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A Short Interview With James Kimball
posted March 22, 2005


How Are Graphic Novels Marketed?
A Q&A with James Kimball, Marketing Director for Pantheon's Graphic Novel Line

There is no more exciting market for comics right now than bookstores. Pantheon Books has been among a handful of publishing companies directly responsible for the latest wave of success for graphic novel sales in bookstores. With Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Pantheon showed that a largely unknown comics author could reach an audience the same way a promising debut novelist could. Pantheon has since forged an impressive string of solid-performers and hits with authors like Matt Groening, Dan Clowes, Mark Beyer, Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman.

This winter, Pantheon is releasing not one but two lauded books by authors largely unknown to American audiences: Epileptic, a story of one family's attempt to deal with a child's malady told through a sibling's perspective, and Gemma Bovery, an illustration-driven take on Gustave Flaubert's literary classic.

On the day I spoke to the Director of Marketing for Pantheon's line, James Kimball, Epileptic had finished a strong first month of review-driven sales including front-of-the-store placement in major booksellers, while Gemma Bovery had just secured a glowing review in the New York Times.

TOM SPURGEON: Is the opinion of the marketing team ever sought out when it comes to deciding which graphic novels Pantheon publishes or when they're scheduled?

JAMES KIMBALL: In terms of scheduling, certainly. But it's really [editors] Dan Frank and Chip Kidd who have the vision about Pantheon graphic novels and what we should publish. Their mantra has been that the words and the art have to be equal; they both have to superb. It can't be one or the other. I think that has really helped establish Pantheon as the premier graphic novel publisher in big trade publishing.

SPURGEON: So when does the marketing department typically find out about a graphic novel that Pantheon is putting out?

KIMBALL: At what we call a launch meeting that the editor presents to sales and marketing.

SPURGEON: How far in advance of publication is a launch meeting?

KIMBALL: About nine to ten months.

SPURGEON: After the launch meeting, is a marketing strategy then developed for each book?

KIMBALL: Yeah. Then it has to do with are we doing galleys and ARCs [advance reading copies] and how many. It goes into everything from our catalog to doing sell sheets on a particular author. Each book is different; we don't lump them into the same bin like you would with manga. Each one can stand on its own, and that's how we try to publish them.

imageSPURGEON: With marketing Epileptic, you're dealing with a French author, David B., who is not someone well known to American audiences.

KIMBALL: I think Simon and Schuster children's had published some of his stuff. But you're right. He wasn't known except by people "in the know."

SPURGEON: How did that change your plan for marketing Epileptic as opposed to how you might approach a new book from a cartoonist who's a known quantity to bookstore buyers, like Art Spiegelman or Marjane Satrapi?

KIMBALL: They [Davd B. and Satrapi] actually know each other, and she lives in Paris as well. He was a bit of a mentor for her. So we had that connection. Because of the titles we've done the bookstores trust us now in terms of delivering on the quality of the author, the quality of the packages.

SPURGEON: I found it interesting that Epileptic hit bookstores the first week in January, which seems like an odd date to me.

KIMBALL: It's a matter of spacing the books out. Gemma Bovery, by Posy Simmonds, comes out next Tuesday [February 1]. We also had a Chris Ware coming out in April that we had to move to the fall for production reasons. We have a new Marjane Satrapi, Embroideries, in April. We don't want to have the books overlap and take away from each other. We want them to have their own space. We've also found that with early January, a smaller book, a niche book, can find its way.

SPURGEON: Why is that?

KIMBALL: January's become a very strong sales month in general. You have gift cards hat are bought for the holidays and people redeem them in January. And so there's a lot of traffic in stores. There are a lot of big books on sale at the beginning of January, so there's in-store foot traffic, too.

SPURGEON: You make heavy use of galleys and ARCs. With a book like Epileptic, which is so striking visually, does seeing it make an even bigger difference?

KIMBALL: That does, and that's why we do those galleys. It's still very difficult to present what we know the book is going to look like when we don't have the finished book yet. We try to do that with a sell sheet, or maybe some interior spreads for reps to help sell the account buyers.

SPURGEON: Is subject matter ever a marketing hook?

imageKIMBALL: I think it's an angle, but it's not played up that much. With some of these -- Persepolis, Persepolis 2, and I believe this book -- they've been getting course adoption. They've also been crossing over to YA -- the young adult readers. That has helped us a great deal. That means the libraries pick up on it.

