With general attendance down, BookExpo America's return to Los Angeles was a bit of a mixed bag for traditional prose book publishers. But this year’s BEA still showed off the continuing growth and enthusiasm around comics and graphic novel publishing—despite the rumors swirling around Tokyopop’s restructuring, especially their decision to not exhibit at the San Diego Comic-con, the biggest and most influential comic convention of the year. [see accompanying story.]

Jeff Smith (l.) and Art Spiegelman

Diamond Book Distribution v-p marketing Kuo-Yu Liang said this year’s BEA was “absolutely fantastic for us. It’s been a great show.” He dismissed concerns about floor traffic, noting “I had meetings every half hour with the people I need to see.” Liang said he spoke with graphic novel buyers from Canadian retailer Indigo Chapters, Amazon.com and Buy.com as well as buyers for U.S. military bases—he even said it looked as though independent bookstores were finally getting on board after lagging behind the chains in embracing the category. “Traffic doesn’t matter if you’ve got appointments with the people you need to talk to,” said Liang.

Viz Media’s publicity director Evelyn Dubocq was much the same. She said there “was a steady stream of traffic at the Viz booth; lots of interest in Pokemon; and lots of librarians.” Dubocq said she was happy with the media coverage, “there was a lot of media and different media—a lot of TV people looking to do things later, rather than on the floor,” she said.

Nevetheless some publishers did complain about a lack of traffic as well as the lack of any real news announcements. And traditional book publishers, generally showing off their new comics projects and graphic novel imprints also seemed happy with the reception their projects were receiving. MacMillan’s First Second graphic novel imprint is publishing a graphic novel version of Prince of Persia, the bestselling videogame developed by Jordan Mechner, who was on hand to discuss what retailers and librarians need to know about videogames. Abrams’ down-to-earth superstar creator Jeff Kinney, creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, was on hand to sign at the Abrams booth and emcee an evening children’s dinner event. And this year’s BEA featured the first-ever graphic novel breakfast on Saturday—At BEA, early morning literary panels are a sign a book or a category's importance—and comics of all kinds were a significant presence on the show floor and throughout BEA programming.

Mike Mignola (l.) and Jeph Loeb

In fact, Saturday was officially dubbed “Graphic Novel Day,” and offered so many panels and workshops it was difficult for PWCW to keep up with the everything. The Saturday morning Graphic Novel breakfast—featuring Art Spiegelman, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and comics writer and Heroes producer Jeph Loeb—was sponsored by Diamond Comics Distriburors and sold out "to the surprise and pleasure of BEA," said Bone creator Jeff Smith, who moderated the 8 a.m. panel discussion/comics lovefest in front of an enthusiastic crowd of more than 200 early risers. Immediately following the breakfast panel was a lineup of panel discussions and programming focused on everything from comics distribution to kids comics, manga, emerging artists, film and TV and much more.

Cartoonists Kazu Kibuishi; Danica Novgorodoff, Neil Babra were featured on a panel on on Young Cartoonists (it was moderated by Gene Yang) and discussed their techniques and work process; while a panel on Hollywood and Comics focused on the problems facing comics properties with female leads. There was a panel on Sex in Comics as well as a panel examining the ways that graphic novels, videogames and the web have influenced young readers.

There wasn’t a lot of news announced during BEA, but publishers were talking up a number of forthcoming titles. Fantagraphics was showing off galleys of Blake Bell’s much anticipated Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and Love and Rockets: New Stories, an annual paperback original, due in the fall. It’s an L&R “throwback” collection, that features original super hero stories by Jaime and a series of short, typically unsual stories by Gilbert. Kazu Kibuishi was a big hit, doing drawings at the Scholastic/Graphix booth that were raffled away, while copies of his new graphic novel series Amulet were a hot giveaway item. Pantheon’s Art Speigelman was everywhere, signing lecturing and providing a guided tour (adults only!) to Breakdowns, the long awaited re-release of his early underground comix. And Pantheon was also handing out blads of David Heatley’s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, due out in September.

Manga Diversifies

Diversity was the theme amongst manga publishers at BookExpo America 2008. From attempts to lure in both younger (pre-teen) and older (post-teen and beyond) readers, to changing the formats in which manga is delivered, the industry as a whole is looking to maintain the strong readership that has driven years of rapid growth in the book market. These days manga publishers are trying a host of new initiatives—anthology magazines with nonjapanese artists, mooks and seekiing younger readers— that look increasingly like the system that made Japan's comic industry into multibillion market.

