In both comics specialty stores--known as the direct market in the comics industry--and traditional bookstores, sales of graphic novels have been zooming upward over the past few years. The two types of stores have significantly different (but overlapping) customer bases, and they differ in one very significant way: comics specialty stores generally buy books, as well as monthly comics, on a nonreturnable basis. For the pricier book format, that often encourages retailers to order small quantities and restock frequently.

And they do a lot of restocking. Retailers and publishers agree that major graphic novel titles sell very steadily over time. DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz noted that sales of the company's most popular backlist books actually increase by about 10% a year, although he believes that that's partly because "we're not reaching that high a percentage of our total audience at the beginning."

Mark Herr, director of the purchasing department at Diamond Distribution--by far the biggest distributor to the direct market--reports a steady growth in graphic novel sales to comics specialty stores in the last three years--they're up 14% over last year. Diamond now stocks "easily five or 10 times" as many backlist comics trade paperbacks as it did a few years ago. Graphic novels currently make up about 20% of Diamond's business. DC Comics' publisher Paul Levitz said DC's direct-market book sales for this year will be up, "north of 30%."

The growth of graphic novels as a format is also changing the direct market's customer base. "Most comics shops would once tell you their customers spent $1,000 a year or nothing at all," Levitz said, referring to traditional comics periodicals. "Books are a comfortable format for somebody who's interested enough to spend $200--$300 a year on it. Presumably, that means a larger number of customers." And books have helped to give the direct market an alternative to the single-issue periodical-based speculator and collectibles mentality that caused the comics glut and crash of the early 1990s. Retailers are also quick to praise the way book format comics have steered the comics industry toward more literary values, as well as their relatively long shelf lives.

The bread and butter of comics stores' book sales are traditionally the superhero and fantasy titles from DC (whose backlist currently numbers about 700 titles) and Marvel (at least another 200), although some comics stores have gotten deeply enough into manga to do well with that category also. Other stores are going to more of a "bookstore" format and concentrating on literary graphic novels. Excalibur Books & Comics in Portland, Ore., specializes in selling back issues of monthly comics, but about 25% of its sales come from books (mostly superhero titles, although Dark Horse's Lone Wolf & Cub manga series is a consistent seller), and owner Peter Fagnant reports that that number has been climbing steadily for three years. Paul Tobin of Iowa City's Daydreams Comics estimates that 30% of his store's sales are from comics trade paperbacks (half of that from manga). "When I first started managing the store, about 10 years ago, it was 4% to 5%--and a lot of that was me buying stuff for myself!"

The book market's exclusive titles--like the paperback editions of some Marvel Masterworks books for Barnes & Noble--don't yet seem to agitate comics stores. "They increase awareness of comics,' Tobin told PW. "New customers at Barnes & Noble eventually means new customers for Daydreams." There are also some titles that are exclusive to comics stores, notably reprints of older material. Marvel Comics' manager of sales/administration, David Gabriel, cited the example of the recent paperback Essential Tomb of Dracula, collecting an early-1970s series: "It's almost sold out in comics shops, and it didn't even really get to bookstores--if we're just going to see them in returns, it's not worth it."

Levitz also noted that the in-depth knowledge that customers find at comics stores helps attract repeat sales. But bookstores that shelve their graphic novels with care (and take a very important tip from comics stores, which rack them face out whenever possible) can reap the same benefits. "Once you're seen as an expert in this field, that's going to help sales," Gabriel said. "It's so easy to do. Just categorize them carefully and create an intelligible environment."

$120M Projected for '03 Graphic Novel SalesThe Web site tracks the business side of the pop culture industry, and it's been charting the rise of the graphic-novel format over the past few years.
The site's executive producer, Milton Griepp, doesn't yet have final 2003 sales figures (the holiday season will have a major impact on sales), but, he noted, the market for book-format comics has been expanding dramatically for the past few years.
The site estimated the total graphic novel market at $75 million in 2001 ($43 million in comics stores; $32 million in bookstores), and at $100 million (evenly split between the two markets) in 2002. Its mid-2003 estimate for this year was $120 million ($65 million in bookstores; $55 million in comics stores--the first time bookstores have pulled ahead).
Griepp also pointed out that manga sells proportionately better in bookstores than in comics stores (although he cautioned that it's "not a simple picture"), and noted the growing trend toward titles available exclusively to the book market--although at this point, he said, "that adds up to less than 5% of the business--probably a lot less."