Running out of ammo

August 5, 2009

The Motley Fool takes a look at the seemingly always-imperiled Borders Group and notes that graphic novels and young-adult literature are key to its survival gambit:

“Although comic books are probably considered a more male-oriented form of entertainment in the U.S., one Japanese publisher says women comprise 70% of the cellphone manga readers. (English-language manga has also become popular among women and girls in the U.S.)”

How is that last bit parenthetical? Seems like they’re burying their lead to me.


Amazon deforests

April 12, 2009

Remember how Amazon.com seemed marginally less provincial than some other big book vendors? Cherish those memories:

“Yes, it is true. Amazon admits they are indeed stripping the sales ranking indicators for what they deem to be ‘adult’ material. Of course they are being hypocritical because there is a multitude of ‘adult’ literature out there that is still being ranked – Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, come on! They are using categories THEY set up (gay and lesbian) to now target these books as somehow offensive.”

This open letter to Amazon from Booksquare sums it up nicely.

Update: Christopher Butcher points to this comprehensive post at Jezebel.

Update: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s blog shares a statement from Amazon admitting to a “ham-fisted cataloging error.”


Pre-mortem

March 25, 2009

Over at The Beat, Heidi MacDonald reports the latest rumors of Borders’ imminent demise, which has been imminent for, what, a year now? She asks readers to ponder a world without the big-box bookseller.

For me as a consumer, the impact would be minimal. As I think I’ve said, the closest proper Borders brick-and-mortar is over an hour’s drive away, and while I always enjoy shopping there, I never rely on it for things I simply must have. It’s an impulse-buy setting. And while this is purely anecdotal, every time I’ve headed out to a Borders, wherever I happen to be, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t pass at least one Barnes & Noble on the way.

Is Barnes & Noble better in terms of selection? No, certainly not when compared to Borders at its peak. (I haven’t been to a Borders lately, so I can neither confirm nor contradict reports that the chain’s stock is thinning.) But I don’t think I’ve ever ordered from Borders online, partly because I didn’t see any need to go through the extra layer when they were partnered with Amazon, so I never got in the habit or came to consider it as a worthwhile online vendor like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And I always found Borders’ discount program, reliant on the accumulation of points and narrow window to redeem rewards, inferior to Barnes & Noble’s, which is a flat discount with lots of coupons.

(At this point, I should probably mention something about WaldenBooks, but I haven’t been to the mall in about a year since I got new tires at Sears, so that’s no loss either. Are all malls kind of seedy and dilapidated at this point, or is it just the ones I’ve been to in the last two years or so?)

I hope it’s not just smart people who’ve developed an alternative strategy to Borders, because this has been a long time coming, and it may yet be a longer time coming. I swear I remember people talking about this in 2007, but maybe my memory is exaggerating. If anyone should be prepared, it’s Barnes & Noble, who should be poised to fill any market gaps Borders may leave behind. There were rumors that Barnes & Noble was actually considering buying Borders at one point, so if anyone is aware of the seriousness of Borders’ situation…

As for publishers, I never think it’s a good idea for them to be too dependent on one distribution outlet (cough… Diamond… cough). And the publishers I buy from most regularly generally aren’t dependent on one distribution outlet, so…

I would feel badly for anyone employed by Borders, obviously. But as a book shopper, it would be a fairly marginal loss for me.


Tidings, grim and otherwise

November 12, 2008

The New York Times casts its gaze on holiday sales prospects for bookstores. It’s sort of a hodgepodge of optimism and pessimism and everything in between, though this passage certainly casts a pall:

“Like many businesses across the retail sector, the publishing industry has been hit by a raft of doom and gloom in the past few weeks. Leonard S. Riggio, chairman and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, said in an internal memorandum predicting a dreadful holiday shopping season, as first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, that ‘never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.’”

It seems like there’s too much innate variability in book-buying patterns from consumer to consumer. Some view book purchases as bedrock, others cut that part of the budget first. And you know there’s no chance that anyone will consider a bailout for the publishing industry, because they just provide illumination and entertainment instead of grossly irresponsible financial products or gas-guzzling vehicles.

Speaking of the Times, I think they have the best web site in the news industry, so I’ll be very interested in what Vivian Schiller does with National Public Radio’s web presence when she leaves the Times to become NPR’s CEO. (In an indication of the current state of NPR’s web presence, I had to do a search to find the Schiller story, which struck me as weird.) If there’s a news organization that should have a good, free online resource, it’s NPR.


