As the swallows return to Capistrano, as the bats return to Colossal Caves, as the wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti, and the alewives return to Lake Damariscotta, so we celebrate the season with the annual Hibbs/MacDonald/Deppey BookScan debate. Here’s last year’s bout from The Beat, with many of the same competitors taking part in this Soap Box Derby of sales figures. TRADITION!
Today, over at Journalista, Dirk offers his annual disclaimer and you can tell he’s serious because he uses words like “proffered.” He also tweaks Hibbs a bit by quoting very, very similar passages by Hibbs vis-à-vis indie/art comic sales from every year since 2003. Dirk finds the smoking gun of Hibbs’s ulterior motives right here in the Beat comment section:
Actually, I’d characterize my argument as “the argument that ‘oh but if only we could get “lit comics” out of the stinky dirty backwards Direct Market, then everything would be light and honey forever and ever, amen!’ is pretty demonstrably wrong”
and then spends a good few paragraphs circling, stabbing, stamping, yelling “Ugga! Bugga” and while still failing to refute anything.
Look, I don’t want to live in a world where L&R #1 sells only 719 copies in bookstores. But before anyone goes any further with all this “It’s a guess, it’s wrong, it doesn’t add up” stuff, let’s look at one fact about the BookScan numbers. While they DO NOT measure all book sales across all channels, they do measure 100% of sales in approximately 70 percent of bookstore channels. So by any standard, it is a metric for comparison, analysis and debate.
In order to prove that BookScan is wrong, Dirk dons his sleuth hat:
Hibbs’ claim that Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 sold just 719 copies, however, motivated me to e-mail Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth, Kim Thompson and Eric Reynolds to find out if they could add some light to all the heat. While I suppose it’s possible that Hibbs’ BookScan reportage might turn out to be true, it struck me as being unlikely. Still, one must investigate, and the resulting email exchanges seemed to produce light and heat in equal amounts: Not because the Fanta staffers were dissembling or in any way less than forthcoming, but because the nature of the mass market essentially makes even the vague sort of instant tallying one expects from the Direct Market to be impossible in the short term. Short of absolute disaster, any attempt to figure out how a given title has done in the returnable booksellers’ market within its first year of release inevitably turns out to be little more than guesswork.
So is that dissembling or not? Sounds like it to me. Dirk goes on to present the Internet version of a school film on the publishing business, explaining how mighty catalogs roll out and orders are placed, and books are sold and returns are made, and it’s all a great unknowable system of terror and awe, but just to reiterate, BookScan sales are via UPC scans, so they are not guesswork at all They are sell through in a certain percentage of the retail market.
That said, of course there are other channels and other markets. It would be interesting to see what Reynolds, Groth, and Thompson all had to say on the topic in a neutral ground, but unfortunately Dirk just quotes them in random bits so it’s hard to see context.
And in the end, what’s sauce for the autobio cartoonist is sauce for the spandex superhero. Groth suggests that
It doesn’t make any sense to differentiate libraries from bookstores; they both buy books from the same wholesaler(s) at the same price. It’s like differentiating chain stores, indies, PXes, big box stores or any other particularized sales destination.
That’s certainly true, but that means you also have to count SUPERHERO and MANGA sales to libraries, and no one wants to do THAT do they?
Another place where I think Dirk gets fuzzy is here:
According to Groth, there are currently over 10,000 copies of Willie & Joe in play outside the Direct Market, while the figure that Hibbs quotes BookScan as giving for it is just 5485 copies. While more returns are likely, we’re nonetheless talking about a title that’s been in the marketplace for nine months and counting. At this point, one could be justified in assuming that it’s a good way over the hump. And if that number winds up holding steady, we’re talking about not a 10% difference, not a 30% difference, but somewhere near a 100% difference between BookScan and the real world. What will the end figure wind up being, do you think? 90% off the mark? 80%? 70%?
That is categoricaly not true. Once again, Bookscan measures sell-through, the number of books that have been purchased by consumers, whether via a bookstore or an online retailer. 10,000 is the sell-in number. It’s the reason why you will walk into a bookstore and SEE a copy of Willie and Joe on the shelf while browsing. That sell-in has not yet been converted to sell-through. Later in the piece, Groth mentions that publishers can expect a third of books sold-in to be returned, which is indeed about industry average. (20 percent returns is considered a very good number.) It is quite likely that many of the FBI books that are on shelves but not sold to consumers are at indie bookstores where the publisher is a favorite and the individual owners believe in the titles. Heroes and visionaries, you might say.
Where I do agree with Dirk is that if selling graphic novels into bookstores wasn’t profitable for Fantagraphics and D&Q, they probably would have gone out of business some time ago. Or as I wrote the other day,
I can also attest that sometimes selling only 2000 copies on BookScan is perfectly okay. Anything in five figures is probably very profitable, and numbers far lower than that could also make money or break even. I have no idea what the golden number is — it undoubtedly varies from book to book and publisher to publisher.
To me the question is still how to get sell copies of the good stuff to people who would enjoy it? L&R #1 may have sold-in 4000 copies, but can it sell-through more? Can Bill Mauldin sell more copies? Can Tatsumi? Can Tezuka?
Every year when these numbers come out, there is some bristling from the indie community (probably partially brought on by Hibbs’ taunting on the subject) on the fact that superhero comics appear to sell more in the stores measured by BookScan than indie/art comix do. On the surface it seems bad, but I assure you, there are lots and lots of books from Marvel, DC and book publishers that sell in numbers just as “bad” or worse. As mentioned above, everyone’s magic number of profitability is different. I’m not going to embarrass anyone, but you know who you are.
What needs to be understood by a lot of people (and this is something I myself have only begrudgingly accepted) is that not every comics “classic” is really a timeless classic that speaks to generation after generation. All of the reissues that come out in 2008 really proved that, but this is a subject I hope to return to shortly in a more focused manner.
And this hopefully concludes this year’s installment of The BookScan Debates. Until next time!