Tony Shenton and Fantagraphics
Submitted by Von Allan on May 16, 2008 - 22:33
As some of you may have heard, Fantagraphics signed an exclusive distribution deal with Diamond earlier this week. Folks like Tom Spurgeon and Brian Hibbs have covered most of the impact from the macro side of things so I thought I'd touch on things from a bit of a different angle. It's also a personal one, so bear with me.
Fantagraphics has been represented for the past number of years (exactly how many I'm not too sure about) by a fella named Tony Shenton. Tony is one of the few (the only?) independent sales reps that I know of in the Direct Market. In the booktrade, of course, reps are still fairly plentiful. Perhaps not as plentiful as they once were, but they're around all the same. Now, I have a soft spot for reps. For those who don't know, a rep basically visits with a store owner or manager and helps point out key titles in a particular publisher's catalogue. They often share marketing information and also just help point out works and authors that might otherwise get overlooked. Fundamentally, I think they make a store owner/manager better. Smarter. On top of it, they'll also give a heads-up for titles that get shortlisted for awards or are otherwise "hot" from a media point of view. Y'know, the stuff one needs to make their job better.
I should say here that it isn't essential for a publisher to have a rep. I dealt with a number of publishers that didn't have any at all. And I should note that there's a distinction between house reps (those work for a particular publisher exclusively) and independent reps (those who rep a number of publishers, typically smaller publishers, at the same time). The former will tend to be on salary and have a geographical territory they're responsible for. Here in Ottawa, it wasn't unusual for my house reps to deal with Eastern Ontario all the way to the maritime provinces. That's a vast amount of geography to cover - and they're often covered by a single rep in a single car. Not for the faint of heart.
Independent reps probably have it worse. Typically they're paid by commission, typically their territory is huge, and typically they're repping a massive amount of publishers, each with their own terms, release dates, and other quirks. In the booktrade, at least here in Canada, some of these indy reps have formed into various houses (groups like Hornblower Books and the Literary Press Group). And they'll have trade shows (Moggy will remember ye olde Chimo Hotel book fairs) where they, along with house reps, sell their wares to all the booksellers in a particular area to make things go that much quicker.
In comics, from what I've been able to gather, sales reps are few and far between. Marvel has folks like David Gabriel and DC has folks like Bob Wayne, but I don't think of these guys as reps. More marketing directors or whatnot, which is a different beast entirely. Some of the smaller publishers will have their owners act as "jack of all trades" (I mean, I get blown away by the energy that a guy like Chris Staros must have over at Top Shelf. What the hell doesn't that guy do?). And Image has Eric Stephenson as their "go to" guy. But none of these are a sales reps like I know sales reps.
Which brings me to Tony. Comics is a hard business and the Direct Market is a defacto monopoly. There is only one distributor of any note - Diamond (Cold Cut, now reborn as Haven Distribution, is there, I suppose, but Cold Cut's market share was always very, very small and Haven's most likely won't be any different). On top of it, Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image are all exclusive to Diamond. And a number of smaller publishers (AIT/PlanetLar and Oni Press, for example) have also gone exclusive with Diamond over the past ten years. Tony, then, has repped many of those publishers who are betwixt and between. They're either not exclusive to Diamond, are too small or considered to be not appropriate for Diamond to distribute. Some of these are basically self-publishers. Others are large - Tony reps companies like Drawn & Quarterly, NBM and, until now, Fantagraphics. All are important from the point of view of bring diversity to comics that isn't (I think it's fair to say) represented by what Diamond distributes.
I will never begrudge Fantagraphics for making a move that they see as important to the viability of their company. It was only a few years back that they were deeply in trouble and issued their public cry for help. And one could probably make a good argument that they have an obligation to the authors and creators they publish to keep their work in print and as available as possible. While there's been some categorization that Fantagraphics has joined the dark side, I don't really feel that way myself. As much as I don't like Diamond's defacto monopoly, it most likely will ensure that Fanta's books are better stocked and retailers earn a better discount on them at Diamond then they would have previously (though perhaps not if a retailer dealt with Fantagraphics directly - something they now cannot do).
For Tony, though, it's not good at all. While I'm not sure exactly how much of a loss this is, make no mistake - it's a biggie. It hurts Tony's margins, it makes his total list that much smaller, and he loses the prestige that Fanta has as an arts publisher (not to mention their Eros line of arty porn, too). Worse, there's always the chance that if the move is successful for Fanta, publishers like Drawn & Quarterly might, as Brian Hibbs postulated, follow suit. With all of the commentary regarding this move, not much has been written regarding how it effects Tony Shenton (though to be fair, both Tom Spurgeon and Brian Hibbs have mentioned it). It's easy to forget the human beings involved in downsizing, mergers, and the like. People get laid off all the time. Small businesses go out of business all of the time. I wanted to take a moment and say that this move by Fanta does effect someone. Tony Shenton.
I'm hoping that Fantagraphics has, at the very least, treated him well through this entire process. I will also add that if you're a small or self-publisher, you may want to consider getting in touch with Tony about repping you. Especially if there are parts of North America that you aren't getting your book(s) into. His website is here (along with a listing of the publishers he reps), his myspace page is here, and you can always email him directly, too.
Tony is a good guy and this hurts.
Edited to add: there's a good interview with Tony from December, 2003 over at Spurgeon's Comics Reporter site. It specifically focuses on the mini-comics side of things, but it's still worth a look.