As I mentioned in the opening column, when it comes to landing a bestselling title there are a lot of moving parts. I remember an editor talking about book campaigns during a panel session at Book Expo back in 2005 and he said most authors don’t realize that we put just as much effort into marketing and campaigning for a book as they do in writing it. Never were truer words spoken. From determining which audience the book is best suited for, what the cover should look like, how to build the buzz, and when the book should hit-these are all critical elements that need the same level of concentration as the writer has given to characters, dialog and setting.
In this chapter I’ll cover the markets, the obstacles that books will face, and distribution
Define the Market. Who is the story meant for? In book trade you have Children, Young Adult, and Adult as the main three audiences. Defining who is the most likely audience for the book helps to accelerate the delivery of the message. For each category you have dedicated buyers in retail, library and educational markets who speak a specific language and the message attached to the book needs to be concise. For the longest time, libraries were ahead of pretty much everyone with the exception of Walden’s Books when Kurt Hassler was the buyer for the graphic novel category. Retail is beginning to pick up the pace but the real gold rush is just beginning in the education market.
The reason why schools are becoming a boom segment is due to a couple of key factors. First you have a generation of educators who grew up on comics and have no problems connecting the value of comics and establishing the joy of reading. Second: there is more great content to work with. Scholastic, Lerner, Rosen, Capstone have all been quietly eating up market share with great stuff that kids actually want to read. Penguin is the last of the “Big Six” or major houses to launch a kids imprint for graphic novels…so there really must be something of value here.
Why kids are more important than adults for comics. While there have been some great books published for the adult market, the largest area of growth for the graphic novel category is in kids from elementary through to high school age. The reason for this is because kids are wide open to the comics medium. We have seen a lot of great comics created for older readers but selling comics to a market that is already settled in its tastes is an uphill battle. That’s not to say books like Feynman, Stitches, Economix or FunHome shouldn’t be produced, there will always be a place for great books but there should also be a sense of reality attached. Selling comics into the adult market is going to always be a tougher haul than it will be for the kids and teen market.
Do keep in mind that these kids are ‘aging up’ and they will become tomorrow’s adult comics readers. So, we might as well be priming them today for tomorrow’s books.
The Education Market. Why haven’t traditional comics made headway in theschool setting? There is a formula attached to every book-hard copy or ebook, that each book is required to have. If the book doesn’t have those codes attached, the book can not be purchased through the official processes.
Depending on which source you read, the book market for schools is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 billion dollars. Annnnd the ebook market is exploding there too. The Dept. of Education for the state of Florida recently requested 441 million dollars to purchase iPads for EVERY student in the state. Even though the iPad is an excellent environment for comics, a great deal of comics won’t be cleared for student use unless they have the required codes. What are these codes? Reading comprehension levels, Lexile Levels, Accelerated Reading codes….there’s some very important rules to abide by if you want to get your book officially accepted.
The ALL AGES Barrier. All Ages is a designation that only has relevance in the direct market. For the rest of the publishing world it is not recognized via any of the programs used by the buyers in the library, retail or education markets. These buyers are looking at spread sheets or software programs that sort titles by subject, genre, age range, and reading comprehension but there is no such thing as ALL AGES. When a publisher insists on using All Ages, they are basically eliminating the possibility of selling to a market that rings in about 30 Billion dollars a year. Where direct market will benefit is when a teacher or parent asks for a book for their kid, the retailer can recommend books by age and grade. With that they become a trusted resource for the teacher and the parent…which then leads to more sales, right?
Distribution Doesn’t Solve Everything. There are a lot of hurdles to deal with when it comes to distribution and a lot of this has to do the expectations of the publishers. Distributors, whether it’s Diamond, Random House, Simon & Schuster or any other company, have one basic job and that is to move your book from the warehouse to the customer/retailer. They will promote the books to the best of their ability provided the publisher supports the book with the proper information. They can and should also provide guidance on what sort of sales the book can bring but that depends on what sort of marketing strategy the publisher has in place.
Distributors also have different strengths. Some are great at getting books into the institutional markets while others specialize in the retail side. There are even a few who can do both worlds. A publisher needs to understand that anyone of these relationships requires a lot of work and communication to ensure your book is properly represented at every point along the distribution channel. Too often I’ve heard publishers talk as if manna will fall from heaven now that they’ve signed on with this major distributor. That’s true only if the publisher works like hell to make sure their books are properly represented.
Also know this: The bigger the distribution company, the harder you will need to fight for your book to be properly represented. You will need to define your book for them to understand where and how it will be represented. Also know that your book is now competing with several hundreds of other ‘great books’ so the marketing effort is all on you.
The best way to make your distribution partnership work for you is to learn the system. Keep in mind that not every book deserves to be published but there is a way to make sure that book reaches that market and it requires some critical elements that I’ll deal with in the next chapter.