has implications for any argument connecting distributor competition with more access for independent titles. It’s likely that, when we did have a dozen distributors, the benefit mostly went to the largest publishers. The catalogs for the smaller distributors weren’t very big; for some of the smaller ones, they were simply order sheets.  I expect there could be local effects due to the deals publishers had with each distributor, and the distributors’ own efforts — those could favor one publisher or another. But brand recognition would have played a large role in what got sold in smaller venues.

On the other hand, it could be argued that it was the vigorous battle between Capital and Diamond that helped promote middle-tier publishers like Tekno, Crusade, and Topps; both firms were of a scale to permit focused selling, with distributor account reps calling on behalf of specific brands. That would seem to favor publishers large enough to arrange for those additional services; a comparison of the titles in the 200s might tell us more.

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