Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan

What Price Near Mint?

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Comics, FYI
What Price Near Mint?
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #5 • View online
Almost four months in, and Penguin Random House Publisher Services’ Marvel distribution is still causing trouble for retailers.

Last week, I came across a YouTube video titled “Destroyed Marvel Books from Penguin Random House” being shared on Twitter. Posted by online retailer Organic Priced Books, the 12-minute video consists of host J.P. sharing how damaged his Marvel shipments from Penguin Random House Publisher Services (PRH, for short) have been when they arrive, and talking about just how bad things have gotten, not just in terms of deliveries, but also service – he talks about poor packaging leading to damaged books, lack of response from PRH even when dealing with multiple reps at the company, and even incomplete shipments that he’s uncertain will ever be fulfilled in their entirety due to the way that PRH handles its accounts. 
It’s a sobering, depressing watch, made by someone who’s clearly exhausted by the ways in which his business is being hurt as the result of decisions made by his business partners, and the ways in which he’s taking the flak from customers who think he has final say over everything to do with his store. The video’s release was accompanied by a newsletter sent to the store’s customers, which added extra context.
“Our mission when we started this business was to provide collectors with the best possible experience with every order. Unfortunately with how Penguin Random House [has] been sending out our books, we are unable to provide you all with the usual pristine condition copies,” the newsletter read, in part. “This issue will mainly affect titles with small order quantities, for example, Aliens Omnibus, Conan, Cloak and Dagger were small orders and were default to be shipped via UPS with ZERO protection. More popular releases such as Ultimate Spider-Man, Jason Aaron Thor, Star Wars Omnibus will be received via freight so there shouldn’t [be] damages/problems for those titles. Unless Penguin Random House decides to ship our pallets to other retailers on accident like they did previously.”
Via email, J.P. made it clear that his problem wasn’t with the publisher, but with Penguin Random House’s distribution. “This was a problem way before Marvel,” he told me, although PRH’s exclusive deal with the House of Ideas exacerbates the issue. “Anything that does not arrive via pallet arrives damaged or imperfect,” he explained. “If they sent it via UPS, it’s 90% damaged most of the time.”
As he intimated in the video, he’s reached out to PRH to no avail. “It’s the same blanket response [I get from them]: ‘We’ll send this feedback to the higher-ups,’ and then continuing on with their business practices, never to be heard from again. The problem is huge, because since we’re still in our first year of business, we have a lot of first time customers everyday, so providing an excellent experience for them is more difficult with the extra stress PRH puts on us.”
Penguin Random House Publisher Services took over exclusive distribution of Marvel product in October of last year, six months after the multi-year deal had been initially announced. It was a deal that significantly changed the comic book industry, with Diamond Comic Distributors – a company that had, just two years earlier, been a virtual monopoly when it came to comic store distribution in North America – losing its largest publisher just a year after losing its second largest; it was also a deal that appeared to make a great deal of sense for the two companies involved.
For Marvel, it meant a closer relationship with the largest bookseller in the U.S. after years of being also-rans in terms of bookstore sales, and for Penguin Random House, it opened up a relationship with the owner of some of the most sought-after intellectual property in the world… allowing for things like the Penguin-published line of classic Marvel reprints launching later this year*. Everybody wins, right?
Well, okay, not everybody; retailers definitely seemed to be losing out, with the first week of PRH distribution being a very public disaster. Poor packaging decisions – ones that had, apparently, been tested prior to launch only to utterly fail in real world situations – and missing shipments to some of Marvel’s biggest customers meant a lot of unhappy retailers, and unhappy fans. Within a couple of weeks, changes were being implemented to try and save face and keep everybody happy.
“Things have improved from our side regarding damages to comics carton-shipping in October to some of our comic shop customers,” Penguin Random House Publisher Services’ Stuart Applebaum told me via email. “In December, damage claims reported to us dropped below 1% in units, and some of the customers who were our most vocal critics in October are now offering us positive feedback (e.g. 616 Comics, who now call us the ‘gold standard in shipping comics’).”
“I think every company has its good and bad qualities,” suggested California retailer Ryan Higgins, citing damage claims being questioned by Lunar Distribution, shorted or missing product from Diamond, and problems with delivery methods employed by both. (Diamond, of course, had to suffer through additional delays brought on by a ransomware attack at the end of last year.) However, PRH deliveries have their own unique challenges.
“They went from poorly packing their comic shipments with no protection to way overpacking with more bubble wrap in one box for 5 comics than Lunar uses for a giant box with 400 comics, and yet, because the boxes are small, they’re thrown around by UPS and when they’re damaged in transit, they get more damaged than any Lunar shipment I’ve ever received,” he explained. “But shipping is free and damage claims are never questioned. It’s all a wash.”
Not everyone agrees on that last part, it seems; for some time now, there have been persistent rumors that a number of retailers are moving Marvel orders back to Diamond – which buys Marvel product wholesale from PRH and then distributes it to retailers along with everything else – in light of problems with PRH’s deliveries. As it stands, Diamond’s Steve Geppi claimed that the company retained 45% of its existing Marvel customer base when the October changeover occurred. 
Diamond is officially playing coy about this potential trend. In response to a query, I was offered the following from Chris Powell, chief sales and service officer, Geppi Family Enterprises: “Overall we are pleased with the Marvel business we’ve retained. We recognize and appreciate the support of our retailers, many of whom never left and others who have returned to take advantage of the benefits a single point of ordering and delivery provide.”
For its part, Penguin Random House Publishing Services is aware of reports of damaged shipments of graphic novels, something Applebaum described in email as “not entirely surprising regarding books’ transit, considering the ongoing overall supply-chain pressures impacting freight companies,” although he said that it was, ultimately, “not acceptable, and our problem to solve.” The company is exploring potential options to fix the issue, according to Applebaum, including “exploring different binder cartons from the books’ printers; they’re also working to ensure that retailers are able to make damage claims easily and have stock replaced “without great delay, if and when necessary.” 
Of course, the definition of “without great delay” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. The Organic Priced Books video mentioned above was posted January 13, and featured J.P. displaying boxes of returned books that were meant to have been picked up by PRH back in November. When I asked him what the reaction to the video had been, he told me that customers had been receptive and enjoyed the transparency, while fellow retailers “respect that I share their struggles and hope that PRH will resolve the issue finally.”
As for the two companies whose input could actually change things, though…? “PRH and Marvel have not reached out yet,” he wrote.
* The Penguin reprints shouldn’t be confused with the Taschen reprints of, basically, the same material. (Both Penguin and Taschen are reprinting early Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America stories; Penguin is also planning Black Panther reprints, while Taschen are going for Fantastic Four instead.) Marvel doesn’t always seem particularly interested in keeping its classic material in print, but why should it, if other publishers are going to pay them for the chance to do it instead?
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Graeme McMillan

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