As graphic novels of all kinds make their way into the general bookstore market, issues of shelving and categorization have become more important. And with more literary works like Stitches, Fun Home and Asterios Polyp in the general bookstore marketplace—serious works of nonfiction/memoir and literary fiction—the question of just where a graphic book should be shelved has become a trickier proposition.

For many years comics were shelved with either art books or in the humor section of general bookstores. But the boom in comics publishing over the last 15 years has produced a diverse inventory of book format comics that now offer works of history, science, biography, current events, politics and more. Should serious award-winning works of memoir such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home be placed in the store’s “graphic novel” section, a sometimes generic one-size-fits all location showing up in more general bookstores. Or should these books be placed in a specific subject-section such as memoir/autobiography? What about works like Maus or Joe Sacco’s new book on Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza? Should these books be placed in Holocaust Studies or Middle Eastern Affairs—where they might attract new readers to the graphic novel category—or placed in the old reliable graphic novel section where typical comics fans are most likely to encounter it.

While this may not be an issue at comics shops, which attract knowledgeable comics readers, it’s an ongoing question for general book retailers looking to bring new readers to what may be a brand new section at their stores. Many cartoonists also question just where their books are shelved. Cartoonist Stan Mack is the creator of Cartoon Chronicles of America, a series of fictional comics works set in the American Revolution and other periods that are aimed at teen readers and supported by extensive historical research into the period. “I want my books to be shelved alongside Esther Forbes works [author of the classic Johnny Tremain Revolutionary War prose series for teens],” said Mack, “not super hero comics books.”

Barnes & Noble Union Sq.

In informal conversations with several general booksellers, PWCW discussed how they decide where to shelve some of their graphic novels—particularly works of serious nonfiction, biography and current events that may have a natural audience outside the graphic novel section—in an effort to maximize sales and appeal to new comics readers as well as knowledgeable comics fans.

Ask Jim Killen, graphic novel buyer at Barnes & Noble and based in New York City, where he places a book like Footnotes in Gaza and he’ll tell you “it all depends.” In an interview with Killen, he said at B&N shelving is “highly researched, but publishers usually have an idea where they think a book should go.” Indeed Killen says that B&N has long sought to move special graphics works out of the graphic novel section when it made sense. At B&N there’s a graphic novel section in the kids books area and Killen said the general graphic novel section is divided into manga, superheroes and fiction but that serious nonfiction comics works—like The Photographer, Stitches or Persepolis—are most often shelved with prose nonfiction. “It’s always been like that since the graphic novel category became much broader over the last few years,” said Killen. “The graphic novel section ceased to be a ghetto for all things comics a long time ago.”

General booksellers concerned about bringing attention to the graphic novel category must decide which is better—break a book out of the graphic novel section and into a specific noncomics category or keep it in the graphic novel section where most comics fans are likely to look. “Newbie graphic novel browsers will look to the graphic novel category and are unlikely to wander beyond,” Killen said. “The hard core graphic novel audience knows what they want and will go and get it or ask for it.” B&N also breaks its graphic novel section into subsections, “we’re pulling out books like Logicomix and Asterios Polyp, trying to highlight graphic novels aimed at the New Yorker reader. As the books get more nuanced our shelving becomes more nuanced,” Killen explained.

Killen said B&N also encourages “cross shelving and promotions”—shelving books in more than one section--but he emphasized that the decision to do that was “up to individual stores and depends on whether the stores have the manpower to pull it off.” Killen also noted that B&N stores use specially situated staff recommendation sections as well as face-out table display and special promotions. “A book may have a primary home,” said Killen, “but it can get extra space based on notoriety and demand.”

Powell's City of Books

Out on the West Coast, Gerry Donaghy, backlist inventory supervisor at Powell’s City of Books, a large independent general bookstore with three stores in the Portland, Or. area., said the decision on where to shelve specific graphic novels, “is a perpetually evolving question.” Donaghy said the store’s graphic novel section is generally where works from publishers such as DC/Vertigo, IDW, Marvel, Archie and most manga are placed. The graphic novel section also has subsections for superheroes, indie comix and self-published works.

Donaghy said that store does cross-shelve certain books in subject-specific sections. “We used to just keep everything in one place, but now we move things around. We do it with Joe Sacco’s Palestine; we do it with Maus and with The Photographer; these books are shelved with the graphic novels and in the nonfiction prose sections,” said Donaghy. But Donaghy said they while he can offer comics titles to other sections at the store, they don’t necessarily have to accept the book.

“The other sections sometimes pass,” said Donaghy. David Small’s Stitches, an acclaimed graphic memoir about the author’s dysfunctional family life that was also nominated for a National Book Award, was placed in the general graphic novel section as well as the biography section at the Portland store. Small is also an award winning kids illustrator—Stitches is his first graphic novel—so the book was also placed in the children’s literature section. On the other hand, Donaghy said the cooking section turned down Viz's food-manga series, Oshinbo, and the religion section at Powell's, “passed” on R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, which has turned into a national bestseller. “Now we can’t keep that book on the shelves,” he said, noting that sometimes graphic books just sell better in the general graphic novel section. “Persepolis and Fun Home both do better in the graphic novel section but we still move books into more specific sections as often as we can. “

Greenlight Bookstore

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, former graphic novel buyer at McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, is now the co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore, a new independent bookstore in Ft. Greene, Booklyn that offers a small but well-stocked graphic novel section. “People love the graphic novel format and tend to look at that section for graphic books first,” she said. But Bagnulo pointed to the dilemma facing booksellers over, “browsability and findability” when breaking a graphic novel out of the general graphic novel section. “Someone who loves Maus may like Spider-man but maybe not Primo Levy.”

“On the other hand, “ Bagnulo said, “some of the most creative graphic novels out now, like Asterios Polyp, are the most literary and might attract attention in a different category. It’s really a judgement call.” While Greenlight does not cross-shelve graphic novels because of the limited space, Bagnulo said she includes comics on the store’s face-out display tables at the front of the store and also on a separate “big face-out graphic novel display on the wall near the graphic novel section. With visual books we think it helps readers discover new works.”

The category has come a long way from the days of sticking all the comics—be it Maus, X-Men or Archie—in the humor section. Donaghy said Powell's plans to "expand face-out display of graphic novels and we're doubling the space allocated to graphic novels," and all of the retailers agreed that shelving is an ongoing store project as the graphic novel category continues to grow in genre-diversity, sophistication and general appeal. “We talk to customers and publishers and everything is continually tweaked,” said Killen about B&N shelving procedures. “We’ve changed and evolved along with the customer and the graphic novel category.”

[Photo of Greenlight Bookstore from Auk Wrecks and Ark Larks Blog]