Best Practices for Buying and Selling Graphic Novels

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Photo of Graphic Novel education session panelists.
Panelists Heather Hebert, Andrew Camner, Marika McCoola, and Cathy Berner.

The ABC Children’s Institute education session “Buying and Selling Graphic Novels” featured a panel of booksellers who shared tips for managing a bookstore’s graphic novels section, including which popular series to carry, where and how to display them, and how to handle skeptical parents and educators. The panel was moderated by Heather Hebert of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pennsylvania.

Marika McCoola, who specializes in graphic novels at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began by explaining the difference between an illustrated book and a graphic novel. An illustrated book is one in which you can get the entire story from the text, even if the illustrations are removed, McCoola said. Conversely, with graphic novels, “if you take away either the text or the illustration, you do not have the entire book. You need both working together in order to have the entire story.”

Cathy Berner, the children’s specialist and events coordinator for Blue Willow Bookshop, said the Houston, Texas, bookstore tends to carry the first four books in a graphic novel series. “Kids, as you all know, like to start at the beginning,” she said, but what stores can choose to carry “all depends on your space and how much room you have.”

Comics and graphic novels from Japan are called “manga,” said Andrew Camner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, and with these titles, as with graphic novels, “if you take away the pictures, you have no story.”

For manga, customers should not expect a store to carry an entire series because there tends to be so books in each one, he added. “The most popular manga series is called One Piece, which is currently at 82 volumes and it’s still counting,” Camner said. “There are series that are shorter, that only have five or six issues, that are complete, complex series and can be something you can carry and hand-sell.”

To determine which graphic novels and manga titles to stock in their stores, McCoola suggested booksellers visit their local library to learn which older, backlist series are circulating the most; publisher sales reps can also be a great resource because they know what sells best at their accounts. McCoola said she also tends to order paperback books because the price points are lower and the format is preferred by younger readers.

Berner reads reviews from sources such as School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly to learn more about books and publishers, and she listens to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, whose panelists often discuss popular books. Hebert recommended booksellers visit Get Graphic, an online graphic novel resource for educators and teachers.

For specific title suggestions, a list of graphic novel and manga favorites from the bookseller panelists is available in ABA’s Education Curriculum on BookWeb, as are graphic novel reading lists produced by the Association for Library Service to Children for Grades K–2, Grades 3–5, and Grades 6–8 and a graphic novel reading list for teens from the Young Adult Library Services Association.

Booksellers should not overlook publications from DC Comics and Marvel, added Camner, as many new titles from these companies feature more diverse and interesting character types. “The current Batgirl is all about being a superhero in the age of social media. The current Marvel girl is a Muslim who has issues with the fact that her parents think she’s a horrible person because she sneaks out at night because she’s a superhero. When you look into diversity, don’t discount those companies because of what they made for the past 80 years.”

At Porter Square, graphic novels are housed in a dedicated display case, with middle grade on one side and young adult on the other, a new setup that has resulted in sales quadrupling, said McCoola. Syndicated comic strips that are compiled into a big book are put in the humor section; trade bind-ups — multiple short comic book issues published in a single volume — are put in the young adult section.

Thinking about what section booksellers will likely hand-sell graphic novels from can help determine where to shelve these books and series, said McCoola, as can thinking from the viewpoint of a customer and considering where they would look for particular titles.

Books & Books has three separate sections for this genre: graphic novels for adults, graphic novels for kids, and manga. “It’s important that if you carry manga you do have it separated from the rest of your graphic novels,” said Camner. “In my experience, the people looking for it are only looking for it and aren’t interested in anything else.”

To reassure parents who are skeptical of graphic novels, Berner mentions the current Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang, and his book Secret Coders (First Second), which combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a mystery narrative. Graphic novels also teach inferencing, a skill that is tested on standardized tests, she added.

“I talk about the importance of a balanced diet. When you’re eating, it’s important to have greens, it’s important to have lean protein, but sometimes you want a brownie. You decide which book fits into which category, but if your child wants to read graphic novels, at least they’re reading. Reading is always good,” said Berner.

“Visual literacy is the term that I pull out,” said McCoola. “I say, we live in a very visual world and your child is seeing visuals all over the place and needs to know how to decode and read them, which is not something we generally teach in schools. The visuals are going to force them to slow down and try reading in a different way and to use their brain in a different way.”

TOON Books has created step-by-step guide for parents and caregivers on how to read comics with kids, McCoola added.

Hebert found that getting educators on board with graphic novels helps parents feel more comfortable with them, so she includes graphic novels during educator nights and at book fairs. “If we can help the educator promote it, the parents are a little less reticent to then put it in their child’s hands,” Hebert said.