According to recent sales figures, the above percentage is the slight margin by which the Role Playing section of my Barnes & Noble is outselling Graphic Novels.

Now, I’m hardly the sort to engage in elitist behaviors meant to condemn or belittle the interests of others, especially if such behaviors only serve to further elevate the coolness quotient of my own pursuits. I consider myself an equal opportunity geek. Whether you frequent comics, role playing games, sci-fi, wrestling, Magic, or Playstation, the most important requirement is that you enjoy it, and represent it whenever possible. If your existence includes a form of entertainment that the “mainstream” has somehow qualified as juvenile, or even worse, “uncool,” then so be it.

However – this shall not pass.

Roughly forty hours of my week are spent wearing a lanyard and working the floor of a Barnes & Noble located in something referred to as “the heart of Illinois.” The job title reads Lead Bookseller, and when not writing on the clock (which I’m doing now), much of my day involves helping wayward customers to the books they’re looking for, and proving quite scientifically that excess boredom will not in fact kill you. Being a “lead” positions me one step below dept/assistant manager, and comes with the extra incentive of having to maintain a “small” section of the store. You need something in fiction, mystery, science fiction, romance, humor, true crime, games, cartoonists, poetry, Shakespeare, and a few other odds and ends?I’m the guy.

If anything, the above sections only highlight the amount of quality material I’ll likely never read without the benefit of twenty-eight hour days. Common sense alone dictates that much of my attention should remain in the most popular (meaning most profitable) segments of my zone, but you can easily guess which one is my baby. Situated between sci-fi and role playing?there’s my very own graphic novel section.

Through sheer coincidence, it happened to reside within the confines of the space I’d acquired, but even if it hadn’t, I would’ve campaigned for control of it, because frankly, no one else really cared. Not everyone is particularly dismissive of the format mind you; it just appears like a foreign language to them, too many bright colors and quick cuts for those without proper training to understand. So naturally, when I started, the thing was an embarrassing wasteland of crap stock and occasional management. It’s not really their fault though; they didn’t know any better.

The biggest problem involved the selection, or lack thereof, that we offered. If my understanding is correct, there is a man, or possibly a collection of men, working in the B & N corporate headquarters in New York, that decide what books will line the shelves of their stores. These judgments are likely applied using a variety of factors, including, but probably not limited to, the reputation of the author, publisher visibility, and individual store demographics. But bottom line, what sells will flood my sections, what doesn’t will flood the return bins. The margin for error is moderately high, which is one reason I have a job.

“Leads” are responsible for monitoring the sales reports of the sections they maintain, to ensure that stock is properly rotated, and that products not written by Rowling, Patterson, and Grisham have some hope of providing a blip on the radar. We’re the last line of defense against a lack of flavor. More variables present themselves when considering that our level of influence is directly proportioned to the knowledge of what’s available, because man cannot live by model alone.

The model is the loose blueprint for our stock, requiring that we hold a certain quantity of a title in store at all times. For instance, let’s use something like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and assign it an arbitrary count of six. Our automatic inventory will always defer to this quantity of six, reflexively re-ordering a title if the number falls below that due to sales, ensuring that some books by some authors are always available. The popular scribes benefit the most, as the majority of their catalog is ready to experience the trickle-down effect from a best selling new title. When James Patterson’s latest Jester novel was released, the publisher flooded me with previous hits like Along Came A Spider, Kiss the Girls, and Jack and Jill, because if the Jedi mind trick works correctly, Patterson will see a nice spike in sales across the line. Which makes dollars and sense, but does succeed in crowding the section with product, little of which is going to sell in the mass quantities taking up shelf space. When’s the last time you think I’ve moved more than six copies of To Kill A Mockingbird in a single week?

What this meant for graphic novels was that my predecessor was far too reliant on the “blueprint,” which indicates unfamiliarity. If the model dictates that the section is the near exclusive home to superhero books from the Big Two, garnished with the occasional Star Wars trade, and you’re unaware that anything else exists, then that’s what you carry. First bit of business was clearing things out, getting rid of the Death of Superman and Knightfall trilogies and replacing them with something more current. Space was always a constraint, so what usually happened was that I’d expand slowly, a little Vertigo here, a little Image there, and shift things around so that the Ultimate trades had independent contemporaries. Things didn’t really get fun until the district manager paid the store a visit in January. The graphic novel is quickly becoming a newfound commodity for the sophisticated bookstore, and the DM wanted to capitalize, increase the sales and expand the influence.

He didn’t even know he had an insider in his midst.

They removed my constraints and told me to make things beautiful, order what needs to be sold. I said there’s not enough space. They said it’s taken care of. For the next couple of weeks, I went on a violent tear, ordering all manner of New Hotness, and smiling broadly as my “baby” underwent a transformation, threatening to swallow its bordering sections, which happen to be Role-Playing and Science Fiction for those keeping score. With a revitalized catalog, and increased placement, the sales saw a noticeable increase that will likely continue as the year progresses. I’ll put this into numbers for you. Remember my talk of modeled/required titles? Graphic Novels is modeled for 104 different titles from a variety of companies, though with a decidedly Marvel/DC advantage. Worse case scenario, that’s my selection.

