The view from the plateau

February 16, 2008

Brian Hibbs covers the 2007 BookScan graphic totals in the latest Tilting at Windmills column at Newsarama. The figures provide an interesting snapshot of the mainstream retail market (chain and independent bookstores, online vendors and some other outlets like Target) for graphic novels, and instinct tells me that they’re as good an overview as one can reasonably expect.

Some immediate questions and reactions:

  • It would be interesting to get a sense of the volume of graphic novels returned by outlets reporting to BookScan. That might provide a useful factor in measuring the overall health of the bookstore market. I have no idea how those numbers might be assessed, but returnability is always cited as a key difference between the general market and the Direct Market.
  • I agree with Hibbs that it would also be valuable to see who’s reporting now, and if the pool has grown since it was first identified. What kind of impact would WalMart have on the final numbers, if it isn’t already there?
  • I wonder if inflation in other areas (fuel prices, food, and so on) has caused a general hit in entertainment/recreation purchases that might account for the slower growth Hibbs notes. Or has the mainstream retail market established itself sufficiently that it’s reached a plateau? And what, if anything, can publishers of graphic novels do to reignite that sector?
  • Hibbs, a Direct Market retailer himself, emphasizes the apparent disparity in graphic novel sales growth in comic shops versus mainstream outlets:

    “What’s most curious about this to me is that the Direct Market is said to have had an 18% growth in 2007 in GN/TP sales – and the DM is a mature and very established marketplace, while the Bookstores really should still be in their ‘honeymoon’ phase with comics material, and should, in my opinion, be seeing greater growth. Obviously, I have no real information of the overall levels of growth in bookstores in general (doing a GN-driven report is difficult enough, thanks), so the book market may still be looking at this as excellent growth, but in relationship against the Direct Market, they’re growing at a significantly slower rate.”

    I’m deeply suspicious about the comparisons here, which seem less like apples and oranges than maybe grapes and beef. For one, I wonder about the plateau question earlier, and an associated question is whether the Direct Market is just investing more in graphic novels and trade paperbacks to compete with the bookstore market. One person’s “mature and very established marketplace” could easily be perceived as another person’s ocean liner… steady and seaworthy but incredibly slow to change direction. From my anecdotal observation, there do seem to be more specialty comic shops investing in the trade end of the market, but is that a response to their wider availability in other outlets or just a reflection of the fact that there’s much more of this kind of product than there used to be? Again, I don’t know, but I don’t think the 18% growth in the DM compares quite as simply to the 5.27% growth in the bookstore arena. (There are also questions of volume, selection, casual-versus-dedicated consumers, and tons of others that I haven’t thought of yet. And according to this source, graphic novel sales in the Direct Market where fairly static when comparing 2005 — $45.84 million – and 2006 — $48.45 million.)

    Manga numbers are intriguing. The number of placing volumes in the top 750 are identical for 2006 and 2007, and while nobody could complain about owning abut 77% of those slots, the relatively stagnant numbers of units sold, dollars earned, and properties represented is maybe troubling when you consider the volume of new titles that came out in 2007. (I wish I could find a source, but I swear I saw one that compared the number of volumes shipped between the two years.)

    It’s not surprising to me that Marvel and DC’s best-selling books in the mainstream retail market aren’t based on any of their super-hero properties, or that the best-selling book in the Direct Market was from that niche. As much as I might wish I could find every comic I wanted in every DM shop, specialization is an advantage when you’re competing with generalists.

    And really, Hibbs can’t be blamed for crowing about the apparent strength of GN sales in the DM:

    “And, as noted above, we’re virtually always selling more copies of ‘Western’ comics, often by factors of 3 to 5 times larger, with well below half of the number of venues that report to BookScan.”

    Still, I would find this argument more persuasive if there were better numbers from all quarters. The Direct Market sold $57.15 million worth of the top 100 graphic novels and trade paperbacks in 2007 (about a 15% growth from 2006), compared to $95.17 million worth of the top 750 graphic novels in venues that report to BookScan. I’d be very interested to see the numbers for the top 750 graphic novels distributed to comic shops via Diamond, because it would probably close the gap even more.