Although graphic novels have been gaining critical recognition, as well as sales, over a period of 15 years, many booksellers still have not made the plunge into starting a section in their stores, or if they have, it consists of half a shelf tucked into a back corner and unseen by most customers. This causes a lot of booksellers to claim that graphic novels don't sell. In fact, graphic novels boast remarkably low returns, turn faster than other segments and draw fiercely loyal customers.
"A good graphic novel section can set a retailer apart from a chain, and, for that matter, from other independent booksellers," noted Carson Hall, book buyer for Virgin Megastores, which are known for their comprehensive graphic novels sections. "On the whole, bookstores are pretty negligent when it comes to graphic novels. In all of the cities that I visit, it's rare that I find a bookstore, or even a comic book store, that does a good job with graphic novels. Don't they see that we're selling these books?"
Booksellers are increasingly getting the message. David Parizek, national buyer for the Follett chain of college bookstores, initiated a graphic novel section in 20 of the chain's stores last October after seeing how strikingly successful the section was in one of their stores. That store, the Savannah School of Art and Design, has one of the largest sequential art departments in the country. "I thought all our stores should have a section, but the stores teeter between wanting to appeal to undergraduates or to faculty and graduate students," said Parizek. "We've put more superheroes in stores that have strong science fiction sections, and we stock more independents in other stores, like our Sarah Lawrence store and Columbia College here in Chicago. It's really catching on, but it is sort of a slow process to develop a section."
Robert Boyd, of LPC Distribution, has one of the most convincing arguments for stocking graphic novels and doing it well. "What I really want is bookstores to realize how fast they sell through their stock of graphic novels, and add space," he told PW. "The returns rates are very low. Basically, they all sell. I can't understand why [booksellers] don't devote more space to them. Returns cost everyone money." He calculated that LPC's return rate for all graphic novels from all publishers was only 10%. Rick Klaw, a book buyer for BookPeople, one of the largest independent bookstores in Austin, Tex., agreed: "We aim for at least three turns. Graphic novels are well over that."
Virgin Megastores' Hall is so confident of his ability to sell graphic novels that he's willing to buy from distributors who sell on a nonreturnable basis in exchange for better discounts. "We carry as much of everything as possible," he said. "We buy from everybody. We buy from Diamond [the main distributor to the comic book industry; it sells solely on a nonreturnable basis]. We're willing to go nonreturnable, because we've really nurtured an audience. We don't have to worry that we'll be stuck with any of it. Everything sells. And with Diamond, we get DC Comics at 65% off. There are great discounts. We buy from LPC and direct from Fantagraphics, VIZ, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly. Sometimes we use Last Gasp. Graphic novels are a huge commitment. They're over 10% of our books."
LPC's Boyd attributes the low returns to an underserved public with a high interest in this type of work, combined with chronic under-ordering. Greg Hatfield of Seven Hills Distribution couldn't agree more. "Joe Sacco's book [Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-- 1995, Fantagraphics] was dramatically under-ordered," Hatfield said. "When it came out, he got major PR, and as that came in it translated into demand."
The graphic novel enthusiasts who are accustomed to the scarcity of good selections are remarkably loyal when they find an expansive graphic novel section and tend to spread the word, bringing many new customers into a bookstore. Hall has watched this take effect in Virgin Megastores. Having a good graphic novel section, he said, "has a cumulative effect with the customer. It's worth holding out and building a section up over time to develop customers. Graphic novel customers are very, very loyal. Even very good comics stores are not good at backlist ordering. You have to keep books in stock and not be discouraged that sales might initially be light. They will snowball, because these are absolutely repeat customers. If someone chances on a section in your store, they will return."
"Having a great graphic novel section draws traffic and gets you a reputation for having really cool stuff," John Davis of Koen Book Distributors told PW. "These customers are not only interested in comics and graphic novels, they're into densely textured literary stuff too. They are readers. And they're good customers to have. If they're not coming into your store, they're going somewhere else. If they see you've done a great job with this one section, they will buy all kinds of other stuff and will draw a lot of traffic to your store. If you build it, they will come."
As in any other section, customers can also be a great help in making sure a section is comprehensive and appealing. "You have to treat it like any other section," said Klaw. "If you don't have certain things, it looks bad. If you don't have To Kill a Mockingbird in your general fiction, it looks bad. If you don't have Watchmen in your graphic novels, it looks like you don't know what you're doing. You have to listen to customers and find out stuff like that."
