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New York Times snubbing graphic novels?

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You’d think with the WATCHMEN graphic novel selling 10K+ copies a week on and off since July that it would have cracked a major print bestseller list (NYT, PW) by now, wouldn’t you? Well, you would be wrong. For various reasons, WATCHMEN has been shut out, and in fact, graphic novels are not even counted on the New York Times Book Review’s prestigious bestseller list.

This fact was brought up this week in a post by Del Rey’s Betsy Mitchell on the Suvudu blog:

As a result of my ranting around the office Thursday morning, the head of publicity contacted the Times to find out why Welcome to the Jungle had been dissed. “Well, there’s actually an answer,” she reported. “Even though they have included graphic memoirs and nonfiction like Persepolis and Art Spiegelman books on the list, they have not been tallying graphic novels. HOWEVER: they are planning to start a separate list of graphic novels, if not by the end of this year then very early next year.”


The Times’ ban on graphic novels has been in place for a while, and has caused consternation at both Marvel and DC, according to numerous gripes we’ve heard.

Marvel, in particular, has been hoping for a slot in the NYT bestseller list for a while, going so far as to take an ad out in the NYT Book Review for the Stephen King DARK TOWER hardcover, which came out a year ago last November. Apparently, both DARK TOWER and DC’s HEROES GN both sold enough to crack the list, but both were denied. Since then, WATCHMEN has been a legitimate publishing industry phenomenon, but hasn’t made the paperback list.

It isn’t that graphic novels NEVER made the list. In fact, ENDLESS NIGHTS, the deluxe Sandman hardcover anthology, made #20 on the extended list in 2003. However, according to several observers, this was viewed by the folks who make the list at the Times as “a mistake,” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

The Beat contacted Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty about the GN situation a few weeks ago, and was given this response:

We’ve never attempted to capture this market comprehensively, which would involve different retailers than the ones we currently poll, in order to do the field justice. On very rare occasions over the years one or two of the comic- or graphic format titles hit the list for a short time, due to whatever phenomena and general interest surrounded their appearance in the general market place.

As for PW, the magazine does host a GN bestseller list; however, as editor Calvin Reid explained, it doesn’t take backlist into account, so no WATCHMEN there, either.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons much acclaimed superhero epic, has always sold well as a backlist title. But since the July release of an online trailer to promote director Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film adaptation of the book, DC Comics has gone back to press for nearly 1 million copies of the graphic novel. “A pretty amazing record for a 21 year old book,” said DC president Paul Levitz. In fact, the popularity of the Watchmen trailer and the hit Dark Knight film, is giving several classic superhero collections a backlist sales push, among them, Moore’s V for Vendetta, Grant Morrison and Dave Mckean’s Arkham Asylum. David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.


As for the Times’ proposed new graphic novel bestseller list, as the reply to Mitchell shows, it’s still in the works.

Although newspapers (and the Times) are having serious problems in the new media world, getting on the Times’ list is still seen as a real coup in the book publishing world…and even in this era of booming sales and legitimacy, there are still a few glass ceilings.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong…

    So the New York Times’ Diane McNulty’s response of…

    “We’ve never attempted to capture this market comprehensively, which would involve different retailers than the ones we currently poll, in order to do the field justice.”

    … is blaming the closed, archaic, monopoly of Diamond. Does this mean the serpent is finally choking on it’s own tail?

  2. Freaky Tiki: I don’t quite read it the NYT spokesperson’s comment as *blaming* Diamond.

    It just sounds like they’re saying that they recognize that a significant amount of graphic novel sales happen in a venue (the direct comics market) that they don’t poll, and therefore they don’t feel comfortable covering the category.

    To make an absurd analogy, the New York Times Bestseller list also doesn’t cover textbooks. Part of the reason for that is that they almost surely don’t get data from the places where most textbooks are sold: schools. That doesn’t mean they’d *blame* schools for selling textbooks. (Of course, the interest level in a bestseller list for textbooks is much less than one for graphic novels, but I did say it was an absurd example…)

    Of course, they could certainly still report on graphic novel activity that arises from the markets they do poll–that is, whichever book retailers report data to the New York Times Bestseller list.

    Of course, unless I’m mistaken, the Publishers Weekly graphic novel bestseller list mentioned above does take into account activity in both the bookstore and comics markets, so it would seem to be possible to set up that sort of reporting. It’s just that the NYT hasn’t done so yet.

    But now that more comics stores are using POS systems and therefore, presumably, capturing better sales data that can theoretically be reported to bestseller lists, maybe we’ll see the comics market better represented in such things in the future…

  3. Is it a glass ceiling, or simply a lack of time/resources/willpower on the part of the NYTimes? Times spokeswoman said such an undertaking would “involve different retailers than the ones we currently poll,” after all. The amount of work that would have to go into this, coupled with the fact that very few GNs would ultimately make the list (as compared to the number of non-GNs that do make the list), might just not make it worth it to them.

  4. But doesn’t the NYT count a selection of independent booksellers (which all use different distributors) for their prose lists? How hard would it be for them them call up Diamond and ask them to hand over their sales figures?

    Still, at least they’re working on it; I e-mailed them about making a GN list 2-3 years ago and they said they had no plans at that time.

  5. I think the problem is how the New York Times defines “bestselling.” To traditional publishers, who sell their books to stores on a returnable basis, a book isn’t sold until a customer purchases it.

    However, in the Direct Market, a publisher sells the book directly to the bookseller, and that book is sold whether a customer buys it or not. It’s difficult to make the comparisons, and the Times’ position acknowledges that ambiguity.

  6. I understand how setting up a system to create a comprehensive, credible best seller list solely for the graphic novel category would involve more time/resoruces/will than the NY Times has available, and don’t really fault them for not getting around to it.

    But if they’re actively NOT including GNs that would/should place on their list under their current system, that’s a different issue. And that would be what that original Random House person was complaining about–they had a graphic novel that, by their reckoning, sold well enough in approprirate venues as to warrant a spot somewhere on the NY Times bestseller list, but it didn’t make the list.

    Maybe that poster’s figures were off base and whatever graphic novel they were talking about didn’t sell enough to be an “official” bestseller. But that aside, it’s a little bit more unnerving to think that the NYT would ignore a strong selling book, failing to put it on their list just because its comics.

  7. Well, the NY Times has always ignored having to list books that in a way would dilute the brand of their bestseller list. Self-help/advice was added so it wouldn’t dominate the lists. It is a shame that they actively avoid listing even comics that crack their list proper. I guess it’s editorially thought of as novelties then.

  8. This isn’t actually a Direct Market issue — not in the case of Watchmen or of The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle — since both have sold strongly enough in particular weeks through book-industry outlets to outrank many books on the published lists.

    The problem is that the bestseller lists are actively, and heavily, managed — perhaps for the image of the New York Times, or perhaps for the benefit of the Times‘s ad-sales department. The Times deliberately leaves out many categories from their bestsellers lists — their “fiction bestsellers” doesn’t include books published as Young Adult, or graphic novels of any kind. (As we’ve all recently learned.) Similarly, their non-fiction list is mostly limited to history, memoirs, and current events — they suppress all how-to books, self-help, computer books, and other categories.

    Given that sales data is all captured electronically these days, it’s clear that the Times must start with a compiled weekly list of sales (from the outlets that report to them) and then decide which books are actually “fiction” or “non-fiction” by their definitions, and which are not worthy of being listed at all.

    (When you see the Times folks talk about the list, they often say that a book “was placed” on a list — I suspect this is how they refer to it internally, and another sign that their bestseller lists shouldn’t be taking as pure reportage.)

    From their website: “Among those categories not actively tracked are: perennial sellers; required classroom reading; text, reference and test preparation guides; journals and workbooks; calorie counters; shopping guides; comics and crossword puzzles.” Note that “among,” as well — they’re leaving themselves the room to “not actively track” other things, at their whim.

  9. They don’t know what they’re missing with greats like Mattotti’s “Fires”, Alan Moore’s works, Frank Miller’s “Ronin”, Mazzuchelli, or recent titles like Jeff Lemire’s “Essex County” trilogy, Hope Larson’s works, or Josh Fialkov’s “Elk’s Run”. Too much to mention.

  10. There is no need to look for reasons to excuse the NY Times here. They don’t include graphic novels because comics are a medium for kids and the immature. Seriously. I work for a bookstore, as opposed to a comics shop, and this attitude is alive and well, even if the medium is gaining more and more respect. Every time sales decline the attitude is, ‘well, that fad is over.’ The NY Times absolutely refused to include kids books until Harry Potter forced them too, and even then they got around the ‘problem’ by creating a separate list. And that will be their solution here. The snobbery is still out there, folks.

  11. Fucking Hypocrites! Everyone who reads the lists knows the methodology the New York Times uses to tabulate sales. It’s a list of bookstore and online sales. They do not have to change the methodology, just add the titles! For years, comicstrip collections were placed in the Self Help/Miscellaneous list. Harry Potter dominated the fiction list, so the Times created a kid’s list.
    So the irony is, the movie adaptation (The Dark Knight) can be listed, but the actual graphic novel can’t.
    Seems to me that the New York Times considers graphic novels to be subliterate.
    Well, at least USA Today groups everything together, and Barnes & Noble has it’s own list. If you’re curious like me, go to BN.com, and enter GRAPHIC NOVELS as a search. You can then refine the search to “bestsellers”.

  12. “Graphic Novels”, God, how I despise that term, are in good company. The Bible has been the number one best selling book since the Times list started and will be the number one best selling book long after there IS no New York Times and The Bible is not listed. Just saying.

  13. Well, given that there are seemingly hundreds of different versions of the Bible, I can see how no one version would be a best seller.

  14. Didn’t the Times paperback list in the ’80’s have Garfield books on it? I seem to remember so, so doesn’t that blow out this statement from their web site (as reported by Andrew Wheeler, above): “Among those categories not actively tracked are: perennial sellers; required classroom reading; text, reference and test preparation guides; journals and workbooks; calorie counters; shopping guides; comics and crossword puzzles.”

  15. Lou Wysocki: Or, if what other commenters suggest about the Times; general practice is true, the Times may have added “comics” to that list of not actively tracked categories sometime after the 1980s, so as to be able to justify later supressing the Garfield books (and later similar comics reprint books) from their bestseller list…

  16. Is there any legal, moral, or ethical reason why someone cannot look at Bookscan and list the top ten titles, without sales data?
    Locus runs detailed bestseller lists for SF/Fantasy titles from a variety of sources. Can something similar be done for GNs?

  17. Why do we have to crash their ceiling? I read this as enormously positive in that they are going to have a new list! Danielle Steel X is very different from The Road, but both are novels — Watchmen is not and never will be. That’s just a fact. It’s another category — which is what gives it its ‘Watchmeness,’ right? But I’m with Craig I wish we had a new really cool term for it. Graphic novels was great in the beginning when people peered at them with binoculars from the jeep, but it seems too clinical and reductive now.

    Brad

  18. closed, archaic, monopoly of Diamond? I actually think Diamond is the one putting forth hours of their time to get GN’s on the list. So suck on that. I don’t know any other distrubuting company that works so hard at coordinating programs and material for their retailers such as summits, Free Comic Book Day, Bookshelf, Daily, Diagloge, incorporating comic books into schools. I’m just sayin…

  19. closed, archaic, monopoly of Diamond? I actually think Diamond is the one putting forth hours of their time to get GN’s on the list. So suck on that. I don’t know any other distrubuting company that works so hard at coordinating programs and material for their retailers such as summits, Free Comic Book Day, Bookshelf, Daily, incorporating comic books into schools. I’m just sayin…

  20. All I’m saying Karen – is that I was raised and living in New Jersey from 1964 – 1985 – the New York Times wasn’t the hip place to go for pop culture or comic strips.

    The New York Daily News was the place to be for your comics fix – especially when Stan Lee debuted the Amazing Spider-man strip in 1977 – the Daily News gave it the full page treatment on the back page of the comics section. ( plus they had cool rock band iron-on transfers of Yes and Pink Floyd at one time )

    My next door neighbor’s dad used to pick up the Sunday NY Times and we both used to groan about the lack of a comics section. Nothing for the average ten year old to read, for that matter.

    Other than it’s editorial cartooning, why should the New York Times give a rat’s ass about the rise in power of the graphic novel??

    ~

    Coat

  21. The NY Times has always been political.

    When Harry Potter was dominating the list and driving off establish bestsellers like Steven King the Times kicked Harry into a ghetto list of kids books (never mind that many readers were adults).

    I’m sure comics are the same, no one wants to admit Watchmen is outselling a ‘real’ book.

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