BEA: Thursday, part I (graphic novels)

So, the day started with my secret meeting, which I will get back to in 4 posts or so, when I write about my evening.

Then, I saw Ed Begley, Jr., who is very cool and inspirational. Next was the first panel of the day: “Buying, Merchandising, and Selling Graphic Novels 101.” (Booksellers: you can go to bookweb to download the handouts from any of the Day of Education stuff, and I highly recommend it for this session, because the notes are, awesomely, in graphic novel format.) The panelists were: John Shabelski (sales manager, Diamond Book Distributors), Scott McCloud (Making Comics), Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (graphic novel buyer at McNally Robinson, among other things); and it was led by Lisa Winn of ABA.

I took notes during the panel, and they are extensive as well as…well…very note-like. But I have posted them after the cut, after cleaning them up a bit, because there was so much great stuff said. This is sort of the order it was said in, but I’ve consolidated and summarized where it made sense to, because otherwise these notes barely made sense to me, and I wrote them.

First, I loved Art Speigelman’s definition of graphic novels: Comic books you can put a bookmark in.

John pointed out that in libraries, an adult HC fic novel will circulate once every 7 days; graphic novels circulate once a day. Other numbers that were batted about that prove the importance of getting graphic novels in your store: graphic novel retail sales increased 12% in 2007. In 2001, they sold $43 million; 2007, (including Canada): 410 million. Yeah, that’s some serious growth. Or, as John said a bit later, the number one reason to do it: “with brutal honesty: money.” He compared it to when rock n’ roll hit the music industry; kids/teens love it and are buying it regardless of the economy. Imagine, because it has actually happened, kids in a library shrieking about the opening of a box full of graphic novels!

Scott: “We often confuse the content with the format—the real story about comics is its diversity.” In other words, comics are an art form, NOT a genre. It’s all different, but all part of the same art form, but not necessarily the same audience: “it’s actually a medium with many genres in it.”

A lot of talk about manga, which I appreciated, because I am a comics fangrrrrl until the day I die, but I have never gotten into more than 2-3 manga series. Scott said that manga is the strongest sub-category: there is genuine excitement for the stories and content and form among fans (especially 12-15-yo girls, big manga market); they are attached to the characters. Great quote: “Manga is like the arrival of rap—the kids like it because you don’t like it.” Big sellers noted: Bleach, Fruits Basket, Death Note. Also note that manga is not, definitely not, just for kids–there is a great deal of adult manga that you do not not not want in JUV hands. So what does the manga-ignorant bookseller do? Well, first, be grateful that publishers are starting to do a good job of rating their books so you know where I book belongs. Second, a great suggestion from Scott and John: get someone in the store who loves it already to advise and help with buying, to “translate.” This will probably be a teenager, and they will probably be overjoyed to do it. Later John said: “Wherever a kid can get manga, they are going to buy it—65% of kids are buying online because it’s not in bookstores.” Bring it is, then get the word out to high schools (for example, put an ad in their school paper). You could also have book release party for your improved GN/manga section, an idea that I like a great deal. Along the translation lines, towards the end Jessica said about handselling graphic novels: you have to have a passion for it, and if you don’t, empower younger booksellers to do it; get some people in your store who love comics. Which is great advice.

Practical shelving and categorizing thoughts: I believe Jessica said she categorizes by manga, superheros, and indie comics, and Scott agreed that right now that’s a good way to go about it. As for the question what do you do if you have limited shelf space, bring in the first of everything, or all of a few series (because many manga have 50+ in a series!): Jessica suggested bring in the beginnings, and the ends, and then SPO the rest—for most series, it makes sense to have only a few and SPO whatever people need. And where do Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes etc go? Jessica: this is an ongoing fight at her store—could go either way, would prefer them altogether (often has to do with space constraints, and they are placed where there is room). Scott said he hopes they’re nearby, if not together—people do tend to have format in minds when they walk in the door, not content. In other words, people come in knowing they want sequential art, so it should be kept together as well as possible.

Now, you and I both know that graphic novels are *real books* but what do you say to parents who sneer and say, “No—I want a REAL book!” John says, it’s a challenge, you have to educate them in about 30 seconds; I’d hand them Mom’s Cancer or another *serious* graphic novel. Two other potential lines: “give your kids something they WANT to read, not what YOU want them to read” and from Jessica: “If it’s being reviewed in the NYT Book Review, I’d say it’s a book.” Scott pointed out that “often they’re just looking for validation that they’re a good parent,” something booksellers are well-trained in providing.

You can’t do a reading with graphic novels, but Jessica talked about how she does events with them; a slide show on projector works, as could do a storytime with kids’ comics, or a talk about art and process, or sheet of paper for artist (or customers) to sketch/work on (then you have a great souvenir after the event), or any combination of the above. Important note: definitely market these events to comics-related blogs. John pointed out that kids believe they can do this, and will jump in with artists right away.

Now, as a comics nerd, I found their speculation about rising trends to be the most interesting part. John said that the beginning reader category is beginning to open up and it is going to explode, which I find incredibly exciting. Jessica: With Toon Books (a new line), comics are being used as “reading teaching tools,” and students are learning to read in context. This is an intuitive way of teaching reading, and inspires creativity in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen as quickly with prose. Later they discussed how the educational market is a growing trend; graphic novels are already in colleges (Penn State apparently uses Fables, which is TOTALLY AWESOME BY THE WAY, in its creative writing program). This is now moving to high schools and elementary schools, as people becoming teachers now grew up with comics (I have, at HS book fairs, met several newish teachers who are super into graphic novels and manga and finding ways to use them in the classroom).

Scott talked about this interesting concept called the “metabolization of manga.” Kids who read it are coming of age and producing their own work, which is manga-influenced but it is NOT manga. Scott Pilgrim is a great example of this, in addition to being a completely awesome series in its own right. “Manga for all its power does not speak to the specific life of living in modern-day North America.” So we’re going to see new stuff—but what worries him is that this new work will have trouble finding a home on bookshelves, because it doesn’t fit in the sub-cats we have now. Keep an eye out, because all of this energy is coming back home, and it can keep 14-15-year-olds from “growing out” of sequential art. In other words, “we need bridges to adult literary comics, and they’re only half-built. Booksellers are either going to build that bridge or blow it up.” Now, I found this completely fascinating, and will definitely be keeping an eye out.

I had a question about potential competition with local comic stores, as we have a fabulous one a few blocks away and it has always kept me from pushing for a bigger graphic novel/manga section–don’t want to step on toes. But the panelists pointed out that they and we do not have much overlap in demographic, and I might actually be doing them a favor by turning my customers onto comics, because I would be creating new comics readers. So that is a point I will definitely be pondering. Also points back to something Jessica said early in the session, which is that her store sells more of the “literary” type comics, whereas comics stores sell much more superhero and weekly stuff.

One last trend Scott pointed out: webcomics are being printed in books now, and they are huge. (I can speak to this trend personally; I read 8 webcomics daily and support them financially a great deal.) It’s all been available online free for years, but people still wanted the book. What’s the larger trend here? On the bookshelf, genres grow slowly and predictably, but on the web, genres grow quickly and out of nowhere. Suddenly there is a readership in hundreds of thousands, and it works because there is no worry about shelf space being potentially wasted on artists you don’t know, titles you don’t know, or content that’s all new.

Phew! That was a LOT, o my lord. And that was just the first of four; we’re just getting started, my pets.

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