We’ve been trying to collect our thoughts on Brian Hibbs 2007 Bookscan analysis all week but what with catching up on 500+ emails, work, laundry, getting engaged and all, we have had a hard time finding a moment’s peace.
Anyhoo, the thing to remember about all this — esp. the Brian-vs-Dirk argument — is that everyone has their own horse in this race. Hibbs’ is that the Direct Market is a more efficient market for comics than bookstores. Dirk’s is that anything that isn’t manga or indie sucks and is stupid and doomed to failure and that anyone who attempts to look at such material without this bias is a dingbat. And us? Well, it’s probably that books with wide appeal will sell more but that everyone’s definition of “wide appeal” will differ.
We honestly can’t get our brains working enough to go through all the numbers and statistics and so on, so we’ll just point out some of our own observations, based on our knowledge of the book biz and the occasional leaked Bookscan numbers we get to see.
First of all, by any reasonable measure, the bookstore market for graphic novels is still growing! We’ll use one simplistic snapshot:
The 50th ranked title in 2006 sold 25,527 copies.
The 50th ranked title in 2007 sold 33,496 copies.
The #100 title in 2006 sold 18,060.
The #100 title in 2007 sold 19, 934.
Of course there could be lower numbers at the bottom offsetting gains at the top, but I’m inclined to go with Milton Griepp’s analysis of trends. The rate of growth may have slowed, but it is still growing.
One area of contention between Brian and Dirk is whether these numbers can even be begun to be taken seriously because Bookscan does not represent 100% of book sales. Dirk seems to think they are all hoodoo voodoo because they represent 65% of the market instead of 70-75%. That’s not an insignificant difference, but it’s not hoodoo voodoo, either. Bookscan measures sales at the checkout stand. These are actual books that CONSUMERS purchased. That the numbers often don’t match up with what publishers say sold is because those higher figures measure what bookstores ordered. These books “in print’ may hang around on shelves for a long time, get remaindered or returned.
A lot of people have said that comparing Bookscan bookstore numbers and Diamond GN charts is an “apples and oranges” comparison, but as someone smarter than me said, it’s could actually be “apples and apples.” Both measure guaranteed sales to the end user of the system. The end user of the bookstore channel is the reader. The end user of the Diamond system is the retailer. Until comics shop adapt POS systems in greater number, there is no reliable “sell through” number for the Direct Market.
ASIDE: Some people suggest that Bookscan doesn’t include any comics shops among its reporting stores, but my understanding is that there are a few — indie bookstores in general are under-represented in Bookscan. But to play the game YOU MUST HAVE A POS SYSTEM!
The big joker in the deck is actually library sales which Bookscan does not measure. There are an estimated 117378 or so libraries of all kinds in the US. There are more than 9000 central libraries. That’s more outlets than bookstores OR comics shops. We’re told that, for instance, although Minx sold more books in the DM than bookstores, when you add in library sales, the “bookstore” (ie. stores and libraries) market is far larger.
The reality is that the Kat Kans and Michelle Gormans of the world are just as important as the Brian Hibbses and Chris Powells to the comics industry.
Since I’m incapable of statistical analysis, I’ll add that you can argue Hibbs’ methodology but by leaking the numbers he has he’s given a valuable tool for those who know how to look at the metrics. 5000 books sold on Bookscan doesn’t sound that great, but it means that there are at least twice that in print, and for your average GN that’s in the neighborhood of break even.
That said, there are some pretty horrible numbers out there. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the bookstore market for graphic novels is pretty much like the market for books with no pictures. Name authors sell books: Moore, Gaiman, Vaughan, Loeb. Adrian Tomine’s 5001 for Shortcomings may seem paltry for a book that has gotten as much press as it has, but it’s about in line with what novels by prose critical darlings sell, according to Bookscan. The metrics of bestselling books are not that high. Sure Nora Roberts and The Secret sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but there are some 172,000 books published in the US each year, and most struggle to sell a few hundred copies.
All that said, it is sobering to see the low numbers on certain books. Hibbs takes this as a repudiation of indie books, while Dirk just sticks his fingers in his ears and goes “la la la!” The truth is that challenging material in any medium will always sell in lesser numbers. The odd breakout, like FUN HOME, proves that a story with REAL resonance to many readers can find its own audience.
I was going to spend more time picking on Dirk here, but it is really useless since he has his mind made up. I’ll take one key example.
Since Hibbs provides exactly zero evidence for his assertion,
BZZZZZZT, no, Hibbs said that only Shortcomings of any “indie comics” title, sold more than 4400 books on Bookscan last year. That’s plenty of evidence right there. Since Dirk cannot input any data that goes against his programming, he goes on to refute the idea that idie comics don’t sell like this:
it’s pretty much pointless to attempt to refute it. Instead, let’s go in the other direction, and assume that both Hibbs and Reynolds are right: Art comics don’t sell in bookstores, and most sell only a quarter of that in comic-book shops. (What exactly does one-forth of nothing look like, I wonder?) Questions then arise: How are companies like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics managing to afford all those pricey hardcovers that they’ve been releasing lately? And where do they go? Do Chris Oliveros, Brett Warnock, Kim Thompson and Dan Nadel all get together in some hidden forest somewhere, back dumptrucks into a big bonfire and burn copies of Storeyville and Acme Novelty Datebook while they dance around laughing? How long before the credit-card companies and investment bankers who are probably supplying the money for all of this get wise?
As usual, snark is supplied where an actual grasp of facts — library sales, sell-in, a lower-than suspected margin for break even etc. — would suffice. This is why I take very little of what Dirk says about the book market seriously.
In closing, and to back up my own little hobby horse, I’m going to list the top selling non-manga GNs of 2007 in the top 100 sellers.
Frank Miller’s 300
BONE ROCK JAW
BONE OUT FROM BONEVILLE
BONE OLD MANS CAVE
BONE THE GREAT COW RACE
BONE EYES OF THE STORM
DARK TOWER THE GUNSLINGER BORN
ANITA BLAKE VAMPIRE HUNTER V1
CIVIL WAR ROAD TO CIVIL WAR
PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHI
MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE
Obviously this list is made up of about half genre and half timeless classic. That’s what most bestseller lists reflect. From where I sit, it’s about right on plan.
(Above: Tomine’s cover to this week’s New Yorker, a comic strip charting the life cycle of the book.
Since it’s my sub copy, I had to black out my address label — apologies for disrupting Tomine’s composition. UPDATE: Thanks, Adrian! )