Gotta-Have-It Download of the Month:
“What is a Graphic Novel?” including a fantastic booklist for building a kids’ section
You’ve seen the articles in PW, you know about the recent accolades and the first Printz win ever for a graphic novel, and you’ve heard the buzz. The graphic novel category is growing by leaps and bounds, and now they’re coming to a children’s bookstore near you. Or rather they’re coming to your store, right?
Well there’s one small problem with this scenario. Although the graphic category for children is definitely growing with notable successes like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, what I am hearing from both booksellers and publishers is that as a group, we children’s booksellers haven’t quite figured this category out yet. Questions like, “Where do we shelve them?”, “What are key backlist titles?”, “How do we know what’s new and truly good?”, and “Why should I invest my precious dollars in this category, anyway?” keep coming up over and over.
Structurally, there are some challenges. Graphic novels for kids are not yet reviewed as widely in the traditional places we booksellers get our information like peer reviews, and the mainstream literary press. Graphic novels are very labor-intensive to produce, and so despite all the hype, publishers are hesitant to invest heavily in the children’s genre right now. Even sales successes like Bone can’t compare to some of the kids mega best-sellers of recent years. (Think the dreaded HP.) Also, some of the best kids’ graphic novels are coming from comic publishers and importers who are unused to packaging and marketing for traditional kids’ bookstores.
“Unfortunately, because few of them have staff who are familiar with the children’s book market, they have a rather steep learning curve ahead of them.” says Janna Morishima, the Director of Diamond Distributor’s Kids Group. “They are not used to crafting stories for specific reading levels. They do not necessarily have designers who are familiar with the conventions of children’s book publishing. Their marketing departments may not know the important review journals for the children’s book community. Their sales reps may not have any relationships with children’s buyers. As a result, some of comics publishers’ best early efforts to reach children have not penetrated the children’s book market as well as might be hoped. But comics publishers *are* beginning to learn, and I expect the next few years to bring a renaissance in children’s comics/graphic novel publishing.”
And there’s the way we buy our books at the store. After all, a graphic novel is much harder to visually assess in a sit-down with a rep than a picture book. In a one hour meeting, are we really going to spend all that time trying to figure out the graphic novels? They really need to be reviewed as galleys. And what about content? Is there something inappropriate lurking in those pages? It’s hard to tell without actually reading every page. Has your rep. read it? If you’re not drawn to graphic work yourself, do you really have the energy to make the effort when there are so many other books clamoring for your attention and dollars? So much work for one little section.
In the words of one of my favorite SNL skits: “What’s in it for me, Al Franken?”
Plenty, according to 01:FirstSecond, Roaring Brook’s critically acclaimed new graphic novel imprint, directed by Mark Siegal. “Graphic novels are astoundingly popular with kids and young adults. Not only are they great for increasing the reading comprehension and vocabulary of reluctant readers–and everyone else–but they also provide an approach to reading that reflects the multimedia nature of today’s technology-centric culture. They’re a whole new way to read.”
And let’s not forget the numbers–in 2005 there were $295 million dollars in graphic novels sold in North America, and in 2006, the sales hit $330 million, a 12% increase. Clearly, there’s a growing market here, and it’s incumbent upon us to figure out how to serve these customers and our bottom line.
So how do we do that?
1) Well here’s a great start: 01:FirstSecond has put together an excellent list of their top graphic novel picks for kids across all of the publishers.
These guys are a traditional children’s book publishers who know your customer and understand your business. This document is basically a how-to list for building your section, with award-winners marked and age categories from early elementary all the way to teen. This is a great tool for ABC members. No guess work. (I would welcome a similar list from some of our friends who publish and distribute Manga, as well.)
2) Next we need to make a concerted effort to figure out a way to peer review new material and share feedback about what’s good.
There are a couple of excellent websites that can help us sort the wheat from the chaff.
- Comics in the Classroom is a great site that pulls together all the news, review, and feature articles about high quality graphic work for children, run by Scott Tingley, an elementary teacher in New Brunswick, Canada. He even has comics broken out by genre/subject matter, and some basic lesson plans.
- The Graphic Classroom is a brand new blog that focuses on reviews of “appropriate, all ages comics that can be used in the elementary classroom”, written by Chris Wilson, graduate student in education and teaching. Although this blog is young, as it develops it will be a great source of high quality reviews for kids’ graphic novels you can sell comfortably.
3) Finally, we need to observe our customers for this category and ask lots of questions.
They will help us figure out what to buy next.
Ultimately the best reason for independent children’s booksellers to become experts in this category is simple–we can do it better than our chain competition. This is one category where our customers will really appreciate our knowledgeable help, and if we commit to it and do it well, we will reap the (financial) rewards.