ICv2 recently spoke with Mark Siegel, Editorial Director of First Second Books, to discuss the graphic novel market and First Second’s line.  In Part 1 of our three part interview, we discuss First Second’s big releases in 2014 and get a look at the numbers; in Part 2, we discuss the graphic novel market and the emergence of "the new mainstream" as a third graphic novel category alongside superhero and manga; and in Part 3, we hear about the highlights of First Second’s 2015 releases.

What were the highlights of your year, and how do you view the 2014 market?
For us, it’s been steadily getting better year by year.  In 2013, we broke through to another level; and it was especially comforting for us, because it felt like it wasn’t owing to one or two big hits.  Our whole list moved up, which is good for the long term picture. It also has the feel of First Second having matured as a business.

By moved up, do you mean your average sales increased?
Our average sales were up. What we considered our hits are at a higher threshold, baseline sales, everything went up across the board.  I that was very encouraging to Macmillan about the First Second experiment.  It was also, for us, a sense of no longer being a "baby business."  We understand better the markets we’re in and the markets we’re trying to create.  It’s some vindication for the approach, which has always been a long term plan rather than a quick money maker.

2014 just kept building on that trend.  We’re in a really strong position now, and it’s hard to say exactly why.  Like any business, it’s the 10,000 things that have been done in the last eight years.  It’s also these incredible authors.

This year, if I look back on 2014, there were a few important steps we took.  We really made a decision to branch into a kind of picture book, even though it’s really specific to comics authors: Sleep Tight, Anna Banana!, and Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, and Hidden, which is more of a pure comic in a sense.  We’ve been pushing the very young end of our list, pushing down a little further in the age category there (see "First Second Expands into Picture Books").

Are those for pre-readers?
Yes. They’re really, truly in the picture book space, where we’re looking at four- and five-year-olds.  Sleep Tight, Anna Banana! is incredibly cute.  We’re going to have another one called Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion.  We brought those from France.  They’re a big hit in Europe right now.  I’d like to continue that series indefinitely because it’s so good and so cute.

That’s a product that has different channels, potentially, than your graphic novels?
Yes, but I’ve met a number of comic shop owners who are really very diligent about how they curate their kids section and kids corner.  More and more it’s in the front of the store.  The stuff they’re including doesn’t really qualify as a comic book, but it has a comic book sensibility.  Or, in our case we have Ben Hatke who is definitely a comics guy pushing into that, so we have more of that coming.  I’m interested in building that out.

Slightly older is things like The Glorkian Warrior, which is the James Kochalka book.  My kids who are seven and nine saw an advanced proof of the second one were like "Oh my God, it’s even stupider than the first."  They’ve shared it with all their friends.  We have that kind of young as well.

I’m really pleased with the way our list looked for the year.  It’s how I dreamed First Second would look, which is from the very young through things like the Olympians (middle grade); and then some teen things, like In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang; and then you have Andre the Giant, a biography of Andre the Giant, which is definitely adult; and Guibert’s How the World Was, which is very much adult.

Things that in the past would have been indie books, like The Wrenchies which is Farel Dalrymple’s magnum opus.  Or This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and her cousin Mariko Tamaki, which is the only book I know that’s had seven starred reviews (counting one Canadian, I don’t know if that’s cheating or not).  It’s an incredible book in every respect.  We knew we had something amazing but the response has been incredible.  It’s the one that gets stolen the most from my bookshelf.  I could just look at those pages; I never tire of them.  I think they’re some of the most beautiful pages ever put down in comics.

Farel Dalrymple and Jillian Tamaki are examples of books that would have been big indie hits in the past, but right now they’re hitting the indie world, but they’re also hitting the mainstream world (mainstream in the sense of mainstream publishing), which is really rewarding.  In this case, this is where First Second graduates to being able to bring authors into a bigger landscape.  That was definitely the case with Paul Pope and now with these guys, and it’s great.  It’s great.

There was a new Gene Yang with The Shadow Hero, which is still doing really well.  For us, it’s been a big year.  The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff was optioned by Film Nation, and I hope that happens because it’s like an Asian Coen brothers film.  It’s an amazing book.  And then Hidden is a Holocaust story that did really well in France--a middle grade, first introduction to the Holocaust.  That taps into a whole other world.  I love the idea of First Second tapping all different markets and then living in the middle of this Venn diagram.

What were your top releases for 2014?
Our top releases are Return of Zita the Space Girl, the final part of the Zita trilogy by Ben Hatke (30,000 in print);The Rise of Aurora West, which is part of Paul Pope’s Battling Boy universe (25,000 in print); In Real Life (25,000 in print),The Shadow Hero (25,000 in print), and This One Summer (30,000 in print).

Click here for Part 2.