[This post was supposed to come up immediately after the rise of the manga one, but then all hell broke loose.]
Despite the huge huge market for manga and things manga right now, comics shops, by and large haven’t been able to sell them or capitalize on the boom. While Naruto sells in Watchmen-like numbers overall, it’s not even in the top 10 on Diamond’s graphic novel charts.
Retailer Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Ohio talked about this in a widely-linked to piece at ICv2 in which he targets the direct markets failure to join on the manga bandwagon in clear, resigned terms:
By now I imagine a lot of you have filed this column into the category of “what does this have to do with us?” — and you’d have a point. We don’t sell manga and from the retailers I’ve spoken to over the last couple of months, it’s clear most of us can’t sell it — not in significant numbers to justify the floor space it’s taking up. But we used to; no one talks about it, but it was the American comic book industry that introduced manga to America.
We just haven’t profited from it. Back when they made the switch from floppies to paperbacks, we had a golden opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and use knowledgeable customer service and anime merchandise to compete with the huge selection of the Barnes & Borders for its predominately female readership. But we didn’t, and now there’s a generation of comic book fans in our stores who think manga and anime are icky and our industry has become just that much more insular and incestuous because of it.
Speaking of the anecdotal, I know for a fact that selling manga isn’t the same as stocking manga for comics shops. Jim Hanley’s here in NYC has been supporting manga for a long time, but they are a commuter store, full of grown men on their way to the train stopping off for their Wednesday fix. Girls just aren’t going to be comfortable in this store. Meanwhile Forbidden Planet, located in a busy shopping district opposite a movie theater, has a whole floor devoted to manga now (I believe it was once devoted to gaming.) To sell manga you need to work at it, and change the very nature of the store, and as Bennett says, that’s just not in a lot of people’s comfort zones.
Steven Grant’s column this week addresses the dilemma of the direct market in more general terms:
This is a potential quandary for comics shop owners. Their futures depend on increased, preferably exponentially increased, interest in comics material in the future. But the more successful comics become the closer we get to someone creating a national chain of comics/graphic novel stores. (Marvel and possibly Dark Horse considered something along these lines in the ’90s; the ill-fated Tekno actually tried it, but managed to hit the business on its downward arc and that was all she wrote.) The common wisdom is that no national chain would be able to provide the service local comics shops could, or successfully mold sales to the vagaries of specific regions. But that was the same thing regional promoters said about the WWF, and the same thing small independent bookstores said about Borders/B&N. That’s potentially the biggest booby-trap (for retailers) in a growing comics market; but a market that doesn’t grow will be equally as devastating.
Both Grant and Bennett’s efforts are must reading. In a more positive zone, there’s Brian Hibb’s report on last weekend’s ComicsPRO meeting. While it’s really a big recruitment ad for the organization, (not that there’s anything wrong with that; Hibbs is one of the founders of the org, and it is badly needed for the reasons he states) he also points out WHY:
And here’s the important thing to remember: even though ComicsPRO is focused on the Direct Market retailer, the retailer is very much tied to its suppliers, and so it is in our best interests in making sure that they are strong and profitable as well. While we have historical ties to particular suppliers (most notably Marvel and DC), I don’t think there’s any ComicsPRO member who is tied solely to those publishers, and who wouldn’t welcome more healthy profitable publishers into the mix. This is another way of saying that it is probably more important for the Graphitti, Top Cow, Slave Labor, Dynamite, Cartoon Books’ of the world to engage the retail community than it is for the “Big guys”, and that we’re flatly ecstatic to work with them to deliver better and larger sales. It is in our own vested interest, after all.
Barnes and Nobles purchasing Borders is the absolute worst case resolution to this situation. It’s not just the fact that stores would close, but B&N is overly conservative and does not capitalize on the graphic novel boom. B&N stores treat graphic novels like any other small section, like travel books or cook books. At the New York Comic Con GN conference last year the buyer said they saw no reason to change their graphic novel acquisition strategy. B&N currently only buys 3% of the amount that Borders buys of our books (less than 100 copies per title). I’ve discussed promoting Yaoi Press books more aggressively to B&N with my distributor. My rep says it’s a lost cause. They don’t buy many graphic novels. They especially don’t buy the ‘mature readers’ ones. I’m sure there are single stores out there that are exceptions to this, because B&N does buy some copies of our books. I’m telling you what I see overall.
I haven’t heard this difference enunciated by other publishers so starkly, so don’t know if it would be considered conventional wisdom — except among manga publishers. It was almost certainly the former Borders buyer, Kurt Hassler who has been responsible for the manga boom as much as any other single person except TokyoPop’s Stuart Levy. . Hassler’s aggressive buying on manga made it one of the shooting star categories of the Borders chain, to the point where graphic novels are part of Borders’ new “concept stores” which spotlight categories including — ironically given Abraham’s post — travel and cooking.
No matter what the problems are here, graphic novels are still in an up cycle. There is still room to grow. With so many success stories, people are more hopeful about progress on many fronts and are willing to try to put some elbow grease in to get things done. The failing book chains — PW just yesterday reported that Books-A-Million is also showing softening sales — and weakening economy in general may be the biggest foes right now but we’ve got to stay the course.