Evolution of the
Direct Market Distribution Part I

Last week, I related to you the story of the boisterous first meeting of IADD, The International Association of Direct Distributors. While the name IADD had yet to be adopted, and not all of the active Marvel distributors were represented at that first meeting, that rowdy breakfast at the 1981 San Diego Comics Convention set the stage for the creation of the distributors organization that lasted for the following 16 years.

As I also mentioned last week, that original meeting only came about at the insistence of Phil Seuling. Phil was absolutely convinced that the publishers were our mutual enemies, and that we distributors absolutely had to band together for protection. Given that he had been dealing with the publishers since 1973, the rest of us newbies in the distribution field couldn't help but become paranoid after hearing Phil's vociferous rantings. We certainly were all aware that Phil had an ax to grind with the publishers as a result of having lost his exclusive subsidized shipping relationship after the settlement of the Irjax lawsuit, but his arguments about the duplicity of the publishers still rang true nonetheless. How apt Phil's words were to turn out to be, we really had no idea....

After that first meeting some of us met with DC's Paul Levitz. I can't remember the details of those meetings very well, but I do know that by that point in time (1981) that I had been pressuring DC for two years to come up with trade terms similar to those enacted by Marvel in 1981. Simply put, I wanted DC to adopt an open door policy for distributors, providing 60% off on wholesale orders of $3,000 or more per month, with free shipping. I addition, I also wanted DC to adopt Marvel's policy of requiring upfront payment for the first three months, and then giving qualified distributors 30-day billing. Given that Marvel's enactment of their new trade terms for Direct Market distributors had resulted in an immediate boom in sales of comics from all publishers to Direct Market comics shops (and helped fund the massive expansion in the number of comics shops...), it seemed only logical to me that DC would want to help keep the ball rolling by emulating Marvel's new trade terms.

As I've already mentioned previously in other contexts, however, the biggest problem I had during this period of my life was my stunning naiveté. Like some dimwit Country Mouse, I kept assuming that the cats wouldn't want to eat me if I came up with ideas that would genuinely benefit them. In that regard, I was a complete fool. There was a power game going on for control of this exciting new form of comics distribution that I never even saw was occurring. In some regards, this blindness on my part was a result of my close relationship with Jim Shooter. Jim and I had met during my very first visit to Marvel in 1979, and we had been working together on ideas that would grow the Direct Market for two years prior to the formation of IADD. While I am well aware that Shooter is a divisive figure in the history of comics, I frequently feel the need to state that during the entire time that I worked with him at Marvel that he battled steadily with Marvel's management to improve the lot of not only comics distributors, but also comics retailers and comics creators. Sadly, Shooter's accomplishments during his tenure as Editor-in-Chief are now frequently overshadowed in the historic record by those times when he publicly agreed to some odious company line. That happened fairly frequently, as his position as Editor-in-Chief didn't actually rank him very high in Marvel's overall corporate structure. If Marvel President Jim Galton, or any of the officers from Marvel corporate parent Cadence Industries, chose to override a decision that Jim had made, he had no choice but to capitulate. Since I was in the trenches with Jim during many of his struggles, I was far more forgiving , when he failed to accomplish his goals, than the rest of the comics world.

Flipping back to my (non)relationship with DC, I made the sad mistake of assuming that if Jim Shooter was the "comics guy" within Marvel management, that Paul Levitz would fill a similar positive and constructive role at DC. It was with that thought in mind that I kept believing Paul throughout 1980 and 1981 when he told me that new DC trade terms for the Direct Market were coming "soon." What I failed to take into account, however, was not only the differences in personality between Shooter and Levitz, but also the radical differences in their corporations. While Marvel was being run somewhat as a business, it was essentially the amateur hour. Cadence Industries Chairman Sheldon Feinberg couldn't give a whit about what happened during the day-to-day at Marvel, as long as there were steady profits. As a result, Shooter was able to slip a few fundamental changes through (such as paying the very first Marvel creator royalties...), simply because his bosses were distracted at the time. Eventually, however, this led to his dismissal from the company, as management could never actually visualize Shooter as being one of "them."

What I didn't comprehend about DC was that Paul Levitz's ambition was to be one of "them" right from the beginning. While his roots were deeply set in comics fandom during his APPA days and his publishing of The Comics Reader, it turns out that his real life's ambition was to be a "suit." In that regard, comics were a convenient means to an end. In joining up with DC, Paul Levitz was not beginning a career in comics, but rather a career as a corporate executive within Warner, one of the largest and best-managed companies in the entire world. What that meant for Paul, however, was that if he wanted to survive in that incredibly competitive corporate power structure, that he had to produce steady results, while absolutely minimizing risk of any loss. It was with those thoughts in mind that Paul Levitz made the decisions about the future of the Direct Market that ultimately proved Phil Seuling to be a remarkably visionary prophet of doom.

To be continued...

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