Christopher Butcher of The Beguiling in Toronto, Ontario saw the two recent Talk Back comments on the future of manga (see 'Joe Krolik of Comics America on Graphic Novel Sales' and 'Ilan Strasser of Fat Moose Comics on Manga Sales'), which were responding to our report on graphic novel sales (see 'Graphic Novel Market Still Expanding'), and shares the experience of this major metropolitan retailer:
The Beguiling is what you would call a full-line manga store. This means we order at least one copy of every manga graphic novel/tankoubon, by every publisher, and put it out on the shelf. When that sells, we replace it, and have done so for every title that is still available (save for maybe 5-6 books, all by the same publisher that we feel will never sell again). The volume of titles being released in the past year is up dramatically from the year before, let alone five years ago when we were receiving fewer manga graphic novels in that year than we do in a month now. The new title release schedule is almost overwhelming, but thankfully, still 'almost'.
We've expanded up from one bookshelf of manga to five (plus a spinner rack and five Tokyopop floor-dumps) since late 2002. We're constantly looking for new ways to rack and display the volume of titles coming in effectively, and to stay on top of our reorders and to serve our customers. Our customers come to us because of product knowledge, diversity of selection, and because we're competitively priced with every other manga outlet in the city of Toronto (a not inconsiderable number of outlets).
We've grown this category cautiously, but with a certain measure of commitment and dedication. With two manga 'experts' on staff (including myself), we've taken time to do both a broad introduction to the category as well as given training on popular titles and series, education on content issues, and encouraged employees to borrow as many titles as they liked in order to make informed recommendations to customers. With this category growing as quickly as it has been for the past several years, it has paid off for us to have an informed and knowledgeable sales force. While not everyone at the store likes manga, we all agree it is refreshing to see the breadth of clientele it brings in, including many people otherwise new to comics, and a more diverse crowd than even a store like The Beguiling has known before.
Manga is now one of our top sales categories, and has justified our investment of time and other resources. In the end though, if it hadn't worked out, if we could not develop the audience for this category, I have a feeling we just would have dropped it and moved on. We don't carry toys, for instance, except by special order. We don't stock role playing games or CCGs, or even HeroClix (which are usually a 'given' for any store that sells superhero comics). We made a conscious effort to be a comic book retailer and an original art dealer, and while manga falls under those guidelines for us, if it hadn't worked out as a category there's very little reason to lament, and every reason to refocus our efforts onto selling other successful lines, promoting what we do well.
With the coming months seeing a greater and greater number of titles solicited, we are well aware of the challenges that will create, and are continuing to work with our staff, publishers, and even our customers to ensure the category stays profitable for us, and continues its steady rate of growth. Whether that's finding new sales avenues, new promotional methods, or just buying another bookcase, these are challenges we are willing to meet. We would very much appreciate it if publishers would think twice about releasing some of the truly dreadful titles we've been seeing, but at the same time we recognize that in a capitalist society asking someone to stop trying to make as much money as they think they can probably won't go over terribly well. If it's on us to pick and choose and keep on top of the product then so be it, companies that go out of their way to educate us about their products and promote their works outside of our existing clientele, to create demand for their books, will see a concrete benefit in our orders (and reorders, and reorders, and reorders). Companies who don't will have to enjoy our single-copy orders on books they've printed 10,000 copies of.
I guess the point of all this is, as a business we have had to make some hard decisions and we've had to try very hard (and complain very loudly at times) to get things done. It has worked for us but, if for whatever reason it hasn't worked for someone else, hey, at least they tried right? Just as we would (try) not (to) predict imminent doom for any retailer who couldn't make a category or product line work ('If you can't sell pogs then sonny, you shouldn't even be in business!'), we would not predict imminent doom for any product line that we couldn't make work.
While I think we all agree that a request for more steady and considered growth in the number of items in this category is a reasonable one, we are going to do our best to ride the wave no matter what. We would like to extend our best wishes to retailers who have abandoned this product line in search of different avenues, and ask the same of them for those of us who've stayed the course.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.