Image from Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson. Published by Dark Horse.
COMICS AND LIBRARIES, SITTING IN A TREE…
I was shocked when I learned that American libraries spent around $35 million on comics and graphic novels last year.1 That’s a lot more than my comics spending allowance! If my taxes are contributing to that figure, I wanted to know the process with which it’s spent and how to access the comics our libraries purchase.
After speaking with representatives from Dark Horse, IDW, iVerse Media and the American Library Association I’ve got some news for you: comic book publishers value libraries, not just as customers, but also as gatekeepers who can set the trend for what we’re reading and how we’ll be reading it. With many insiders concerned about the well being of comics publishing, it’s important to recognize that libraries help keep the industry alive.
Why do comic book publishers value libraries? According to Josh Elder from iVerse Media, the $35 million libraries spent in 2011 is roughly 10–13% of the industry’s profits and is growing steadily.
“Moreover,” said Elder, “certain categories of titles — manga, young readers and educational — can have as much as 30–40% of their sales be through school or library channels.” Clearly, with investments that large, libraries are a significant contributor to the comics industry.
Libraries also influence the industry, as publishers try to cater their buying power with marketing. Dirk Wood, IDW Publishing’s Vice President of Marketing says, “Certainly anytime we can target librarians as a group beyond anywhere our standard marketing would reach, we try to do that.”
Wood considers librarians to be “tastemakers” and reaches out to them whenever possible. How are librarians influencing what we read? Well, for several years a librarian has been on the Eisner Awards jury and librarians are also allowed to submit nominations for the Harvey Awards. In addition, many reading lists and awards are compiled and/or juried by librarians, including Great Graphic Novels for Teens and the Graphic Novel Core Collection For Children. In 2007, the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature went to the graphic novel American Born Chinese.
Comics publishers also create products specifically for library distribution. According to Alan Payne, IDW’s Vice President of Sales, his company originally started producing hardcovers of popular series like Angel and Locke & Key with libraries in mind. Since then, these editions have become so popular that IDW keeps many in print.
Likewise, Dark Horse Comics takes into consideration the perceived interest from libraries when discussing the acquisition of a license or a creator owned property. Michael Martens, Vice President of Book Trade Sales, provides an example. “We knew Jill Thompson and Evan Dorkin’s Beasts of Burden would be popular with younger readers lurking the libraries.” Subsequently, Dark Horse used durable, reinforced, paper-over-boards hardcovers for Beasts of Burden, to appeal to librarian buyers.
Do libraries value comics as much as publishers value them as customers? To give some indication, the Library of Congress has the largest comic book collection in the United States. They’re so committed to keeping up their comics collection that last year they entered an agreement with the Small Press Expo, to obtain the comics and cartoon art highlighted there annually.
Librarians from the American Library Association’s “Graphic Novels & Comics in Libraries Member Interest Group” indicated that they feel graphic novel collections express how libraries value comics on a day-to-day basis. According to ALA Membership Specialist Tina Coleman, librarians are attending comic conventions, participating in panels, presenting and discussing comics at their own professional conferences, reviewing comics and standing up against library challenges to comics.
Don’t forget that librarians decide how to spend that $35 million budget as well. They look to reviews from Library Journal, Booklist, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) and other publications for what graphic novels to buy, while connecting with their patrons and local direct market retailers for advice.
But with both libraries and the comics industry struggling with the shift to digital comics, how will the new medium affect their relationship? Coleman says that because of issues libraries currently face with e-books, librarians are cautious about digital comics. For instance, last year publisher Harper Collins decided to limit the amount of times their library e-books could be lent, causing a heated debate between the library community, publishers and distributors. Despite their frustration with Harper Collins, librarians are watching the comics industry to see what options emerge for distributing digital comics to their patrons.
iVerse’s recently announced Comics Plus: Library Edition could provide a potential option for partnership. “Our model emphasizes access over ownership and gives publishers a majority of every dollar that iVerse earns from every transaction,” said Elder, “We don’t feel there will be any copyright concerns because no products are permanently changing hands. The library is less a lender than a distribution point, and the patron isn’t receiving the product so much as getting a limited term of access to it.” iVerse hopes their service will further accelerate the library market’s already impressive growth. Watch iVerse and your local libraries to see if they’ll participate and you can read some of those digital comics on the cheap.
As library spending grows from last year’s $35 million we’ll continue to see libraries targeted by publishers for their influence on readers. Publishers will keep producing content (both physical and digital) with libraries in mind. Look forward to the reading opportunities offered by your public library system and the publishers working with them.
1 This $35 million figure was widely agreed on by those interviewed here and the estimate likely originated from the White Paper Milton Griepp from ICv2 that was presented at New York Comic Con in 2011.
Note: The author of this article is raising funds to produce his original graphic novel THE CABINET. One of the rewards is a hardcover print edition of the book, designed with libraries in mind.