Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In Which I Spend Too Much Time Arguing About Numbers I Don't Even Have Access To

In his latest post at Newsarama, Paul Levitz addresses confusion over his contention that genre graphic novels "spread the readers around to the most titles" while manga is "dominated by a handful of properties":
A few people here and elsewhere seemed to take issue with my comment that manga was more “increasingly dominated by a handful of properties” than American graphic novels. I went back and checked a bit, and for the fourth quarter last year, something north of 20% of bookstore manga sales came from four properties, and over 40 of the top 50 titles were from those four. That seems pretty concentrated to me, and more so than our core business, so I’ll stand by the comment.
If that's what he meant, fine. While I might debate his phrasing, there's no denying that the four breakout manga properties he's referring to (Naruto, Fruits Basket, Death Note, Bleach) consistently owned the top of the sales charts in 2007. In fact, those who track manga sales often complain about how boring the charts look, going so far as to create "denarutofied" versions of the charts. Still, a couple comments in response to Levitz's clarification:
  1. I notice that now Levitz is claiming he was looking at the bookstore sales from fourth quarter 2007, whereas in his initial comments the impression he gave was that he was discussing Brian Hibbs' Bookscan numbers, which were for all of 2007, not just the last quarter. I haven't seen the numbers Levitz is looking at, so I have no idea how different they might be from the numbers Hibbs was referring to.
  2. Looking at the Bookscan numbers for all of 2007, DC only has one book in the top 50 (Watchmen) and only one more in the top 100 (Heroes). Within the top 100, thirteen different manga properties are represented (in addition to the top four already mentioned, they are: Absolute Boyfriend, Fullmetal Alchemist, Gentlemen's Alliance, Kingdom Hearts, Loveless, Millennium Snow, Negima, Pokemon, Warriors).
  3. Finding out that "something north of 20% of bookstore manga sales came from four properties" surprises me because I would have expected that to be much higher. After all, in Hibbs' analysis, he pointed out that Naruto accounted for "17% of the total manga sold in the Top 750."
  4. I still have to suppress a chuckle when someone from DC criticizes another segment of the comic industry for being dominated by a handful of properties since DC's backlist looks like Monty Python's "Spam" skit with the word "Batman" substituted instead.
  5. Hey, DC! You publish manga! And some of it is actually quite good, garnering lots of critical praise around the blogosphere. I'm sure it hurts that your efforts haven't met with the successes of Viz or Tokyopop. I'm hoping you have an honest-to-gosh manga hit someday (maybe Crayon Shinchan will benefit from the Cartoon Network effect?) just to see if it improves your attitude towards manga.
Finally, I'm still unclear how it is that genre graphic novels "spread the readers around to the most titles," which was my main question in my original post. Levitz can slice the numbers up any way he wants to show how limited manga is, but that still doesn't mean that American genre graphic novels are any more expansive. Again, looking at the Bookscan numbers, it's hard to see how American genre graphic novels could drive readers to more titles. If you cut the list off above 100, very little of DC's "core business" is represented; and if you expand the list further down the long tail, more and more manga series pop up, overwhelming any showing by American genre graphic novels. Just because a handful of manga series dominate the top 50 doesn't mean your company is doing anything more diverse within that same space.

UPDATE 4/16 [updated again to correct a misunderstanding]: In an effort to keep this from becoming an entirely imaginary argument, I emailed Paul Levitz directly with questions I had about his statements. Mr. Levitz graciously took the time to respond, confirming that his observations were based on the Q4 2007 Bookscan numbers for the overall top 50 graphic novels, not the full 2007 Bookscan numbers Brian Hibbs dissected. According to Levitz, American genre graphic novels had a larger number of distinct properties (e.g., Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, 300) represented on the Q4 2007 top 50 graphic novels than manga did. While I haven't seen the Q4 2007 numbers, I can believe this, as ICv2 reported that non-manga graphic novels made an unusually strong showing on the charts for the week ending December 2nd with "seven non-manga graphic novels in the top 25" and eight spots out of the top 50.

explaining that his observations were based on a comparison between two different sources: Q4 2007 sales figures in both bookstores and the Direct Market for American GNs; and Q4 2007 Bookscan numbers alone for manga. Based on these sources, Levitz concluded that American genre graphic novels represent a broader range of distinct properties than manga does. (When I asked about the issue of comparing apples and oranges with the different markets, Levitz pointed out that "Bookscan is a fair model in miniature for total manga sales" so he felt it was fair to extrapolate based on these data alone.)

[An interesting aside: During our email correspondence, Levitz remarked, "I can't speak for other American publishers, but we're grateful for the retail doors manga helped push open, and the readers it has interested…in both ways a significant positive effect on the American comics market above and beyond the dollars generated." Which I thought was a pretty neat acknowledgment from an American comic book publisher regarding the impact manga has had on the overall market for comics.]

Again, my thanks to Mr. Levitz for taking the time to respond to my inquiries, and my apologies for any excessive snark in my earlier posts. (It's true what they say: Paul Levitz really is a mensch!)

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