Saturday, May 9, 2009

State of the Industry Panel

This panel, moderated by Robin Brenner, consisted of a diverse set of experts in the comics and graphic novel industry including innovative publishers, national distributors and expert bloggers discussing what's going on in the market and what's happening in the comics scene:

Dave Roman: Associate Editor, Nickelodeon Magazine
John Shableski: Diamond Book Distributors
Ali T. Kokmen: marketing Manager, Random House Publishing Group/Del Rey manga
Calista Brill: Editor, First Second.
Brigid Alverson: Freelance journalist, blogger for mangaBlog, editor-in-chief of Good Comics For Kids (School Library Journal) and Digital Strips

I've transcribed the panel as best I could below:

What do you see thats coming up or new things you've noticed in terms of who's reading, what they're looking for and whats exciting? What should we be looking for for our various artists?
Ali: One that just came to me, we are seeing a whole bunch more of webcomics being done created for the “interwebs” which is great. Theres an increasing numbers of publishers being approached for webcomics and that's an interesting phenomenon that started in a void and is coming back to the publishing industry.
Dave: a lot of that content is content that was already published for free on the internet and people have already been exposed to it on the internet so by the time the artist comes out, the readers have already been introduced to it.
John: When you come in with a million viewers per month, your audience is already there when you publish.
Brigid: While webcomics are free, what's not free is comics on other platforms like the iPod. Supposedly apple is coming out with a “kindle-killer” tablet which will make comics easier to access.

How would we advocate for something to be put in a format that could be put on our shelves?
Make publishers aware of the need.
I'd love an email from a librarian saying “we have X number of patrons interested in this certain thing...”
Ali: At Del Ray and Random House, we've experimented with prose novels and gave away the first volumes for free to see how it went. Whats pretty clear ISN”T happening is that it's stifling sales. Giving it away for free encourages people to pursue it further.
John: Dave's with Nick and he and Chris did a survey online about graphic novels, but kids don't recognize that term. But when you talk about the titles, they're interested and want to talk about it. They just see it as a normal book.

It feels like publishers hear a lot from fans and booksellers, but where do librarians fit in and how do we make sure we're heard in a useful way that isn't overwhelming?
At First Second, librarians in the market are an enormous part of our business focus. We attend a lot of cons, we try to involve ourselves in the library world as much as we'd like libraries to involve themselves in our world. But an easy way to get your voice heard is to start a blog. There are a lot of blogs in several industries that present themselves as a representative of their community. It's also useful to have this outreach from the libraries at conferences.
Ali: in terms of “where do librarians fall in grand scheme of things” As such a tiny part of the huge company that is Random House, I can't really speak for everything, but often the Del Rey manga website, there are forms through which anyone can send feedback, and I read them all. All is taken under advisement. Librarians have been so important to us for graphic novels and manga.
Dave: Comics always been a small manageable industry. It's always been easy to reach out or go to cons and meet people. In other publishing industries, there's a wall of staff keeping people from the powers that be, but most comics organizations are just a few people and it's easy to reach them.
John: We wouldn't be here without librarians. When graphic novels were first coming out, it was thought that comic stores would be the first place they'd be sold, but Librarians came forward and were so passionate about what was being done...
Dave: Libraries really made the difference in expanding the genre. When I first started publishing, comics were mostly sold in comic shops. The bookstores weren't carrying them yet and it was before graphic novels. If a publisher wanted to put out a book but you couldn't get it into a comic shop, that was a deal breaker. Librarians helped expand that. Books that weren't being sold in comic shops were being picked up by librarians and marketed to a different audience. Now girls and kids are reading them more and we're able to sell enough copies to make more things worth publishing.

How do we say what we want? It feels like we've been trying to communicate for a long time and it's taken a while for a response. What do we need to know about how the system works?
If someone gives you a perfect graphic novel today, how long does it take to run?
Calista: Something like 16 months for color, 8 months for black and white... If there's something that we decide that people need to be reading RIGHT NOW, what “right now” means is that we decide in January and it's out in September. That said, trends don't move that fast either and we're not in the business of picking up on every trend out there. One thing I have observed is the gap in the market for 5-7 year olds. There are submissions for terrific middle grade tween and YA books and the world could not be fuller of richness for them, but anything from 5-7 there's silence. I'm grateful for teen books, but there's so much less for this age group.
Dave: There's no market for it. There seems to be no publishers who want to make books for that age. In the comics industry, saying you want to make comics for kids is like saying “I don't want to sell the book.” You have to say it's for “all ages” because if you say it's for kids, bookstores won't buy it.
Calista: in the world of children's publishing, saying “all ages” is an anathema, it's poison for the book. It's much harder to sell books for all ages in the traditional publishing market.
Dave: cartoonists have a hard time working around that. What makes it hard is that the biggest success stories buck that. Jeff Smith (the creator of Bone) REFUSES to say that he made the book for kids. John: This generation of the comics industry thought that comics should be sold in comic shops, of which there's only 3500, but once they started selling to libraries they realized the greater potential; there's over a million of them.
Brigid: There's almost two different cultures here; traditional comic book culture and the book culture. Comics are small and disposable and you buy them certain places and they're floppy, but I'm thinking of Tiny Titans and it's not that at all.
Dave: The comics thing is huge. We did comics for kids and we found that we had to choose titles that were already there. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the few that were successful without a TV show. Pokemon, Naruto, they're popular because they have a TV show. It was hard to make a kids comic that's an original story that nobody's heard of; you might only sell 500 copies.

