Many comics professionals regard the bookstore as the Promised Land - but is the promise all its cracked up to be? And if the bookstores aren't the answer to the industry's prayers, then what else is there?
28 April 2003

Let's talk about bookstores.

I've seen links to this story in a couple of places already this week, but it's worth flagging up. It's an article by Sara Nelson from last week's New York Observer (no longer available online). In the piece, Nelson argues that the reason why publishers don't release details of how many copies they've sold is because the book-reading audience is painfully small. While the film studios are happy to shout about their mammoth takings, the publishers would prefer to keep quiet about their more modest turnover.

What interests me about this is that the conventional wisdom for a while has been that bookstores offer a route out of the direct market ghetto and back into mainstream audiences. Up to a point, this is undoubtedly true. It's true because bookstores offer a different audience - it's not just the same people buying the same books in a different building. Bookstores have a more diverse audience and offer a greater opportunity to market to readers who wouldn't go into comic stores (i.e., 99% of the human race). And they allow comics which don't fit into the direct market's dominant genres, such as PALESTINE, an opportunity to be racked by genre alongside their natural cousins - not other comics, but similarly themed prose.

In short, the bookstore market offers a way out of the direct market's painfully narrow genre obsessions that is both easier and quicker than trying to reform the direct market. Rather than changing the direct market to serve a function it has no interest in, it takes comics to a different distribution channel where interest is higher. It's different, and for certain genres it's an improvement. But it is really all that much bigger?

According to Nelson, a book can stay in the US best-seller lists for a fortnight and only sell 30,000 copies. That's not a huge number, even by direct market standards. Of course, the counterargument is that, unlike periodicals, books are perennial sellers, so looking at the position over a couple of weeks isn't all that informative.

'Mainstream publishing isn't doing massive figures that dwarf direct market sales.' But then, the mass market paperback chart isn't exactly log-jammed with books that have been up there forever. The turnover of titles looks fairly high. Half of last week's Top 15 had been in the charts for two or three weeks. Only two had been there longer than ten - one was a diet book and the other was a John Grisham novel. The turnover in the trade paperback chart is more relaxed, admittedly, but one would assume that Nelson had the mass market charts in mind when she referred to best sellers.

And these, remember, are the top sellers. What really matters is the likely sales of the average comic. But the American sales charts are frustratingly unable to provide that information to us. The information is available within the industry, but publicly available data is largely uninformative.

For some reason, the UK charts are rather more informative. Neilson Bookscan's UK website remains cryptic, but relatively detailed information appears in the newspapers. The UK Top 40 for books shows a similarly rapid turnover; 29 of the titles appeared in the last two months. Only seven came out before the beginning of this year, and they're mainly massive runaway hits or freakishly unusual titles.

They include two novels by JK Rowling, one by John Grisham, a low-price pamphlet about the Eden Project, and that evergreen £1.49 classic THE HIGHWAY CODE. The top selling title shifted 33,000 copies last week; the number 40 book managed 4,851 with total sales to date of 38,793.

'A book can be a best seller for a fortnight and only sell 30,000 copies.' Of course, the US population is about five times the size of the UK's, and it's a different book market, but Nelson's figures sound more or less plausible. Mainstream publishing is bigger than the direct market but it's not like it's doing massive figures that dwarf sales in the direct market. It offers a different market and a different audience, something which manga has been particularly well placed to exploit.

But it must be questionable whether the bookstore market really offers non-superhero genres the potential to achieve sales all that much greater than the superheroes already manage in the direct market. That's still a huge improvement for those genres; but we have to keep a sense of perspective about the limitations of the bookstores. If you're looking to take comics back to the days of massive sales and true mass presence, the bookstores aren't going to do that on their own.

I'm reminded of a TV interview Grant Morrison gave a few years back. He argued that one of the great advantages to him of working in comics was that he got to tell stories to a larger audience. Even the lowest selling comics he had ever worked on, he said, had still had perfectly decent audiences by the standards of mainstream publishing. Writing a novel would be pointless by comparison. You might as well phone round all your friends and just tell them the story, he said.

Admittedly, comics sales were rather higher back then. And he can't have been all that serious about the pointlessness of prose, bearing in mind that he published a collection of short stories in 1998 and now has a novel in the works. But the basic point may still be valid.

So if you really want to rake in those huge audiences, where do you go?

The obvious answer is the newsstands. The catch is that the newsstands, as a general rule, haven't been remotely interested in comics for years, for perfectly understandable reasons. The monthly pamphlet format does not exactly represent the most profitable use of limited shelf space. When Marvel experimented with their 99c line a few years back, the newsstands wouldn't even carry them because the price point was so low - rather defeating the point.

'We have to keep a sense of perspective about the limitations of bookstores.' However - and you knew this was coming, I'm sure - the manga publishers have managed to get back onto the newsstand shelves with their anthology digest formats. They seem to have hit on the magic formula. Retailers like it enough to stock it. Readers accept them as value for money. And readers actually want the content.

For the major publishers, mimicking the format wouldn't be too tricky. More questionable is whether they have the content that readers would buy in that format. Manga seems to have slipped under the "Not interested in comics" radar by presenting itself, in part, as an extension of Japanese animation. It manages to present itself as distinct from the US publications, and not without justification.

If American publishers wanted to follow that lead, what would they put in the anthologies? Reprints of the entire X-Men or Superman lines? It's possible, but the perception of the digest as a second-rate reprint would be unavoidable without drastic action such as axing the parent books and actually converting the line outright into a digest. An interesting experiment that I'd like to see somebody try, but undoubtedly a risky one.

So perhaps the answer is something a little more diverse - a Vertigo-style anthology or a humour digest, perhaps. Vertigo commissions a reasonable volume of miniseries that don't sell all that well and then go on to recoup their costs in trade paperback. Why not try putting some of them in a newsstand digest instead of miniseries? Might work. You never know. And you can still put them in a trade paperback at the end of the day.

If American publishers who produce original material still have designs on recapturing the long lost mass market, then at some point there's going to have to be an attempt made to follow the lead of the manga anthologies. Of course, they don't have to go for the mainstream - book publishers are comfortable enough with their niche, and don't feel the need to try and reintroduce the serialised short story anthology as a major presence on the newsstands. Sticking to the direct market and the bookstores is another option, and probably a safer one. It depends how badly you want that mass audience back, and what level of risk is acceptable to get them.

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