It’s the mother of all sales charts! Today’s must reading — and I do mean MUST — is retailer Brian Hibbs’s annual analysis of the year-end BookScan numbers for graphic novels sold in bookstores. The general trends show pieces down a tad, dollars up a bit, manga down but still ruling the roost, and DC’s distribution deal with Random House yielding SPECTACULAR results. It isn’t just the 300,000+ copies of WATCHMEN sold — it’s improvements all the way down the list of proven items. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Random House can’t save weak or misguided books, but it can significantly boost the sales of books with proven audiences.
Beyond that, you should just go read the whole thing, but a few caveats on the accuracy. Hibbs writes:
Really, what I’m trying to get across to you is that this really is entirely unreliable data in terms of the absolute and total number of books sold, and is only able to give the broadest outline of what’s happening in book stores, based upon the data-set that I’m being given, which is in no way comprehensive. I still think that’s better than having no information, so I persevere in writing this each year.
Tom Spurgeon amplifies that with this concrete example:
For instance, Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds tell me that rather than the 719 copies Bookscan reports that Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 1 sold through the book trade, they’ve sold just over 4000 copies. That’s an astounding difference, not just in terms of the math but how those numbers span the chasm that exists between “uh-oh” and “all right!”
I can attest that the numbers you see on BookScan are significantly lower than what publishers’ numbers indicate, but it isn’t a consistent percentage differential as it is with Diamond’s charts, so just because L&R #1 sold 450 percent more copies doesn’t mean WATCHMEN sold 1.35 million more. It’s my understanding that one big difference is that a publisher will count sell-in to a bookstore as a sale — the BookScan charts measure sell-through. Also, as pointed out, they don’t include a lot of venues, including book fairs and so on. The general rule of thumb is that BookScan represents about 70% of retail outlets.
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.
So while drawing any conclusions based on absolute degree is a fool’s errand, the charts certainly do indicate trends — and the general locale of many books on the charts indicates that some things that are assumed to sell well don’t do as well as you might think, while some things you never heard of do very well indeed,
For instance, in looking at the manga category’s top publishers, Hibbs writes :
Coming in at #3 is Del Rey, with 62 books charting, for about 455k pieces and just a hair over $5 million retail dollars. Mean average of about 7300, median of about 6200. Their average numbers are up a bit from 2007, and they have at least three BookScan charting titles that aren’t manga: the “Dresden Files” HC (their 2nd best selling comic), the “Essential Batman Encyclopedia,” and the perennial not-comic “Bloody Crown of Conan.” Their best selling title in 2008 was the manga-ish adaptation of Dean Koontz’s “In Odd We Trust,” with 25,588 copies sold.
That’s two big success stories with books based on existing properties — Dean Koontz and Jim Butcher, the former an “OEL” drawn by Queenie Chan.
The success of comics based on WARRIORS, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephen King and the continued prominence of the Dabel Brothers’s publishing plans indicate that these kinds of middlebrow adaptations are what the book publishing world is going to have the easiest success with, and I’d expect to see more of this kind of thing. These will be the new books that art comix people love to hate.
As usual, Hibbs is quick to bury “lit comix”:
In terms of “art comics” or “literary comics”, we can see these items: “American Born Chinese” (just under 10k), “Black Hole” (8800), “Best American Comics 2008″ (7400), “Johnny, The Homicidal Maniac” (7200), “Squee” (5200), “Blankets” (5k) and “Shortcomings” (4300) – nothing else makes the Top 750. It isn’t that books by Clowes or Hernandez or Tomine or Crumb or Bagge don’t chart, they do, but deep, deep in the long tail. Generally speaking none of these author’s books (or “other books” in the case of Tomine) has BookScan tracked sales of over 1000 copies, and usually it is much less than 500.
These are good numbers for “literary” properties, and the success of books like FUN HOME and PERSEPOLIS means that compelling first person memoirs will continue to have a place in literary houses’ hearts. “Lit”, “Alt”, and “Indie” benchmarks for success are far lower (like it or not) in EVERY medium, be it film, publishing or music.
Anyway, I encourage everyone to go read Hibbs’ piece for themselves. And take it all with a grain of salt.