Kids’ publishing folks, comic book enthusiasts, and members of the Children’s Book Council gathered at the CBC’s Manhattan headquarters on November 4, for a panel discussion on the changing market for children’s comics and graphic novels. The speakers were Gina Gagliano, publicist, First Second Books; Terence Irvins, assistant manager, comics and graphic novels buyer, Kinokuniya Bookstores of America Co.; Charles Kochman, editorial director, Abrams; and Tony Shenton, freelance sales professional. Calvin Reid, senior news editor at PW, moderated the conversation.

Reid first reflected on the ways that the comic book and graphic novel realm has grown and evolved far beyond just superheroes, particularly over the last 10 years: “It’s an amazing category now. It’s no longer a one-genre market,” he said. Reid credits kids’ graphic novels with playing a significant role in “expanding the vision” of the comics market in terms of what it sees as being commercial. He asked the panelists to discuss their own professional roles and to weigh in on what the market looked like when they entered the business compared to how it is today.

Gagliano described the origins of Macmillan’s First Second imprint, founded by Mark Siegel and John Sargent, who happened to meet one another at a wedding. Siegel grew up in France, where comic books are a very key part of the nation’s literary landscape, Gagliano explained. Siegel always “saw comics as an integral part of the market,” she said. Meanwhile, Sargent, who is CEO of Macmillan, was of a similar mind, acknowledging the potential for comics to dramatically expand their readership: “He saw comics as appealing to all types of audience,” including kids, young adults, and women, she said. The imprint went forward with the inclusive, driving message that “there should be comics for you.” Now, First Second is going strong, publishing around 1/3 of its books for kids, 1/3 for young adults, and 1/3 for adults, according to Gagliano.

Before joining Abrams, Kochman worked at Bantam Doubleday Dell and as an editor for DC Comics and for DC's Mad Magazine. During his early days with Abrams, he was cognizant of how important the first book he acquired would be in terms of helping to define his publishing sensibility and aesthetic. That book ended up being Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies, a graphic novel that he was “really passionate about,” and represented the type of property he hoped to publish going forward. He figured early on that, saying “I’m not gonna compete with superheroes,” instead seeking out books with “real world awareness.” Fast forward years later and he counts among his acquisitions the Diary of Wimpy Kid series. Though Jeff Kinney has risen to the status of a superstar author, Kochman noted how he met Jeff Kinney in the way he has met many other author-illustrators – face-to-face, and in this case, at Comic Con.

Shenton’s background includes managing Forbidden Planet, the comics, graphic novels, and merchandise store in Manhattan. Back in the days before the PC, Shenton found himself in a unique position – working as a comic shop sales rep. There were plenty of book trade reps back then, but there weren’t reps for comic shops, which instead functioned in a direct market manner that did not involve a middleman. Shenton described faxing copies of covers he acquired from small presses or self-publishers to stores, telling the shops that a comic or graphic novel was either “really cool or really wild if I didn’t understand it,” he joked. When the PC came along, that was a game-changer for his business, enabling him to promote authors and artists with more ease. Over the years, Shenton’s clientele grew to include around 100 content creators, including Robot Publishing, Young American Comics, Highwater Books, Dan Moynihan, Anders Nilsen, and others. “Retailers, for the most part, trusted me,” he said. They listened when he promoted such up-and-coming authors as Raina Telgemeier, whom he first encountered through her mini comics, and who stood out to him particularly because of the strength of her writing.

Though the comics world has become increasingly a part of the mainstream market, it remains a different kind of beast, with a reputation for being a bit “eccentric,” Reid noted. He asked the panelists to touch on how comics are being sold today vs. yesterday, and whether the “direct marketing” retail approach – comic book stores purchasing non-refundable books wholesale and selling them directly to an often highly devoted clientele – is still the mainstay of the comic book industry.

