The big news of the day is that the New York Times has launched not one, but three “graphic books” best-seller lists. “Graphic books”? My guess is that there was a big debate down on the cube farm about whether “graphic novels” was a hoity-toity expression for plain ol’ comic books, and this emerged as some sort of a compromise, because I have been writing about comics for four years and reading them for over forty, and I have never heard anyone use the term “graphic books” before.
The manga list evoked a combination of chuckles and WTF?! around the blogosphere, because—inevitably—eight of the ten books on the list were recent volumes of Naruto. Rather shamefully, the NYT put the same generic tagline on seven of them. What, you didn’t have an intern who could spend an hour reading the blurbs on the backs of the books and writing a different one for each?
The real head-scratcher, though, is the two books that aren’t Naruto: vol. 8 of MPD-Psycho and vol. 11 of Eden. Both books carry an 18+ rating and come shrink-wrapped, which means that bookstores are less likely to carry them and the potential audience is somewhat limited. The direct market is the logical home for these books, but according to Diamond’s numbers, the last volume of MPD-Psycho, which was released in mid-December, sold fewer than 2,000 copies through them. The last volume of Eden didn’t chart at all in May or June 2008, which means it must have sold fewer than about 1,100 copies. Even Nana does better than that, and we all know the DM is a boys’ club. By contrast, volumes of Naruto sell in the 5,000-copy range in the direct market and probably do much better in chain bookstores (BookScan doesn’t make public the number of copies sold, so it’s hard to tell).
There are all sorts of explanations for this, of course. Perhaps vol. 10 of Eden, which was released in May, sold 1,000 copies each in May and June, a relatively robust number for the direct market but not enough to get it onto the Diamond charts. Also, the NYT charts include online sales, and lots of folks probably get their MPD-Psycho fix online. The person who has been online sales most assiduously is Matt Blind at Rocket Bomber, and it will be interesting to compare his February 28 chart (which is not out yet) with the NYT’s.
Here’s what I think: Manga like MPD-Psycho or Eden have a pretty dedicated following, and it’s entirely possible that almost everyone who is going to buy them buys them the week they come out, causing a blip in the ratings big enough to elbow aside everything but Naruto. That’s probably a good thing, because it brings those series to public attention. However, a title that sells fewer copies each week but more in the long run will never make the NYT chart, although we can expect more variety once Viz’s latest Naruto blitz is over.
It would be nice if we could have one cumulative, continuously updated chart with real sales numbers, but given all the different channels through which comics move, that’s not too likely. The NYT is just one snapshot; it’s weekly and covers a variety of sales channels, so it’s a bit broader in scope than the Diamond and BookScan charts even though it covers a narrower slice of time. Put enough snapshots together, and you start to see the big picture, although there may be big holes just beyond the borders—who knows? In the end, the most important thing about the NYT list is that it’s the New York Times that’s publishing it, and that in itself has a lot of value.
J. Caleb Mozzocco has a good laugh over the whole thing at Every Day Is Like Wednesday. ICv2 actually asked about the “graphic books” moniker and got an answer that confirms my suspicion that everyone was thinking just a bit too hard about this. Other blogosphere reax: