Friday, October 31, 2003


More on Bookstores

Other comic blog sites have already noted this and passed on to other things, but I just got around to reading it yesterday. So I'm behind the times a little. Sue me.

Publisher's Weekly (October 20) did a really nice series of articles about graphic novels in bookstores. What impresses me most is the scope of the articles: small publishers, big publishers, manga, alternative titles, comics distributors working in the book market, book distributors branching out to carry graphic novels, book publishers putting out graphic novels, and even self-publishers!

PW has managed to create a fairly accurate picture of the vast array of diversity that exists within comics and hone in on works that would appeal to adult readers without resorting to the tired "Zap! Pow! Comics Ain't Just for Kids No More, Bobby Jean" cliches?s that have plagued so many articles about comics in the mainstream press.

Some quick thoughts:

At least two of the issues I raised in my other post about book stores are coming to the surface: appropriate shelving and attracting readers unfamiliar with this sort of material. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have any solutions to offer, but at least they are grappling with it. There seems to be an implication that a little more time will help the problems, which is true, but only as long as there's someone persistently chipping away at the issues. I'm not totally convinced yet that there's anything in place to do this.

The sales everyone is reporting are impressive, when you compare them to the comics shop sales for the same material. The big winners, far and away, are the manga publishers. Poor Marvel didn't have a single title on the top seller list, and DC only had two. I take a really perverse sort of delight in seeing the little guys blazing the trail and reaping the benefits, while the big guys scramble to play catch up.

I'm as annoyed with the phrase "manga format" as I am with "manga style art."

Is there anyone at DC or Marvel that doesn't think or speak of comics in terms of movie tie-ins?

There is a bunch of really interesting stuff coming up: More Persepolis! Rabbi's Cat! Mark Beyer! New Drawn and Quarterly stuff! I hate to sound like a Pollyanna, but maybe it's not such a bad time to be a comic reader.

I really think the Sandman Endless Nights thing is a fluke attributable more to Gaiman's status as a best-selling author than anything else. It's a little early to be trumpeting it as a watershed moment. Let's land some stuff without built in bookstore recognition in the New York Times Bestseller list first. I'll be really surprised if the inevitable 1602 collection enjoys a repeat performance.

I thought the religious comics article was especially cool for reaching beyond the Christian perspective to include Jewish-themed comics, Buddha, and even stuff dealing with the nature of faith without embracing a particular path.

It sounds like Diamond has someone working the bookstore trade who knows what they're doing. I just wonder if they rep their smaller clients with the same fervor that they do Image and Marvel? Their recent history in the comics market makes me skeptical. I'm assuming that they have to deal with bookstores on their terms and take returns.

I like Carla Speed McNeil's description of her wonderful series Finder: "aboriginal science fiction." It's the only short descriptive phrase I've ever heard for the series that fits. It's sad that the bookstore market is as hard a nut for self-publishers to crack as the comic market is. I wonder why Cold Cut doesn't take up bookstore distribution on behalf of folks like McNeil and Donna Barr?

Tokyopop's Stuart Levy engages in a bit of historical revisionism. They may have really pushed the right to left format and the standard size they're using, but they were hardly the first to do either. And they didn't blast out of the gate with that format either. Their first offering was an anthology called Mixxzine, followed by regularly published pamphlets featuring characters like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, which were aimed at the comic market. They started off following the long-established comic publisher routine: Put out a bunch of single issues, then publish the collected version. Needless to say, they weren't quite the success story in those days that they are now. It took them a few years to get their groove going in terms of format, style, and market focus. It's paid off for them, but they came from much humbler beginnings.

As far as the right-to-left format goes, that's a cost-saving measure as much as anything else. If they don't flip the art to read in the Western order, they save money on touch-ups that flipping requires.

All in all, it was a welcome and well-done set of articles. I can't shake the feeling though that we've got a long ways to go and some challenging hurdles to overcome before the bookstore market turns into the Promised Land. The goal has got to be creating new, long term readers as much as it is short term sales increases. The latter doesn't automatically lead to the former, and I still don't see anybody really talking about growing this market from any perspective other than dollars and cents. Still, it's encouraging to see so many publishers looking beyond the pamphlet format and the moribund comics market and, for the most part, doing it in a thoughtful, deliberate way with quality, diverse material.


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