Just back from a tour of International book fairs in Frankfurt and the Middle East, Kuo-Yu Liang, v-p, sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors, is upbeat about the graphic novel market at home and abroad. Despite a tough economy, overall declines in manga sales and the loss of Marvel Comics as a distribution client, Liang says DBD’s business is up for the year and he’s even more excited about the growing popularity of graphic novels around the world.

Diamond Book Distributors, the book trade division of Diamond Comics Distributors, the dominant distributor to the comics shop market, has about 60 distribution clients—Dark Horse, Oni Press, Netcomics, Top Shelf, Zenescope and Udon among them—and generates about $80 million in annual revenues. While the company specializes in distributing graphic novels into the general bookstore market, DBD also distributes a wide range of pop culture merchandise including board games and prose science fiction. Although Liang acknowledged that Marvel switched its distribution in August, taking the 500 titles it releases into the book trade to its new book trade distributer Hachette, he was optimistic and pointed to steady growth in DBD’s international business with new retail clients in Russia and Eastern Europe as well as growing demand from libraries looking for English-language graphic novels.

In an email interview with Liang, he said that while physical bookstore sales are down, graphic novel sales through foreign and domestic online retailers is growing fast. He noted that sales of children’s comics continues to grow; and that in the retail book markets in the U.K., Asia and even the Middle East, the demand for graphic novels is growing faster than they can be supplied. Indeed, Liang says we’ve entered “the golden age of selling graphic novels.”

PW Comics Week: We’ve seen ICv2’s sales numbers for 2009 and for the first 6 months on 2010—graphic novels down 20% and manga done 9%—and they don’t look good. What are you seeing at Diamond Book? Are your publishers seeing these kinds of sales declines?

Kuo-Yu Liang: DBD is seeing the exact opposite. Through early November 2010, DBD is up 10%, and that is with us only having Marvel for part of the year, so we were up even higher earlier in the year. We were up in 2009 too. In fact, in the 8 years history of DBD’s existence, we have never had a down year.

Breaking down some details. Cash-register sales are outpacing net purchases, meaning sell-through is up. In the U.S., the biggest growth is coming from online sales (Amazon, BN.com, Borders.com, Buy.com, Deepdiscount.com, Overstock.com, Bestbuy.com etc.) while bricks & mortars are generally down. Tough year in the library and school market, our customers are blaming it on budget cuts. Nice growth in mass market, in particular at Wal-Mart and Target. We launched a program at 50+ Hudson airport bookstores recently and that has contributed as well. We also run a successful monthly program at military bases, where we bundle graphic novels and comics together.

We had a huge year in Canada, not just because of Scott Pilgrim. We convinced the retail giant Indigo to make graphic novel an “official’’ category back in March, that immediately contributed to more shelf space and purchasing dollars. We continue to run the graphic novel page for Amazon Canada. We launched a graphic novel program at Wal-Mart Canada. We re-launched the graphic novel program at HMV (after a hiatus due to buyer vacancy). We are about to launch a graphic novel program with Indigo Online.

We also had a great year in the U.K. Some of that was due to us picking up distributing Tokyopop from Pan McMillan, but we would still be up even without Tokyopop. Online sales represent a large chunk of the growth with Amazon U.K., Play.com and Book Depository leading the charge. The U.K. is also seeing strong sales in the chains and libraries.

From a titles point of view, this year we were fortunate to have had many bestsellers, including Dark Horse’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer [by Joss Whedon] and [Janet Evanovich’s] Troublemakers series, IDW’s Witch & Wizard [by James Patterson] and Parker series [adapted by Darwyn Cooke], Image’s Walking Dead [by Robert Kirkman] and Oni Press’ Scott Pilgrim series [by Bryan Lee O’Malley] are but a few examples. Keep in mind we also distribute more than just graphic novels and manga, we had a huge year in speculative fiction, role-playing games, and board games are really picking up as well.

Now, I think the ICv2 numbers for the industry also needs to be put in perspective. The last two years we had Watchmen and the huge Naruto programs, it was going to be difficult to beat those numbers.

PWCW: At the same time as graphic novel sales appear to be declining, the New York Times Bestseller List has a range of comics from Y the Last Man and X’ed Out to The Outfit, that we would never have imagined being “bestsellers” in the trade book marketplace even a few years ago. What’s your take on comics in the book market right now?

