Image Comics publisher/co-owner Eric Stephenson sees that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a severe effect on the comic book industry, especially on the front lines of the 3,000+ small business owners operating as comic book retailers. With people encouraged to not leave their home and quarantines in effect in some locales - each with no definite end in sight - these individuals are uncertain (and for good reason) as to what the future will be.
Earlier this week, Image announced full returnability on their comics for the next few weeks, and Dynamite Entertainment has jumped on the bandwagon. In a rare move, Diamond allowed comic book stores to begin selling Wednesday's new comic books early - and there's reports of a "comprehensive relief package" being organized for retailers by the distributor.
Stephenson, who will celebrate his 30th year in the industry in 2021, has a unique vantage point to how the coronavirus pandemic is effecting - and will effect - the comic industry. Following up on our previous industry chat earlier this year, he is back to talk about today's concerns and issues.
Newsarama: Eric, we're in a unique time. What’s happening with comics from your vantage point right now?
Eric Stephenson: Bottom line, stores are suffering. There’s a lot of uncertainity about the future right now as many shops are forced to close due to the ongoing spread of the virus. It’s not a situation any of us have dealt with before, frankly, and without exaggerating, I think it’s a real threat to the future of the marketplace.
Nrama: Last time we spoke about friction points in the industry - with the coronavirus pandemic (both the threat and some hysteria) real, what is it triggering for comics?
Stephenson: Aside from the fear and uncertainty that retailers are dealing with, I can only give you my perspective.
I can tell you that the writers and artists I’ve heard from are worried, not just about their own books, but about what could happen in the future. To a person, everyone is worried about what will happen to comic book stores if this goes on too long, and you know, that’s a valid concern. Few retail operations of any kind are built to weather multiple weeks without sales.
Nrama: Earlier this week Image announced full returnability on titles released in the next few weeks, and spoke about more possibly coming. What is on the table?
Stephenson: The current plan is to accept returns on the comics and books we release over the course of the next 60 days. Diamond is finalizing the language on that now.
I’ve made the recommendation for Diamond to work out some kind of delayed billing plan, so hopefully that comes together.
We’re also looking at the books we have scheduled and assessing what can be pushed back, and in some cases, cancelled altogether.
We’re pulling the plug on some second printings that had been announced. Reprints are hardly essential at a time like this, and the overall plan at this point is cut down on what is going into stores in an effort to decrease their financial exposure.
Nrama: Looking back at your experience in comics for 20+ years, are there any comparisons or tactics you know of or heard of that could be revisited - and retrofitted - to help here?
Stephenson: I’ll be honest with you, Chris, I’ve never dealt with anything like this. 2021 would mark 30 years in this business for me, and this is seriously the worst situation I’ve seen. I think you’d have to talk to people like Paul Levitz and Jim Shooter to get a broader perspective, as they likely dealt with some pretty grim uncertainty back in the ‘70s, but given how quickly this situation has developed, and continues to unfold, there’s not really a direct comparison.
Nrama: I should have asked this sooner, but bear with me - How is Image doing? The physical offices, the employees, and all of the executives to independent contractors working with Image?
Stephenson: We shut our offices down and recommended staff work from home mid-last week. There haven’t been a lot of confirmed cases in our immediate area, but once sports started to go on hold and things like that, “better safe than sorry” seemed like a good policy.
We went close to six months with various folks working remotely when we moved from Berkeley to Portland with very low impact on our day-to-day workflow, and we have a great staff, so the remote thing is kind of the easy part for us.
Nrama: Is there anything of concern as far as Image goes with this outside of general industry concern?
Stephenson: Well, there are bookstores closing. Indigo in Canada has shuttered for the time being, and that’s going to hurt. Amazon is redirecting their focus to meet the need for household necessitites and medical supplies.
We’re going to see a lot of businesses affected by this, and there’s going to be a ripple effect throughout the economy, not just in the United States, but across the whole world. On an economic level alone, the longer this goes on, the more cataclysmic the effect.
Nrama: Going back to the industry... let's throw it out there and speak the hope for change aloud. As you see it, what are the three biggest things publishers could do right now to help this stress on the industry?
Stephenson: Fist off, I think all publishers should make 100% of their product returnable for at least the next 60 days. I feel like that’s the bare minimum we can do at a time when retailers have no idea what their future looks like in terms of sales.
Secondly, I think we all need to be working with Diamond on a plan that offers retailers delayed billing while we get through this, which leads to the third thing, which is that it’s imperative that publishers reduce the amount of product they’re putting into the marketplace. I think now would be a good time to reassess the actual need for variants, for instance, and I think maybe taking a long, hard look at some of what’s being published is going to become a necessity pretty quickly. Reducing the amount of product is going to ease the pressure on Diamond as they work with retailers on billing.
Everyone’s goal right now should be to reduce the burden being placed on stores so that they can make it through this, and just carrying on as though it’s business as usual isn’t going to cut it.