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.


  1. Lexile?
    398 titles under “comics”, 456 under “graphic novel”. There is some controversy, as Lexile concentrates on the words, not on words and pictures, so they have a “GN” code for graphic novels. But for reluctant readers, it’s still a good tool. And if Lexile gets them accepted in schools, who are we to quibble?

    Accelerated Reading?
    Searching the AR Bookfinder, 2450 titles come up with a keyword of “comics”. Books about, but also GNs like Papercutz and Dark Horse.
    “Graphic novel” has 2366 titles, which contain the mainstream publishers like Scholastic and Random House, but also Magic Wagon (?), Vertigo, and Marvel.
    (Wow… Maus has a Book Level of Third Grade! I wonder if I can get my nieces started? Sure, it’s “upper grades” (9-12) but they are smart kids!)

    Wow… Renaissance Learning has all sorts of testing! Awesome!

    Of course, even some mainstream publishers lack reading level, interest level, grade level notation on books… something I’ve noticed as I search for review copies for my niece’s fourth grade class. They should be right by the EAN barcode, and on the title page verso. (Yay, Capstone!)

  2. Would you say that the “all ages” problem is more one of marketing–like releasing a movie rated “G” without knowing that the rating puts off viewers–or one of content, in that consciously trying to make a story about a superhero “all ages” results in an unfocused story?

    Aside from stories working on multiple levels, such as “warped” fairy tales, stories about families that include children might appeal to multiple age groups, but I suppose that the primary focus would usually be adults.


  3. Well, where to begin. I missed the first column on this topic so my comments here are a bit broad. First off all there have been graphic novels that have hit the fiction and non-fiction NY Times list – Maus and Sandman: Endless Nights (a reminder this was only Gaiman’s second appearance on the list – the first being American Gods). Also, when Watchmen was selling because of the film the volume that was being sold certainly was at “best-seller” numbers.

    The first issue is that the medium of comics has been marginalized for decades. The general pubic has had limited access to the books for decades when the only outlets were comic book speciality shops (who helped keep the medium alive) and ever dwindling newsstand sales. Over the years graphic novels would pop up in general books stores like some many whack-a-moles; Maus, The Dark Knight Returns — only to be pounded back into speciality shops where many thought they belonged. Let’s face it the medium was – and to some extent still is — looked down upon. I have heard these two phrases so often; “I’d rather have my kid real a real book.” Or, “At least they’re reading SOMETHING.”

    I believe that having bookstore and libraries carry graphic novels helped to give the medium a new respect. “If the New York Public Library has graphic novels on their shelves than they MUST be ok.” Movies based on comics that are highly regarded and are award winners have helped too. As have television shows with enormous ratings and positive media coverage of industry events like San Diego Comic Con. Increasing sales of the books helped too. Money talks. My point is that books have been in bookstores, well forever. Graphic novels have only truly gotten a foothold and have been selling in this channel for just over fifteen years!

    The market outside comic shops,has grown — but this is still an industry in it’s infancy in many ways. Another issues is that direct market stores do not report either to the New York Time or BookScan. If they did the numbers would have been very different for American comics and manga would not have looked so dominate. I actually had to explain to the folks who ran the now defunct Quill awards — when they came up their outlets who reported into their bestseller lists (chain bookstores, independent bookstores, and mass market outlets) – that comic shops are our independent booksellers. You could have heard a pin drop.

    Readers for this medium are growing, and the proof is in the fact that the current graphic novel bestseller lists are littered with comics for kids. We now have the first generation who discovered the comics medium not on a spinner rack or on a newsstand or in a comic shop, but in a bookstore. Yes we need better marketing and promotion – and not just the property, but the talent, but it’s a long way from when I had a buyer from a major retail outlet tell me “I’m not going to lose my job over buying some graphic novels!” Baby steps…

  4. Synsidar, it’s really about the way the buyer’s categories are broken out. All Ages is not recognized beyond direct market. The difference between the two is basically this: DM= 700 Million or so. Book Trade(Retail, education, library) is approx 30 Billion. There are also several thousand new graphic novel titles hitting the market each year and buyers don,t have the time to read each book to determine where they belong.
    While a story may appeal to multiple age groups, like Hunger Games or Harry Potter(series) these books were launched as children’s books or young adult titles because they needed a market designator.
    When you try to tell a non-direct market person that a book is all ages it causes confusion. This is leading to the “elevator pitch” part of the conversation which I’ll cover in an upcoming segment on marketing campaigns.

