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Comics & Games Retailer

A Question of Volume

By Oliver Chin

Keeping up with manga is a bigger challenge than ever for retailers. More publishers are producing more titles at a faster pace to feed a growing audience. Yet when your store shelf space doesn't expand, your eternal dilemma is deciding what new products to stock and what old ones to purge.

But chain bookstores want their share of the manga bounty and have more floor space and bigger promotional budgets than ever. Both Borders and Barnes and Noble have beefed up their graphic novel sections with a manga slant. Nevertheless, you can learn from their efforts.

Space Invaders

Last year I spoke to a chain buyer of graphic novels. He stated that if a new title wasn't about superheroes or manga, it didn't belong in the graphic novel section. This may shock purveyors of "alternative comics" but those are the daunting facts of life in mainstream retail.

I inspected a local Borders store recently redesigned to devote one and a half aisles to graphic novels. A Border's shelf-talker simply explained their cataloging system as "Alphabetical by series, then Volume #." This isn't a math column, but here are numbers that convey the sea of titles I faced. Each aisle had four bookcases, and eight of the ten bookcases were devoted to manga. This is the reverse of Marvel and DC's dominance of monthly comics sales, and how only one bookcase contained manga five years ago.

Every bookcase had six shelves which were a yard long. So each bookcase had eighteen feet of shelf-space, and the section had 144 feet for manga alone. Each shelf could hold up to fifty titles spine-out (or six titles face out). Since the section had forty-eight shelves, it had a 2,400 title capacity. Assuming each book had a $10 MSRP, Borders sunk $10,000 into product costs before the first sale. If you have a fraction of the money and space and selection, how do you compete?

Videoing the Comics

Another Border's shelf talker exclaimed "Read the Manga, Now Watch the Anime!" Publishers have long tried to corner the print and video market for any title, such as how ADV Manga has released manga versions of Chrono Crusade, Orphen, and Steel Angel Kurumi. Predictably video producers are publishing manga, such as AnimeWorks with Pilgrim Jager, and vice versa. But now merchandising graphic novels has become "video-like" in a number of ways.

a. Box sets
Publishers are bundling shrink-wrapped sets, which are a proven way to increase backlist VHS and DVD sales while offering a discounted price. Borders stocked the following: - Shonen Jump (Viz), $49.99, 6 title sampler, volume 1 of each of YuYu Hakusho, YuGiOh, One Piece, Naruto, Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z. - Dragon Ball (Viz), $55.65, volumes 1-7. - Cowboy Beebop (TokyoPop), $39.99, vol 1-3 and 1-2 of Shooting Star side story.

As with videos, publishers are merchandising box sets with other premiums. - Juvenile Orion (Broccoli Books), $19.99, volume 1 had a foam placeholder for the rest of the series - Inu Yasha (Viz), $24.99, volume 19 featured an Inu Yasha action figure - Fruits Basket (TokyoPop), $27.99, volume 6 was bundled with the anime DVD by Funimation.

b. "Anime-comics"
As anime producers are releasing titles theatrically with increased domestic success (ex. Spirited Away, Ghost in the Shell, Akira), manga publishers are producing color comics versions taken from the films' frames themselves. Paced according to a film's dialogue and sound effects, "anime-comics" don't offer the best reading experience, but appeal to movie fans who don't regularly buy comics.

c. Long running series
This is sign of success can become a shelving problem. Once, a title that had five volumes was a rarity, since the sales of the monthly comic would have to be healthy enough to sustain its continued adaptation into graphic novels. Today titles with 10 volumes are a dime a dozen. Most manga publishers have abandoned the economic model of producing comics and are going straight to print graphic novels to satisfy both readers and resellers. But as certain titles hog shelf space, retailers are forced to cherry pick which new titles and volumes to carry.

Center of Gravity

Also like the video market, manga has gravitated to distinct poles in price, format, and content. Now the prevailing MSRP is $9.99, down from the range of $15 to 20. This makes each sale less profitable for retailers and forces them to make it up on volume, which why chain's have larger selections and even exclusive deals to sell certain titles or offer "buy 3 get one free" promotions.

The size of manga collections have gotten smaller and closer towards the traditional Japanese "tankubon" format of 7" x 4.25". Dark Horse is sticking by the older and larger dimensions with its titles such as Blade of the Immortal and Usagi Yojimbo, but also releasing longer and higher profile series in their own smaller sizes, such as Lone Wolf and Cub and Astro Boy.

In another step to be more faithful to the source material, more manga are printed to read the "Asian" style of right to left, instead of the Western way of left to right. Flipped "backwards", the first titles printed this way were more to appease proud Japanese licensors than to placate diehard otaku (fanatics). However, improbably, the tide has turned in this direction to the bane of comics reviewers too old to change their reading habits. Dark Horse recently threw in the towel, noting that Oh My Goddess volume 19 would be the trade paperback in a Western format and it would cease production of the monthly comics.

Lastly, as cross merchandising with other popular licensed properties such as video games and toys has become paramount. But like with CDs with Parental Advisory labels, adult content is being stickered and sealed, as titles such as Berserk (Dark Horse) and Battle Royale (Tokyo Pop) are shelved shoulder to shoulder next to kiddie fare.

Retail Recommendations

Wading through the flood of new releases, even reviewers find it hard to determine what's noteworthy. Given limited resources, here are a few strategies to build or improve your manga section.

a. Star Power
Gather the hot titles that pull readers in. Characters such as Pikachu, Goku, and YuGi are magnets draw in the curious that you must convert into becoming loyal patrons. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon, but nearly impossible forecast the next hit or predict how long a star will shine.

b. Category
Some publishers have tried to redefine readers expectations by identify their titles into genres such as action and shojo (girl's comics). But manga subjects run the gamut from sports and cooking (Shaolin Soccer and Iron Wok Jan from Comics One) to metaphysical science-fiction (3x3 Eyes and Seraphic Feather from Dark Horse). So it pays to know your customers' tastes.

c. Age Group
Definitely the market has become younger, as opposed to the general comics market. But as the manga crowd stretches from elementary school to post-college adolescents, you need to segment your clientele accordingly. Older audiences can always peruse younger content, but be careful of what older material children have access to.

d. Tie-Ins
TV and cable have powerful influences, so track what shows are on local stations and the Cartoon Network's Toonami block. Mass media exposure is a big spur to manga sales, so you should be ready to satisfy demand for anime-related comics and books.

e. Quality
You should recommend classic titles to your customers to spur their passions. Ironically, one company representative recently lamented to me that publishers were becoming too risk averse. Even though there are more titles than ever, in general they were less distinguishable and provocative. In my next column, I'll suggest some titles to build your manga section around.

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.