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Barcodes! Certain Doom! Or not.

People in comics are buzzing all around about Diamond Comics' new policy that all comic books must have barcodes on them, starting in January 2008. There are wild claims all around about how this is going to effect small comics publishers, with very few facts to back up the claims. All the while, this is an environment that Diamond is not helping by remaining mum on the specifics of their policy. I've seen assertions that this is going to be incredibly costly and detrimental to small comics publishers, and it's getting kind of annoying. However, I didn't feel the need to write about it here (and I'm sorry if this is boring stuff to those of you who come here for SLG news -- just skip past this post) until I saw the worst of these kind of wild assertions in Steven Grant's "Master of the Obvious" column at Comic Book Resources: "So Diamond has pretty much shut down small comics publishing."

At The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon writes that he's "not sure [this] is a statement that holds weight," but I am going to be a little more blunt. This statement is alarmist and irresponsible. Note that Grant quotes no small publishers, cites no real costs or facts.

This post just deals with part of Grant's assertions; I'll write on the rest, which deals with the question of direct market vs. bookstores, later if I have time.

Grant: "The fact is that for most small publishers, comics are marginal profit items at best. In many cases it essentially amounts to hobby publishing. [...] Any additional expenses put the comics that much closer to financial untenability. The barcode is just such an expense, and a relatively hefty one."
It is true that the coffers of independent comics publishers are not overflowing. And "hobby publishing"... sigh. A lot of the problems with the industry is because people start publishing comics or open a comic book store as a "hobby." But this is a business. We should be the backbone that supports the art form. It's not a hobby, and anyone who thinks of his or her business as one really doesn't get my sympathy. (Though I don't think I actually have met any of these hobby publishers, aside from people who make their own mini-comics, and they're probably not concerned about Diamond Comics' policies, anyway.) Artists who are dedicated to their work don't consider it a hobby, and they deserve the same level of commitment from their publishers.

But the point is -- is the requirement that a comics publisher live up to industry standards that have existed for more than thirty years really too cumbersome a burden? I broke down the actual cost and effort of putting barcodes on comics in a comments thread at Publishers Weekly's comics blog The Beat, here.

"A small publisher might publish about ten graphic novels a year or fewer. Ten ISBNs are $275. ISSNs for floppies are free.* A program to make barcodes, Easy Barcode Creator, is $128. So you’re out about $400, and $128 of it is money you won’t have to spend again. Nobody wants to spend $400 if they don’t have to, but that and an additional cost of about $300 a year should not be a make-or-break amount of money.

"Making a barcode with a program is easy. It takes all of about two minutes to make one and place it in a book’s layout file. ISBNs come with a handy logbook so you can keep track of which you’ve used for what. So it’s not much time and effort. "
So -- $400 initial cost and an additional $300 a year or so, depending on how many books you publish. Is that a "hefty" expense? Typing some numbers into a program and waiting a few seconds while it exports into a .tif or .eps file? Is that a burden? Sending in an application for an ISSN -- is that an incredible burden? (I know, we all have a lot to do, but this is business. It requires work.) Some speculate that Diamond might require UPC barcodes, which are more expensive and are what DC and Marvel use on their issues. Getting a vendor number from GS1, the company that controls UPCs, starts at $750 and $150 a year after that. I'm not sure that Diamond is going to require UPCs, but we already put either a UPC or an ISBN on our individual issues. Other publishers, who aren't set up for this, need some information from Diamond Comics.

But Diamond is, as Grant writes, "the only game in town," and as such they're not acting like a company that would be concerned about customers leaving if they don't serve them well. What is adding to this odd panic is Diamond's failure to make what is required of publishers clear. Comics coming out in January have to have barcodes on them, and thus far publishers have been maddened by the lack of information or guidance. Does Diamond want ISSNs or the more costly UPCs? (For trades and graphic novels, ISBNs are the way to go, I'm assuming -- anything else makes no sense.) Is there a minimum size for the barcodes? Do we have a choice about putting it on the front or back cover? Of course publishers want answers to these questions. Some, like Scott King, have asked but not gotten answers. We're going to have to keep on asking, folks. So let's not make statements that don't yet have facts to support them.


*I find the parenthetical guilt-trip the Library of Congress lays on you about this funny: "(However, the Library of Congress incurs substantial costs to staff and maintain the U.S. ISSN Center. Additionally, the Library of Congress is assessed a considerable fee to belong to the ISSN Network.)"


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 28th, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
Well-reasoned. I used to work for the company that owned Bowker, so I know how easy it is to get ISBNs, etc.
Sep. 28th, 2007 01:17 am (UTC)
Steven Grant is just being a little alarmist - this is hardly the death of small-press publishing. It's just another hurdle to cross -- and not a very large one at that. Any publisher that can't manage to scrape up a few hundred bucks to handle bar codes probably shouldn't be professionally publishing for the direct market in the first place. And besides, for most small-press publishers these days, the Diamond direct-market is just a portion of the publisher's total market. At the worst, this is nothing more than an inconvenience.

I have no problems with bar codes -- it's a reasonable request. I have just found the lack of any solid information or requirements...frustrating. Diamond just emailed out the official announcements to suppliers (including me) earlier this morning, so finally now at least I have something to work with. But I'm sure it will be pretty easy to implement and use once everything is set up - just have to take the time to actually do it.
Sep. 28th, 2007 02:10 am (UTC)
dude that suckz
I was planning on making a comic and,no iaww that suckz well thankz for tellin' the pepz
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


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