KYL: I think we are entering the golden age of selling graphic novels. The demographics and the audience are both broadening. We are lucky that the core readers have stuck with us through the recession. We are finding new readers crossing over from literary, commercial, speculative and genre fiction. Non-fiction graphic novels are doing well. We’re getting more kids and parents (I’ll talk more about that later). I also think the growth of internet shopping has changed the game, because now it is easier than ever to find what you like to read, and get recommendation from fellow readers. The key is still good books. Without them, we don’t have an industry.

PWCW: Are there some sleeper titles that are selling well but perhaps not showing up on the bestseller lists?

KYL: Always. I don’t believe in the long tail, but I do believe in the 80/20 rule. Since there are thousands of titles available, that means you can easily look at the top 2—500 titles each week that are selling consistently. Titles like Dark Horse’s Mogworld, Udon’s Mega Man Megamix, Top Cow’s Witchblade and Top Shelf’s Complete Essex County, to name but a few examples.

PWCW: I know that the international marketplace is important to DBD. How was the Frankfurt Book Fair for comics; what were you featuring and what kind of business did you do there?

KYL: Three years ago I set out two goals for our company: to double our business with internet retailers every year, and to grow our international business to be at least half of our overall sales.

We’re not quite there yet on the international front, but getting close. Two factors are driving that growth. One is international internet retailers. We’re doing good business with them all over the world: retailers such as IBS in Italy, BOL in Netherlands, Kalahari in South Africa and Kyobo in South Korea for example. We are one of few (maybe the only one?) distributors in the world with a single person overseeing global marketing to Amazon’s in the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, China, U.K. and France. This strategy has paid off, as we’re doing gangbuster business with every one of them. Amazon Germany would be our 4th largest retailer in the U.S., for instance.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is not the only show we do, but it is an important show to see our customers from around the world. At this year’s show we made it a priority to reach out to new customers. As a result, we were able to open new accounts in Russia, Serbia, Latvia, Turkey and Romania to name a few examples. Other key shows for us to conduct international business includes BEA, London Book Fair, Gothenburg Book Fair, Beijing Book Fair and the Guadalajara Book Fair, where we’re planning to have an actor dress up as a zombie to promote Walking Dead. There are geeks all over the world.

PWCW: You also recently traveled on to the Middle East and moderated a panel on comics at the Sharjah International book fair. How was the Sharjah book fair and your panel and what kind of reception are western comics getting in the Middle East?

KYL: That was a very rewarding trip. I started focusing on the Middle-East market about 2 years ago, eyeing that 180 million people aged between 15 and 24. After some research, I decided on using United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the “hub’’ to reach the MENA region (Middle East North Africa), much the same way we currently use Singapore as the jumping point for Southeast Asia. The UAE is business friendly, cosmopolitan, educated, affluent and everybody speaks English (oh, and there are lots of bookstores).

The book fair was attended by 450,000 people, its aisles jammed with parents and kids pushing shopping carts stacked high with books. DBD had a booth selling books and it was always mobbed. Both western comics and manga are very popular in the Middle East. You go into a bookstore’s manga section and there is always a gaggle of Arab girls, dressed head to toe in Hijab, flipping through Cardcaptor Sakura or Black Butler. Every single boy I met was a fan of Clone Wars or Transformers, and everybody plays World of Warcraft. What I witnessed was insatiable demand, we just have to increase the supply.

PWCW: Are you talking with some of the new Arab/Muslim comics publishers like the Teshkeel Media Group, founded by Dr Naif and which is publishing The 99, comics based on Islamic superheroes, and Page Flip, a company creating The Gold Ring, a manga style comics series for the Islamic market. How do they figure in your business plans and can you tell me more about the proposed Abu Dhabi Comic-con, which sounds pretty amazing?

KYL: Dr Naïf’s The 99 project is already published through DC Comics. I met with Qais Sedqis, the creator of The Gold Ring, the world’s first OEL manga in Arabic. I’m going to try to help him get published in English, German, French and Japanese. I think that’s a very important book because it can serve as a platform to exchange culture ideas with young readers in a fun way. I’m hoping we can get more English books translated into Arabic as well.

