Through an entirely random course of events I found myself recently at the graphic novel section at a large Barnes and Noble in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Having some time to kill, I got out my notebook and did a bit of observation.
Out of 54 shelves (grouped in units of 9 each), 2 tables, and three racks, how many superhero genre books do you think there were?
4 shelves and a 1/2 a table.
27 shelves -- 3 entire shelving units -- plus 3 racks and 1 & 1/2 tables were taken up by manga.
Manga dwarfed everything else, which was certainly not news. But to see traditional capes and cowls books so marginalized was shocking.
On to how the books racked on the shelves.
Most books were racked spine out. This meant that often, all a casual browser had to go on was that spine. This put the thinner trade paperbacks at a distinct disadvantage. A standard-sized trade often only had enough room for the logo. Thicker books -- like the Essentials/Showcase editions and books like The New Gods Omnibus -- racked far better, because the spines had room for art and interesting designs.
Both Marvel & DC's trade paperbacks -- as well as those of most of the independent superhero/genre publishers -- were also at a disadvantage for having regimented, standardized cover spines. Featuring the logo, then the title in a plain font -- and, often, a darker palette -- these books tended to "fade" out a bit on the shelves, looking like volumes of the same series rather than capturing the unique flavor of each title.
To be fair, this standardized system of trade paperback design probably works far better for the publishers' target audience, the direct market. In the direct market, seeing a big DC "swirl" or the Marvel logo tells one a lot about what they need to know. But I fear that to the non-comics fan, the comics neophyte, the innocent bystander -- many of these trades get overlooked.
There were exceptions to this. Vertigo's latest Sandman editions and Y The Last Man on Earth sported spines that were multi-colored and interesting. They stood out tremendously. Ditto for the design for the 52 trades, though the logo was nearly unreadable. Y and 52 also benefited from a liberal use of white on their spines, something Dave Sim has been doing for years with Cerebus and which works quite well. White "pops."
And as I said before, the thicker the spine, the more stand-out the book. The affordable Superman Our Worlds At War trade had enough room on the spine to sport an entire Ed McGuinness Superman on it -- and it paid off in convincing me to pick the volume off the shelf and look at it.
Marvel, meanwhile, seems to be cornering the market on high-end oversized formats, sporting several great hardcover editions. These books rack up great and look impressive. However, they may find themselves in odd places in the shelving units because of their size. And probably the best Marvel has to offer right now in the book department are their excellent Omnibus super-oversized editions. But how can these books be racked on traditional shelving? Many of the super-oversized volumes are racked horizontally -- as you might see in a library.
Some of the trade dresses & spines for other, smaller publishers were simply nondescript. While IDW's volumes for classic books like Grimjack were eye-catching, those for titles like Angel were too plain -- black with tiny white lettering on the spines. Same for Virgin Comics, whose trade paperbacks had dazzling covers but completely ignorable thin spines.
Compare this to the "alternative" indie-press books. They were all in different sizes and shapes. The standard "comic size" was but one choice. Cover design seemed to focus on the individual title rather than "branding" all the books uniformly.
And then there are those three shelving units of manga. Their nice, thick, squat format affords the publishers great leeway in design and the inclusion of art. Most books sported white spines with colorful logos and representative art. What you got was a joyous riot of books that fairly begged you to pick them up.
Another thing I noticed was the bookstore's priorities in stocking titles & especially multiple volumes. While the store was spotty in keeping superhero trade backlist recent, Vertigo & manga series were very well stocked. All the volumes of Y Last Man on Earth were stocked, for instance. But there was not one Wonder Woman trade paperback.
Lastly, I could not readily find any Minx titles in this section. But as I also didn't notice other teen non-manga books racked up, I have to wonder if they were not in the "teen" section of the store. How being racked up separately from the graphic novels impacts sales would be interesting to find out.
Based on my observations, I would make the following recommendations to publishers:
* Reprint more pages in each volume as to get a bigger book spine.
* Use more white in your cover designs, because white "pops" off the shelf
* Use more bright colors for your trade spines, and try to get art on them
* Look at shelved manga books and note the way their spines "pop" and invite the reader to look inside
* Provide bookstores special cardboard shelving/display for the oversize editions...or figure into the design of the books how they might look like shelved width-wise instead of length-wise.
* Superhero comics seem to be a relatively smaller chunk of the entire graphic novel selections for the standard bookstore. Does this mean that superheroes don't play well outside of the direct market? Or do they need to be marketed differently? I don't know the answer.