While bookstores and movie theaters are already in precarious positions, comic book stores may have it even worse. The Hollywood Reporter reports that as more and more areas begin requiring mandatory closures of non-essential businesses, comic book stores will definitely feel the pinch. But forced closure may only be the beginning of comic shops’ woes.

Comic book stores, like magazines, are delivered periodically. Any time a comic book store spends closed down is time that its usual customers could use to obtain their books elsewhere instead—via mail order, or as digital comics. This means that if they have to stay closed down for long, comic book stores could end up with loads of inventory that they have no way to sell to their subscribers—and by the time they open back up, there may be no demand for those issues anymore.

It’s worth recalling that the sale-or-return mechanism print bookstores use now, that lets them return or destroy unsold copies of books for refunds from the publishers, was started during a similar time of economic hardship—the Great Depression. It gave bookstores a way to mitigate the risk of investing heavily in inventory without knowing whether any of it would actually sell. But comic book stores as we have them now didn’t come about until later, and never made that kind of arrangement with their comic suppliers. And many of them seem reluctant to start now.

“I sent an email to my top five suppliers asking if they were going to be offer returnability on the other end of this — I have three weeks of orders in the pipeline, and zero ability to sell those books in a meaningful way,” longtime California retailer Brian Hibbs wrote on Facebook at the start of the week, ahead of the enforced closure of his two stores. “Two of the five ignored me, the other two gave me really really dark answers and it is clear they are using each other as excuses, and only one, Image, stepped right up and said ‘Yep, returnable for now’. It’s probably only 80% of the reassurance I want, but at least it is something.”

IDW has also announced plans to accept returns, as have just a handful of others so far. Comic book publishers and distributors have also discussed plans of some kind to help out ailing retailers, but the discussions generally seem to be in the early stages. They’re also cancelling or delaying titles. Comic distributor Diamond has told retailers affected by shelter-in-place orders that they can put their accounts on hold until they are open again, but there generally isn’t a lot of reassurance to go around yet.

Diamond has also asked printers to stop sending them any new products until further notice, Bleeding Cool reports, putting its own business on hold due to the uncertainty of the times. Given that Diamond doesn’t keep a lot of back inventory, that means it will soon run out of the products it’s shipping to comic book stores, so even stores that don’t put their accounts on hold may be unable to get new issues for the foreseeable future. (On a related note, DC Comics’s main Canadian printer, Transcontinental Printing, is also shutting down for three weeks.)

Since Diamond is effectively the only major comic book distributor since a time of comic book market turmoil in the 1990s killed off all the others, this means that comic book shops may lose access to the majority of major-publisher titles—and that the major publishers may lose access to all the print comic book stores. This has the potential to do a lot of harm to stores and publishers alike—at least until such time as Diamond is able to begin print distribution again.

But are the publishers really as bad off as it appears? Comic books are no longer quite the cultural phenomenon they were in days gone by, now that there are so many other distractions available to their target market. Video games, streaming video, social media, and other pursuits have taken up a lot of the extra time they used to command.

These days, the big money seems to be not in the comic books themselves, but rather in the big-budget movies and TV series that both Marvel and DC are adapting them into. The print comic book market may not matter so much next to those other sources of revenue—except, perhaps, as sources of ideas for future TV shows or movies, and the comics don’t have to be in print for that. Comixology and other digital comic stores exist, and would not be affected by breaks in the print comic book supply chain. According to Bleeding Cool, Comixology will be keeping to its standard comic release schedule for now.

But if comic books move over to digital formats, that could leave the comic book stores high and dry, and we could see them dwindle even faster than regular bookstores. I doubt that Marvel or DC would want for that to happen, for the same reason traditional publishers are so fearful of the rise of ebooks. Having their colorful pamphlets in front of readers is an important part of attracting new eyeballs.

So, I expect that both Diamond and the publishers will do their best to make sure that this disruption is only temporary. The publishers might even work around Diamond to find new means of print distribution to stores if they have to. Still, for however long the crisis lasts, digital comics are sure to get a boost in sales, as avid readers turn to them to find out what happens next when they can’t get their hands on the next print issue. Perhaps some of them will even find they like the digital experience better.

Photo by Luigi Novi on Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

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