Editorial: Original Graphic Novels Are Good Business

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201312170406 Editorial: Original Graphic Novels Are Good Business

by Gina Gagliano

[Last week we ran a piece asking for comic shop retailers to weigh in on the relative merits of periodical comics vs original graphic novels. Although the serial nature and rolling monetization model of periodicals was praised, we still live in a world where there are a lot of doe-in-one graphic novels. With the vewpoint no that, here's OGN publisher First Second's Associate Marketing and Publicity Manager, Gina Gagliano.]

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over the original graphic novel format recently – people have been talking about whether doing a preliminary serial or going straight to a graphic novel is better for comics.
 
Since First Second specializes in publishing graphic novels (we’ve published one pamphlet comic ever), it’s pretty clear what our opinion on this is – we’re big fans of the original graphic novel, and we think that graphic novels are a great way to be publishing comics – and reading them!
 
I personally am a huge fan of books (whether they’re prose or comics or some combination of the two) where you can read them front to back and be done with the story.  Partially that’s for convenience – it can be a pain in the neck trying to track down all the volumes in a series or a whole set of pamphlets if you aren’t reading them as they come out.  But I also really just enjoy stories that have a narrative arc where in the beginning they are like, ‘problem!’ and then by the end they are like, ‘we have solved this problem; there is no need for the return of the great white whale ever.’  I find it most satisfying to read a story arc all in one sitting, and hey – graphic novels make it easy to do that. 
 
OGNs and pamphlets are also different structurally.  We know firsthand from our :01 TBC online serial project that it’s a big challenge (and sometimes an impossible one) to take a project designed for one form and fit it into another.  A lot of our graphic novels just don’t work well on a page-by-page break out – you always end up cutting off the action or the dialogue when you break them up that way.  And just like a season of television isn’t the same as one long movie, pamphlet comics and original graphic novels have different pacing and plot arcs.  It’d be pretty difficult to turn a lot of our books (eighty-page early reader Odd Duck, anyone? Or our Nursery Rhyme Comics or Fairy Tale Comics anthologies where the works range from one to eight pages?) into something that would actually read well in the pamphlet format.  When the end goal is to create a graphic novel (and that’s always our end goal here at First Second), the creation process for that doesn’t necessarily generate a finished piece that can easily break down into chunks that are precisely the 22 or 36 pages that would work successfully for a pamphlet comic.
 

201312170409 Editorial: Original Graphic Novels Are Good BusinessThe graphic novel format reaches multiple distribution channels – schools and libraries and bookstores.  And it also reaches the readers associated with them (who can be different from the readers associated with comics stores).  This is not true of pamphlet comics, most of which are distributed directly to comics stores.  Many of the outlets that have come to accept graphic novels just don’t have the capacity to shelve or store pamphlet comics, and pamphlets just aren’t durable enough for the use and re-use that schools and libraries put books through.  As a publisher who publishes books for adults in categories like literary fiction, biography, historical fiction, and two-thirds of our list for readers under eighteen – ie, kids and teenagers – does it really make sense for us to be constructing an entire publishing program of serial pamphlets aimed at a market where the majority of stores are not designed to support those genres or age categories?
 
Original graphic novels may not be the main revenue stream for comics stores, but we hope they can be one successful revenue stream.  Obviously, comics stores don’t carry just pamphlet comics – depending on the store, they carry trade paperbacks and original graphic novels and comics-themed clothing and statuary and merchandise; they carry manga; they carry large round stuffed animals; they carry bubble gum and other candy; they carry original art; they curate special collections for schools and libraries; they carry store-branded merchandise like mugs, clothing, and tote bags; they carry posters – and the list goes on and on. 

And bookstores are similar – many of them carry things like stationary, pens and pencils, magnets, bookends, and other literary merchandise.  With all of that going on, we think it’s great that comics stores are finding space in their stores for graphic novels, and, from the response to Heidi’s initial article, that they can make some of their graphic novels a success.  The thesis here doesn’t have to be ‘pamphlets OR graphic novels – two will enter; one will win!’ – we think that they can both be part of what a comics store offers.
 
