Saturday, October 27, 2007

Marketing Analysis: Comics In The Bookstores

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.


  1. Hey, I live right near there.

    I'm a manager at a bookstore, & well, between the me & the other geeky guys, we have a not inconsiderable comic book section. So here is what I have to say:

    YES. Make more interesting spines. Thinner books do get lost, & there is no practical alternative to spine-out shelving. So keep those things in mind. The only thin comic that sells from our store is "The Courtyard" & that is only because I hand sell it.

    Standardizing hurts sometimes: all of the Marvel Civil War books are totally nondescript.

    We have more superhero stuff than manga. I don't know drek about manga, other than I like Fullmetal Alchemist. Why does manga trounce supers at that B&N? I'm guessing because Park Slope is saturated with comic book shops. Good. Screw you, Wal-mart of Books!

    Special display contrivances are usually more annoying than anything else. I don't know, just thought I'd mention.

    We hardly sell any prestige books. The new WWHulk is only going to sell if someone who works there buys it. Our comic book buyers are college kids; that is that. The Archives & ilk are purchased by the employees, as a rule. Ha.

    Yeah, though. Your thesis? That spines need more attention paid? True. Just...true. So many spines vanish. Do better!

  2. Manga is saturating the marketplace because it's cheap to buy and even cheaper to produce, as it's monochromatic reprint material published on paper you wouldn't wipe your backside with, with low-quality bindings, invariably poorly-translated and proof-read, and even the right-to-left reading method is retained not to preserve the original material's 'artistic integrity', but to save money on flipping the pages and translating FX captions - and considering it's little more than pushing two buttons in photoshop to horizontally-flip several hundred pages of comic, that gives you an idea of how cheap the average western manga publisher is.
    Compare the actual quality of manga volumes to their western (superhero) equivalents and you'll find a vast difference between them that's reflected in the price. Bookstores buy the cheaper manga books in bulk and kids can afford them a lot more readily than they can western-originated material, and they're helped further to sell these books in no small way by their attachment to vast franchises like Naruto.

    We're seeing not some sort of cultural revolution in how stories are told via the medium of funny pictures, but an explosion in comicbook fast-food - it's cheap, devoid of lasting value, and kids lap it up.

  3. This is going to degenerate into a manga=bad, superheroes=good thing, isn't it? Because Civil War could hardly be categorized as "fast-food", heavens no.

  4. I'm talking not of the quality of individual titles, but of the level of production applied across the industry - manga is not better or worse in and of itself (manga books ARE comic books after all), it's just that the quality of the western imprints are uniformly poor, and no amount of love for manga can disguise that.

    Also, you make either a very good or very bad example, because Civil War was fanboy bullshit of the worst kind.

  5. Well, sure, in terms of production quality, manga's fast-food, but so's the first 50-odd years of American comics. Comics have always been disposable reading for kids to lap up--is that a bad thing?

    Therefore, bringing the focus back to marketing, if you're shooting for an audience of kids with not a lot of discretionary money to spend, isn't 200+ pages on crappy newsprint a better value for the buck than a glossy color book with about half the content and almost twice the cost?

    And, you know, maybe the kids don't care that it's printed on crappy newsprint, because the perceived value is in the story and not its collectibility factor?

    Incidentally, I have no axe to grind in the manga vs. superheroes debate. Frankly, I'm tired of the arguments and won't be sucked into one. But I'm perfectly okay with the next generation of comics fans rejecting the current paradigm (in this country)and digging on stuff their parents don't want to read.

  6. I don't want this is be a manga vs. superhero fight, either...I'm just pointing out that at the Ye Olde Big Chain Bookstore, I observed much more manga than superheroes.

    And I think the point about the production values & paper stock cost is key.

  7. "in terms of production quality, manga's fast-food, but so's the first 50-odd years of American comics."

    The first 50-odd years of American comics were high-quality by the technological means of their time - the advent and relative ease of use of modern technology for the likes of digital coloring creates higher standards for modern books, added to which, we haven't had paper rationing imposed by the restrictions of two World Wars to force lower standards upon the industry in an effort to keep comics in production.
    Your best point is that it matters only if the kid who buys manga gets something out of it in terms of entertainment - but if cost prohibits that kid from buying a western-originated TPB and s/he is merely settling for what they can afford, the arguement once again becomes one of economics, rather than relative quality.

