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February 15, 2010


Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds On Brian Hibbs' Analysis Of Bookscan Numbers, 2009

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By Eric Reynolds

Regarding Brian Hibbs' annual "Bookscan Analysis as Direct Market Public Service Announcement" essay:

We've now been with our book trade distributor, W.W. Norton, for almost a full decade (our first season with them was the spring of 2001). I think that's enough time for us to sit back with some perspective and confirm Hibbs' cogent argument that the book trade does not offer limitless growth. Let's face it, the notion that any aspect of the print medium -- comics or otherwise -- has limitless potential is probably absurd in 2010.

imageBut it's also enough time to say without question that we'd be out of business without the book trade and that it enables us to reach readers and customers that we otherwise wouldn't reach, whether through indie bookstores, chains, Amazon.com, libraries or educational institutions introducing our work to students. Tom Spurgeon's point that "We live in a world of bookstores and the Direct Market and whatever else works" is spot-on, especially in a time when "Direct Market" essentially means Diamond. Does Brian actually believe we would be better off putting all our eggs in Diamond's basket? Our net revenues between the direct market and book trade remain neck and neck and have for several years now (with the book trade usually edging the DM, as it did in 2009).

I'm not sure what to say specifically this year in regard to Hibbs' essay that's any different than what I've said in years past. Book trade sales for Fantagraphics were surprisingly strong in 2009, given the overall economy -- our total sales were virtually identical to 2008 with roughly the same amount of new items offered. For whatever reason, we seemed to have weathered the recession a bit better than the book trade and direct market as a whole -- which frankly surprises me. I was prepared for a considerably worse 2009. Our book trade sales in 2009 relative to 2008 did not grow or shrink appreciably better or worse than our Direct Market sales in that same time. It seems the economy affected both very similarly in regard to selling Fantagraphics' books, for what it's worth. Our 2009 was actually strong enough that while many businesses were downsizing in 2009, we added staff to our p.r., production and design departments.

Library and academic sales continue to be one area of growth for us. I did a cursory look at a half-dozen titles from the last couple of years, and in some cases, our library/institutional sales can amount to as much as 30-50% of our overall book trade business. This is one stream that does not report to Bookscan, and I don't believe that the Direct Market would be making these sales if W.W. Norton wasn't.

Hibbs singles out Love & Rockets New Stories #2, which he says Bookscan reported 300 and some sales of. Simply put, we've sold about 7000 copies total of that book thus far (more than the series was selling as a "pamphlet"), and the primary return window has passed. Less than half of those have been moved through the Direct Market. So you do the math. L&RNS has been a success for us, thus far.

imageOne other thing I should add that I haven't seen mentioned. Having solid inroads in the book trade has enabled us to publish a number of dream projects that would have been impossible ten years ago without it. Books like Willie & Joe by Bill Mauldin or Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, or our prose line, would have been completely unfeasible in their current incarnations without the book trade, as the direct market would simply not have moved the numbers necessary to cover their considerable costs. The book trade has enabled us to be something closer to what I think Gary, Kim and I envision to be our Platonic Ideal of what Fantagraphics could and should be. It's the reason we have reached a point where projects like The Complete Peanuts are more important to our well-being than Eros Comix. For us, you can't underestimate that importance. I doubt Hibbs sold proportionally as many Willie & Joes relative to Bookscan numbers as he claims he did for L&RNS #2. Not all books are considered equal in regard to what sells where, which necessitates the need for both.

I don't pay attention to Bookscan too closely, but one thing I've gleaned from reading Brian's annual essays is that either he reads way too much into Bookscan numbers, or we pretty dramatically buck the conventional wisdom of what Bookscan "means" in the bigger picture. At this point, your guess is as good as mine as to what the real answer is, I just know that we're happy and grateful to be distributed by both W.W. Norton and Diamond Comics Distributors and hope to continue to work with both for as long as possible.

Tilting at windmills, indeed!

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[Editor's Note: I asked Eric for comment on the Love & Rockets New Stories #2 number in Brian's essay for an essay of my own. Unfortunately, my planned piece came out earlier than Eric's response and turned into me yelling at Brian more than it ended up being a cohesive essay. And then, double-reverse-wham-fortunately, Eric ended up writing this very eloquent response that more than stands on its own. CR is grateful to have it, and if any of you out there could hook it up with a link, I think it deserves attention.]

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posted 7:05 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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