Comics In Libraries

By | Thursday, July 16, 2009 3 comments
Graphic Novel Reporter recently spoke with three librarians who work primarily with middle school students. All three had (within the past few years) helped initiate graphic novel programs into their respective libraries, and have been unilaterally been delighted with the results.

The takeaway here is that a great way to broaden the overall comics market is simply to get comics into places where kids have access to them. All three librarians were not just pleased, but floored at how well their graphic novel programs were doing. Especially with so little (if any) promotion on their part.

Which ultimately points us back to the major limitation of the direct market. It's a closed-loop system; newcomers are inherently kept from getting on board and the system is forced to perpetually feed on itself. And unlike Ouroboros, that does NOT make it immortal but, rather, it ensures a decidedly finite lifespan.

What would the cost be, I wonder, for a publisher to ship some of their books out to libraries for free? Not everything -- that would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive -- and not necessarily to ALL libraries -- again, too expensive. But maybe five or ten books to the biggest, most-trafficked libraries. Some good, all-ages material. Wouldn't that kind of exposure almost guarantee more sales? And, more to the point, those sales would most likely be from completely new customers entirely removed from those of us already in that loop.

Seeing how financially feasible that was strikes me as a project somebody with access to some hard numbers ought to take up!
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Matthew E said...

I can't tell you how many comics I've read by borrowing them from the library. A lot. Some of them I went on to purchase my own copies of; some not. Some of them, my reaction was, "Man! I'm sure glad I got this from the library before I actually spent money on the damn thing!"

Okay... as a librarian, thanks for noticing this, but... librarians have known about GNs for at least five years. Yes, there are some who are unfamiliar with the medium, some still have prejudices, but by and large, librarians LOVE graphic novels. Why? Because it is a gateway drug for reluctant readers. Kids who don't normally read for pleasure will look at a graphic novel. And once you activate a kid's imagination with books... mu wha Ha HA! (ahem... sorry.)

Second, DC Comics has been participating at Book Expo for decades. They realized that libraries are the OTHER Direct Market. You sell a book to a library, it never gets returned, unlike the bookstore market. (Distributors give better discounts to libraries, because on non-returnability, and because of the volume of books ordered each year.) Since DC and Warner Books were corporate cousins, Warner distributed DC titles (what few there were) to bookstores and libraries. Eventually, other publishers figured this out, and now everyone sells to bookstores on a returnable basis. By selling via bookstore distributors, libraries can acquire titles easily. (Before, many had local accounts with comic shops. Rory Root was a trailblazer in this market, which is why the Berkeley Public Library has one of the best circulating collections.

Sales? That's iffy. Libraries may order more copies if a series is popular (like they do for bestsellers), but why would an individual buy a book when they can check it out? (MAYBE if they can't wait for the next installment, like Harry Potter. But there's so much OTHER stuff available to read while they wait.)

A publisher doesn't have to send out free copies. The most trafficked, biggest libraries figured out the success of GNs years ago. Almost every library system has a special display area for GNs, just like they have areas for Science Fiction, Cookbooks, Romance, and other popular categories. With computerized catalogs, libraries can retrieve circulation figures with a few keystrokes.

(Although DC, with their new Random House distribution, did send a free copy of Watchmen to every RH bookstore account which didn't order GNs, along with a letter explaining about the book and the medium.)

Librarians already know the magic of GNs! Trade journals review titles on a regular basis. There are numerous online sites which review titles. There's a listserver for librarians and graphic novels. National and regional library conferences feature GNs and notable creators. (Like the recent ALA convention in Chicago.)

Oh, wait a minute... publishers do hand out free copies. BEA is known for freebies! (Thanks, IDW, for the new Parker ARC! Mmmm...)

DC, back around 1997, partnered with the New York Public Library on an experiment. DC and librarians selected a few DC and Vertigo titles, about ten, and featured them in branch libraries. With circulation figures, they were able to track the success, which was proven.

Most importantly, the publishers librarians know and trust, like Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Random House are publishing and marketing graphic novels, especially for young readers.

The best thing about libraries? Their written selection policies. They are selective in what they acquire, so they offer the best (and/or most popular) titles. Titles which have garnered good reviews.

All ages titles in libraries?
(for comparison, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is in 4166 WorldCat libraries)
Jeff Smith's Shazam...547 libraries
Bone Volume 1...993
Amelia Rules...408
Persepolis...2380 (okay, not all ages, but wanted to show one of the more successful titles)

(Each library has at least ONE copy of the title in the collection.) (School libraries aren't normally part of WorldCat and OCLC. But School Library Journal actively reviews GNs, so I believe they are as hip as public libraries.)

Here is the Great Granddaddy comics library of them all:

Thanks for all the additional info, Torsten!

I didn't mean to suggest that librarians "finding" comics is new, or that there aren't a lot of libraries who don't already have great collections. I was aiming my post more at the publishers that, it seems to me, could be doing a lot more.

I think you're right that, if someone reads Watchmen from the library, they're likely not going to run out to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy for themselves. But I'm wondering if they read New Froniter at the library, they might go out and buy Selina's Big Score or some JLA Archives or something.

Kudos to DC for being a solid presence at BEA and sending out copies of Watchmen; it sounds like they're doing exactly what I was suggesting. It kind of proves the point I was trying to make: that publishers should take advantage of the interest libraries already have, and provide additional support. From a librarian's perspective, it's a great bridging tool to get kids interested in reading, but from a publisher's perspective, I think it's a good long-term sales strategy as well.