Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Excellent "State of Comics in the Classroom" article at Publishers Weekly

Laura Hudson at Publishers Weekly has written a rather comprehensive State-of-the-Union type article, "Comics in the Classroom." It covers the current state of educational acceptance of comics, the hurdles still to be met, and the continual game of catch-up that comics publishers are having to play. See, the thing is, comics publishers are basically magazine publishing companies. Only now they've been tapping into the bookstore market for the last decade, and they still don't know exactly what booksellers want (which is utterly different from what comics retailers want and need). They've been getting schooled there, and now they have belatedly turned their attention to the educational market, which--despite the excellent promise of comics in the classroom and the huge amount of advocacy by librarians--seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Most major comics companies are now dipping a toe into the schools market, and while some have made only cursory attempts to reach teachers, others, such as Dark Horse Comics, have worked directly with academics and education experts to develop materials....

But for every [comics] publisher working side by side with educators or attending American Library Association conferences, others have made only perfunctory attempts to reach out. “It’s great that there’s some material for teaching graphic novels, but they aren’t really comparable to what a typical language arts teacher would expect from an educational publisher or trade publisher,” Gutierrez says. “In graphic novels, publishers don’t have the expertise or the money to invest in research or teaching guides. They’re waiting to see if the market justifies that kind of incursion, while the educators are waiting for more third-party–verified research studies.”

New Market a Challenge

The biggest question mark is not just whether educators will accept comics as teaching materials on a broader scale, but whether traditional comics publishers, who only began to get their graphic novels into the general bookstore market in the last 10 years, are prepared to capitalize on the opportunity.

“Comics publishers are lagging behind traditional book publishers,” says Janna Morishima, director of the Diamond Kids Group at Diamond Comics Distributors. “Creating for kids hasn’t been a big priority until rather recently. I think they’re still getting used to the book market, and the educational market is an even more specialized part of the market. They are at a bit of a disadvantage.”
DC, in my opinion, was smart. They punted.
For DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman and, with Marvel, one of the “Big Two” mainstream comics publishers, the most efficient way to deal with their relative lack of expertise in educational publishing was simply to switch to a distributor that already possessed it. DC moved from Hachette to Random House Distribution in 2007.

“This discussion of how to expand our market was a crucial factor when we moved distribution. One of the more impressive things in the Random House package was the systems they have to access the school and library markets,” says John Cunningham, v-p of marketing at DC Comics. “Understanding their needs and how to sell and market to them is an enormously complex undertaking. Plugging our materials into [Random House’s] system made more sense than trying to develop systems of our own.”
Also fascinating is the look at the College-level comics educational market:
Outside of the k–12 level, graphic novels and comics have also made their way into university classrooms, where they have been adopted as course texts in a variety of disciplines. “There’s a critical mass of [professors] who are pursuing this as a study, and they’re legitimizing the medium not only for their students but also for their departments,” says Coogan, adding, however, that many comics publishers doom their chances for course adoptions by their unwillingness to send free copies to professors.

“Comics publishers could be actively trying to cultivate relationships with university English departments,” suggests Aaron Kashtan, a teaching assistant who researches comics theory at the University of Florida. “At my university, the English department regularly holds book fairs where textbook publishers like Penguin and McGraw-Hill market their materials to the department’s instructors. These publishers do this because for each instructor who decides to adopt a textbook, 20-some students will then have to buy that textbook. Comics publishers don’t seem to have come to a similar realization that university students represent an untapped source of income.”

Top Shelf Productions co-publisher Chris Staros explains it this way, “If 100 university courses with 40 students each use a book on a regular basis, that’s 4,000 copies a year.” In the comics industry, where sales of the top graphic novels often run under 10,000 copies, those sales can constitute a significant base.
Two amazing things here. One, that there are publishers out there who still don't understand that, if you want a title to really succeed, you have to hand out free copies like water. And two--"sales of the top graphic novels often run under 10,000 copies?" Really?? I know the graphic novel market is still small, but I'm stunned that the top titles would sell less than 10,000 copies (I'm assuming per year; if those are total lifetime sales, that's even crazier). I guess the question is, what is "top" here?

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