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Comics & Games Retailer

The Growth of Graphic Novels

By Oliver Chin

Much continues to be said about 2003 being the "Year of the Graphic Novel," so I thought I'd help separate the industry hype from the reality.

For an industry in search of good news, the book market has done an about face. Previously shunning or ghettoizing lowbrow pulp like the plague, the literary cognoscenti have now embraced comicdom with open arms. At the annual Book Expo America (BEA) trade show held in May 2003 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a special program of panel discussions and a "pavilion" was dedicated to the graphic novels.

However this pavilion was in actuality just a section of the show floor in the second of three main halls. There a handful of booths from DC and Diamond on down were concentrated together (Marvel and CrossGen where in fact aisles away, and others like Viz were in different buildings altogether). This indicates that trends are in the eye of the beholder and the one doing the touting.

Turning Leaf

Indeed, comic publishers have been attending BEA for many years to pitch their wares to a relatively tone deaf audience. Trying to persuade bookstores that comics aren't just for kids or adults in arrested development has never been an easy task.

However, buyers' ears and eyes are open to the possibilities of stocking tradepaperbacks more now than ever before. I was there in 1998 holding a stuffed Pikachu before Pokémon became the virtual Godzilla for American parents. Attendees didn't know what to make of it the yellow furball, but for some reason middle-aged ladies were compelled to stop, stare, and hug it. On a BEA panel in Little Tokyo, people were still hung up on how Maus was destined to be the peak of graphic novel awareness that would never again be reached again. When I boldly claimed that this Japanese "electric mouse" would soon become a pop culture elephant by comparison, people thought I had been a victim of shock therapy.

Now just a few years later, many are apt to believe the recent reports from Bookselling This Week or Publishers Weekly that US sales of graphic novels exceed $100 million annually and that bookstores' sales will soon outpace comic retailers'. Getting hard data is hard to come by, but what is clear is that aggressive publishers need more outlets to sell since the pool from comic retailers is just not large enough to sustain all the players involved.

It is no secret anymore that collected editions have more staying power as revenue generating SKUs than "collectible" single issues. Consequently publishers have jumped on the bandwagon to increase their output, regardless of whether consumer demand exists or not. In search of greener pastures, they have naturally found that the book market is the closest territory to stake their claim. Coincidentally bookstores also were on the lookout for new sources of revenue, as their industry's sales have been stagnant for a decade. But having product is one thing for a comics publisher. Having distribution and marketing budgets and sale expertise is another.

Compounded Interests

The moderator of my 1998 BEA panel, Publishers Weekly news editor Calvin Reid still manages the magazine's graphic novel reviews. He has seen this category grow in legitimacy both in house and in the stores. As we sat down between his duties at the 2003 BEA, Reid confided however, that he wouldn't have a section to manage if it wasn't supported by pages of advertising.

Therein lies the rub. The cycle of media coverage depending on promotion, and retail sellthrough contingent on wholesale relationships is no different in the book world. It is just on a larger scale with different actors.

Unsurprisingly Diamond too has tried to extend its business by trying to wholesale to the book trade for its exclusive comics publishers. This seems like an attractive option for publishers too small to acquire their own representation or those burned by the failure of their own book distributors. Just last year, the LPC Group went belly up, leaving its 170 publishers in the lurch (according to PW, Mixx, Dark Horse, and Marvel were each owed over $600,000). Immediately this crimped the cash flow of comics publishers such as Top Shelf who was forced to email a plea for donations to stay afloat. Soon thereafter Dark Horse and Image Comics went with Diamond, and Drawn & Quarterly chose Chronicle Books. In late 2001 Fantagraphics signed on with W.W. Norton. But when its previous book distributor Seven Hills went bankrupt in late 2002 and owed it $70,000. Recently the venerable dean of alternative comics solicited all comers for financial aid.

But the main reason why all these publishers had such problems is that the book market is returnable. Unlike the comics economy which based upon a guaranteed sale determining a print run, book publishers must produce enough inventory to offer on consignment, tolerate a longer accounts receivable period, and suffer at least 20% of the inventory returning as damaged goods. This environment is inhospitable to those who don't have a decent savings account and cannot weather a few rocky months of low revenue.

Graphic Glut

More product is being published than ever, spurred by licensing tie-ins with movies, video games, and other multimedia properties. Some companies are even taking the step of curtailing the creation of single issues, and instead focusing on printing graphic novels faster (running counter to the original reason why paperbacks were manufactured in the first place - as collections of previously released comics which then could earn additional revenue).

But despite these trends, all parties involved must constantly remind themselves that retailer's shelf spaces will always be limited. Just like with those for music, videos, and toys, book retailers must adhere to the rule of "survival of the fittest" turn their inventory to make room for new items to sell. Even as the large chains such as Borders and Barnes and Noble continue to increase their dominance in the field, the space they allot to graphic novels rarely exceeds one bookcase.

The heralding of the graphic novel has also spurred larger book publishers such as Chronicle and Pantheon to compete. Now PW recently reported that Random House (owner of Pantheon) formed a co-venture with Kodansha, Japan's second-leading manga publisher, thereby endangering the flow of new titles to companies like TokyoPop and Dark Horse.

As librarians nationwide face state budget cuts, and forced to reduce staff, hours, and their spending on new titles, this too will put a damper on the heady expectations of selling more units to public libraries for the foreseeable future.

But despite all this, I find myself personally trying to make 2003 the year of the graphic novel. Today I have my own challenge of marketing my first book and reaching its proper retail and reading audience. Therefore I wish us all luck.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.