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NY Comic-Con '09: Selling Good Graphic Novels (& Manga) in a Bad Economy - Pt.2

By February 11, 2009

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In Part 1 of this report on Friday's Publishers' Weekly Comic Week panel at New York Comic-Con 2009, "Selling Good Graphic Novels in a Bad Economy, publishing pros and industry leaders representing TokyoPop, VIZ Media, DC Comics, as well as a retailer and a literary agent talked about the effect that the slowing U.S. economy and the buzz surrounding the Watchmen movie has had on graphic novel sales. They also shared some of their thoughts on how they'll be adapting their approach in the coming year.

In Part 2, Kuo Liang from Diamond Book Distribution, Liza Coppola from VIZ Media, Stu Levy from TokyoPop, James Killen from Barnes and Noble, John Cunningham from DC Comics and Judith Hansen from Hansen Literary Agency talk about seeking new audiences for graphic novels, online piracy and emerging technologies in digital publishing, and survival strategies for publishers and retailers in the year to come.

With year-over-year sales slowing to flat or single-digit growth rates, the comics business can't afford to just wring their hands and whine. The professionals featured on this panel are asking themselves 'What can we do next?'

Kuo Liang (Diamond): "We're seeing emerging markets like Australia and Sweden – there's a pent-up demand. A lot of the international retailers are figuring out how to sell in these markets. We'll see more new channels. The infrastructure is just being set up. Last year in UK, we were up 35%, and our sales are up significantly in Japan and Germany. Everyone is doing this. Harper Collins, Simon & Shuster…."

Judith Hansen (Hansen Literary Agency): "There's real growth in the quality of children's literature in (the graphic novel) format. There's an effort to make more shelf space for these types of books."

"I see in my business more growth in this area. I see an example like American-Born Chinese (First Second), my client Gene Yang is found in Barnes and Noble, and you'll find it at children's literature at retail. Books that have that crossover are an area of growth in the industry."

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "We're trying to get as much education out there as possible about manga. We are losing kids (to video games and TV), and they're not reading. Graphic novels and manga is a great way to keep them into books. In fact, one of the most popular Get Caught Reading (literacy) posters features Naruto."

Moderator Calvin Reid then asked the panel about graphic novels for kids, and whether they see a trend toward growth in this market.

Kuo Liang (Diamond): "We think that this category will continue to grow. We see great potential here. We're working with publishers, and we're working with a lot of smaller publishers."

"Art trumps commerce and form sometimes. But we have to know how to work with kids books and how to reach librarians. We work with some publishers to repackage stories for kids' markets. We put these kids books in Walmart, Toys 'R' Us, K-Mart, and they just blow out the door."

"There's a lot of behind-the-scenes things happening. Retailers are trying to renegotiate terms. It can be very tricky. But I'm very bullish on this. There will be a shift on where we're selling them and how we're selling them."

Moderator Reid observed that "retailers are being cautious, they're buying less." He then turned to Killen and asked, "Jim, for smaller publishers, who don't have these big brands, what can they do to get your attention as a (buyer for a major bookstore chain)?"

Jim Killen (Barnes & Noble): "I look at publishers and ask, 'Do you have a website, and how robust is it?' and 'Do you have a MySpace page?' I'm a buyer, I take part in your promotions, but your book is as good as its content, and it's only as good as your marketing and outreach."

"I can buy and warehouse the book, and wait until the customer decides to buy it -- but what are you doing to drive the customer to buy this book, whether it's in my store, online or at a convention? What are you doing to connect the book with the customer?"

Then an audience member asked, "What kind of publicity can drive foot traffic for a book?"

Jim Killen (Barnes & Noble): "Doing events in store, building awareness. Sometimes it's just something as easy as a MySpace or Facebook page -- whatever it takes to get 10 people interested, because those 10 readers can turn into another 10 readers and so on. Sometimes the slightest awareness can drive a sales event."

