Yesterday’s Journalista had some harsh words for my analysis of Marvel’s bookstore sales, especially my mention of Marvel having several entries in the PW graphic novel bestseller list:
Most of that paragraph is at least debatable, but that last sentence has two crossed fingers behind its back. What you need to remember is that the Publishers Weekly bestseller list is a combination of estimated figures from both the bookseller and comics-shop markets. Marvel and (to a lesser extent) DC own the latter, and thus can rack up huge sales numbers thanks to their continued ownership of the Wednesday Crowd. The former is another matter, and the notion that “three items on PW’s list” is proof of Marvel’s success in bookstores is far less believable. The proof? Scroll up a bit to the ICv2 link. You know, the Bookscan list? Note that three Western-published books did make the list… and that none of them were from Marvel. Marvel’s three books almost certainly made the PW list due to their sales in comics shops. So why is this relevant to a bookstore-oriented discussion? Answer: It isn’t.
Well, sure except that Marvel HAS had success in bookstores: with Stephen King and Laurell K. Hamilton, of course, but also Marvel Zombies, Civil War, Captain America, Planet Hulk and many others. The rest of Dirk’s rant is just flat out wrong. Marvel IS going after the bookstore market with their best-selling author series, with Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem, with the Marvel Illustrated line and yes even superheroes. I’m sure no one wants to see Dirk and I go into our usual snipery so let’s just say he has his ideas about what constitutes success and I have mine.
This is, however, as good a place as any to talk about what I discovered was a pretty significant aspect of the graphic novel boom at BEA: comics shops, yes, lowly, smelly comics shops.
As intro to this discussion readers should note a much-quoted statistic from DC’s John Cunningham: that in 2006, graphic novels made up 11% of all trade paperback sales in the U.S.. That’s a pretty significant chunk by any measure, and most of it was manga, to be sure, but not all, by any means. This category success story was dampened somewhat by that fact that Borders, the biggest outlet for those graphic novels, is experiencing very rough financial seas right now.
The Borders story from BEA has been somewhat underreported in the comics press, but it’s an ugly picture. In addition to all the layoffs announced this week, sales are being chopped, returns are going up, and future sales orders are expected to be smaller. This could have a very dire effect on graphic novels and manga. (One would suspect that the difficulties hat a bunch of smaller, nichey manga publishers are undergoing right now is due to the Borders contraction.) According to Diamond Book Distribution vp Kuo-yu Liang, he’s warning his graphic novel publishers that they could experience from 25-50% declines in their graphic novels sales to Borders this year.
Yikes! That could put a major crimp in the Graphic Novel Era. But it’s already putting a crimp in the traditional publishing, as all the upheaval at the major houses in recent weeks shows. The prudent thing to do is to be alarmed and look for more outlets. But graphic novels have something going for them that other genres don’t: a dedicated network of 3000 independent bookstores selling their products.
That’s right, the lowly comic shop.
Of course, most comic shops are dependent on the superhero set as their bread and butter, but all but the most neanderthal of stores now realizes that graphic novels are the meat and potatoes of their sales. And yes, they are slow to embrace more adventurous fare. But as the book industry as a whole slogs head into the murky waters of online sales, digital delivery and a post-literate society, the comics shop as bookstore is going to be a key aspect of maintaining graphic novel sales success. Developing.
(Thanks to Adrian Tomine for supplying a jpg of his cover to this week’s New Yorker fiction issue. In case you can’t read it, that box says AMAZON.)