Is there any possibility for large print graphic novels?:
Calista: On a practical level, there's an issue of efficiency. Comics aren't necessarily the most efficient way of telling a story, just in terms of the space they take up. There has to be some compromise to tell the story and not take 400 pages to do it. Its something we think about on the production end...

Librarians don't like to withhold anything and there's a lot of debate between which ratings are useful and which are not. What do you think of age ratings?
If publishers agreed on some form of self-censorship with someone to submit our material, that would be terrifying. It would take so much time and so long to process.
John: There doesn't need to be a label on the book because you will discourage kids, if it says 5-8 and there's a boy who's 12, he won't read it. It's hard for retailers and catalogers when buying them though, to determine who the target is for the books. The publishers need to help librarians figure out where the book belongs on the shelf so they don't get hurt later. It's important to be able to defend the book's place in its particular section at the library.
Calista: I think it's funny that publishers think they have any idea who the intended audience is. We put “adult” in the catalog but not on the books... With graphic novels, the things that are put out for teens, there's no way could be put on a screen. There's content issues in what you can show, they're very different from print publishers...
Ali: There are quantifiable measures you could take for a prose novel. Those are useful tools, but there's not an analogous tool for graphic novels. I just think that the way of taking in that information is different.
Brigid: My daughters are 14-16 and they started reading manga when they were 9, and when I saw it I thought “Manga! that's porn!” and I snatched it away. I read a lot of comics growing up, and when I started reading their manga I realized that it's the same sort of story type.
Ali: Check out !
Brigid: Other parents come to me about it. Other things about the ratings, kids always rate up. My kids watched PG13 when they were 10 and now they're on to R rated movies. Manga ratings are incredibly conservative and that's fine, but there's nothing there that they're not already seeing on TV. But if you take a book like Fruits Basket and one like Peach Girl and they look alike. As much as everyone hates ratings and they do have flaws in them, they're useful for parents.
Dave: Prose books have the advantage of being hard to read as opposed to comics. You can describe horrific violent illegal activity in prose, but you actually have to read it. With GN its like “There's nipples! There's a panty shot on that page!”
John: The editor is becoming more and more important. You don't want the creator to be chained to the story; the editor might ask “Is that gratuitous?” and unless they can explain why it's important, they might go back and take something out. The great thing about this format is that you can see if its dishonest or disingenuous in any way. It's more important for this format than it is for typical prose.
Calista: Eediting these books is important, especially for younger readers. There's some stuff you would imagine being an issue but things like lettering, text, how hard you want the reader to have to work to read it. It's a skill set you have to learn by screwing up again and again, which is when feedback is useful.
Dave: I don't think ratings are something the comics world is ready to deal with. Nick is coming out with an Iron Man cartoon and they wanted me to put it in the Nickelodeon magazine. Google Iron Man comic and the first thing that comes up is IM surrounded by strippers and he's doing blow in Vegas. I think SuperHero comics are drug dealers. They lure you in with Tiny Titans but they really want you to be reading Dark Knight. It's hard for kids to understand “this is YOUR Iron Man and this is OUR Iron Man. Your Batman, OUR batman.”
With age range, you said that people read up. Some pub will intentionally market things for teens or kids won't read them.
Calista: when I was at Disney, the worst thing you could do is try to do a younger version of something at the same time as an older cause you kill the older audience.
Ali: A huge factor for publishers is the great divide for age buyers. Kids readers used to want regular comics so publishers are highly motivated to make something not look like a kids book... Now there's more stuff that might straddle the line.
Dave: It's not only a censorship thing, it's a marketing thing. If comics sell 5,000 it's huge. Anything you did to cut off the audience is potentially alienating people.

Rebecca Krznarich, Reference and Adult Services Librarian, Whitman Public Library

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