While it's true that there are a few things that one must learn in order to create and maintain an effective graphic novel section, it is incorrect to assume that the section is impenetrable and for an arcane and mysterious subculture. In fact, the field of graphic novels overall mirrors the contents of an average bookstore, albeit with a larger proportion of science fiction and adventure stories. The issues that come up when creating and managing a graphic novel section turn out to be pretty much the same ones that apply to any other section: location, organization, education of employees and special displays.
Location, Location, Location
One of the first things a bookseller has to decide when starting a graphic novel section is simply where to put it. The diversity of material can be daunting, and preconceptions about what graphic novels consist of (i.e., superheroes or funny comic strips) can influence placement of the section to the detriment of sales. Customers simply won't be looking for Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon), a bleak look at three generations of men in a seemingly doomed family, in the science fiction section. Nor will they be looking for Star Wars stories in humor. Which is why graphic novels need their own section.
Graphic novels are distinguished first and foremost by the fact that they are visual, and if they're buried in the back of a store or on a top shelf, that fact isn't working to booksellers' advantage. "My main bit of advice is devote space to it, don't make it an adjunct to humor, or even worse, science fiction/fantasy," said Hall. "I can see where some books fit there--Alan Moore [author of Watchmen, From Hell, etc.], DC, Marvel--but it becomes the home for everything."
Of course, sometimes a bookstore's section isn't large enough to stand on its own, in which case, compromises are inevitable. Most generally lean toward filing the books in or near sections where there may be some crossover readers. Parizek has tried two strategies in his new sections: "We either try to appeal to art students by putting them by the art section, or in stores really strong in science fiction we shelve them by science fiction. Most stores just have a four-foot section. Getting in there was the first step. At this point, if they're willing to stock them, I'm not too worried about how they're merchandising them."
Organization of a graphic novel section can be problematic, especially to someone unfamiliar with the authors, publishers and franchise characters in the field. Since the section can be essentially a microcosm of an entire bookstore, with graphic novels about everything from critical theory to memoir to journalism to the more familiar heroic fantasy, the section itself should be subdivided. Decisions about how to shelve books are best made at the outset, when the books are ordered, but then allowed to change in response to the situation and customer base in a particular store.
However, there are clearly general principles, and they differ slightly from those in the prose book world. First of all, the graphic novel, like the prose novel, can be subdivided into genres. The largest and most useful of these genres are heroic fiction (superheroes and similar works), manga (either translations of or based on the model of Japanese comics), erotic comics and then everything else--in particular, literary fiction and nonfiction.
Some of the franchise books sell best when they're placed with prose works in the same series. "We don't keep Star Wars graphic novels in graphic novels, we keep them with the Star Wars books, and they sell really well there." said Klaw. "They didn't sell when we put them in graphic novels, so we moved them." In general, Klaw emphasized flexibility when it comes to shelving graphic novels. "We're willing to move anything. If The Simpsons didn't sell in humor, we would move them."
According to Boyd, one logical subdivision of manga is "comics based on TV cartoons [particularly Japanese anime]. These are generally aimed at young readers, so they can be put on lower shelves." As well, he pointed out, filing manga together makes sense, not because it's all the same, but because the books tend to be physically small, and thus more shelves can fit on a bay.
In general, Boyd said, "I would really like to see division by age-appropriateness: put kids' books in kids' sections. There are lots of anime books that are appropriate, like Pokémon and Funami. I would love to see that! For one thing, it would clear up space in the graphic novel section."
There are clearly many ways to take advantage of the different audiences for various genres of graphic novels to maximize prime display space. Klaw said, "Marvel is on the bottom shelf, because kids buy them. Robert Crumb is on the top, he has his own section."
Erotic comics, a very popular segment, are often filed in the erotica section. "We sell tons of Eros comics," said Hall. "Some stores have them with erotica, which is probably good. It makes more sense to cluster them together with the Taschen photo books and so on."
Making sure staff know where to shelve books can be difficult. "Ideally you've got an internal, computer-generated, bar-code sticker system that lists title, author, price, bar code and information on how to file it," said Hall. "Plan-o-gram" floor/shelf plans can be a great help as well.