No birds were harmed in the writing of this post

July 17, 2008

Chris Butcher offers some excellent advice on nurturing the next phase of the manga industry:

“If you’ve got a store that believes in the material, and that keeps it in stock, not just makes it available for pre-order, then you can sell the material. In short, we have to invest in the industry we want, not just as retailers, but as journalists and pundits by covering the material we like, and as consumers by supporting the books we like with our dollars.

“That’s my prescription for the manga industry: let’s make the industry we want, do our best to convert fashion into function, and celebrate our successes where we find them rather than complain that we’re not quite successful enough.”

I’m all about combining errands, so here’s a possible way to kill two birds with one stone. (Sorry about the inherent animal cruelty of that phrase, but I haven’t had enough caffeine to recall a more benevolent alternative.) If you’re attending Comic-Con International and find some extra spending money in your pocket because you don’t feel like giving any to the Manchester Grand Hyatt, you could swing by the Fanfare/Ponent Mon booth (C04) and buy some of their lovely, lovely books. As Deb Aoki noted, Fanfare’s distribution system with Atlas isn’t quite 100% yet, so SDCC is probably your best chance to browse the publisher’s catalogue, gape in wonder at books like The Walking Man, Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, and Kinderbook, and to pick up a copy of Hideo Azuma’s nothing-else-like-it Disappearance Diary (which I reviewed here).

Now, as for “supporting the books we like with our dollars,” Brigid Alverson works in an excellent way to do that in a recent post at MangaBlog: ordering titles via your local bookstore, especially if they’re books that might not otherwise get shelved. This strikes me as a great way to put offbeat titles on a store’s radar, and I’ve heard from various people that many stores will order a couple of shelf copies of a title when they get a special order. Also, you don’t have to worry about potentially climbing shipping costs from online retailers, though you still have to pay for gas to get to the local big box.

At Comics Should Be Good, Danielle Leigh gives a fine example of “covering the material we like” with her latest Manga Before Flowers column on CMX, DC’s stealth manga division:

“But CMX made me a fan for life by bringing over really extraordinary titles that no one else ever has and published them on a very consistent schedule over the past few years (Even though three of four volumes of Eroica a year isn’t a lot, it is enough to make me happy).”


Full frontal

May 17, 2008

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the graphic novel section at the local Barnes & Noble. Not too long ago, it cut the space for the game guides in half, giving manga another bank of shelves. (It has four of the eight.) Now, one of the graphic novel banks has been converted to a face-out display with a big “DC Comics” header.

It displayed nothing but trades of DC’s super-hero properties, which struck me as a little odd considering how well some Vertigo books do in bookstores and how much they’d apparently like some of their other imprints to do well there. That seems like an impressive investment on DC’s part. I wonder if Barnes & Noble tried anything resembling a bidding war among publishers in offering that kind of real estate.

Has anyone else seen a DC-centric shelf bank at a Barnes & Noble?


Publish and/or perish

April 4, 2008

Writing for The Star-Ledger, Beth Fitzgerald takes a look at the precarious state of Borders. What makes this piece particularly interesting to me is the initial emphasis on customer reaction to the prospect of losing their chain of choice.

Writing for The New York Times, Motoko Rich reports on an effort by HarperCollins to trim the fat. Launching a new imprint, they hope to trade big advances for profit sharing and (even more interesting for people who follow the ins and outs of the Direct Market) eliminating returnability of unsold product:

“Under standard practices, booksellers can return unsold books, saddling publishers with the high costs of shipping and pulping copies. Mr. [Robert S.] Miller [former founding publisher of Hyperion and new HarperColins hire] said the publishers could share with authors any savings from eliminating returns. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble declined to comment on HarperCollins’ plans.”


Travelogue

March 31, 2008

I went to Columbus to visit relatives over the weekend. As usual, I had a delightful shopping experience at The Laughing Ogre – good selection, friendly staff, etc. While wandering around the city, I happened upon two other comic shops that weren’t open during their posted hours. It was pure chance that I stumbled upon either store, so I’m not outraged or anything, but it did strike me as an odd and not at all encouraging trend. I’m just saying.

