Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















February 25, 2009


Guest Editorial: Peggy Burns On Those Bookscan Numbers; What They're Good For And What They're Not

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I have yet responded to the extended conversation surrounding the year-end Bookscan sales figures because I've been gathering information and refining my arguments. It's also been extremely difficult for me to figure out just what the hell people are saying. Anyway, one of the persons from whom I've gathered information is Drawn and Quarterly's Peggy Burns, who went above and beyond any call of duty to turn in a full-bore article on the matter that I'm honored to present here. I'll be back tomorrow with some words of my own. -- Tom Spurgeon

On Bookscan
By Peggy Burns

imagePerhaps I'm overly sensitive, but when I read Brian Hibb's annual Bookscan editorials, there always seems to be a desperate need to point out how "art comics" do not sell (Dirk Deppey did a a good job of pointing this out on Monday.) Last year, Brian said he was shocked to see that Shortcomings only sold 5000, which is downright laughable from a publisher's point of view, going so far as to say he though this was a "poor" performance. Mind you, this was 5000 in three months (release date: October 2007), a number any publisher of books or comics would be happy with. This year, he points out that Shortcomings sold another 4000 in 2008, but is quick to point out that Tomine's other books did not rank (the short story collections that are five years and older), a critique he does not bestow upon Bechdel, Spiegelman, Satrapi or anyone else. Basically if you publish single-authored comics -- and especially if you are Adrian Tomine -- you don't sell according to Brian, not even with your hometown retailer. How's that for team comics? How's that for supporting a local artist? Why does Brian think this? I don't know. I am guessing that Brian assumes -- incorrectly -- that comics publishers such as D+Q and Fantagraphics have dismissed the comic market, which couldn't be further from the truth. We have never dismissed the direct market. I will, however, dismiss people who repeatedly go out of their way to try and say our books do not sell.

imageHigh and low Bookscan numbers are hard to dispute -- 13,000 copies in Bookscan means that a book was certainly a strong seller and 164 means it was a poor seller. Bookscan does point out when a book has done well. Very low Bookscan numbers also point out if a book didn't penetrate. Of course, we're very pleased with the relatively high Bookscan numbers for Lynda Barry and Adrian Tomine. But everything in between high and low is a very large, grey area. Take for instance one of our bestselling titles: Moomin The Complete Tove Jansson Book One. Since its publication almost two and a half years ago (release date: November 2006), it has sold through approximately 6700 copies according to Bookscan, but our distributor FSG has shipped over 20,000; we have shipped over 4000 in the comic market; and our Canadian and UK distributors shipped 13,000 -- approximate total 38,000. Trust me when I say we are happy with every single copy sold in any and every market. And we do not care if Bookscan does not come close to indicating the grand total.

imageBookscan doesn't provide an accurate report, but it can be helpful in gauging where our sales lie in relation to other publishers. I use it the same way I use an Amazon ranking -- very loosely. I admit to logging in every Wednesday to see our previous week's numbers. I don't look to see how our books are performing against Naruto or Wimpy Kid, I look to see how our books perform among our distributor FSG's titles, and I look to see how our books perform compared to our closest publishing peer, McSweeneys, and to make sure our books perform as well as the majority of Pantheon's graphic novels (Maus and Persepolis are in their own league, of course.) When I see that Bookscan says that Lynda Barry's What It Is has comparable numbers to Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends for McSweeneys, I am happy. When I do look to see how D+Q titles are performing in the context of comics, I only view the hardcover graphic novel charts (front list -- all from the past 12 months) or back list (everything before the past 12 months), as these are the comics with which we have most in common, not manga mass market paperbacks (with all due respect to the numbers that mass market manga sells.) This is also similar to how the NY Times sorts their list, which is why you don't see The Bible at the top of every chart. Since June 2008, What It Is has been on Bookscan's bestselling frontlist graphic novel in hardcover (meaning a ranking of all hardcovers released in 2008) in Bookscan every week since its release.

Unfortunately for Brian, the truth is that he will never be able to get the full picture of how and where books sell just from Bookscan. Likewise, when I look at Bookscan and see that Hibbs' own book, 2003's Tilting at the Windmills: A Guide Towards Ethical and Successful Comics Retailing (Release Date April 2003) only sold 164 copies, I'm not sitting here wondering how many shipped through Diamond and how am I going write a manifesto to declare this. I'll never know. I do hope, however, that volume two of Tilting at the Windmills: A Guide Towards Ethical and Successful Comics Retailing (Release Date March 2009) has a chapter on public relations and etiquette.

In short, Brian stop hatin' on "art comics!" And stop using Bookscan as some sort of blind for this hatred. It's petty and takes away from any overall usefulness of your report.

*****

* from What It Is
* Peggy Burns illustration by Adrian Tomine
* Moomin Volume One
* Shortcomings

*****
*****
 
posted 4:20 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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