Booksellers who are not familiar with the graphic novel market may be surprised by one thing: when they decide to start a section, they will often find an aficionado already on staff. That person can be invaluable in developing and tending to the section. "At just about every one of our stores I've found someone on staff who has some interest in comics," said Hall. "We capitalize on that." Klaw noted that one of his greatest advantages is a staff that reads graphic novels, and he characterizes Austin as "pro--graphic novels. It's not hard to hire knowledgeable staff. It's a natural thing."
"There are experts and people passionate about graphic novels in each store, though the section isn't necessary their responsibility. They e-mail me all the time with suggestions of stuff to pick up," said Brandy Vickers, a buyer at the Joseph-Beth chain, whose graphic novel sections are relatively new. "We have people in each store who are experts in different areas. In Lexington, there's a woman who's really knowledgeable about manga. She's constantly suggesting new titles to pick up, and I try to spread that knowledge around to the different stores."
She continued: "People are very enthusiastic about it; they're doing a lot of hand-selling and choosing graphic novels for staff picks." Klaw also endorsed the notion of using staff recommendations to sell graphic novels. "We do staff selections. Our staff can write mini-reviews and post them by books they like. In the graphic novel section, we've got a lot of them. The employee will say why you should read them. Staff selections will increase sales of anything by three to five times."
Special Displays and Promotions
It bears repeating that graphic novels, as a medium whose most immediate appeal and distinctive feature is that they're visual, have a more pressing need for display than some other segments. Hall strongly recommended taking display seriously: "Feature certain titles. Face-outs are important. It's such a visual medium that stacked displays are essential to developing new readers." And in a general bookstore, general fiction titles might be the best choice for a feature. "Akira would be an obvious choice, but I would steer them towards Jimmy Corrigan or David Boring. When Random House decides to issue graphic novels, they're not knocking on the X-Men's door, not Neil Gaiman's door, but Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman and Kim Deitch."
Vickers decided to feature their new graphic novel sections in chain-wide special display areas last fall. "We featured people like Joe Sacco and Ben Katchor. Customers really responded to it. We picked 10 to 12 titles, got multiple copies of each one and then the art department did phenomenal work--they used art from Craig Thompson's Good-bye, Chunky Rice and a great slogan. We highlighted the theme that if you like fiction, you'll like these. In stores where displays were in fiction, we did better. Of course, the ones in high traffic areas did really well too. The point was to get graphic novels outside of where they normally are."
BookPeople's Klaw, who is a graphic novel publisher himself (Mojo Press), has a very high level of enthusiasm for the form, and that has translated into other innovative ideas for his store. "We had the Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Chip Kidd signing here--250 people showed up," he told PW. "We have a signing room on the third floor, and the line snaked down to the first floor." Some of Hall's Virgin Megastores also hosted this signing tour, and he reported great success with it as well.
"We partnered with Austin Books, a local comic book store," said Klaw. "We split the advertising costs--which, because BookPeople buys regularly, were a lot lower than Austin Books could command. It was great publicity. Basically, they are not in competition with us. Austin Books sells individual [pamphlet] comics and action figures, which we never will. Obviously, they also sell all the graphic novels we sell, but there's a different audience. And in general, bookstores beget bookstores. Most book buyers go to more than one bookstore. More bookstores are better, so we're happy to help them out."
Klaw also features Austin-area cartoonists in the local author section: "If they're local and do graphic novels, they're in both sections. We split-shelve them. It helps a lot."
There are still kinks in the system as comic book publishers try to adapt their methods, developed for a specialty market, to booksellers' needs and expectations, though that, too, seems to be improving. Boyd pointed out that comics publishers need to consider a number of issues: "They need to have better spine labeling. If you have a franchise, you need to identify it with 'Spiderman' on the spine. Publishers need to be more proactive so that books get in displays, facings, top shelves. They should be prepared to pay for it."
Klaw was more frustrated by comics publishers' lack of understanding of bookstores' process: "They don't see the big picture; they're not ready to let things ferment, to wait to see if sales come through. Also, it's really hard to get readers' copies, which are necessary for ordering."
Nonetheless, it's clear that selling graphic novels has become a possibility, if not a necessity, for the majority of booksellers today.
Abel is a cartoonist and illustrator who has published two collections of comics short stories, Mirror, Window and Soundtrack. Currently she is working on a comics novel, La Perdida, to be published in serialized form by Fantagraphics Books starting in September. Visit www.artbabe.com.