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Return to Big Nothing
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for February 23, 2009
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"'Art' Comics don't really sell in bookstores, either. At least the venues BookScan tracks. Extraordinarily few 'art' titles (call it the D&Q/FBI/Top Shelf axis) show up at all, and what is there is generally way down the charts. So much for any real hope that the 'mass' market would embrace the bleeding edge of what we produce. In fact, unless I'm counting wrong, I only see 19 titles that aren't either manga, humor, or from/about one of the 'big four' publishers. And not one of those nineteen cracks 10k copies."
- Brian Hibbs,
on 2003 BookScan numbers

 

"Overall, very little that's not Manga, Humor, or from the 'Big Two' shows on the BookScan chart, again leading me to the conclusion that, for the most part, the Direct Market is the name of the game for the bulk of 'art comics'... or even 'non traditional' sales. That's not to say that a much much better job can't be done in the DM, because it can — but specialists appear to do a better job selling specialist material than the generalist book store market does."
- >Brian Hibbs,
on 2004 BookScan numbers

 

"Overall, very little that's not Manga, Humor, or from the 'Big Two' shows on the BookScan chart, again leading me to the conclusion that, for the most part, the Direct Market is the name of the game for the bulk of 'art comics'... or even 'non traditional' sales. That's not to say that a much much better job can't be done in the DM, because it can — but specialists appear to do a better job selling specialist material than the generalist book store market does."
- Brian Hibbs, repeating himself
on the 2005 BookScan numbers

 

"That's it for 'art comics' — there's no D&Q, there's no FirstSecond (on that one I checked with a source, yup they're all below the 4784 line; nope, not even American Born Chinese)"
- Brian Hibbs,
on 2006 BookScan numbers
(note: by September 2008,
American Born Chinese will have
sold over 100,000 copies)

 

"Now that I can see the Long Tail, I can now confidently state that there's not much (if any) miscategorization that is causing that performance: 'Art Comics,' with the exception of a tiny handful of 'anointed' books, do not appear to be selling in the bookstore environment. Remember that BookScan includes Amazon, and all major internet retailers as well."
- Brian Hibbs,
on 2007 BookScan numbers

 

"But in the absence of actual public and non-anecdotal evidence, I think we're forced to conclude that outside of, maybe, 20-30 titles, 'art comics' simply don't sell in any appreciable number outside of, perhaps, the very few stores that choose to specialize that way."
- Brian Hibbs,
on 2008 BookScan numbers

 

Don Quixote tilts at a windmill in this woodcut illustration by the divine Gustave Doré.

 

Maybe it's just me, but I'm detecting something of a pattern here. Not that I'm accusing Hibbs of ulterior motives or anything. I'm just saying, is all.

Okay, that's obvious sarcasm. I hadn't initially intended to reply to Hibbs at all this time around, as I'm frankly sick of offering the same response every time. Brian Hibbs is as bad-faith an essayist as you can hope to find on the matter of graphic-novel sales, claiming from one side of his mouth that these are unreliable figures and then arguing out the other (see most recent quote above) as though BookScan's numbers were carved in stone — dishonestly shuffling back and forth between the two as best suits his purposes from moment to moment and then, when other people bring other factors into the argument, accusing them of "changing the goal posts."

After a while, it starts to seem impossible to formulate a response that doesn't begin with the words "Eat shit and die," and I'm loathe to do that because, well, when he's not trying to turn back the clock and reclaim that "center of the funnybook universe" title for the Direct Market, Hibbs can actually be an interesting and agreeable writer. Such writers aren't exactly common in the comics press, and it seems stupid to burn bridges with one just because he transforms into a cheesy, cut-rate Bill O'Rielly once a year.

Hibbs' claim that Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 sold just 719 copies, however, motivated me to e-mail Fantagraphics' Gary Groth, Kim Thompson and Eric Reynolds to find out if they could add some light to all the heat. While I suppose it's possible that Hibbs' BookScan reportage might turn out to be true, it struck me as being unlikely. Still, one must investigate, and the resulting email exchanges seemed to produce light and heat in equal amounts: Not because the Fanta staffers were dissembling or in any way less than forthcoming, but because the nature of the mass market essentially makes even the vague sort of instant tallying one expects from the Direct Market to be impossible in the short term. Short of absolute disaster, any attempt to figure out how a given title has done in the returnable booksellers' market within its first year of release inevitably turns out to be little more than guesswork.