First Second is also in a bit of a unique position in the comics industry (accompanied by Scholastic Graphix and Abrams ComicsArts) in that we’re part of a larger company that’s dedicated to publishing books.  So here at First Second we’ve got a full-time staff of four people and the four of us are all dedicated to publishing comics, but we exist within a larger infrastructure of production, subsidiary rights, accounting, sales, warehousing, and shipping that is set up to manage books that come in with a spine rather than in pamphlet format.  And I can tell you that from our experience publishing Paul Pope’s ‘The Death of Haggard West,’ it would be a logistical nightmare for all of these people if we started publishing our books as serial pamphlets. 
 
We’ve also found that OGNs are a great opportunity to break authors out in the marketplace.  We find that the best way to raise an author’s profile is to have as many people talking about her as possible.  That means not just comics stores – it means bookstores and educators and librarians, too.  And it means the comics media and the literary media and (depending on the project) the pop culture media or the music media or the Jewish media or the Asian-American media or the romance media.  And it means submitting the book for any awards it’s eligible for.  To hit all of these outlets, you have to have a graphic novel – the National Book Award isn’t interested in pamphlet comics, for example.  With a lot of awards and publicity, it’s a problem if your book was previously serialized.  With media, that means you’ve lost a big moment because nothing in your book is new – with awards, they frequently won’t accept books that don’t have at least 50% new content.  
 
Here at First Second, we sincerely believe in the original graphic novel format.  In our eight years publishing graphic novels, we’ve found that people we’d never expected to read comics are starting to accept graphic novels as part of the standard literary landscape.  Graphic novels have changed what people think comics are for, and what they should be about – things that comics stores already knew.  We’re so glad that because of the continual championing of the comics medium from the comics stores, now more people than ever are getting the chance to enjoy comics – whether as pamphlets or graphic novels or webcomics or even in the daily newspapers.
 

Comments

  1. Havoc50 says:

    Good read but ultimately only offers why ogn’s are good for consumption and not the bottom line. I bet it is a hard sell to a child, teenager, or young adult to buy a $25-40 ogn vs a $4 single issue.

  2. @ Havoc50 True enough, but at $4 for a 24 page book (if you’re lucky enough to get a whole 24 pages after you subtract the ads) and $25 for 150 or more pages, you’re almost always getting a slightly better bargain, content-wise, with the graphic novel. And if money is a concern, you’re more likely to find the graphic novel for free in a library or a classroom than you will the pamphlet. That can cover both the “I’m not sure about this but I want to try it out” market, and the “I’ve heard about this and definitely want it” market.

  3. Nick Jones says:

    “I bet it is a hard sell to a child, teenager, or young adult to buy a $25-40 ogn vs a $4 single issue.”

    While it’s true that the range you’re suggesting is probably prohibitively expensive for a lot of young people, you’re also not going to find many companies trying to sell graphic novels aimed at those groups for prices that high. Checking my shelf, the First Second OGNs I own range between $13 and $18, while expanding that to other companies’ all ages OGNs broadens the range to between $10 and $20. Given how much more content is provided, I don’t think that most parents are going to balk at buying their child a decently-sized trade paperback that costs $15 over a short $4 comic book, especially when they’re likely to view the comic as disposable junk and the trade as an actual book that their kid can put on their shelf and read again later.

    Also, while we potentially have somebody from First Second around, let me just say that Zita the Spacegirl is terrific and I really hope that a third book will be coming out at some point. :D

  4. I think the larger point that Gina has made so well is that there’s room for both formats, and no reason they can’t both exist harmoniously.

    I have personally seen the faces of dubious parents when I tell them about SMASH and they ask, “Is it a COMIC?” I reply, “No, it’s a graphic novel,” and show them the hardcover. At which point their faces brighten and they say, “Oh, it’s a BOOK!”

