The Book Market for Independent Creators with Spencer Simpson

If you pay attention to Comic Industry news, you've probably seen numerous articles about comics that have performed really well in the bookstore market.

It's an area filled with opportunities for comics and fits right in one of the big themes I love to discuss - that the commercial opportunities for comics extend far beyond the Direct Market, not that it isn't important.

Unfortunately, I'm not very familiar with the bookstore market, so I brought in somebody who is!


Spencer Simpson is a buyer at American Wholseale Book Company, which distributes products to both Books-A-Million and 2nd & Charles - which collectively have more than 250 stores around the country!

In this interview we get into what being a buyer actually entails, and Spencer provides some valuable insights into how creators like you can work with the bookstore market.

So, to start us off, what does a buyer do?

A book buyer meets with sales representatives from publishers to determine the quantity of a given title to be purchased.  The sales representative, either affiliated with the publisher directly or with its distributer, provides the buyer information on the title and generally suggests a purchasing amount given the performance of a comparison title.

The buyer and sales rep then determine a placement plan, marketing strategy and other elements to ensure the book is successful. The buyer afterwards works with additional individuals to determine distribution of the title and ensure placement and marketing strategies are executed.

What were you doing before working as a buyer? How did that lead you to being a buyer?

I worked as a bookseller for a number of years and then worked at Books-A-Million corporate in their Training and Communications department.I spearheaded some additional functionality to our merchandising communication processes that introduced me to some of the AWBC team and when a position came open it was offered to me.

Does your role as a buyer only extend to certain genres?

My role as a Buyer extends to select categories, which from a macro-perspective is an additional responsibility in maintaining a curated list (including new titles and backlist) for our clients. The categories I'm responsible for on the book side include Graphic Novels, Manga, and Role-Playing Games.

How have you seen the relationship between comics and bookstores evolve over the course of your work in the publishing industry?

I think we’re not far away from a time where the category isn’t a novelty in a bookstore. It will be expected by a consumer.
— Spencer Simpson

I've been in the industry a short four years and I can say that the evolution of that relationship has been fascinating. Both of the major bookstore chains have continued to expand their Graphic Novels sections, likely due to the increased sales volume and focus on Pop Culture (which is predominately related to, if not based on, Comics IPs).

Do you thinks the expansion of Graphic Novels sections due to the factors above is a trend that is going to continue over the next few years?

I think the fundamentals will outlive the trend. What I mean by that is that although a given IP might be a trend, the spread of sequential art beyond its traditional iterations (Big 2 Super Hero Comics, and don't get me wrong, I love Big 2 Super Hero Comics) to have high selling titles with greater diversity in terms of age and gender lends itself to the category of Graphic Novels becoming a standard part of the bookstore, holding its own next to Fiction, Biography, Social Science and Teen Fiction. I think we're not far away from a time where the category isn't a novelty in a bookstore. It will be expected by a consumer.

A lot of people have been loudly proclaiming that print is dead. This isn’t a new claim, but as the trend settles will this section shrink with the rest of the bookstore? My understanding is that the Graphic Novel section is the only growing section in stores today.

I think the "print is dead" line has been hard to hold up for quite a time now. Frankly, I think there was always a rush in the market to equate the bookstore industry's woes to that of the rise of the eReader and then the tablet, much like the decline of the record store and the video store; but books are different. It's the only media that's a self-contained media player as well.

If Fiction and Teen are any indicators, the rise and fall of [Graphic Novels] will be on the content; not the platform.
— Spencer Simpson

Having said that, you do have categories where the internet has made less relevant which is a different argument than "print is dead". Think reference categories, hard nonfiction or of-the-moment journalism. Graphic Novels are just now getting decent digital distribution options, so it is too early to say how they will be affected by digital competition, but if Fiction and Teen are any indicators, the rise and fall of the category will be on the content; not the platform. People buy books if good books are being printed. Graphic Novels currently is awash in great stuff, so I think it will be safe for some time to come.

Outside of the quality, is there anything that makes a graphic novel particularly worth buying and distributing through bookstores?

We are living in an age of creators and publishers driving sales, less is driven by a title itself outside of the IP-based trends. The good thing is that, in theory, most sales are driven by the assumed quality of the work (if a consumer is a fan of a given publisher or creator). The titles that have struggled have been those, unfortunately, with less name recognition or put out by lesser known publishers. There are a few exceptions, usually when the title gets picked up online and shared through Twitter or Tumblr, but that's still an instance of the creator driving their own sales.  They've just been successful in establishing an online presence before their physical books are available.

So do you think bookstore distribution is a viable avenue for independent creators to explore if they aren’t coming to the table with an audience that can make use of that space?

I hesitate to be negative on this, but I bluntly do not. 

I think at this time, where we are, if you can't cultivate an audience (through any number of means, webcomics being the most obvious) first, I'm not sure how you'll successfully sell that book in physical stores. It's going to be spined most likely, and a graphic novel under 150 pages has so little spine real estate, it literally disappears on the shelf.

There are, to be more positive, several examples of successful webcomics becoming giant bestsellers (Nimona to me is one of the great stories in publishing and graphic novels over the last few years).  I'm no writer and not an artist, so I hesitate to give advice on that front, but I can say the vast majority of the titles I consider for purchasing have some sort of audience or experience as their baseline.

I don’t think it’s negative - I think that’s just realistic. It would be unfortunate to spend resources trying to pursue it if it wasn’t going to work out to begin with.

Do you think creators and smaller publishers might have better luck trying to make connections with independent bookstores?

I think creators would have luck reaching out to bookstores big and small.  Offer to do signings and events. Some independents bookstores are focused on graphic novels and others are less so, so I'm not sure if I'd advise that as a broad strategy.  I think approaching a store that has a good section is a great idea as they clearly have the consumer base, even if it's a chain store most of those have event coordinators that can facilitate a signing which almost always means bringing in more copies of your book.

Outside of the event strategy - is there anything that independent creators & smaller publishing companies can do to make their comics more appealing to buyers at these shops - big and small alike?

Sure, developing that direct relationship is key.  Even if you're represented by a sales rep, making that direct connection allows for more time to discuss your title and why it deserves space. Buyers are one of the harder ones to get in touch with as they're receiving information from several dozen sales reps on a daily basis and in the case of developing a relationship with authors, as you can imagine, very few people would have the bandwidth to maintain those relationships; which I think to your point makes a relationship with a store and its manager more meaningful. 

From there, making yourself available for again, events, signings and in Comics the big thing is Exclusives (variant covers, etc.).  After that, more on the publisher side, it's about concessions in marketing funds and margin. Boring stuff that's super exciting to the people who actually write the checks.

That makes a lot of sense! I think success, especially in independent publishing, does come down to putting in work that doesn’t scale.

At this point, is there anything else you’d like to add?

No, I was happy to chat, hope to do it again some time!

I don't know about you, but I really enjoyed this interview with Spencer. It's always appreciated when somebody can speak honestly about their industry.

In this case, that honesty about the viability of bookstores as an opportunity for independent creators was also followed up by a tip on how to connect with bookstores, until the time where you do have better chances of performing well on their shelves.

If you'd like you can follow Spencer Simpson on Twitter! You can thank him for the interview or just say hi. He said he'd be happy to chat with anyone who wants to.

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