(Obligatory Disclaimer: I am a Fantagraphics employee, and thus obviously a potential shill for The Company That Signs My PaychecksTM. Also, the examples used below will be entirely composed of Fantagraphics-published works. Even if you think my arguments are sound, therefore, you should not discount the possibility that I am using Evil Devil Words to mesmerize you into believing the Fantagraphics Party Line. Forewarned is forearmed.)

 

Illustration from Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, ©2008 Jaime Hernandez.

 

The first obstacle to gauging sales in the mass market is distribution. What follows is going to sound painfully obvious, but I want my terms defined, so please bear with me: The booksellers' market was designed from the very beginning to sell prose fiction and non-fiction volumes of various genre and subject, as well as children's picture books. It also sells audiobooks and graphic novels, but those categories were relatively recent innovations in the market. Unlike the Direct Market, which overwhelmingly purchases its wares on a non-returnable basis from a single distributor, the bookstore market has a number of ways to purchase books and related products. For the larger bookstores and chain franchises, books are purchased through the distribution arms of the larger publishers themselves — some of the more successful smaller publishers also distribute their own works to this market, but many subcontract this function out to a larger publisher's distribution channel. (Drawn & Quarterly, for example, works with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, while Fantagraphics sells through the auspices of W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)

Here's how it works: Publishers create solicitation catalogs roughly a year or so ahead of a given release season and send them out to the various retail outlets with whom they do business; important titles will also be reproduced as advance galleys for particularly influential bookstore buyers and critics. Needless to say, bookstores that purchase through these channels are inundated with solicitations catalogs that, in the case of the larger publishers, can run to several hundred pages and are bundled with smaller catalogs from subsidiary imprints and contracted smaller publishers, and the result is a small mountain of pleasantly designed paper. Since they've got a head start in terms of ordering time, said retailers' purchasing agents then slowly work their way through this mountain, comparing the proffered titles against sales for similar books and deciding what they'll purchase and in what amount, and then place their orders.

When the titles finally arrive, retailers will then do their best to sell the books, with anything that doesn't sell eventually being returned to the distributor — and yes, that can mean sending a bunch of stuff back to a bunch of different distributor, with all the hassle that this implies. The time-frame on returns is, essentially, "forever," but in practical terms the overwhelming number of returns take place within the space of a year or so.

Sound complex? You bet! But wait, there's more! For smaller shops (and shops whose sales are only partly based upon book sales), there are easier ways to get in on this racket: mass-market sub-distributors who stock almost everything and make it all orderable through a single catalog, with a single address for returns. For smaller retailers, the convenience of not having to order through (or returning unsold product to) umpteen different distributors is surely quite attractive. The largest such distributors are Baker & Taylor and Ingram, but there are others — Bookazine for example, is nominally a general-interest distributor, but specializes in children's books, which is why their graphic-novel bestseller list (unlinkable due to the Flash interface) is even more manga-centric than usual for the bookstore market. Another one I should mention is Last Gasp, which specializes in counterculture, pop-art books and comics.

In addition to smaller bookstores, this channel is increasingly important to graphic-novel publishers because an unguessable number of Direct Market shopowners are turning to such distributors to augment their shipments from Diamond. As one comics retailer explains it:

ANY publisher who has signed a distribution deal with Diamond, that does not have exclusions, for Cold Cut or Last Gasp, or even possibly a new startup, where that publisher is sold to retailers at an "F" (45%) discount or less has made a terrible, terrible mistake that they really NEED to rectify at their next contract negotiation.

Why? Diamond assesses a 3% reorder penalty. That means your 45% discount, just dropped to 42%. Guess what? If Diamond is distributing your books, that means Baker & Taylor and Ingram has them. ANY chimpanzee, who pays on time, and places an order of 10 or more books (not of a single title, for a whole ORDER of books! Cake!), gets AT LEAST 42% off from B&T.

And Free Shipping.

And Returnability.

