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February 19, 2007

Go, Read: Bookscan 2007 Analysis

In case you missed it, prominent retailer and fiery apostle of the comic book direct market Brian Hibbs released his 2007 report on comics Bookscan numbers on Newsarama in the supposedly light Internet activity period of Friday afternoon. You don't want to miss this essential yearly column, especially not this year, Hibbs' best outing yet.

There are two improvements. One, Hibbs has real year-end numbers rather than the last-week-of-the-year numbers he's offered in previous years. Both sets provide cumulative numbers, so it's not like Hibbs was making insane leaps of logic with those books he had, but there was always the likelihood a few books would not chart that last week despite selling tons of copies earlier in the year, eliminating them from the list. Two, Hibbs in his analysis leaves behind a lot of his holding-his-thumb-up math of the "I sell ten copies of this and I know some guys who sell others so really we're talking a lot here" variety.

What's left is an informative piece in an accessible voice breaking down comics' bookstore achievements by category, all based on Bookscan. It's the best of the bookstore measurements: it provides what one imagines is a strong picture of the market's thrust, and snapshots of various usefulness regarding specific books' and types of books' performance. As Dirk Deppey points out at today's Journalista, books from smaller publishers are traditionally thought to be harder to measure by Bookscan because many publish material that is favored by independent bookstores that are poorly represented in Bookscan's sample. Also, today's graphic novels have at track record of selling well in a variety of outlets that aren't covered by Bookscan at all.

If there's one weakness to Hibbs' analysis, it's in his relating it to the Direct Market at all. This yields a few interesting nuggets, such as a few high-profile independent books that appeal to both bookstore and the Direct Market, and a few others that are DM-oriented, and I personally don't mind the idea behind comparing sell-to to sell-through when there's a non-returnable aspect involved. While it does make individual book analysis suspect, because there's no way to account for books that just totally tank in that market, over time companies are interested in sales at whatever point more than whether or not their books find a good home. As long as you keep the comparison in mind, I see how that could be useful.

Generally, though, when Hibbs in his summary statement says the Direct Market is "holding their own," he betrays a lingering mindset of competition for consumer dollars and publisher attention that is better ignored.

I don't believe as Dirk Deppey seems to that Hibbs is creating a total straw man when he seems to assume that some people out there doubt the effectiveness and importance of comics shops. No one on earth has time to track down individual statements and examples of rhetoric now three and four years old, but I remember for instance being in a room when a comics company owner was told by one such advocate that any extra effort at all working with the direct market was "a total waste of time." You can't tell me that sentiment didn't exist. Still, I agree with Dirk I don't think it's a sentiment that anyone invested in actual decision-making at these companies takes seriously. It's not a case that needs to be made. In addition, the only place where the idea existed that arts- and alternative-type comics do outstandingly well in bookstores exists is in the press statements of people hopeful that this would be the case for their comics as well and bad feature articles in the local paper. Just because they remember 1996 doesn't mean alt-comics companies look at 2007 as anything other than a continuing struggle. So Hibbs is popping an already deflated balloon there.

The real contrast between the DM and the bookstore market isn't the part about the numbers but the material that sells in each, and why, and where this new market came from, and the jumpstart it provides in everyone re-thinking what the comics readership looks like. Hibbs has provided a valuable service in describing this to us, and potentially giving us a hedge against the more ridiculous frontiers of hyped bullshit surrounding sales success. But the other stuff is straight-up 2004. I'm bullish on comic shops, too; I would be no matter how the numbers fell out.
posted 11:18 am PST | Permalink

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