Comics & Games Retailer
Checking out the ReadersBy Oliver Chin
I wasn't planning on having a third column discussing graphic novels. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I would be remiss if I didn't elaborate on the growing importance that libraries have in reaching new comics readers.
Naturally people tend to view the world from their own vantage point. Behind the counter, a comics proprietor can visualize that his or her store as the center of the civilized universe. There enter customers who have grown up getting a kick out of the antics of make believe characters, and are curious about the latest twists in the sagas of superheroes.
But what if the life revolved around a different pole? One where the average adult hadn't read a comic since puberty, hadn't stepped foot into a comics joint unless by mistake, and hadn't known (or cared) whether Superman rose from the dead or Batman recovered from his broken back. And what about their kids? Fuggetaboutem.
Over the past few years, an intermediary has emerged between these two camps. Libraries have created a small but growing haven for younger readers to experiment with funny books. Therefore, I have been making the rounds to discuss graphic novels with local San Francisco Bay Area librarians. This is what I've found.
In a brief exercise of word association, what do you think when you hear the word "library?" Perhaps, it would be an image of Alexandria, the repository of human knowledge. Or a pre-Internet, where one could quickly find an answer to any question. Or maybe a free bookstore where one could browse without pressure or obligation.
In the last sense, libraries do function as retailers of thought to a constituency who may not be lucrative customers but still influential readers to their friends and family. In the US, 100,000 libraries employ 400,000 people. Among them, acquisitions librarians must allocate their spending budget to purchase books. These "buyers" decide which titles will either appeal to the greatest number of readers or be worthy additions that round out their collections. Though often stereotyped as shy and retiring, these graduates of "library science" really do want attract as many patrons as possible and remain a relevant social and educational resource to their local communities.
Chicken and Egg
Though "graphic novel" is still a foreign term to the general public, it is no longer with libraries. However, improving that name recognition has been the result of much trial and error. Not so long ago, librarians were like a Gordian knot to publishers who wanted representation in the stacks.
Publisher: "Do you currently stock graphic novels?"
Publisher: "Well, why don't you just get some and try them out."
Librarian: "We don't know much about them."
Publisher: "Well, if you have them, maybe they will start checking them out."
Librarian: "But our readers haven't asked for them."
However, like any other market, the world of libraries can be a hard egg to crack for publishers. First you have to the titles, then the time and then the follow up.
To end this dilemma, at some point someone had to make a break. Whether it be a persistent retailer or publisher wanted to build a reliable secondary sales channel, any sales person worth their salt had to be spend effort in educating librarians about the benefits of their products, before these prospects ever could become satisfied customers. When I was in the thick of trying to broaden the appeal of anime and manga five years ago, I donated thousands of trade paperbacks to library systems across the country. This kick started a grass roots awareness of the genre. In the meantime, I pushed for libraries simultaneously to subscribe to relevant magazines so patrons could learn more about these forms of entertainment.
Armed with more promotional flyers, live books, and steady flow of product information and reviews, librarians could use more tools to evaluate new acquisitions and gauge their popularity among readers. Then by discussing the genre and the latest releases with counterparts nationwide via professional associations and online forums, librarians now could coalesce a community of like-minded peers. Increasingly, teen or "youth services" librarians would agree that young readers were indeed being influenced by the increasing exposure of comics through television, video games, and toys, checking out these books, and expecting to see more at the library. Suddenly the chick was chirping.
Now librarians too are used to seeing regular reviews of titles in trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. Publishers large and small are routinely getting into the habit of tailoring their marketing efforts toward this audience to get both editorial and advertising coverage.
But there is still a lot more work to be done. In an era of massive state budget deficits, the toll on libraries will be negative. That means fewer hours, fewer new books, and fewer educational programs.
Meanwhile students are becoming more elusive to draw in. Burdened by increasing homework loads at school, and committed to hours of practice for extra-curriculars and sports, Libraries must compete for their attention just like any other activity, and to do so they must offer some instruction that is in compelling, creative, or inspiring form.
Ironically, at this time, librarians can't help but see potential everywhere. The fact that "graphic novels" be part of the answer should be a surprise to none of you. From their desks, librarians see how comic books appeal to kids who wouldn't normally read, and can motivate them to make reading a habit, and for them to express their own imagination. But hamstrung by financial and subsequently resource limitations, librarians are seeing many golden opportunities go unrealized.
This is where publishers have to step up and step in. Not simply to gain individual recognition in supporting their local public institutions. But, more importantly, to help ensure that the next generation of readers exists for the retail marketplace.