Fantagraphics marketing manager Eric Reynolds — who stresses that this is his personal, off-the-cuff opinion, not necessarily grounded in hard numbers — summarizes how he sees the interplay between these various distribution channels working out for his company:

Norton directly services a fairly traditional account demographic: chains, old-school indies, and new-school players like Amazon. B&T and Ingram service an increasingly wider base of accounts. They're the Last Gasp to Norton's Diamond, in a way. That's a really wrong comparison in some ways but apt in others. They sell to (at least slightly more) non-traditional accounts: libraries, academic institutions, indies, comic book shops, record shops, etc. For example, if you're a record store that doesn't have a big book section but wants one or two music-related books from Fanta (like Robert Pollard's and Jim Flora's) and Picturebox (The Wilco Book or Ninja, say), it's easier to go to a one-stop shopping source like Last Gasp or B&T than those individual publisher-distributors. These accounts tend to a bit better with things like Fanta than a B&N, Borders, or B. Dalton, and they don't report to BookScan.

Gary Groth agrees:

By and large, small accounts, such as indies, don't buy directly from Norton. All accounts prefer to consolidate their ordering: They — indies, record stores, whoever — can get 95% of what they want from B&T and Ingram (which is where Eric's analogy breaks down — B&T and Ingram are closer to Diamond than to Norton in that they stock EVERYTHING; Norton sells the work of about 20 publishers, so there really isn't much of an analogy to them in the comics market — maybe, God help us, to Haven Distributors, but not really).

According to Reynolds, Fantagraphics has much better luck with smaller, more personalized bookstores and other outlets than they do with the big boys: "The only major, corporate player that really kicks ass with Fanta is Amazon. This is because Amazon is servicing a tremendously wide demographic base in a way that neither bricks and mortor stores nor corporate behemoths typically do. But the other major players — Barnes & Noble, Borders especially — underperform with our books relative to everything else. So our BookScan figures are skewed."

Groth agrees with this assessment, with one caveat: "I tend to think we're stronger in Barnes & Noble than Eric does. Peanuts obviously kicks ass there and they're strong with a surprising number of our books. B. Dalton is a mall chain and doesn't do shit for our books, but B&N's buyer likes us and our books and pays attention to them."

 

Sequence from the short story "Mud," from Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, ©2008 Gilbert Hernandez.

 

So if you're a publisher, you should be able to look at sales figures from your primary distributor, augment them with numbers from mass distribution outlets like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, and then calculate how much you've sold, right? Hahahahaha! No, not at all. As with all too much in the booksellers' market, it's not as simple as that — there's still the complication of returns to deal with.

In The Comics Journal #276, Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore, who does business with the market through Diamond Book Distributors, noted that returns make the act of placing books in this market less a science than an art:

Returns have not been a big problem for us. I think it's a big problem if, when you first sign with a book distributor, and if you're fortunate, you get this really big order from some of the chains and, if you're truly stupid, you fill that order. [Laughter.] Because they'll order, you know, a ton of copies. "We need one million copies of your number one book, whatsitsname."

And you go, "Yay! We made the big time," and you send a million books out, and then six months later, they send 950,000 copies back and you're ruined. Robyn [Moore, Terry's wife and business manager] knows better than that. She works closely with Diamond. She knows the retailers and the chains and the chain buyers just as well as Diamond does. She monitors everything on a daily basis, just like the stock market, which is something I would never do. She does the shipping and the ordering and everybody's book-flow inventory, like she was a day trader. There's no way any self-publisher could put as much time into the business as she does, not and put a book out.

As already stated, returns don't come in single, easily second-guessed lumps — they show up month in and month out, and can be quite unpredictable. While I was discussing the possible fortunes of Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 with Gary Groth, for example, he explained:

One reason BookScan figures may be so far off is because of the peculiarities of the book trade and the difference between books SOLD and books PLACED which ones hope are SOLD in due time. We placed almost 6,000 L&R New Stories in bookstores. [Note: Groth later clarified this number to around 5,500 copies.] On average, publishers get one third of the books it places returned. That's on average, so obviously some books will perform better and some worse.

The gradual nature of returns complicates the BookScan numbers that Brian Hibbs uses in another way, as well: Because he's working from an omnibus set of figures, they include books that have been released at the beginning of the year all the way through to the end. Compare for example the numbers that Hibbs gave for Love and Rockets with the number that he gave for another Fantagraphics release: the big Willie & Joe collection of comics by Bill Mauldin. The latter was released on June 1, whereas the former hit shelves on October 1, giving Willie and Joe a four-month head start. This makes the numbers for Willie and Joe a bit more reliable (comparatively speaking) than the numbers for Love and Rockets, since Willie and Joe has had longer to get through its returns cycle. And yet, the BookScan numbers for W&J provided by Hibbs still don't remotely match up with the number of books out there: According to Groth, there are currently over 10,000 copies of Willie & Joe in play outside the Direct Market, while the figure that Hibbs quotes BookScan as giving for it is just 5485 copies. While more returns are likely, we're nonetheless talking about a title that's been in the marketplace for nine months and counting. At this point, one could be justified in assuming that it's a good way over the hump. And if that number winds up holding steady, we're talking about not a 10% difference, not a 30% difference, but somewhere near a 100% difference between BookScan and the real world. What will the end figure wind up being, do you think? 90% off the mark? 80%? 70%?