SPURGEON: How much marketing work goes into the library sales and how is that market different?

KIMBALL: I work with our library department that goes to all the library shows, and they'll have samples of the books and catalogs and such. I think those sales more centered on the various shows that are presented to librarians around the country. It's less of a scheduled sell-in.

SPURGEON: At what point do your salespeople hit their accounts with a new book?

KIMBALL: After the launch, in about three or four months we have a pre-sales conference where we present a book to major accounts and divisional heads who are in charge of reps who sell to independent stores. And then we have a big sales conference a month or two after that where we present it to everybody in sales. Typically after that sales conference everybody goes out to sell.

SPURGEON: Pantheon's done really well with big bookstore accounts like Barnes and Noble and Border's. It used to be that books like Epileptic only sold to independent booksellers.

KIMBALL: I think the bigger accounts are learning that there's a real market out there. The indies were the biggest supporters and still are with a lot of titles. Amazon has always done well but has started doing better. And the chains are really coming in.

SPURGEON: What's different about marketing with on-line booksellers?

KIMBALL: There are different marketing things you can do on their site. You know when you go on and see what a book is matched up with and discounted? We work with our sales reps on securing what title a book will be matched with. And then there are also e-mail blasts they send out to past buyers: say they bought Persepolis, we might ask them to do one for Epileptic.

SPURGEON: That's paid for then, each time it's done.

KIMBALL: It's out of co-op.

SPURGEON: Can you characterize the size of the budget for marketing a book like Epileptic?

KIMBALL: It's not a huge budget; in book publishing, what is? But once you get down to this level, we see it as really review driven and word of mouth. Once those come in we'll do some advertising, particularly in the alternatives in New York.

SPURGEON: A lot of people have been impressed with the placement of Epileptic in stores.

KIMBALL: I work with the sales director and with reps about where to place something like that. Hopefully we'll get front-of-store for a little while and when the reviews hit people can go in and see the book right there. It's more the rep working with the buyer, though.

SPURGEON: That space is purchased, right?

KIMBALL: A lot of times, yeah, it comes out of co-op.

SPURGEON: How important is timing in what you do?

KIMBALL: Tremendously. Posy [Simmonds] has this review today, and hopefully more to come. If you go to the store and you can't find [her book] right away you might have to go to the section and dig around for it. Usually the buys we've been getting ensure that there are five or six or more books in one store. So they would be out on the front table.

SPURGEON: So that first window of opportunity is important?

KIMBALL: Extremely important. More and more important. The first four to eight weeks you see the majority of sales. Some titles do have long legs -- Maus keeps selling. Persepolis I and II, they keep selling. The stores have modeled them and keep re-ordering.

SPURGEON: How nimble is your department to react to something you might hear after a book hits?

KIMBALL: For instance, on something like Epileptic, if we get great reviews, I may say to the promotion department, "Let's make a small easel-back poster." It may just be for one region -- say San Francisco, if something ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. We produce them pretty fast and get them out to stores. And we've had good success with that. It brings a little more attention to a book in a crowded store.

SPURGEON: What have you learned about marketing comics now that you're further along in putting books out in your graphic novel line?

KIMBALL: There's a big core audience out there, but it's growing and spreading. It's not just urban-based -- there are a lot of fans in the suburbs. Maybe it's the skateboard kids out there, you know. It's very strong East Coast and West Coast, although you do have Chicago and stuff. But if you look at sales, a good portion of it is in the suburbs. Also -- these books have long legs. Some of them will have explosive sales, but others you have to be patient with and they'll grow into a plateau and stay there for a while.

SPURGEON: Have there been any frustrations working with what is essentially a new market?

KIMBALL: I want to say, but I don't want to get in trouble. The chains have come to play on it. They weren't at first, and I think they've learned and our reps have done a great job in educating them. I think now they see it as a very strong, viable category.

SPURGEON: Is Pantheon able to handle more graphic novels in year now than it did before?

KIMBALL: Everyone is getting into the game, but some have gotten in because it's become a strong category. They don't necessarily have the experience or know what they are doing. Yes, it's grown a lot. We did Jimmy Corrigan, and then we ramped it up to do four to six a year when it used to be one to three.

SPURGEON: Four to six is a number Pantheon feel it can sustain and also a number that serves the marketplace?

KIMBALL: Yeah. We'll see where the market goes.