Just checked the other day; I’m currently carrying 611 titles.

While amassing this collection, I’ve grown quite territorial regarding it, which explains my competitive nature against nearby rivals like Role-Playing, which I also head. The interesting thing is that without my background as a card carrying comic reader, Graphic Novels would be a completely different animal. Considering the section usually is inherited with larger cousins like Fiction and Mystery, what percentage of the Lead Booksellers out there know anything about the comic industry? You only need to take a cursory glance at the books the store receives, and what’s “modeled” to tell that even the people ordering them at the corporate level need a few lessons about the way things are.

Role-Playing pretty much exists according to model, due to the fact that everything over there might as well be written in Latin from my standpoint. And it makes little sense to spend a great deal of time learning the ins and outs of a smaller niche audience when the larger cash cows beckon for attention. Keeping things relatively organized is the extent that a busy bookseller will often differ to, when confronted with a smaller, largely alien section. Not finger-pointing, because I’m guilty of it too, but there are madmen running these things. I just happen to be on the right side.

If time permits, I may drop a couple of pics into the column next week and I welcome questions from anyone that’s interested in hearing more about this. (Hey, it’s possible.) Before dropping the New Hotness into the mix, the last thing I want to say is that I took another look at recent sales reports, and it appears that although Role-Playing is winning the battle in dollar share?Graphic Novels are movin’ more units.

I think I can live with that.

The New Hotness-

Ultimate Spider-Man #38 (Brian Michael Bendis/Mark Bagley/Art Thibert)
You think it’s a game don’t you? This whole teenage superhero thing. Great power? Great responsibility? Cool stuff right? Wait, don’t answer, you should check something out first. Read Bendis’ latest arc on Ultimate Spidey, because according to this book, this shit is absolutely no fun. The hours suck, the decisions are the most difficult imaginable, and the icing is that it will likely damage every personal relationship you value. This book always has, and continues to be, the premier display for angst-ridden teenage heroics, balancing dynamic fight scenes with more grounded emotional moments that somehow seem more important than the costumes and super-villain monologues. Bendis, in a recent interview, commented that the secret to all this comes from a belief that characters should be placed in the situation they least want to be in. Well, Peter Parker meets that situation before this story closes?again. It’s great power. It’s great responsibility. It’s more of the same
from Bendis and Bags.

Judge Dredd vs. Aliens #1 (John Wagner/Andy Diggle/Henry Flint)
The only thing I know about Judge Dredd is that someone made a terrible movie about the character that was made even worse by the presence of Stallone. So why did I make a conscious effort to seek out the latest in a lengthy line of “insert character here” versus Aliens series? Well that’s simple?it’s all Diggle’s fault. Considering that he’s penning one of my most anticipated books of the year in the form of The Losers for DC/Vertigo, I’m making a point to snatch and grab anything with his name on it. After rightfully enjoying his Lady Constantine mini, I confidently moved on to Dredd, and found yet another enjoyable tale, flexing a slightly different set of storytelling muscles. He and Wagner have laid the groundwork for an unapologetic action picture, never losing sight of the fact that when dealing with Aliens, things tend to become quite violent, quite quickly. Impressive showing from all involved.

Global Frequency #6 (Warren Ellis/David Lloyd/David Baron)
I’m starting to miss this book already. Only six more months on the Global Frequency, and Ellis hasn’t slowed down yet. Nearly everything about this book speaks to me, the sexy covers, the episodic nature, the revolving artists, the ending credits. This month Sita Patel is on the GF, racing across the city’s rooftops to intercept a bomb filled with a variation of the Ebola virus. What Ellis delivers is another clever rescue operation, moving at a frantic clip, and allowing Lloyd to render London as an urban obstacle course, throwing a variety of things into Patel’s path, only to have the woman avoid them with frightening style. Who needs web fluid to jump off buildings anyway?

Avengers #65 (Geoff Johns/Olivier Coipel/Andy Lanning)
Been looking forward to this one. How DC let Olivier Coipel get away from them I’ll never know, but ever since Marvel announced him as Johns’ future co-conspirator, I knew he’d deliver the goods. Johns has been setting things up for this storyline, and you have to believe after finishing the opening chapter to Red Zone, that Coipel’s presence has upped the game. His style is difficult to classify, but confidently lays to rest any doubts about his ability to handle this title. These are the Avengers of the twenty-first century. And someone just launched the worst biological attack in U.S. history. With Johns becoming a franchise player for DC very soon, this creative team comes with an expiration date, but that’s no reason to ignore what’s sure to be an impressive run. I’ll put it this way, before the team heads into a biohazard area, a member comments, “Man, this is insane. End of the world stuff.” Cap calmly responds, “End of the world? Not until the Avengers say so.”
That’s good stuff.


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