I also did an informal Barnes & Nobel/Borders compare-and-contrast. The Columbus Borders reinforced my perception that they have a better selection of comics and graphic novels. Again, if Barnes & Noble takes over Borders, I hope they let Borders set the course for graphic novels and manga. I tend to pre-order anything that I suspect won’t ever show up in a Barnes & Noble, but the last thing anyone needs is a smaller number of outlets that will carry interesting graphic novels. Just ask Dark Horse.

Also, this struck me as kind of depressing. There once was a funky, interesting neighborhood called The Short North in Columbus (think Dupont Circle in Washington) that seems to be kind of a victim of its own success (as is Dupont Circle, which has too many pricey shoe stores to be funky and interesting any more). It’s kind of gone mall, if you know what I mean. The great gay bookstore that was there forever has been shoved several blocks north of its former neighborhood.


Mergers and acquisitions

March 26, 2008

There’s so much food for thought today.

  • I agree with Tom Spurgeon that the notion of an unholy alliance between Borders and Barnes & Noble is not displeasing. There are significant differences between the two chains that I wouldn’t like to see lost, though. I wouldn’t want to see Borders follow suit with Barnes and Noble’s approach to graphic novel buying. I’d much rather see Barnes & Noble’s offerings expand than Borders get trimmed.
  • I could be wrong, but when a key part of a comic publisher’s marketing strategy seems to be the plugging of unsanctioned leaks of future plot developments, there’s a problem.
  • That said, I would probably favor Marvel’s Secret Invasion over DC’s Crisis thing if I were still reading American super-hero comics. Of course, the fact that Secret Invasion is being written by the person who made most of my favorite Marvel characters unrecognizable to me in the first place would probably mute my enthusiasm, as opposed to if it were someone else cleaning up after that person. That whiff of apologetic desperation would be as irresistible as sautéing onions. (I couldn’t stop myself from taking a look at the preview pages at Entertainment Weekly, and wow, some of that dialogue is hilariously awful.)
  • Okay, speaking of that hilariously awful dialogue, Luke Cage’s “Hey, man, I need a solid, ASAP” prompted a friend to wonder if I wasn’t quoting slash fiction. I am deeply disappointed that there don’t seem to be entire sites devoted to Power Man/Iron Fist slash, but maybe it’s too easy.
  • Steve Bennett’s ICv2 column on Marvel’s and DC’s reluctance to embrace a manga aesthetic (and Direct Market retailers’ varied willingness to stock the product at all) is interesting, but I think it overstates things a bit. I agree that Marvel and DC show a bunker mentality with regards to their franchises, but I think Marvel’s project with Del Rey for a separate line of manga-style X-Men treatments is a promising model for the kind of product Bennett is talking about. I think a lot of the Marvel’s and DC’s existing audience would scoff or howl at the strategic introduction of a perceived manga aesthetic to the product they buy with such regularity, and I’m unconvinced that either company could convincingly bring successful elements of whatever that aesthetic might be to the table to begin with. That leaves the Marvel-Del Rey outsourcing model as the obvious solution – don’t change your primary product, but offer targeted side products to a different audience with the assistance of people who already know how to reach that audience. It just seems much more likely that the target audience for a shôjo-styled treatment of the X-Men or Wonder Woman would be prompted to pick up the “real” version than the other way around.
  • As for the Direct Market missing the manga bus, I’m decreasingly of the opinion that all retailers are fools if they don’t stock manga. Entrepreneurs seem to function on something of a financial razor’s edge to begin with, and there are probably plenty of places that already sell manga in their communities. It seems like it would take a remarkable amount of strategizing and effort for a local comic shop to compete with a Borders or Barnes & Noble. Do I like to walk into a comic shop and find a healthy selection of manga? Sure, but only if someone on the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the category. Token efforts lead to neglected stock, which seems worse than not bothering with manga at all. (I do think such retailers are dumb if they don’t make it a widely-known practice that they’ll order any kind of comic their customers want if they don’t see it on the shelves, but that applies to all kinds of comics.)

  • Rumor patrol

    March 25, 2008

    Bloomberg.com has some additional information on the potential for a Borders takeover, highlighting some recent corporate developments that might make such an acquisition attractive. Apparently there are rumors that none other than Barnes & Noble is eyeing its rival, which did wonders for the price of Borders’ stock shares.

    Update: ICv2 follows up on the stock story here.