Comic stores are a small but still integral part of the comics business, the panelists agreed. There are pros and cons to the model, Shenton said. A comic book store will buy books wholesale and cannot return the books that don’t sell. This means that “if you know a title will sell, you can go bananas,” he said. But the selling power of most books isn’t a certainty. Despite some of its inherent challenges, Gagliano believes that “direct market has a lot going for it,” especially in terms of the way stores create a sense of community. In fact, Gagliano believes that it’s a model that “bookstores are trying to imitate” by creating environments for fandom to flourish. Comic book stores often have the same eager readers coming in every week to browse or to pick up new titles that they have been anticipating, she emphasized. Stores “can really evangelize those fans,” she said.

Irvins agreed that “bookstores can learn a lot from comic stores.” And as graphic novels and comics with more diverse appeal in terms of content and intended audience are being published, bookstores are increasingly integrating them into the rest of the merchandise. On the flip side, comic book stores are responding to a changing landscape, too, expanding the merchandise to meet demands of new comic book readers, including carving out spaces exclusively for children’s titles.

Irvins noted how comic book stores frequently “have specific sections for kids” these days and Shenton believes that kids today are looking for books with subject matter that extends “beyond superheroes.” He added that “kids can handle complex subject matter and don’t like being talked down to.” But with the broadening of material for sale in comic book shops, that doesn’t mean that they are phasing out periodicals, which have been the bread and butter for decades; diversifying the selection just requires, Shelton said, some “versatile shelving” on the part of brick-and-mortar stores.

For Irvins, periodicals continue to be a significant retail component. He sees that single issues continue to bring fans into the store as readily as graphic novels. “As someone undyingly devoted to comics,” Irvins can attest to how important they are to those who visit his store: “people are addicted to comics,” he said. His recent visits to comic book stores on the west coast, including Floating Planet in Portland, Ore., affirmed for Irvins how comic book stores continue to prosper, meeting the demands of an ever-voracious audience by selling a mixture of single issues and graphic novels.

Shenton also believes that there remains a place for periodicals in comic book stores – and not just for customers looking for the latest issues, but for savvy marketing purposes. For store owners, periodicals can provide a “cheap and easy introduction” for a reader to a particular series, illustrator, or artist, and can help retailers to test the waters to see if a particular series may sell. Irvins feels that graphic novels can also use a similar “sample” mentality to drive interest in a particular book. Having such samples or catalogues available for customers can help him determine what might be of interest to them.

As graphic novels are increasingly in demand in bookstores and are less often allocated to a separate sections of stores, in favor of being integrated and more prominently displayed, they are also becoming more readily accepted as serious literature in schools and libraries. “Librarians, across the board, embrace comics now,” said Kochman. Gagliano commented how frequently she now hears about parents seeking out comics or graphic novels for their child’s book report. To Irvins, whether the comics and graphic novels category is called “literature” or still occupies its own, distinctive genre, “people are accepting it,” he said.

The comic book market has traditionally relied on handselling, recommendations, and word-of-mouth to sell books: “It’s a hands-on process, a person-to-person process,” said Irvins. But the Internet and social media naturally play roles as well. Irvins meets many customers who have seen something online “and want to see it there’s a book,” he said. He believes that it’s a relief for readers to turn off a screen and head to a store to buy a physical copy of a comic or graphic novel. The Internet isn’t a threat to the success of bookselling, Irvins said, but can instead give readers a taste of something that they would like to see more of: “giving something for free doesn’t always hurt.” Kochman added, “There’s a better chance for a book if there is already familiarity.”

As comics are embraced by a wider audience of readers these days, Reid wondered whether the panelists see that staffers within the publishing industry itself are reading more graphic novels and comics. Kochman admits that there was a “challenge in the beginning,” because Abrams staff wasn’t familiar with comics. But as Abrams has its roots as an art publisher, he felt that this visual sensibility helped the staff to come on board with comics. Gagliano, meanwhile, describes the staff at First Second and Macmillan as being “dedicated to comics.” Having this dedication to the art form is paramount to Shenton, who makes the plea to publishers on behalf of retailers: “Please don’t sell us garbage. You can’t just publish anything as a graphic novel,” he said.

In conclusion, the panelists spoke about continuing to reach readers through a variety of retail outlets and networks, and seeking more diversity in comics and ever-more inclusive titles by established and up-and-coming authors and illustrators. “Go out and read more comics!” urged Reid.