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A sale is a sale

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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.)

  1. a dedicated network of 3000 independent bookstores selling their products.

    If I remember correctly from the panel, that number quoted referred to the number of direct market stores worldwide.

  2. My oft-repeated datapoint: 4500 Diamond accounts to be serviced. How many are buying clubs versus gaming stores versus comic stores versus comic bookstores is another matter entirely.

  3. Since today is anniversary of D-Day, let me use that as an analogy. In the past few years, there has been a huge, rapid push inland, as manga and graphic novels established a sizable presence in traditional bookstores.

    Now, that advance is slowing down. The market is saturated in some areas, mature in others. There may be some retrenchment, some losses, but graphic novels will not disappear from bookstore shelves.

    The market has had numerous booms and busts throughout its history (including one bookstore bust) as it discovers, exploits, and then recovers from various opportunities.

    The variety of Diamond accounts really doesn’t matter; a sale is a sale is a sale. What matters is if that number increases or decreases. Will comicbook stores remain viable in the coming years, or just become another marginalized genre bookstore, like the various mystery, cooking, and fine art bookstores in this country?

    Yes, manga sells nicely. But at my former bookstore (B&N-Lincoln Center), last year we sold a lot of Persepolis, Bone, Heroes, Black Dossier, Civil War, and Dark Tower. We’re going to sell a lot of Spiegelman’s Breakdowns.

    Here’s another way of looking at popularity of titles: According to OCLC’s WorldCat, which serves as a central database for libraries in the United States and other countries, here is a sampling, by publisher, of how many titles are in 500 or more library systems. (This does not account for the number of actual COPIES, just the number of systems.)
    Marvel: 4 (+2 “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way”)
    DC: 14
    Viz: 18
    Tokyopop: 13
    “Bone”: 6
    Fantagraphics: 4 (“Peanuts” sometimes cataloged as a series)
    Dark Horse: 7
    Image: 0 (Leave It To Chance: 429)
    Scholastic Graphix: 9 (includes “Bone”)
    Top Shelf: 3
    Drawn & Quarterly: 4
    First Second: 7

  4. Heidi, how is the statement that TPB sales are the meat and potatoes of comics shop sales except for a few neanderthals tenable when they were at best $110 million out of about $430 million in total sales? Maybe you meant a Mediterranean diet.

    At least that’s my memory of the numbers — am I thinking of the wrong numbers?

    I never understand either side when you and Dirk argue this stuff.

  5. As a buddy of mine says, Dirk is *always* right. Even when you initially think he’s wrong, when you think about it, Dirk is right.

    Dirk *is* right, too. Marvel, when talking about them as a company, is focused on their future, as a movie production/ merchandise licensing company. They don’t care about bookstore sales because there’s almost no reason to.

    As for comic book stores and trades, you’re wrong. The vast majority of comic book stores still only sell floppies. The only direct market stores I’ve seen shift their focus to trades and graphic novels have been stores in major cities or stores in small towns with a large college student population.

  6. I would agree with Kenny. Marvel and DC have nothing to offer and really only make their money off the licensing of their characters on products and toys and the movies to help sell them. That’s where their big gains are. The comics publishing on both ends is almost incidental to the big picture of their corporate structure. The WB makes out best since they own DC.

    Kids don’t read comics like they used to and the comic industry as a whole sucks. How we change it is hard to say. The Babymen would have to go for sure and a major refocus and revamping of the whole industry is due to get some fresh young blood in there buying books. To a large portion of kids I see and know, the movie version of Spider-Man is ALL they know. They know nothing of the dynamics of the comics and the relationships therein and unfortunately they aren’t inspired enough to go seek it out.

    I really doubt that Iron Man sales in comics have gone up greatly after the movie. The only boom I ever saw was in 1989 when Batman came out and that was driving people to read Batman comics. Maybe someone can prove me wrong but these films don’t sell more comics…

    Scott

  7. The smart stores do both well. Some stores are getting rid or minimizing their backstock (which is different from new releases) as they realize that valuable floor space can be used for better selling merchandise.

    Krypton Comics, in my hometown of Omaha, NE, does everything well. Trades, back issues, toys, Saturday drawing sessions, major celebrities for Free Comic Book Day, a special space for young readers…

    My nostalgic comicbook store, The Dragon’s Lair, is not as modern, but stocks trades as well, and has a great discount section. They’ve stocked graphic novels ever since I was shopping there, which would be … 1984. Of course, back then, they were graphic ALBUMS, like the Marvel Specials and the DC science fiction line.

    Getting back to Marvel, if they don’t care about bookstore sales, then why publish titles which have anemic direct market sales, such as the literary authors and classics? Why does Spider-Girl stay in print for over 100 issues if those issues don’t sell to comicbook fans?

    Marvel could be treating the comics division as just another line of merchandise. If they are, and if the bookstore trade isn’t making any money, then why continue?

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