PW spoke with Tony Lutkus, president of Diamond Book Distributors, about the evolution of the graphic novel category over the last two decades, a few of the titles he's excited about dropping in the coming season, and how bringing more graphic titles into bookstores and libraries can subtly transform these literary environments.

Most people know Diamond as a book distributor in the comics market. If you had to sum up the company's mission in a few sentences, what would they be?

Diamond as a company has always been immersed in popular culture. From comics to graphic novels, art books, merchandise, and collectibles, it is what we live and breathe. The goal has always been to bring the passion and love of pop culture we have to all markets. To not only feed the needs of existing fans, but to bring new readers and fans to the medium of graphic novels.

There have been so many great graphic novels about different cultures and points of view, maybe starting with Persepolis. Now there are books from March to The Legend of Auntie Po to Family Style that give insights into both the larger picture of history and the smaller personal stories. What do you think makes graphic novels so good at telling these kinds of stories?

Unlike prose where a reader can conjure up in their mind their own version of how a character and their environment might look, what comics brings into play is a shared, artistic graphic experience. And much like the change from radio to film, looking at the visual representation of a story being told is a powerful tool. Art Spiegelman’s imagery in Maus where Jews were drawn as mice and Nazis as cats act as a reinforcing image and even a shortcut for what their roles were in this story deeply moving account of the Holocaust. The art allows the storyteller an entirely different set of tools to tell their story.

What place do Graphic Novels have in bookstores today?

From my perspective, as we start what seems to be a tumultuous 2024, now is the time to reinforce the role bookstores (and libraries) serve in our world. Bookstores stand for openness, inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity through the free and unhindered exchange of ideas that is literature. And literature of course includes graphic novels. I find it exciting to see not just how much the world of graphic novels is a reflection of the wider bookselling world, but how graphic novels can be an agent to broaden and expand that world. In other words, graphic novels offer a different and unique “literary” lens through which we can interpret our world.
My suggestion to booksellers is to see their graphic novel shelves as a powerful beacon to attract new readers that reinforces the diversity of voices and perspectives available in their stores.

How do you think graphic novels can help diversify what’s available in bookstores and libraries?

I would argue that the graphic novels section is the most diverse category in the store. Because comics can be used to tell both fiction or non-fiction stories for adults and children, there is something for everyone. The medium also crosses all genres and subjects, including fiction, science fiction, mystery, romance, fantasy, history, cooking, just to name a few. Because of the acceptance of graphic novels and manga in bookstores and libraries, in some ways having a section devoted to the medium completes a bookstores’ offering.

What are some of the books that you would recommend to an indie bookstore that is starting to get into graphic novels?

Nearly every category of nonfiction is represented in the Graphic Novel category. This coming season, three biographies in particular have caught my attention. We’re excited to have from Graphic Mundi Everything Eventually Connects, a poignant, deep, quirky, and very human series of autobiographical essays by the Australian Eisner award-winning artist Sarah Firth about how to find joy and compassion in a hypercomplex world. It’s adult and edgy!

The second one is I Run to Make My Heart Beat, an insightful and inspiring story by track and field athlete Rachel Khan about growing up in a multi-racial, multi-cultural family in France, and how she turned difference into personal strength. A truly inspiring story of resilience, tolerance, and athletics!

The third book is a beautifully crafted graphic novel from A Wave Blue World called Becoming Who We Are, a mosaic of nine real-life stories about and by trans people and how they overcame their unique challenges. It’s the perfect book to foster understanding and is meant for those looking for a truly human, open-hearted, and non-judgmental way to learn about gender fluidity for the first time. I am delighted that Becoming Who We Are is a 2024 ABA Indie Bookstore Day exclusive.

What makes graphic novel fiction distinctive in bookstores is that it has embraced the literary trends from beyond our shores, especially with manga. The graphic novel and manga category has spearheaded the integration of diverse, international stories and voices into our American bookselling bloodstream. With that being said, I want to mention two classic manga titles that are being offered for the first time in English. Her Frankenstein by Norikazu Kawashima is a pivotal work for the development of the horror genre in Japan, and is a psycho-horror tale acclaimed by manga horror master Junji Ito. It is a touching and very human retelling of the classic story, but with a twist. It is introduced and translated by the award-winning historian Ryan Holmberg, and is the inaugural volume of Living the Line’s new imprint of pulp, horror, and dark mystery manga called Smudge. The second manga is Tomorrow the Birds by the godfather of Manga, Osamu Tezuka from Ablaze. It’s a satirical eco-fantasy that lambasts our human history, pitting mankind against avians—but these avians have mastered fire!

