Manga Answerman - Do Comic Book Stores Still Hesitate To Stock Manga?

by Deb Aoki,

Do comic shops still hesitate to stock manga or is that just an old stereotype at this point? I'd find it hard to believe they would still resist it.

For this particular question, I decided to ask some folks on the front lines of selling manga in comics shops: Morgana Santilli and Nick Rowe.

Morgana is the Manga Buyer and Manga Manager at Comicopia in Boston, Massachusetts. She also has a blog, The Manga Maven (https://mangamaven.com/), where she reviews manga and shares manga news and views. You can also find her on Twitter, at @MorganaRhalina

Nick is the Director of Comics Inventory and Social Media Manager at Dr. Comics and Mr. Games in Oakland, California. Both are big on advocating for manga in comics shops, and have tons of direct experience with all aspects of selling manga in a comics shop. You can find him on Twitter at @SPD4649

We ended up having a pretty long conversation about the ups and downs of selling manga in the comic shop market, such that including everything we talked about in that conversation in this column would make it way too long for this particular column, but I'll try to serve up some of the key points.

So yes, there are still comics shops that have a hard time stocking manga on their shelves in a way that makes business sense for them. Why? Well, there are several reasons.

According to Morgana, “The resistance (from comic shop managers/owners) is varied. I think a lot of retailers are still of the mindset that manga is a niche thing, or that they were burned by the boom and bust from ten+ years ago. I've had some retailers who are close to other shops who just do manga better (like Kinokuniya). In one instance, a retailer decided not to sell manga because kids just come in and sit on the floor to read it.”

So it's helpful here to explain something about how comics shops and bookstores stock their books differently and how that impacts their decision to carry manga. Most, if not all comic shops get most of their comics (thin 30+ page monthly comics) and graphic novels from Diamond Distribution, a company that pretty much has the market cornered, as far as getting comics and toys into comics shops. This is what is referred to as 'the direct market.' When a comics shop orders comics/books from Diamond, they browse through a monthly catalog that Diamond publishes called Previews World and make selections for what will be delivered to their shop two or more months later. Many shops encourage regular patrons to browse through Previews and pre-order comics they're interested in, so they're sure to get a copy when it hits the shelves.

Why do they encourage comic shop regulars to do this? Because it helps minimize their financial risk by (kinda) guaranteeing that someone will buy it if they bring in that particular comic or graphic novel. I mention “risk” because the deal with buying comics the “direct market” way means that if you're a comics shop owner or manager and you buy manga, comics or graphic novels for your store, for the most part, it's yours forever, until someone comes in and buys it. If no one buys it, it'll just sit there and gather dust on the shelf or someday go into the discount bin, sometimes selling it for less that what it cost to bring it into the shop.

This is different than how bookstores handle graphic novels, in that bookstores have the option to return what doesn't sell back to the distributor and get a credit for what they return. This allows them to just keep what sells, and return what doesn't sell. When Borders Bookstores went under several years ago, they returned a LOT of unsold books to the various manga publishers, and that ended up creating a huge financial blow that took years for publishers to recover from. During those dark days, several manga publishers simply went out of business or drastically cut their output thanks to this turn of events.

When Morgana mentions the “boom and bust” period, she's referring to the heady early days of “the manga boom” in N. American publishing – when manga initially enjoyed huge year-over-year sales growth in the early to mid 00's, and a LOT of manga of (ahem) various degrees of quality and reader appeal hit the shelves. The market got pretty saturated, and comic shop owners, who, for the most part, tend to favor and read gritty sci-fi or superhero-centric fare from American publishers like DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse tried to keep up and add some manga to the mix of titles in their stores.

And then things came crashing down (for various reasons, which Jason Thompson explains in greater detail for his article for i09 in 2012, and when the dust cleared, many comics shops were left with piles of odds and ends manga that they simply couldn't sell. If you go into your average comic book shop with a so-so manga selection, chances are, you'll find a quirky, dusty and maybe dog-eared mix of books that to a comic shop buyer, represents money lost and valuable shelf space being taken up by something that just gathers dust. In broad strokes, this is what people refer to when they talk about comic shops feeling “burned” by manga in the past.

But back to your question and back to Nick and Morgana. Here's some of their observations from the front lines of comic shop retailing:

It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem, as far as manga in comics shop – If a comics shop doesn't have a nicely curated, regularly updated selection of manga, then they don't attract customers who like to buy manga. And without a regular stream of customers coming in to buy manga, it's hard for a comics shop owner to invest time and money to stock it on their shelves, particularly if they don't know or read manga themselves.

From Morgana: “In my experience, most comic shop owners started their stores because they loved comics, met frequently superheroes. They know a lot about that subject, and maybe they stopped following the new material after a while because it no longer was for them. And that's okay! Like I said, a lot of them want to diversify. But they need help knowing how to do that.”