    Once again - because it's worth repeating - I don't have a problem with manga itself. That would be insane because I love comicbooks and 'manga' is just the Japanese term for comicbook. I'm merely levelling criticism at the production standards applied to the reproduction of that material for an arena other than it's domestic audience.
    But I also realise that it's those same low production standards that keep the overall cost for publishers, retailers and consumers down and make manga accessible in the first place. Catch 22, I suppose.

  8. But I don't understand what point you're making. You're saying it's more successful because they've found places to economize that don't seem to have occurred to the comics industry, and that they're making their money by targeting kids with disposable income and giving them an affordable, exciting product that uses cross-marketing with cartoons and other tie-ins to attract a vast, loyal readerbase.

    ...and this is a _bad_ thing? Sounds to me like American comic books should be taking a lesson from manga. Don't waste tons of money on slick, shiny paper, focus instead on getting your price points down to the area where kids (the former bread-and-butter of the industry) see comics as an attractive disposable form of entertainment. Then market like hell, distribute better, and watch the money come rolling in.

  9. I was in one of my local Borders stores today, and they've moved the Manga/Graphic Novel section right up front, right by the cash registers. (Manga takes up the first few shelves, the non-manga trades, the last one.) The sectional sign overhead just read "Manga."

    They've had more manga than trades for quite a while now, couple years at least, but they used to always be at the back of the sci fi/fantasy section. Maybe the move is in preparation for the Christmas shopping season.

  10. "Sounds to me like American comic books should be taking a lesson from manga."

    Manga fans supposedly hate superhero comics, though I don't see why, given the rich and varied manga superhero tradition stretching across six decades and incorporating such classic and disparate properties as Astro Boy, Cutey Honey, Sailor Moon and Kamen Rider.
    Manga-styled superhero comics made in the west just don't seem to sell very well - just ask Adam Warren.

    "But I don't understand what point you're making."

    That's why it's called Catch 22. :P

  11. I'm Mordicai's boss at said Brooklyn bookstore, and everything he says is true, although he leaves out one thing: digest-sized trades. We sell SO MUCH MORE Runaways and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane because of their size.

    One, they're cheaper. Investing $7.99 for a trade with four or five issues is a reasonable thing; far more reasonable than $14 or $15. Two, I think it says "book" to people less inclined to think they're buying "comics". And three, perhaps most importantly, is the merchandising aspect: they have a much better thickness to cover-width ratio, meaning if you've got four or five copies, hey, time to make a face-out. You can only say that for the very thickest standard-sized trades like Watchmen.

    ps - Mordicai get back to work.

  12. Also I think you have to know your customer's cashflow as well as their tastes. Prestige editions of stuff are neat, but the part of Brooklyn we're in--it ain't Park Slope--nothing that's that expensive sells, regardless of genre.

  13. Aaaaand thirdly, manga? I read about the supposed mangawave in PW and on the Beat and everywhere else, but it hasn't translated into sales here or at any of our sister stores. Our superhero books outsell manga by a pretty enormous margin. I think it's more a chain-store phenomenon than a a "neighborhood store" thing.

  14. You get back to work!

  15. Anyhow, the digests are a great value, & appeal to kids easy-peasy. Which means good sales for Spider-man <3s Mary Jane, which is good news in my book.

  16. Well, the Superhero buyers are most likely getting their books from DM stores.

    But everything else you said sounds about right. Colleen Doran mentioned she makes her A Distant Soil collections thick for this very reason. Thicker spines get noticed at bookstores.

  17. At our local B&N the manga does outnumber the "other stuff" (Superheroes, Indies, Vertigo, etc) but I've never been too troubled by it. Before the manga explosion happened, the Graphic Novel section was about two random shelves under the Sci-fi books. So this section got a huge boost by proxy.

  18. Anonymous11:38 AM

    The Borders by my house is even more extreme than the B&N. Borders has 8 or 9 shelving UNITS of manga. I think those have 4 shelves each. There are two units for all of the spandex and indies. The Minx books are in with the indies, not the manga. They've even separated out some of the OEL Tokyopop books that are less of what's considered traditional manga/anime style into the indie section. Ouch.

  19. Good post. I worked for Borders for 6 years and most of your observations are dead on. The manga guys and some of the indy guys know that the spine is everything. Marvel and DC don't have any idea how to sell anything and are clueless as to how books look on a bookstore shelf. They may not have any decision makers on staff that have ever been in a bookstore.

  20. Re: Minx

    In most Borders and Barnes & Nobles I've been to, Minx books tend to be stuck on the manga shelves and, occasionally, along with the indies.