Jeremy Ross (l.) and Jim Pascoe (Undertown) at the Tokyopop booth

Viz Media's previous attempts at diversity have resulted in the creation of two imprints—Vizkids and Viz Signature—focusing on younger and older manga readers respectively. At BEA they supplemented these two lines with a handful of titles. Manga superpower Naruto will make its Vizkids debut with a series of chapter books adapted by Tracey West, who worked on Scholastic's series of Pokemon chapter books. Created to help promote literacy and promote positive messages from an early age, each 80 page chapter book features an adventure written by West accompanied by illustrations and maps from the ever growing world of Naruto.

Viz is targeting older readers with Solanin, its latest omnibus collection. The slice of life tale about a young couple coping with the boredom of the real world after college could be this year's Sexy Voice and Robo or Tekkon Kinkreet. Viz will also expand their Viz BIG line by adding shojo to the mix. Shojo hits Fushigi Yuugi and Hot Gimmick will return in omnibus format in 2009.

Manga newcomer Yen Press will debut their new anthology Yen+ later this summer. The magazine will be a flip book of sorts. Reading left to right are a handful of Japanese titles licensed from manga and video game publisher SquareEnix; flip the zine over and read left to right are Yen's original comics and a few new Korean titles. The plan is to build up a readership for mid-range titles with the support of anime hits like SoulEater and When They Cry. Yen has already changed the manga landscape with such works as their autism title, With the Light, anda series of 4-koma (4 panel gag comics) from Houbunsha.

Canadian publisher Udon and California manga publisher Broccoli Books are looking to expand their catalogs with new mook lines (book/magazine hybrids). Udon will launch Apple, an anthology of Korean visual art, this month. Sometimes referred to as the Korean Robot, Apple is 250 pages worth of full-color comics and graphic design from Korea's best creators. Apple's popularity in Korea is so high at the moment that the project, which started out as a seasonal deal, may soon become a monthly series. Broccoli's mook is not about manga, instead it focuses on cosplayers inspired by manga and anime. Broccoli's Cosmode USA will feature Japanese content, culled from the pages of Cosmode magazine, with original content collected by Broccoli's editors at the many North American anime and manga conventions.

Udon's expansion will not stop at mooks. The publisher known most for its work with CAPCOM and manhwa, will soon expand into Korean manhwa as well as children's manga. Udon expects Kai's 1520 to be their next big hit. The title was one of the runner's up for the First International Manga Awards, presented by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This Hong Kong fantasy title features strong art and a story that should appeal to shonen and shojo readers alike.

Japanese publisher Japanime continues to develop their Manga University line of manga inspired educational books with their latest release, Samurai Confidential. Drawn by a descendant of a real samurai hero, Samurai Confidential reveals the secrets behind many of manga's most famous samurai and ninja.

Distribution Panel
The panel on graphic novel distribution was easily one of the best of the day. It featured DC’s v-p of sales John Cunningham and Diamond Book Distribution v-p Kuo-Yu Liang; John DiBello of W.W. Norton and others. Cunningham delivered the most shockingly impressive statistic of the day. Using Bookscan to compare sales numbers, Cunningham said he found that in 2006, 11% of all trade paperback sales in the U.S. were graphic novels. “But you can bet that graphic novels were not 11% of the books shelved in most bookstores,” said Cunningham, citing the problem of getting more inventory into a dwindling amount of retail shelfspace. Liang emphasized that “every book is different, you need to be specific. What are you saying to each retailer?” There was general encouragement to publishers and to retailers to “educate their sales reps” about the category. “Find a fan at your distributor, find the comics advocates that are in-house," Liang said, encouraging them to find knowledgeable comics supporters that may be on staff.

The distribution panel was equally focused on general bookstores and on comics shops. Responding to complaints about special deals for general bookstores, Cunningham noted that the two retail channels have different terms of sales, “so promotions will be different. General bookstores get the dumps because the nonreturnable comics shop market gets a bigger discount.” Viz Media’s Gonzalo Ferreyra said that Viz's business with the direct market “was good, but could be better. We need to speak the language of trade books but also the language of indie stores and the direct market.” Indeed a comics shop retailer in the audience noted that “comics shops and independent bookstores are really brethren. We both need to know more about the different styles of retailing.”

Liang summed up the state of comics at this year’s BEA in this way. “We’re not here to convince people that they need to stock comics in their stores,” Liang said. “That train left the station a long time ago. We’re here to find out which comics you want and how many.”