    And yes, as a lifelong comic reader, I groan inwardly at that attitude — but I’ve seen it all my life. I think the more important point is that the parents are often the gateway between a child and a comic, whether pamphlet or OGN. If a “real” book makes it easier for parents to buy a great story (in comic format) that their kids will love, I’m glad they have that option nowadays.

  5. Havoc50 says:

    Oh I agree the ogn is always better deal in the long run . Sticker shock is just a huge deterrent for the majority when it doesn’t involve food ;)

    Reading it free from a library is a good gateway but could also lead to to nothing. I’m using my own experience here but I remember the days when Barnes and Noble had a huge manga section during the mid 2000’s boom. I also remember a huge number of people sitting on the floor or in a chair reading them in mass and not buying. Most of the time my friends would sample and then just pirate. Ogn’s are not quite on the same level as I bet most of the time the lesser known comics are available to pirate. Personally I love to read gn’s and love the way they look on my shelves.

    That being said I know absolutely nothing with what is good on the business side. Is X number of copies sold good? How do brick and mortar book shops contend with online retailers (Amazon, etc) or trade shows? Should they even bother to stock old ogn’s when they will just potentially sit on the shelf for ages?

  6. Torsten Adair says:

    Imagine:
    You are a parent shopping in a bookstore.
    Your child wants you to buy them a book.
    Are you going to deny your child if the book looks worthwhile?

    Or your child’s school has a book fair.
    Will you give that child money to buy books?
    (And if you’re wondering about GN sales at those book fairs… SMILE has sold 200,000+ copies via Scholastic book fairs alone.)

    Sticker shock? Manga volumes cost $9.99. Saga, Volume 1 cost $9.99. (Subsequent volumes: $14.99). If you compare those books to art books (with similar production values and costs) or to picture books, they are a bargain.

    Here’s an interesting question:
    How many comic book publishers ONLY publish graphic novels?
    Fantagraphics, Oni, Top Shelf…

  7. Torsten Adair says:

    Nick Jones:
    The third and final “Zita” book is scheduled for next May!
    http://us.macmillan.com/thereturnofzitathespacegirl/BenHatke

  8. It’s definitely easier to recoup costs on a graphic novel than a comic book. The margins are much roomier on a book with a $2 unit cost and a $20 retail price than a magazine with a $1 unit cost and a $3 retail price. Every other point (the publicity, awards, and operational concerns) are all solveable when publishing stories in both formats. Publicity is actually greatly helped by adding the comic book publicity cycle at the front end of your wider trade book cycle.

    I think the margin issue is the main thing that’s mystifying to people observing from outside major trade publishers like Macmillan: you have to sell a lot of stakeholders on the financial viability of your book before you acquire it, and saying you’re going to add a bunch of risky up front investment in a comic book that may lose money in hopes of widening the audience really won’t fly.

  9. Havoc50 says:

    @Torsten Adair
    I don’t think Saga quite qualifies as an ogn. If we are going to include collected editions then that is a different topic.

    As for manga, the $10 price point is a turnoff for a lot of people especially when you multiply that across many volumes. A child doesn’t care or know about cost they just want the book. As you get older costs becomes a concern, especially if they have to spend $500+ to read Naruto. I think the trend today is to buy it digitally for $5-6. That is probably what is keeping manga alive in the US right now.

    It’s great when companies announce huge numbers for a hit book but it’s also sad when a companies like PictureBox announces it’s closing right out of the blue or Archaia merges with Boom in order to survive.

  10. >> How many comic book publishers ONLY publish graphic novels?
    Fantagraphics, Oni, Top Shelf…>>

    Oni? They publish lots of serialized comics.

    kdb

  11. Hardhatriot says:

    Isn’t this missing the point? Hibbs’ post focused on the business model not on whether or not OGN’s are a valid medium. It has nothing to do with your personal preferences about book format.