 

So what could account for the vast difference? Playing devil's advocate, I asked whether sales to the library market, certainly a big potential audience for Mauldin's work, might have accounted for the difference. Reynolds replied, "No, I don't think it's that simple. I wish library sales were that strong — it would mean our readership was much bigger than it is."

That said, the library market is a significant and growing component in many publishers' graphic-novel business strategies, and its sales don't show up on BookScan, either. As you might have seen in an above link, even mentioning library sales throws Hibbs into a tizzy, inevitably resulting in the deployment of his "moving the goalposts" canard. But is that reasonable? I put the question to Gary Groth, who replied:

It doesn't make any sense to differentiate libraries from bookstores; they both buy books from the same wholesaler(s) at the same price. It's like differentiating chain stores, indies, PXes, big box stores or any other particularized sales destination.

Sales to libraries are real sales that indicate interest from libraries who think their local residents want to read the book, so not including those numbers distorts the real sale and no less real interest in the book. If you're writing about sales of books and the number of people who are presumably reading and interested in those books, BookScan still paints a wildly distorted picture because libraries are a way people read books.

 

Shortly after my e-mail conversations with the Fantagraphics staff, the returns for February came in, featuring some 500 copies of Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, which Groth attributed to aggressive pruning from the financially troubled Borders bookchain — never a dull moment in the book trade, to be sure. Eric Reynolds gave Tom Spurgeon what is likely the most current figure for the book, "just over 4000 copies" — but again, that's almost certainly the number of copies currently placed after five months on the market, and not a final sales figure. Kim Thompson, the company's resident expert on Keeping Track Of Where Everything Is, guessed that when all the chips had finally fallen into place, Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 will probably have sold at least as many copies to the mass market as it has in the Direct Market (some 3500 copies), which in turn will be double the number copies sold as were the last few, DM-only issues of Love and Rockets Vol. II. We shall see. In any event, I didn't exactly encounter a great deal of worry over the book's sales in my conversations with these gentlemen.

I've spent a fair amount of time explaining the various ways that the real world complicates our ability to trust BookScan numbers. To be fair, this probably isn't universally true of everything that the company covers: As I said at the beginning, the mass market for books is overwhelmingly concentrated on prose, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the reportage for, say, Harry Potter and Stephen King books was considerably more accurate than for marginal titles with specialized interests. The bookstore market was created for such works, after all, and BookScan was originally created to track their sales on an individual, title-by-title basis throughout the greater marketplace. Art comics — excuse me, "art comics" (mustn't forget Hibbs' scare quotes) — have a more limited appeal, and sell in more idiosyncratic environments. In the same way that you wouldn't expect to see opera placed on prime-time network television, it makes sense that you're likelier to find perrenial copies of Jimmy Corrigan at your neighborhood indy bookstore than at your local Borders. This is how it should be in a capitalist society. But just because such sales are less likely to take place in a chain bookstore isn't to say that they don't take place at all.

Put it this way: For six years now, Brian Hibbs has been looking at BookScan numbers and declaring that such comics "do not appear to be selling in the bookstore environment," and for six years publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have been tailoring more and more of their product for exactly that environment. Now, neither company is made of money. If Hibbs has been right all this time, and Groth, Thompson, Oliveros, et. al. have nonetheless been dumping thousands upon thousands of high-priced, exquisitely designed volumes into a market that has so clearly rejected them, then why the fuck are these publishers still in business? Is some funnybook moneybags, a Steve Geppi or a Matt Groening, secretly supporting them? Is Fantagraphics a front for the Mob, perhaps? Or — and I'm sure this is a crazy idea, but work with me, here — is BookScan perhaps not quite the be-all and the end-all of sales figures that Hibbs so passive-aggressively claims that it is?

 

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