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "We look at what our different retailers like. We go look at every retailer and see what kind of added value we can provide to them."

"We've launched VIZ Big (VIZ Media's omnibus editions), and we did that specifically for the library market. It's about being smarter about expanding brands, and working closer with our retailers."

John Cunningham (DC): "It's not like the direct market (comic book stores) has less of an impact, but we've had to learn how to work with other channels. I still think we're at a point where our exposure in the world does not equal our customers desire to connect with it."

"Amazon is a bigger percentage of our business than ever, because it's harder to find these books in the right spot. There isn't even a mini-chain that will help serve these under-represented markets (who aren't locally served by a major bookstore or comics shop)."

"In '09 and beyond, what's interesting is how many alternate markets that Random House is taking our books into. Target and Walmart doesn't want us unless we have a Watchmen-type product. We have to pick and choose our shots."

Another audience member asked, "What are you doing to help smaller businesses?" Every panelist on stage points at Liang.

Kuo Liang (Diamond): "One thing we've realized with working with small, local businesses is that it's very different for that market. Big stores like Costco are data-driven, and Barnes and Noble have knowledgeable buyers who are up on graphic novels. But small stores – data doesn't mean much to them. And their buyers may not know much about manga or comics."

We have educational programs to let these stores know that their customers want this stuff. You hit them with the emotional core – that if kids don't read manga or comics, they won't be future readers of other books.

Stuart Levy (TokyoPop): "If I were an independent retailer, I would take a different approach. I wouldn't be buying the top 10 bestselling titles. You could get that anywhere. You gotta be quirky, you gotta have something that makes you different. You have to build a reputation in your community for having content that's unique."

Comics, manga and graphic novel readers are a tech-savvy bunch. Like it or not, fans are finding ways to download and enjoy their favorite manga and comics through scanlations and torrent sites, all without paying a cent to the comics creators or publishers.

Online piracy has affected the entertainment business' bottom line for several years now. However, compared to movies and music industries, the comics biz still lacks a commercially viable digital distribution system that offers an appealing paper-free option for readers, creators and publishers. There are promising trends that may define a digital destiny for graphic novels, but will publishers find the 'killer app' before their profits get pecked away by piracy?

Stuart Levy (TokyoPop): "There are real issues with piracy where entire (manga) series are available for free online. Consumers are watching their budget, so when they can read something for free, of course they will do that. We have to provide value to make buying manga an important purchase."

"It's a serious issue. I've watched what happened in music, anime and movies and TV, and I've watched how all those industries dealt with it. I see al the American comics on torrent sites and streaming download sites. This affects text novels as well. I was able to obtain PDFs and audio books of Twilight online. There's content available for free now. Maybe people are still buying books – but it's tough to compete with this. Free is a great price. Recognizing that the issue exists is the first step."

An audience member then asked the Levy and the rest of the panel, "Will digital publishing and handheld digital reading devices like Amazon's Kindle change the graphic novel market?"

Stuart Levy (TokyoPop): "You have to remember that music is a huge market compared to comics. In publishing, you're talking about a small market that does not have a ubiquitous device. Raise your hand if you have an iPod." (many people in the audience do) "Now raise your hand if you have a Kindle or similar device." (only one person does)

"There's no device out there yet that has made reading in the digital form truly worthwhile. (Amazon's) Kindle is still very early, but it's not yet that killer app that everyone wants to buy."

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "We had a presentation at last year's San Diego Comic-Con as part of our booth. We had people from Sony there, and they showed us manga on a cell phone. Manga is different in that the panels don't always fit well in that smaller cell phone format.

"Very soon we'll see more of this, but it won't replace printed books for a while. However, it's something we are definitely looking into. Our parent company is already doing this in Japan."

Jim Killen (Barnes & Noble): "Look at the success of Megatokyo. I saw the first one when it came out from Dark Horse, looked at it, and said, 'Well, it's on the web. They can read it for free. Why would they want to buy it?' After I reordered it and reordered it, it turned into a phenomenon."