  12. So so busy with new store, but I want to make a few comments…. (who needs sleep?)

    “people have been talking about whether doing a preliminary serial or going straight to a graphic novel is better for comics.”

    I rather think that “people” have been talking about cash flow and economic models, rather than “what is better”. What is “better” = “good comics” and nothing else!

    So, from that POV, I’m much rather see (NO OFFENSE, Gina, YOU RULE!) someone who publishes BOTH Comics and OGNs comment.

    “OGNs and pamphlets are also different structurally. ”

    First, I truly think the term “pamphlet” is diminutive, and I’d really like to see smart people stop using it. (not that I will win that one, but, still…..)

    Second, I have to say that I pretty fundamentally disagree with that statement. SAGA and BONE and WALKING DEAD are all DM comics first, and yet they’re being avidly consumed in TP form by masses of civilians, *and they can’t tell the difference*. CEREBUS, SANDMAN, damn, we have reams of work that was produced serially that you absolutely can’t tell when you read them in book format.

    “The graphic novel format reaches multiple distribution channels – schools and libraries and bookstores”

    The TP of previously serialized comics reaches EXACTLY THE SAME number of channels, AND has the ability to generate (Sometimes significant!!!!) revenue BEFORE doing so, You’d have to work really really really hard to convince me that a single less copy of a work is sold to schools or libraries or bookstores because it was serialized first..

    “We find that the best way to raise an author’s profile is to have as many people talking about her as possible.”

    Well, duh.

    But it seems to me that said conversation, in the broadest and most sustainable sense, is most sustainably generated from month-in-month-out buzz that is generated through serialization.

    “Burst” marketing, marketing designed to sell the most number of copies in a book’s first “season”, certainly has its value, but I think that the economic basis of that value deeply pales when compared with the multiple income streams that can stem from serializxation.

    Let me try to spin it this way for Torsten and Gina: you talk about quarterly sales opportunities (“Seasons”), when that’s, to me, not the way to think of it.

    A successful periodical has (potentially) *twelve* seasons.every year, and *twelve* promotional opportunities, *twelve* hand-selling chances, *twelve* attempts to get reviews and accolades and attention, and then it get a WHOLLY DIFFERENT swipe at the prize.

    As a bookseller, I know that a title that turns one copy, one time a year is probably worth carrying, while books that move real weight (and / or over time) are extraordinarily few and far between. As a bookseller, I think almost the entirety of my job is to find and identify new work that can sell month-in month-out for years to come. This is 1/10th of 1% of what the market is offered in every given month. (Serialized, or no)

    It’s great when I have a great season with a hot book, but it’s way way better when when I have a hot *month* with a hot periodical that builds to a hot graphic novel that sells even more copies of the periodical.

    I’m absolutely 100% certain that I would have sold more copies and dollars combined of BATTLING BOY had it been properly serialized, and that success, as a “tastemaker” store would have lead to even MORE sales of BB than it currently enjoys.

    “To hit all of these outlets, you have to have a graphic novel – the National Book Award isn’t interested in pamphlet comics, for example.”

    I don’t find this a compelling example, really. The NBA (heh) has nominated exactly and precisely one comic book, ever, in the history of the award, if I can believe the internet.

    More importantly, I’m not convinced, as a person with an actual real-world bookstore, that being up for a NBA, per se, sells more comics. From my perception, most of the sales we’re making (and they’re really realy good, probably in my top 10%?) of B&S are way more to it being a Gene Leun Yang book than it being nominated for an award. The award thing doesn’t HURT the book, but it’s not necessarily a major driver of sales for those who pay attention to the work.

    I totally get that those buyers who don’t care ACTUALLY about the underlying work pretty much are guided by things like the NBA and so sales will sore in response to the cattle prod stimulus of the NBA, but I truly think we’ll both agree it is the work itself that drives interest in the long run.

    IOW: I won’t sell more copies of B&S *because* it won an award, but it absolutely is winning an award because I’m selling more copies…. because of the underlying quality of the work!

