Much like the overall BookExpo America, the annual book industry trade show held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, the comics and graphic novel presence at the show was smaller than in the past but comics exhibitors also projected a sense of stability and optimism about the future of the industry. Although civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis was the highlight of the weekend author breakfast—his much anticipated graphic biography, March Book One, will be released from Top Shelf in August—there was very little comics programming at BEA and key independent publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly were not in attendance. Nevertheless there were comics industry exhibitors spread throughout the exhibition hall and in conversations with PW they were equally upbeat about the value of BEA and several were looking to the future with expansion into nontraditional markets.

The show did feature a well-attended comics panel, The New Graphic Novel, held on one of the stages on the exhibition floor and featuring a trio of artists with new books coming in the fall: Faith Erin Hicks (The Last of Us, Dark Horse), Paul Pope (Battling Boy, First Second) and Gene Yang (Boxers and Saints, First Second). There was also a session focused on manga at IDPF 2013, an annual digital publishing conference held in conjunction with BEA, featuring a presentation by former Kodansha editor Yohei Sadoshima about Cork, his new manga literary and production agency, and a new e-commerce platform designed for his client, manga star Moyocco Anno.

As usual Diamond Book Distribution took over an aisle of the exhibition floor and filled it with client-publishers, among them, Image, Dark Horse, IDW, Oni, Top Shelf and Boom!. The Diamond booth also served as a hub for meetings with comics houses and vendors and signings. A Top Shelf signing for Rep. Lewis (and his coauthor Andrew Aydin) on Saturday drew a long and winding line of fans as well as video crews and media. Just standing in the aisle was a meeting in itself: PW was fortunate to be able to meet with Philippe Osterman, CEO of Dargaud, the great French comics publisher, at the Diamond booth and discuss current trends in the American graphic novel market.

Publishers exhibiting at this year’s BEA seemed happy with the show’s crowds and interest in their lists and some were quick to note the numbers of librarians as well as meetings with the key vendors and accounts. Terry Nantier, publisher of kids comics house Papercutz and sister company NBM, whose small booth was set up next to Macmillan, said BEA had “good crowds. We’ve been busy and there seem like there are more librarians this year, maybe even more librarians than booksellers.”

Papercutz was showing off a new Smurfs Anthology edition by Peyo as well as Benny Breakiron, Peyo’s Euro-superhero for kids, Nantier said, and now published for a U.S. audience for the first time. Papercutz’s 17 vol. Smurf’s series is very popular (the series averages sales of about 30,000 to 40,000 copies per volume) and Nantier said the anthology is a specialty edition, “for the fans,” produced in anticipation of a new Smurfs animated film that will be released this summer. Benny Breakiron is due out in September but Nantier said, pre-orders from late late year made it one of Papercutz’s top ten sellers of 2012. The house was also showing off its biggest sellers, among them, Ninjago and Geronimo Stilton, as well as the Smurfs, in additon to appearances artists Stan Goldberg (Nancy Drew) and Janet Jackson (Stardoll) at the booth.

Comics had a slot at IDPF 2013, the International Digital Publishing Forum’s annual event held the day before BEA begins. Yohei Sadoshima, former manga editor at Kodansha, presented an interesting but somewhat confusing new online platform that allows North American fans to buy selected works by Moyocco Anno, the bestselling mangaka and creator of such works as Sakuran, Sugar Sugar Rune and Happy Mania. Sadoshima left Kodansha to launch Cork, a literary agency and internet marketing company that is looking for ways to connect his authors—he also represents Chuya Koyama, creator of Space Brothers, a bestselling manga, movie and TV franchise and has worked with the most popular mangaka in Japan—directly to consumers.

Cork, he said, is not a publisher but he believes its mission is to work directly to connect its creator/authors with manga fans around the world and expand the market using digital technology. That expansion includes offering fans a way to buy content directly from artists like Anno (he outlined a Cork devised-venture that asks fans to send a text message to receive digital access to special content they can buy.) Admittedly the process seems a bit confusing, but he was very clear, asserting in a combination manifesto and challenge to the Japanese manga industry, that Cork planned to use “internet marketing” to create “a direct relationship between readers and creators.”

