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NY Comic-Con '09: Selling Good Graphic Novels (& Manga) in a Bad Economy - Pt.1

By February 11, 2009

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Thursday's ICV2 Graphic Novels Conference revealed flat or slowing growth for graphic novel sales in the U.S., largely pulled down by dismal fourth quarter sales for almost all segments of the retail business. Nevertheless, the assembled professionals in publishing, book retailing and distribution at Friday's graphic novels industry panel at New York Comic-Con 2009 entitled "Selling Good Graphic Novels in a Bad Economy" were cautiously upbeat about their plans for 2009.

The blockbuster success of The Dark Knight and the box office buzz surrounding the Watchmen movie has translated into huge sales for the graphic novels that inspired these films. Many publishing pros expressed hopes that new readers exposed to Watchmen would come back to the bookstore or comics shop for more graphic novels.

One upside to the tough economic conditions is that it has challenged publishers and retailers to seek out innovative ways to sell their books. In fact, several spoke of promising new markets for graphic novels, including digital distribution, emerging international markets, and catering to new audiences, beyond comic book shop regulars and teen manga fans.

A lot of interesting quotes and observations came out of this session, so I'll be breaking this report into two parts. Part 1 covers the pros' take on the current state of the industry, manga's slight dip in sales in 2008 and the Watchmen effect. Part 2 gets into publishers' plans to reach new markets, including graphic novels for kids, getting foothold in mainstream retail, and prospects for digital delivery.

Friday's panel was moderated by Calvin Reid, Senior News Editor of Publishers' Weekly Comics Week. Reid assembled a mix of pros from the publishing business, including: (above photo, L-R, with Reid at far right):

  • Stu Levy - CEO and Chief Creative Officer, TokyoPop
  • Kuo-Yu Liang - Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Diamond Book Distribution
  • Liza Coppola - Senior Vice President of Corporate Partnerships, VIZ Media
  • Jim Killen - Graphic Novels Buyer, Barnes & Noble
  • Judith Hansen - Hansen Literary Agency
  • John Cunningham - Vice President of Marketing, DC Comics
So what did these representatives from publishing, distribution and retailing have to say about the state of the graphic novel industry, and its future prospects in a bleak economy?

SALES ARE DOWN, BUT THE CREAM STILL RISES TO THE TOP
If you're looking at the graphic novel glass as half-full, then a 5% increase in year-over-year sales in a rough economic climate is actually not bad. But it's not exactly cause for celebration, and certainly not a reason to settle for complacency. All of the panelists tried to offer a sober assessment of their part of the economic equation.

Kuo Liang (Diamond Book Distribution): "If you look at overall numbers, my channels are down. Close to 10% down. If you take a closer look, some channels are up, some are down. Some publishers up, some are down. Some titles up, others down. To summarize, the traditional chain bookstores are down but Internet and library sales, Canada, UK are all up, some significantly."

Stuart Levy (TokyoPop): "It's certainly affecting all industries, except bankruptcy law (laughs) The mid-list is down the mid-list had previously boosted it a lot. So the high end titles haven't dropped much. And retail is the biggest challenge."

Jim Killen (Barnes & Noble): "From the gas crunch in the summer to the financial downturn later last year, foot traffic in the stores are down. That's evident for every retailer. Sales are off and that affects mostly the more marginal titles and the lower end of the mid-list."

"People are still buying Fruits Basket and Naruto. We saw a big boom from the Batman movies, Iron Man turned into an A-list character because of the movie and Watchmen is selling like crazy. It's not that people have stopped buying; they are making choices on what they decide to buy. The customer is still there, but it is affecting the lower portion of the titles that are out there."

Liza Coppola (VIZ Media): "If you have good books, an audience will find them. But it's much tougher out there. We have 11 volumes of Naruto coming out in 2-1/2 months, so we are looking at our titles more closely, knowing that the economy is the way it is. We're looking to put them in the right channels and making sure that the consumer knows where to find our books."

Judith Hansen (Hansen Literary Agency): "(As a literary agent,) I'm trying to sell books that will be sold two to three years from now, so my experience of the marketplace is different. Quality does sell, and it does sell for very good prices. As the market place was tanking last year, I did an eight-book deal, and got a great deal for the author. For our agency, we're doing well, but we're being very selective. Quality will continue to sell."

John Cunningham (DC Comics): "It's a Dickensian moment for DC Comics -- it's the best of times and the worst of times in many ways. Several significant events have helped us have one of the biggest years in the company's history. In 2008, we moved our distribution to Random House, and now we have reps actively selling our books into bookstores."

"The impact that Watchmen has had is significant. We sold over 300,000 copies in 2008, compared to 45, 000 copies in 2007, and 17,000 copies in 2006. (Watchmen) is perceived as the gateway book for graphic novels. We're trying to figure out how to ride this in the best way we can in a turbulent market."