Nick chimed in, “I agree most comes down to lack of knowledge. But there's a HUGE number of retailers out there who legit don't care about manga, or don't think it has any place in comic shops. Some retailers have gotten outright hostile with me when I've suggested taking a more targeted approach, looking at what western comics sell well and pair those with similar manga titles.”

So what can be done? Help out your local comics shop by ordering or requesting manga you enjoy reading and want to buy.

“Shopping local and communicating with your shop is a huge advantage,” said Morgana. “If a retailer sees that more of their customers are requesting manga, they might decide to take a chance on ordering more for the shelves as well. If they can't see the market for it, they won't know the market exists. They're not out there looking at all the manga news. They can't possibly keep up with it, especially if they don't have a frame of reference for it.”

“A lot of customers don't know that just because a comic shop doesn't have a book or series in stock doesn't mean they won't order it,” said Morgana. “I think a lot of retailers are at a loss as to what manga to stock, and could really use the input from customers, since to a large extent that's how single issue comics sales work as well. And that's why I do my mailing list; a lot of retailers can't parse what's good or sellable, and need a specific pitch that draws comparisons to other books or types of readers.' For example, she mentioned selling Spider-Man readers on My Hero Academia.

Nick echoed this sentiment, and shared some success stories about how he introduces non-manga readers to manga they might like.

“I've been pitching Blame by Tsutomu Nihei to East of West readers since Nick Dragotta cited Nihei as a key influence for EoW's visual aesthetic,” he said. Nick also promotes Prison School to Sex Criminals fans, Planetes and Gundam Origin to Descender readers, and Dorohedoro to Saga and Monstress fans.

If a comics shop is serious about selling more manga, then having a manga point person or resident expert is a big help.

Nick also takes the time to create his own “shelf talkers” or recommendation cards at his shop (see Dr. Comics Jojo's and Dorohedoro examples)

“I tell retailers this all the time: if you want to stock manga you should ideally have SOMEONE on your staff who knows a little about it,” said Morgana.

As for sales, Comicopia is reaping the benefits of having a strong selection of manga. “We've always stocked manga, even before I got here,” said Morgana. “My boss's philosophy was always "comics is comics," basically. We just had to expand out manga section to fit it all. And in the store, it doesn't necessarily make us more money than single issues, but I find that more people come looking for it,or come in because they heard we do manga well.”

Kinda like, “if you build it, they will come.”

One example of strong sales for manga at Comicopia is how well they do at shows like Anime Boston. “We have our most success at conventions selling manga than literally any other venture,” she said. “We make at least ten times as much during Anime Boston than Free Comic Book Day, for instance.”

She continued, '(Comic shop owners) legitimately want to sell whatever sells. I think the roadblock is in understanding that manga sells like hotcakes when you know how to sell it.”

Support from manga publishers has been a big help too.

As Nick pointed out, “One factor a lot of retailers don't realize is Diamond signed a wider distribution contract with both Viz and Yen Press, so both catalogues are almost entirely available at Diamond at all times now. So in the past when we had difficulties stocking new volumes of Naruto, One Piece, even Dragon Ball, that's more or less a thing of the past.”

VIZ is also making more of an effort to be present at Diamond comics retailer conferences and offering sales support to comics shops.

This is a big deal, when there are comic shop staff who have never heard of VIZ or other manga publishers. As Nick put it, “I visited a shop and asked them if they had any other Viz titles, to which the clerk responded "I've never heard of that company"

“I know of one retailer specifically who had completely vowed off manga after the bust until Viz presented a program with clear advice on stocking and selling titles,” Morgana recalled. “Now he's one of the most vocal people I know about stocking manga and enjoys getting advice about it whenever possible.”

Morgana also mentioned appreciation for the efforts of the promotions team at One Peace Books as a contributing factor to their store's strong sales of I See the Sunspot.

“We have Sunspot constantly on display, and we got this awesome little sign from One Peace for the release of the third volume. Both I and one of my coworkers are big fans of it, so we handsell it a lot. Because we have a pretty decent queer customer base and a big ol' Pride flag in our window, we get asked for queer material a lot.”

So that was a very long answer to your short question – it's hard to speak for all comics shops, because many are as unique as the communities that they serve. But I think the general takeaways from the conversation I had with Nick and Morgana is that 1) some comic shops are interested in manga but need help to get it going in their stores, and 2) this help can come from publishers, readers/customers, and distributors. It's kind of a big problem, but hopefully one that will be sorted out someday, so that you can drop into a comics shop and find the manga you're looking for at least most of the time instead of “maybe, kinda, sometimes.”


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.


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