The third graphic novel is from Difference Engine, a new partner based in Singapore. It’s called Work-Life Balance: Malevolent Managers and Folkloric Freelancers and is a fantastical tongue-in-cheek amalgam of Southeast Asian mythology and our very familiar, modern-day work culture. With alternating visual and prose storytelling, it is a contemporary tale about the collision of work and personal worlds, and the sacrifices we make when making a living. Work-Life Balance defies categorization.

The placement of titles in a bookstore is as much a science as it is an art. As a bookseller you’re always looking to drive discovery, but you need to balance this with the familiar; customers often go into a store looking for the familiar bestsellers. With this in mind, if you were a bookseller, how would you organize the graphic works in your store?

There needs to be a separation of books for kids and adults. If space permits, an adult graphic novel section can separate fiction and nonfiction. Beyond that it’s up to the store if they prefer to shelve the books by title or author. There are arguments for both approaches. And since this is a visual medium, having some titles face-out will help draw customers to the section.

Does Diamond have any special programs for working with libraries and schools?

Diamond offers BookShelf, its triannual magazine for librarians, educators, and booksellers. It provides an informative, inside look at highly anticipated graphic novels, books, and games. It includes interviews with creators and authors, as well as helpful reviews by fellow educators. Along with our publishers, Diamond also collaborates with librarians to create lesson plans for graphic novels and manga to help make them more accessible for programming in any community.

If a store or library is just starting to get into graphic novels, what are some of the most important things to keep in mind? Where can they go for more resources?

Like any new category that a bookstore or library might introduce, the most important is communicating to customers/patrons that they now carry these types of books. If you bring in cookbooks for the first time, you might want to have someone give a cooking demonstration. The same goes for graphic novels. If you’re starting a graphic novels section, you might want to find out the artists or writers in your area and bring them in to talk about the medium of comics. You could start a graphic novel book club. But you need to display the books prominently. Use newsletters as a tool to inform your customers about the new section.

Encourage staff to read them. If you have a fan already in your midst, use their knowledge to give recommendations to customers. If you want to go bigger, I’ve heard of libraries holding their own comic cons, complete with cosplay!

The staff at Diamond Book Distributors is a great source of knowledge. Combined, they have decades of experience with the medium. Independent bookstores can rely on the amazing commission reps we use to sell our books. Publishers are a great resource for supplying bookstores and libraries with materials to help promote their books, including posters, bookmarks, and digital assets.

Over the last 20 years, the popularity of comics and graphic novels—and the acceptance of them as a firm part of the literary landscape—has risen dramatically. With that being said, do you still see certain misperceptions about the category persist? If so, what are they?

The perception that comics are for kids has greatly diminished over the years since graphic novels became established in bookstores and libraries. Movements like Graphic Medicine have shown that the visual medium of comics can be used to not just entertain, but to teach. As a matter of fact Penn State University Press, used Graphic Medicine as a launching point for their new imprint Graphic Mundi. The new imprint, which is distributed by Diamond Books, has expanded to include social and political issues in their mix of graphic novels.

With graphic novels being nominated for and winning such prestigious literary awards like the Caldecott, Newberry, Prinz Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. There is more acceptance and I think respect for the medium than ever. Add to that the growing sales over the past twenty years, expanded availability in bookstores and libraries, and that comics have become a mainstay for Hollywood to mine for film and TV--there is more acceptance than ever of comics as a viable storytelling medium.

What can you share about new partnerships? How is Diamond Book Distributors preparing for the future?

Graphic novels and Manga stand at the core of our modern storytelling, and, as bookselling categories, attract new, young, and old readers alike. Our goal is to bring even more graphic novels, manga, role playing games, prose novels, and pop culture merchandise to booksellers. We’ve also been busy signing up new publishers to extend and bring even more diversity to our offerings. In the past year, Diamond Books has signed 16 new publishers. This includes new graphic novel startups like DSTLRY, Alien Books, Frank Miller Presents, Difference Engine, 50 AMP, and Gungnir as well as established indie publishers like Abstract Studios, Black Panel Press, Soaring Penguin Press, and Opus Comics. We’ve also added a new science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose publisher Apex Book Company.

DBD is also expanding our offering of role playing games, an area where we’ve seen significant growth, particularly around Paizo’s Pathfinder books. We recently added three new quality RPG publishers: Roll for Combat, Goodman Games, and LionWing. Of note, LionWing specializes in bringing Japanese, anime-themed games to American audiences. And we continue to look for and develop domestic and international distribution clients.