"Non-manga graphic novel business was actually up last year. It's always been our estimation that we had room for growth to follow onto the beachhead established by manga, to reach that potential."

"On the upside, I see what comics people do differently than other readers they read graphic novels over and over again. When you ask people which prose books they've read over and over again, they often can't come up with an answer. This isn't true for comics. Maybe some people can read Catcher In the Rye over and over again, but that's the exception."

MANGA'S RAPID GROWTH HITS A SPEED BUMP - NOW WHAT?
According to ICV2's white paper that was presented at Thursday's Graphic Novel Conference, overall graphic novel sales were up by a relatively modest 5%, but when the numbers were sliced and diced, manga experienced a 9% drop when compared to the prior year's sales -- the first time in recent memory that the manga category has not continued its trend of enviable growth. So how are top manga publishers VIZ Media and TokyoPop responding to this change of climate? Moderator Reid addressed his question to Coppola and Levy: "What are you doing in this economy to manage what's happening in the marketplace?"

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "There are a lot of things we're looking at, like Shojo Beat. Girls who read shojo manga are much stronger fans, and those books have a devoted audience. We use magazines to promote it."

"We're excited by what's happening within the graphic novel category. We're hoping that the people who have picked up Watchmen will be interested in Vagabond or Monster, titles that we consider to be more literary manga. We are looking at that audience a little differently."

"But the days of scattershot decisions like, 'Let's get as much vampire manga, transgendered comedies, blah blah, etc. out there' are gone."

Stuart Levy (TokyoPop): We're in a little different situation than DC Comics and VIZ, in that we're not part of a billion dollar company. We're in different situation. We have to be very careful about the decisions we make, because the wrong one can put us out of business."

"We were putting out 40 books a month. Retail was not able to digest them, so we needed to adjust that. Even though we love all our books, but if there is less demand, then we have to put out less of them. We are approaching the business in a more boutique fashion."

James Killen (Barnes & Noble): "Basically, graphic novels, manga all rode an incredible wave for 10 years non-stop. But constant growth in any market is impossible. At a certain point you max out, and you stop growing and become a mature business. Still, I'm seeing sales increases every year. It's not the same level, but it's increasing nonetheless."

"Graphic novels have gotten to the point where it's a real publishing venture like everything else. Like in the history and science fiction categories, every title has to fight for shelf space. There has to be a reason for it being there. We ask, 'Who's the buyer for this book?' Shelf space is finite. For anything to be added, something has to go out. Graphic novels are a real mainstream business and everyone wants a part of it. But whether you're an independent bookstore or a chain it's a finite business. The graphic novel business has to fight for shelf space like everyone else."

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN? MOVIES INTRODUCE NEW READERS TO GRAPHIC NOVELS
In 2008, The Dark Knight was one of the top-grossing movies in the world, and guess which trailer was shown at each showing? Watchmen. DC Comics benefited the most from big screen buzz, as these two movies drove massive sales of Watchmen and Batman graphic novels by Allan Moore -- some that were originally published almost 20 years ago. But will new copies of Watchmen bought by a new or returning graphic novels readers inspire them to purchase more graphic novels? Hopes are high that Watchmen is a rising tide that will carry other comics with it to the top.

John Cunningham (DC): "We believe very strongly that these (new) readers of Watchmen will want more graphic novels, and we want to find these readers. This will be a shift of what traditional readers will want. If you argue that we're living in a more visual culture, then it would follow that people want visual entertainment."

"Hollywood is a culture marker, but there's no guarantee that the success of these books leads to success in other avenues. As a big corporate publisher working with another big publishing company, we still have to look outside of our usual ways of doing things."

"For example, at the end of last year, in the last week of December, Watchmen was a Top 5 trade paperback novel; not just graphic novel, a top 5 bestselling paperback book."

"We worked with Random House to pull a list of all the independent bookstores that didn't buy Watchmen and we sent each store a copy for free. We told them that they can put it out on their floor, with this condition: If it sells, then you must re-order it."

"I took three copies of Watchmen in to my local store in New Jersey who weren't carrying Watchmen. They sold all three and then they reordered it. In three years, there won't be a bookstore that won't have graphic novels in their selection."

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "Fox is releasing the Dragon Ball Evolution movie in April. We are seeing an uptick in sales with this title too. We have the tried and true manga, and now we have chapter books and puzzle books for Dragon Ball too. We want to open it up."

NEXT: Part 2 of Selling Good Graphic Novels in a Bad Economy, as the publishing pros talk about exploring new markets, tapping into the kids market and exploring the possibilities of digital publishing.

Image credit: © Deb Aoki, © Reed Exhibitions

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