Among other manga publishers in attendance at BEA were Viz Media and Yen Press. Yen Press was showing off a comics adaptation of the bestselling novel Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel by Ransom Riggs with art by Cassandra Jean. Yen has acquired the license to Kingdom Hearts (A Yen spokesperson also highlighted Yen Press’ most recent efforts at simultaneous English and Japanese publishing with a special High School of the Dead digital release.) Though Viz did not exhibit, editor Beth Kawasaki and director of marketing and sales Kevin Hamric were walking the floor. Hamric told PW the publisher will be adding English language distribution into the Phillipines for Shueisha titles (Viz is also owned by two Japanese manga houses, Shueisha and Shogakakun). S&S, Viz’s distributor, is targeting the special sales market and talking to retailers like Uniqlo and Nordstrom, looking for “lots of new sales channels.”

Viz’s weekly digital anthology Shone Jump Alpha, released simultaneously in English and Japanese, is “definitely addressing digital piracy,” he said, emphasizing that Viz digital initiatives are not cannibalizing Viz print sales, but actually beginning to create a buy-digital-to-read and buy-print-to-collect culture among the fans. “Death of the Book my ass!” he said laughing and making his point. Viz library sales, Hamric said, “are spiking” (10% of Viz sales and “growing”) and Viz is returning to American Library Association convention in Chicago later this month as an exhibitor for the first time in 5 years. “We’re back at ALA and our dance card is full.”

The continuing success of comics for kids is definitely one of the strongest trends. At Boom! their first standalone Adventure Time graphic novel, Playing With Fire by Danielle Corsetto and Zack Sterling, has sold 20,000 copies in both comics and bookstore channels, according to Boom! Studio’s v-p of publishing and marketing, Filip Sablik. Their first Adventure Time collection has sold more than 100,000 copies, and the recently published third volume has orders of 300,000 copies. “Adventure Time’s success has helped us get into Walmart, Target and Scholastic book fairs,” Sablik told PW. “It’s become a phenomenon.”

Image Comics is also riding high with its perennial best seller The Walking Dead. Publisher Eric Stephenson said they have just launched their own Spanish language version of the book, which they will sell themselves. Image is also looking forward to the Image Expo, to he held July 2 in San Francisco, where it will offer its own mini Comic-Con with panels and announcements.

Dark Horse had a big push for The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker; this biography of Beatles manager Brian Epstein hits in the fall and has already been optioned for a film.

While literary comics standouts Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics Books weren’t on the floor, the Brooklyn-based indie house PictureBox was at the booth of art book distributor D.A.P. with an array of new books from Yuichi Yokohama and Frank Santoro. At the booth of book distribution vendor Consortium, retailer Tucker Stone was representing British publisher NoBrow, which is ramping up its already growing U.S. profile with plans to open a New York office. NoBrow’s brilliantly colored and printed books straddle the line between art books and comics, as does their Flying Eye kids line, led by Luke Pearson’s award-winning Hilda books.

What else is doing well? According to Dark Horse’s Michael Martens, books by female creators are getting a lot of interest as are video game tie ins. “We’ve finally figured out a way to do them right,” he said. One genre that may be declining is the graphic novel adaptation of the prose bestseller, although a few have done very well—and as mentioned above, Yen Press is going strong with theirs—there have been some big disappointments.

With e-books increasingly becoming the vehicle for quick reading, the appeal of the printed book as “beautiful objects” in themselves is helping them survive the so-called digital apocalypse. Most graphic novel publishers find that high production values payoff in sales.

Indeed publishers PW encountered at BEA were generally optimistic about the state of comics publishing and about opportunities for business—both hard deals and “relationship” meetings, as Boom! publisher Filip Sablik said to PW, to check in with important vendors like printers—at BEA. According to Diamond Book Distribution’s v-p, sales and marketing Kuo-Yu Liang, comics are among the areas that are growing in indie bookstores that carry them, and “they keep seeking us out.”

Regional bookstore chains such as Books-A-Million and Hastings are also increasing the floor space they give to graphic novels. Notoriously bullish on BEA, Liang was once again happy with the quality of business contacts during the show. “We were double and triple booked for meetings” he said, “graphic novel sales are up around the world and growing. It slowed down for a bit, but DBD never stopped growing, even when Borders failed.”

Books-A-Million and Hastings, are adding comics, graphic novels and pop culture merchandise to their inventory. Liang pointed to BAM’s 2nd& Charles stores, set up to seel used books and other recycled merchandise, and said they were stocked 50% with comic and graphic novels and that Hastings is adding pop culture store-within-stores offering traditional comic books, graphic novels, manga and collectibles.

“Discoverability remains an issue,” Liang said, “but consumer demand [for comics, graphic novels and pop culture merchandise] is growing. We just need to get out of the way give the fans what they want.”