  5. Amen Rich. In one of my upcoming postings I’ll be covering the marketing and advertising arena. A big part of this will be in the language and tools of the traditional market versus what the comics guys are used to. I’m also going to hit on the use of variant covers and why they really don’t have value in book trade, either.
    Now this is not to say that the traditional houses have nailed it either on the value of the gn category. There have been some incredible missteps but as you have mentioned, there are a lot of comics for kids hitting the bestseller’s list and generating unit sales into the hundred thousand range. Also in the upcoming session, why Diary of a Wimpy Kid counts as a graphic novel.

  6. Yeah Torsten, Lexile is a key element here. While it’s true they dont have yet have a real handle on proper leveling for graphic/comic content, their stamp on any book helps the buyer in the district office make the call on if and how many copies will be bought.
    If you look at any of the Scholastic Readers on the book shelves at B&N or in any of the traditional retailers, you will see the reading levels listed. I was surprised that my hard cover copy of Smile(Raina Telgemeier) doesnt have age and grade levels listed but the follow up title Drama does have it listed in the catalog info on the other side of the title page.
    As I pointed out, Lerner, Rosen, Capstone, Scholastic know the formula and are steadily devouring the educational market. Cool thing is these folks at least most of them are creating books that kids want to read vs generating some ‘out sourced graphic content’.

  7. I was teaching my comics class yesterday and brought in a bunch of my own comics to share with them, and I had the usual suspects of YA and Children’s comics(Smile, Mouse Guard, etc.) along a few mildly OK for kids indie books(Maus, A Drifting Life, and The Wandering Son, Three Shadows). I kid you not those kids gobbled up Maus and Mouse Guard…with this small sample I say make more comics with mice.

    Anecdote aside some of the kids comics out there are rather dull and the quality control is lacking. I can honestly see a “Kids Comics Bubble” being the result of an un-checked glut of kids books, where publishers are trying sell to libraries with shrinking budgets and trying to fulfill an over-estimated demand. In schools we need to advocate making comics reading a strong element in a child’s literary education. comics are a smooth transition from picture books instead of jumping straight into chapter books. I would love to see a day where in fourth grade kids are reading Mouse Guard or Amulet for English class.

    YA comics are the PG-13 of books, they’re edgy for kids yet mature enough for adults to enjoy and is the real middle ground to aim for. were an aging country and we should be appealing to the teens to set them in their reading habits and repeat the process with each generation.

    Overall this article was “so s*** sherlock” these things just need to be done, less talking more doing…which means I need to get back to work.

  8. Hey Serhend,
    You are one of many teachers who are bringing comics into the classroom because you understand the inherent value of the medium. You are also correct on the subject of quality stories but then this is also true for picture books as well as text-there’s a lot of crap on the market no matter where you look.
    It would also be great to see a day when comics are not seen as just a transitional tool for moving kids from picture books to prose. The two titles you list are excellent examples of great books that belong on the shelf along side Tom Sawyer and any other ‘literary efforts’.
    As for the “no s%#t sherlock” observation, this is a conversation that’s been had in many separate areas so one of my goals is to put all the elements together to show how much bigger the picture, and opportunity is, for the future of the medium. It just needs constant nudging to get it headed in the right direction. And thank you for your thoughts on all of this. I hope you continue to chime in.

  9. Hi John,

    I am interested in developing a teacher education book the demonstrates a new approach to teaching language and writing. The best and only way I can envision doing this project is by showing the audience how it’s done, with comics, rather than just telling them, with a focus on text. I know this presents several challenges, but I am dead-set on trying it. I just need some advice and direction from someone who knows the ropes. Would you be willing to contact me or put me in contact with a someone in the publishing business who has experience with the world of educational publishing, graphic novels, and/or teacher development. Thanks so much for you time!

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