I invited Chinese comics artist Yishan Li to do daily “how to draw ’’ workshops with kids at the book fair. It was so fun to watch little Arab kids drawing comics! The workshops were such as hit, the book fair’s organizers told me they want to expand on it next year. It would be great to see more talent come out of that region soon.

The Middle East Film & Comic Con (MEFCC) is going to be phenomenal. [MEFCC is scheduled for April 2011 in Abu Dhabi]. The Royal family of Abu Dhabi wants to be involved because the Sheikh’s kids are all fans of Star Wars, World of Warcraft and manga. I spoke to a reporter from Cairo who told me the buzz is unbelievable. In a region where they’re building a Louvre, a Guggenheim and NYU branches and a Formula One theme park, there has never been a comic con serving the 180 million people in the region between the ages of 15-24. The organizers are very realistic and they have a long term vision, but it wouldn’t shock me if was like New York Comic Con’s first year, when the fire marshal had to shut down the halls due to too many people.

I’m also talking to the organizers for Dubai’s Festival of Literatures. Their 2011 author list includes China Mieville, Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz. I’m going to work with my publishers and put together a list of graphic novels creators for 2012.

PWCW: What else are you seeing on the international front for comics in the U.K, Europe and Asia. I know a bunch of artists visited the Rio Comic-con recently, do you do business in South America at all?

KYL: We do solid business in Brazil, and we’re doing a push this year at the Guadalajara Book Fair. But, overall we can do a better job in South America, and I’ve asked Scott Hatfill, my director of international, to plan a trip to that region soon to drum up more business. The U.K. is a fabulous market for us, and an excellent base to push into Scandinavia, EU and Russia. Right now our biggest export markets are Southeast Asia, (Singapore, Malaysia, etc.), Japan, Scandinavia and the EU. China/Hong Kong/Taiwan and India are both growing incredibly fast. I was just in Beijing and I am going back in 2 weeks, and Scott will be going to India early next year. I’d like to see us do more in South Africa.

One of the fun parts of our job is to handle global launches. For example, the AMC show Walking Dead (based on Robert Kirkman’s bestselling zombie comics series from Image Comics) is being launched in 120 countries by FX International. I’ve been talking with FX daily the last few months to plan promotions for the graphic novels in markets all over the world. We’re looking to do the same for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer graphic novels from Dark Horse and the True Blood comics from IDW.

PWCW: Back to Manga: What do you make of the overall sales declines in the category? Are scanlations, fan generated translations posted online for free, primarily to blame or is there something else?

KYL: I’m not the right person to do a Squawk Box style explanation of why did the stocks go up or down. I just know manga sales are down across the world. The frustrating thing is that other aspects of Japanese pop-culture, like cosplay, are more popular than ever. I hope we’re just going through growing pains, and manga sales will make a strong comeback. Yes, I do believe piracy is a major, negative factor to sales.

PWCW: What’s your take on the Viz iPad App? Viz is the first U.S. manga publisher to offer a legal and fairly broad access to a wide variety of bestselling Japanese comics in English translation. Good start or too timid and limited?

KYL: I’m a believer in digital. I’ve preferred reading an e-book over a “real’’ book for over 10 years, so I’m excited about every new thing, including the Viz app. But, it doesn’t matter what I believe. Look at what’s happening to music, movies, newspapers, magazine and gaming. The future of reading is in the digital format, get used to it.

PWCW: After so many years of hearing that there aren’t enough Kids comics, thanks to publishers like NBM, Scholastic, Boom! Studios, LernerGraphic Universe and others, there seem to be a quite a few kids titles doing well in the book market, if not necessarily in the comics shop or direct market. Are kids comics a priority for DBD and do you expect that part of the market to continue grow?

KYL: When you walk into a bookstore what’s the biggest section? Kids and YA books. I’m always pushing my publishers to do more books for kids. It’s not easy; it’s a very crowded market with a ton of pricing pressure. But I believe one should go after the largest pie slice, besides, I like the idea of grooming future geeks.

PWCW: What do you think will be the biggest comics trend in 2011?

KYL: I have no idea. I hope the world’s economy will continue to recover so more people can afford to buy comics and manga. I hope creators and publishers all make lots of money. I hope we will see lots of great books in 2011, because without them, Diamond would have nothing to sell.