Did you ever wonder how many copies a graphic novel could sell in the library system? I did, and figuring out what a graphic novel could do is a bit of a puzzle. Libraries are an up and coming market for graphic novels (or “graphic fiction” or reprint collections; go ahead and pick your terms of choice). In some ways, they’re a strange fit for the library process, since libraries heavily rely on reviews for selecting their stock and, on the whole, comic book publishers aren’t particularly famous for soliciting mainstream reviews.

Looking for actual numbers, I approached it from two different ways: distribution and catalog records.

On the distribution side, I spoke with Jamie Carter, the operations manager for Publisher’s Alley, a unit of the book distributor, Baker & Taylor which is concerned with analyzing book sales. Baker & Taylor is also acknowledged as the primary supplier of books to the library market. This means Jamie has a pretty good idea what sells in libraries. She also has that most elusive commodity, real numbers, and she presented some of them as part of a panel on library sales for various genres at this years BEA.

For instance, in April 2009, Baker & Taylor sold 12,791 paperback graphic novels into the library market. The top 15 titles averaged 511 copies each and the leading category for these top 15 books (with 5 ISBNs) was Juvenile Fiction/Manga. That probably won't come as a surprise to a lot of people.

On the hardcover side, Baker & Taylor sold 1274 graphic novels into the library market, with the top 15 averaging 60 copies each. The most popular category for the top 15 books (with 4 ISBNs) was Superheroes, filed under adult.

Jamie told me that the paperbacks skew towards the juvenile fiction section and the hardcovers skew towards adult. As you can see from the above, the paperback market dominates in drastic fashion with hardcovers only achieving 10% of paperback sales in April. Upon consideration, a certain logic would account for this. Who puts out the most hardcover graphic novels on a regular basis? Marvel. DC will occasionally pop in with an original graphic novel or an Absolute edition, but Marvel's tendency to follow a traditional publisher’s hardcover/ paperback rotation could account for the superhero dominance in hardcovers.

Jamie was also gracious enough to pull some actual library sales numbers for me. When you get into graphic novels that have a lot of copies on library shelves, Maus is one of the biggest names. The listing for the original 1986 Random House edition yielded 7497 copies sold through Baker & Taylor, a healthy amount.

Coming at the question of numbers from a slightly different angle is Kuo-Yu Liang, vp of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors. Kuo-Yu’s business is focused on graphic novels, and though he says the numbers vary widely, there are some trends. As a category, he finds 10% of graphic novels going into the public library market, with the school library market just starting to emerge, but doing so quickly. On the other hand, “A kids friendly title or an award-winner like Stinky from Toon Books can easily see library sales be anywhere from 50 - 90% of its [total] sales.”

The other numbers back this up. DC’s since-cancelled Blue Beetle series had two of its paperback collections named as part of YALSA's “2008 Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens.” Accordingly, Blue Beetle: Shellshocked, the first of the two collections named sold 955 copies into the library market, well above average. Marvel’s blockbuster mini-series Civil War was a big seller in comic book format; it also did very well as a collected edition in the direct market and even in book stores. Civil War sold 1011 copies into the library market.

If you want to gauge how far comics penetrate into libraries, there are two measurements: the number of libraries that have a copy and how many copies are in circulation. (I'm using library here roughly to mean a single system that might include several branches.) Figuring out the number of copies requires someone like Jamie pulling numbers, but finding out the approximate number of libraries with a particular graphic novel in stock merely requires a trip to WorldCat.org, a central database for libraries around the world. WorldCat figures for the number of libraries carrying any given book are available for search. The result isn't 100% accurate, but the service represents a good percentage of domestic libraries and gives a fairly accurate idea of any given title's penetration. Indeed, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you can even link through to the individual libraries and count up how many copies are in stock.

For example, I sifted through the records for the first volume of Y: The Last Man and here’s what I found:

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (Vol. 1) (298 libraries, 1 edition)

Chicago Public Library: 76 copies (but only 6 copies of Vol. 10)

Monroe County Public Library System (Bloomington, IN): 2 copies

St. Louis Public Library: 1 copy

St. Paul Public Library (MN): 6 copies

Toronto Public Library: 2 copies

Atlanta Fulton Public Library: 2 copies

Denver Public Library: 6 copies

Boise Public Library: 6 copies

Fullerton Public Library: 2 copies

Los Angeles Public Library: 23 copies

New York Public Library: 4 copies

Multnomah County Library (Portland, OR): 8 copies

The random sampling of larger metro areas gains 126 copies. While Chicago’s love for Y is staggering, it doesn’t appear too out of place for a larger library to stock 4-6 copies. Taken as a whole—and this is by no means a scientific measurement—a well-known book would have an average of 2-3 copies per library system. Another way to look at it is by comparing the number of libraries carrying a given title to the Baker & Taylor sales numbers. So:

Maus [2032 libraries, 26 editions] / 7497 copies = 3.69 copies/library

Civil War [309 libraries] / 1011 copies = 3.27 copies/library

Blue Beetle: Shellshocked [306 libraries] / 955 copies = 3.12 copies/library

So for estimation purposes, it seems reasonable to guess a popular graphic novel will average 3 copies per library.

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]