23 April 2008

Market Forces in Kids’ Comics Today

Publishers Weekly's report on the Kids Comics Publishers Roundtable at the New York Comic-Con had some news about the economics of publishing "graphic novels" for kids. These factors will have an effect on what creators can and can't do in the medium--at least profitably, and at least for now.

To start with, there's been a generational shift in how the comics retail chain perceives its market. Once people saw comics as a medium for kids only. Now comics created for kids are "the most underground of underground comics," according to Janna Morishima of Diamond, the dominant distributor.

On the economic side, Liesa Abrams of Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin Books stated: “Children’s retailers need prices to be kept low, much lower than you can get away with for the direct market” (i.e., comic-book shops, which now cater mainly to adults). That matches the gap in prices for novels of equal length for adult and younger readers. More specifically, PW said:

Randall Jarrell of Oni Press agreed, pointing out that readers could buy a 200-page Captain Underpants chapter book for $4. “That’s a really hard price point for most graphic novel publishers to meet,” he said. His solution was to publish Salt Water Taffy, a new graphic novel series by Matthew Loux, on a quarterly basis at $6 for a 96-page graphic novel.
Let's check that math. The first Adventures of Captain Underpants book is actually $4.99 for 144 pages. That's not as stark a contrast with $5.95 for 96 pages, the price for a Salt Water Taffy volume. Still, there is a difference, and if parents have a lingering reluctance to spend much on a comics volume ("I remember when these were a dollar! And how much is a comic book worth?"), that price gap could be significant.

Why do graphic-novel publishers have trouble matching a traditional book publisher’s price? Both books in that comparison are small paperbacks with one-color printing inside. I suspect the determining factors are paper quality and, most important, economies of scale. Captain Underpants is, after all, from Scholastic. It knows better than any other company how to publish and distribute mass-market books for kids.

Another piece of important news for creators is what the market now looks for in trim size.
Jarrell said he saw sales on his Courtney Crumrin trade paperbacks skyrocket when he reduced the trim size from standard comics format to manga size. “We cannot underestimate the importance of manga,” he said. “It is a format and trim size and experience that kids are growing up with.”
The smaller trim is called "digest" size on Oni's website.

In reissuing the Bone series, I note, Scholastic not only worked with Jeff Smith to add color to his books but also reduced the trim--not all the way to manga size, but significantly smaller.

Since a digest/manga page has less space and usually fewer panels than a comic-book-size page, young readers' preference for the smaller trim will have a direct impact on scripts and art.


prkcs said...

Construction quality. 100%. I don't think we've had a Captain Underpants book last for more than 3 months in my library, even if no one checks it out (yes, we stock that many copies). The pages fall out, the binding snaps in two, etc. Small-press graphic novels haven't had any of these problems (at least, not at my library).


J. L. Bell said...

That's interesting because back here another reader said the "comic books (graphic novels?)" in her school library fall apart.

I suspect it's a matter of getting what you and the publisher pay for. Scholastic keeps its Captain Underpants paperbacks cheap by using materials appropriate for disposable books. Most comic books are still printed on pulp for the same reason.

But both prose books and comics, from large presses and small presses, can be made well. Then it's up to us to pay more for them.

David Maxine said...

Well, Scholastic is an entity unto itself. The volume of sales they can anticipate - and the printing and shipping contracts they can negotiate make a big difference.

Indeed back when comics were on newsprint and cost 35 cents they were selling half-a-million copies each. The market changed and now a comic is lucky to sell 20,000 copies. A self-published comic is gonna be luck to sell 1000.

One not much discussed change in the pricing structure of comics/graphic novels in the post $1 era is the money paid to the creator. Unlike "regular" books, the writer/artist will need to be paid pretty much in full in advance of publication. If a publisher is forking out $250 to $350 dollars a page to the creative team that can get to be expensive. I don't think a typical prose-author is getting a $35,000 advance.