There's one big problem with comics in bookstores, said Robert Boyd of LPC, which distributes graphic novels from Marvel, Tokyo Pop, Oni Press, its own imprint, Olmstead Press, and others to the book trade. "There's not enough of them in there," he explained.

"That sounds pretty self-serving," he clarified, "but the returns rate for graphic novels is so low that we suspect stores aren't ordering enough to fulfill the demand." Returns for all the graphic novel lines LPC distributes average less than 10%; for Tokyo Pop, which publishes the insanely popular Sailor Moon series, it's under 5%. "On the one hand, that's great sell-through, but it also means that not enough stores are purchasing the books, and they're not purchasing enough. That indicates that if a store has a separate section for graphic novels, it probably isn't big enough," said Boyd.

Boyd noted that Marvel, notorious for letting even popular titles go out of print, has been changing its strategy for trade paperbacks, following the tremendous success of the X-Men movie tie-in books and a change in management. "The new regime there has picked 20 core titles and had them reprinted in Hong Kong, so they'll have a deep backlist," Boyd said. Marvel's Essentials books-thick, bargain-priced black-and-white reprints of several dozen comics from the '60s-are consistently strong sellers, and the house has just introduced Backpacks, smaller black-and-white paperbacks with a price point comparable to a YA novel.

The biggest Marvel initiative to watch for in 2001, though, will be the Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men books, coming out beginning in June. As a monthly serial, they've become hot items in the comics specialty market; in January, Ultimate Marvel is launching as a newsstand magazine distributed through Curtis; and Marvel's planning to give away a million comic books as promotion for the line, designed to be completely accessible to new, teenaged readers.

LPC, one of the largest distributors of graphic novels to the book trade, has just signed Image Comics, the third-largest comics publisher in the U.S. The company is also expecting great things from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell (Top Shelf), thanks to a forthcoming movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. And LPC's in-house imprint, Olmstead Press, will soon be publishing a collection of Howard (Stuck Rubber Baby) Cruse's Wendel comic strips.

The other heavyweight of GN distribution is Time Warner Books, which distributes graphic novels from DC Comics and its associated imprints Vertigo and WildStorm. But there are plenty of important small comics publishers, too, and they are handled by a small mob of distributors: Publishers Group West is distributing Viz (responsible for quite a few popular Japanese manga in translation), and Seven Hills distributes a favorite of comics critics, Fantagraphics Books. Greg Hatfield of Seven Hills noted that the distributor continues to expect great things from Dan Clowes's 1998 graphic novel Ghost World, thanks to the upcoming release of the book's film adaptation by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff. Fantagraphics will also be collecting Joe Sacco's acclaimed nonfiction work, Palestine, in a single volume, and launching a series of reprints of George Herriman's classic early-20th-century strip, Krazy Kat, in editions designed by Chris Ware, critically acclaimed author of the recently released Jimmy Corrigan (Pantheon).

What retailers may not know is that the comics specialty stores that are the meat-and-potatoes of the graphic-novel market often don't get their books through trade book distributors. They turn to the 30-year-old alternative comics mainstay, Last Gasp of San Francisco, which bills itself as "publisher and distributor of the arcane"; and the 800-pound gorilla of comics distribution, Diamond Comics, which sells everything on a nonreturnable basis, with relatively deep discounts for large orders. Diamond's best-selling titles are generally more straight superhero fare than art comics. In fact, more than 15 years after their initial publication, DC's The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore are, respectively, #6 and #7 on Diamond's list of bestselling backlist graphic novels. "We also sell to [bookstore] indies and chains, especially those looking for a larger selection," said Roger Fletcher of Diamond. And Diamond has also put together a graphic novel program for librarians and educators.

One thing that all the distributors agree on, though, is the importance of having bookstores display their graphic novels with an eye to their range of content and target audiences. "If you put them all in the humor section, you get serious guys like Joe Sacco right next to Dilbert and The Far Side, Hatfield said with a sigh. "As a category, it's really broad," Boyd agreed, "in the same way that audiobooks are really broad. They're not interchangeable."