    “With media, that means you’ve lost a big moment because nothing in your book is new – with awards, they frequently won’t accept books that don’t have at least 50% new content. ”

    With all due respect, screw those people.

    OK, I need to go sleep before we have the first New Comics Day in my new store…!

    -B

  13. There surely can’t be much argument over whether OGN sales are valuable given the number of book publishers investing in them these days – in a declining market, they ain’t exactly looking to waste their cash these days, and the success of Jonathan Cape and SelfMadeHero in the UK alone is extraordinary.

    Singles sales are always handy to watch from a bookstore POV when ordering in trades, but I can safely say that most booksellers outside of comic shops don’t know shit about those sales. I mean, it’s pretty surprising still, but very true. (Apparently GN sales at my old shop have nosedived into obliteration since I left, le sigh.)

    There’s still a lot of work to be done in overcoming parent prejudice towards comics, but OGN’s do seem to sidestep that more often than tpbs for whatever reason. And an award win? Yup, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes sold out across the UK (actually SOLD OUT) after the highly publicised Costa win.

    So while sales figures would be great etc, I don’t think there’s any denying that GN sales are on the rise (certainly in the UK they are) with huge profit margins and minimal risk to the seller. What’s not to love?

  14. @Havoc50
    I can’t believe you wrote that the $4 pamphlet would be viewed as affordable. The $4 pamphlet is the biggest ripoff in all of entertainment.
    Lest you think I’m just being a cheapskate, have a look at this essay by Von Allan where he compares comic book prices fluctuations (and page counts) over time to the American Federal Minimum Wage, using it as a barometer for affordability (especially since teens were always seen as the market and they didn’t have much money):
    http://www.vonallan.com/2011/08/minimum-wage-and-prices-of-comics.html

  15. Havoc50 says:

    @Brady Dale
    $4 is more affordable than $15. I never said that periodicals were a better deal. Even zines could be considered a rip-off but sometimes that is all someone can afford. Long term it is a terrible investment but people do love instant gratification.

  16. LesserEvil says:

    It’s more affordable to pay $15 for a whole story than $4 for a small part of a story because nobody wants an unfinished story. It’s a concept that should make its way to television series as well. Your content is worth more when it’s complete. It may be in the best interest of a comic book store to capitalize on serialized entertainment because that’s what they sell, but there’s a larger audience of people that appreciate a good story but do not live for new comic Wednesday.

    It may not be the best business model for Brian Hibbs or his store, but an OGN is likely the better business model overall because it creates a finished work that can live a long life. Serialized work that gets abandoned is worthless beyond its initial offering.

    Even Netflix is coming around to this realization.

    You can always just compare the sales of something like Blankets to a comparable collection of Walking Dead that has the same number of pages and a similar price point along with the cost-benefit analysis to get an idea. Though comparing something with a popular TV show in tandem with the comic work is not a great idea.

  17. Thank you for the great thread and comments here. It has brought a lot of helpful information to my attention. I have been working on a comic series since the first comic debuted at the San Diego Comic Con in 1996. Because it has been for fun in between all the responsibilities of life, I have only put out 3 volumes since then. Now here we are in 2014 and volumes 4 & 5 are almost ready for publication. Although each comic has it’s own complete story, the characters and their interactions build over time and I was uncomfortable putting out two new stories without the first three being available to the readers. The graphic novel format, combining all 5 stories into a 120 page book will solve that concern. I will be putting it on Kickstarter March 1st with a request to fund the projects printing costs, with a publication date in May. Is there any thoughts on what the cost of the novel should be?
    Many Thanks

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    [...] k that can sell month-in month-out for years to come. This is 1/10th of 1% of wh [...]

  2. […] First Second’s Associate Marketing and Publicity Manager Gina Gagliano weighs in on the serial comics vs. original graphic novel debate currently going on in various online discussion spaces. (The Beat) […]

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