John Cunningham (DC): "Megatokyo disproves the "online is free / and free kills sales" theory.

Judith Hansen (Hansen Literary Agency): "I've had editors come to me to ask for content that they can just publish digitally, as the initial publication instead of a print hardcover or paperback. The printed books would be secondary, or like a souvenir. Or they're looking for a kids' book that is primarily digital, that could also have print versions for Scholastic Book Clubs."

"But publishers don't know what they're looking for. They just want digital. Do you add multimedia? Do you add animation?"

"I've been working /w a game developer to create something like a digital book, like a digital game, with more bells and whistles. This is an experiment, but we're actively looking into the possibilities."

"Publishers are looking for very high quality storytelling that they can present in a digital format. As long as the storytelling is excellent, as long as the art is good. Does the story or creator have a website? Has it been a webcomic? Those are the kinds of things that publishers are looking for. Has there been merchandise? Publishers are more interested in project like that."

"As far as subsidiary rights, there's great interest in animation based on these kind of properties, primarily in the kids arena, compared to teen or adult graphic novels."

John Cunningham (DC): "The effect of digital publishing is that it has a very low margin and very low print run. This will throw off the economics of 60% of the books sold in this market."

"Secondly, I agree with Stu that we're not there yet, but we'll get there a lot earlier than people think. Amazon has a device that combines a hardware and software platform. Do you think Apple will allow Amazon to have hegemony on this market? One of the big things that's talked about is a 7" x 9" iPod Touch that's in the works."

"Our core readership is edge-oriented; they're opinion leaders. If you can make color pages readable quickly on a device.... Magazines are looking for this too. We can't sit around and wait for it."

"Music and movies are much bigger industries and they have bigger budgets, bigger legal arms and they haven't been able to squash (illegal digital downloads). We need something way to convince people that it's worthwhile to pay for this. If we're doing to live digitally, we're going to have to figure this out quickly."


To wrap things up, Reid asked his panelists, "For 2009, which projects are you most excited about?"

Stu Levy (TokyoPop): "For us, the end of Fruits Basket is a really big deal. It's the number one bestselling shojo manga of all time – it's a big deal for us. We got more books by Takaya-sensei, including Tsubasa: Those With Wings, which is launching soon. We have more Princess Ai, more Bizenghast, and the Battlestar Galactica manga."

Jim Killen (Barnes & Noble): "I'm most interested in Battlestar Galactica and the new David Mazzuchelli book, Asterios Polyp. I've read the galley, and it's a fantastic book."

Liza Coppola (VIZ): "Naruto is growing up. With our Generation Ninja push this year, we're hoping that this audience will grow up with us, and that the younger readers will get into the (Naruto) chapter books."

"We also have Haikasoru, our new science fiction prose line from Japan."

John Cunningham (DC): "They announced a director for the Green Lantern movie, so we have a big Green Lantern series coming out soon. Some of the talk in Hollywood was if they do this right, it can be the next Dark Knight; but I think if they do this right, this can be your next Star Wars."

"This Fall, we're publishing our first prose novel – Peter and Max, which is set in the Fables universe. If you're a fan of Fables, there's a lot of back-story written in this story that hasn't been revealed before, and it has lots in there for new readers too. It will be lightly illustrated, but will not be an illustrated book."

Judith Hansen (Hansen Literary Agency): "Robert Crumb's Genesis will be out this fall. Amelia Rules will be coming out from Simon and Shuster, and the latest edition of Flight is coming out in July. Amulet 2 (by Flight editor Kazu Kibushi) will be out soon. We just sold the film rights to that last summer. And we just signed a two-book deal for Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, Zot!)."

Stick around for more reports and photos from New York Comic-Con 2009, including new releases from Yen Press, CMX Manga, VIZ Media and more.

Image credits: © Deb Aoki, © Reed Exhibitions, © FredArt Studios, © Natsuki Takaya


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