Bookstores: The Great White Hope?
Dirk Deppey and Brian Hibbs had a discussion on Journalista last week about the bookstore market. It was an interesting discussion, and both sides raised some good points, but I tend to agree with Deppey. I think it's past time for companies like Fantagraphics to stop wasting energy trying to talk sense to a comic store market system that's made it clear time and again that it doesn't want them.
The direct market is dominated by myopic retailers serving readers with tunnel-vision. Neither are going to change and it's time to stop expecting them to. Fantagraphics can use the DM to access and support that small core of stores and readers found there, but it's not a market that's going to grow, at least not the way things stand right now.
While I do think the bookstore market offers more opportunity, especially the independent bookseller market Eric Reynolds refers to in his response to the debate, there are some key issues that need to be worked out. Unfortunately, neither Hibbs nor Deppey addresses any of them. If anyone else has, I've not seen it.
RETURNS: One of the differences in the bookstore and comic shop distribution systems is returnability. Bookstores can return unsold books to the distributor, a privilege comic shops don't enjoy. I've got nagging doubts about the ability of most comic publishers, especially the smaller ones, to handle a huge amount of returns.
Has anyone had to deal with returns yet? I have to confess that I don't know enough about the bookstore system and the way returns work, but I assume that it's on some sort of cycle. It seems to me like the manga publishers have been working the bookstores long enough that they've surely had to handle some returns, but that's also not something they're talking about. It may be that folks are prepared for them and it's not really that big of a deal, but it would be nice to hear someone talk say so.
It could be disastrous to be expecting a check and get a crate of unsold books instead.
SHELVING: Most bookstores I've been in have no idea how to handle graphic novels, especially those that don't involve people in long underwear throwing cars at each other. While the science fiction section seems to be the typical place to look for them, I've seen them in the humor and children's sections as well. Even stores that designate a section for graphic novels tend to locate that section adjacent to (or within) the sci fi section. That may seem logical for Star Wars and even Spider-Man, but it doesn't work for James Kochalka and Dan Clowes. The kind of readers that would be interested in the newest Joe Sacco book aren't likely to wander into the sci fi section after it. I admit I've seen both the Larry Gonick books and Maus in the history section of a couple of stores, but that's the exception rather than the rule.
Essentially, bookstores need to be educated about graphic novels, but who's going to do it? And follow up on it?
MARKET/STORES: The small, locally-owned independent booksellers that Reynolds praises are a dying breed. The chains and the internet are killing them, slowly but surely. Here in Louisville, one local store was just bought out by Borders. In just a few weeks, selection and service have gone down the tubes to the point that I can hardly stand to shop there any more.
I agree wholeheartedly with Eric Reynolds that, for a publisher like Fantagraphics, these kinds of stores are logical markets. The last remaining local store here has been slowly cultivating a graphic novel shelf over the past two or three years. It started with Jimmy Corrigan, David Boring, and Palestine and has grown to the point that there's a whole shelf dedicated to them now, carrying nothing but stuff from Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly and the like.
Borders, Barnes and Noble and their competitors do carry those kinds of titles, but they are much more strongly oriented to the DC/Marvel slugfest material and the rising tide of manga. Is there enough of a viable market for the alternative comics publishers or are they going to be stuck with a small and shrinking core of bookstores to match their small and shrinking core of comics shops?
MARKET/READERS: One of the failures of the American comics market is its inability to allow readers' tastes to mature. The mainstream is so rooted in juvenalia and the bulk of the stores are so locked into selling nothing but the mainstream that when a reader reaches the point where he/she feels they've outgrown the material, there's seemingly nowhere to turn. And we lose a comics reader.
There's nothing that helps that reader transition to comics that don't rely on stories designed to entertain 12 year olds. Retailers don't encourage it, because they won't carry non-mainstream comics. Even if that reader finds information about other kinds of comics, on the internet for example, if their local shop doesn't carry it, then they can't get it. I'm convinced we lose readers every year this way.
So I'm wondering what's going to happen when this teenage crop of manga-reading girls starts to feel they're outgrowing the material. How do they get directed to other stuff that might appeal to them?
I appreciate the sales that are being generated right now, but we need long-term readers as well. We've lost an awful lot of them in the past ten years.
PR: This is kind of a silly question, but how does the general public who doesn't read book trade publications or Previews find out about the range of gn's at their local bookstore? Are publishers ready and willing to do book promo tours and signings and all the other things that are required to really push titles into the public eye?
DISTRIBUTION: Fantagraphics is lucky enough to have a real book distributor who knows their material. An awful lot of other publishers are using Diamond as their bookstore distributor, having jumped on in the wake of other distributors going under last year. Does Diamond know how to distribute to the book market? And are they going to rep the small publishers any better than they do in the comic market? It was amazing to me how many of the smaller publishers signed with Diamond to be their bookstore distributor. I can only imagine how that sales meeting went. "Hi there. You know us. We screw you over in the comic market every month and we'd like for you to give us the opportunity to do it in the book market too."
Don't get me wrong. I'd like to see comics thrive in both the direct market and the bookstore trade, especially the smaller publishers who put out the bulk of the stuff I read. I've even altered my buying habits so I can support our remaining local bookstore for carrying graphic novels. The direct market is so fraught with deeply entrenched problems, some of them deeply rooted in the stunted tastes of most mainstream comic fans, that I think it's slowly but surely dying. I'm not at all sure how to go about fixing it. So it makes sense to look for other avenues, such as bookstores. And it looks like, for some publishers at least, turning to bookstores has been a good move. I'd hate for it to turn out to be replacing one problem-plagued market for another. I'd feel better about that if someone was talking about some of the things on the list above. (Returns at the very least.)