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News: Comics at BEA: One Year Later
posted June 7, 2004

June 7 -- If 2003 was an amazing year for comics at Book Expo America because of the special attention in programming and display space paid the medium by the largest gathering of book publishers and book buyers in North America, then 2004 may have been just as impressive for the way several comics companies solidified their places as important contributors to the overall book market.

Manga was certainly as prominent at this year's show as at 2003's, if not more so, as the category continues to gain readers and provide impressive traffic of both genders into bookstore markets. Viz increased its advertising presence at the show and Tokyopop offered a larger display space and found prime real estate at the front of the McCormick Place floor area. In kind of an ironic twist on the state of the industry, the duo that las year, sold Crossgen books to librarians and other interested parties, Chris Oarr and Robert Boyd, were on hand to represent ADV Manga in their new positions.

The formal comics-focused display area -- the "Graphic Novel Pavilion" -- where clients of Diamond Distribution and other related publishers set up shop, was twice as big as 2003. Instead of last year's series of graphic novel panels, the comics related programming included a heavy-hitting manga panel, a graphic novel trends panel, and Art Spiegelman offering a preview of his In the Shadow of No Towers Fall release from Pantheon Books. According to most comics-related people in attendance, librarians facilitating the purchase of graphic novel collections were very active, attentive attendees.

Terry Nantier, whose NBM Publishing displayed within the pavilion found himself more impressed with this year's Expo than last year's. "I thought it was much better in terms of interest," he told the Journal. "I saw some substantial turnaround of interest from booksellers, particularly the first day. We were busy from the moment the Expo opened until late that night, with booksellers looking to find out more and get more knowledgeable. That was really quite positive." Nantier said that in his experience the librarians were more advanced in terms of being further along in their buying plans than the booksellers. Most of the librarians he talked to had gotten past the stinking stage and had started building their comics section, and often knew specifically about NBM and what they had to offer. Booksellers, according to the publisher, "are still more tentative, still more trying to figure things out." Asked about a specific standout book, Nantier cited Ted Rall's new work as a valuable icebreaker. "Generalissimo El Bush stopped people right in their tracks," he said.

Fantagraphics Books, the publishers of this magazine and the subject of whispers the convention over for their 2003 public plea to buyers and subsequent special sale to ensure solvency, enjoyed a productive year highlighted by the reception for the first volume of their Complete Peanuts series. "Thanks to Seth's eye-catching cover, hundreds of people stopped in their tracks for a quick lesson about our books," said Sales Manager Greg Zura. Zura said that FBI seemed to be an appointment stop for more librarians and booksellers than in 2003, and that the recent exposure given to graphic novels in general led to visits by "an element I don't think we've ever seen before: business consults and Mergers and Acquisitions people looking to skim a bit off our top." Fantagraphics distributed WW Norton was able to successfully arrange a continuance deal with North Carolina-based library fulfillment giant Baker & Taylor to better secure future sales to libraries.

The publisher also worked with Canadian retailer Chapter/Indigo on categorization of trade volumes in bookstores, and met with their Canadian trade distributor Raincoast Books to try and rectify the disparity of accounts between that company and United States companies handling the same sort of business. "They require upwards of 5% greater discount than their American counterparts," Zura told the Journal. "We suspect that they can demand such a high percentage because they deal mostly with Canadian publishers whose working capital comes from government grants."

Drawn and Quarterly, which offered one of the more impressive booth areas at BEA 2003, skipped the show this year in favor of concentrating its resources elsewhere. "Rather than send me to Chicago, it made more sense for us to use the money to send the cartoonists out and about," said Peggy Burns, the company's director of marketing and publicity. She cited an aggressive touring schedule that included appearances by Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Sacco and Adrian Tomine at various big-city Barnes and Nobles, Borders, and independent bookstores like Housing Works in New York City and Cody's in Berkeley. Burns said that they chose not to attend with the full understanding of their United States distributor, Chronicle Books, LLC. "Chronicle wasn't super insistent that we attend in 2003, it was our choice to exhibit in 2003 and our choice not to exhibit in 2004, though our books were still on display at the Chronicle booth. We will exhibit in 2005. And we did attend Book Expo Canada."

The biggest publishing news related to comics may have come from Andrews McMeel, the little talked about major publisher for newspaper comic strip collections. The Kansas City based company announced plans at the show for a three volume hardcover slip-cased complete Calvin and Hobbes collection for Fall 2005. A two-volume collection of Gary Larson's Far Side has sold out of two print runs to date despite a retail price of $135. The collection of Bill Watterson's 1985-1995 runaway newspaper hit should retail at approximately $150.

Despite Watterson's reputation for exacting detail when it comes to presenting his work, Andrews McMeel publicist Mackenzie Roberts told the Journal that the publishing house has much of the work already completed and does not foresee the same kinds of problems that delayed The Complete Far Side. In the case of Larson's work, not only was the cartoonist adamant about certain changes and type that needed to be reset, the work had to be vetted through Larson's FarWorks company. Watterson, an always-private figure who has remained completely off of the press radar since the strip ended, lacks that kind of infrastructure. "It will be ready to go," said Roberts.