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What's Next for Graphic Novels?

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I recently listened in on a webinar from Publishers Weekly titled, "The evolution of the Comic book era post 2012." Representatives of four publishing outfits reflected on changes they see ahead for the comic book and graphic novel markets, and described how they plan to capitalize on new developments. With four speakers crammed into a single hour, the information—and marketing pitches—flew thick and fast, but a few key trends stood out that mean changes ahead for K-12 teachers and librarians.

1. Hybrid format graphic novels.

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those worn paperbacks sent the on-page avatars of young readers careening across the globe in everything from a balloon over the Sahara Desert to the back of a moped in the Colombian jungle. New releases from Graphic Universe, an imprint of Lerner Publishing, combine the branching narratives of Choose Your Own Adventure with page layouts in a variety of graphic styles, resulting in a form of interactive storytelling that works in both print and digital formats. As Carol Burrell of Graphic Universe explained, Twisted Journeys differs from the publisher's other graphic novel offerings in its simultaneous consideration of print and digital in the design process.

In related news, GalleyCat reported last Wednesday that 20 titles from the original Choose Your Own Adventure series are now available for tablet readers. The books have come a long way since their first translation to digital format: as Atari games.

2. Print-on-demand.

Graphic novels, while a rapidly growing portion of domestic and international distribution channels, can appeal to unpredictable markets, making it difficult for publishers to anticipate the correct supply for an oft-changing demand. Rob Grindstaff of Ingram Media Group argued that print-on-demand is a sustainable and flexible response to a rapidly changing customer base, and therefore the best-value solution for publishers looking to expand their graphic-novel offerings in a crowded field: "You're never going to miss a sale because you're never going to be out of inventory." Print-on-demand, "once thought of as an 'it would be nice to have' technology," is now more accessible as per-page printing costs have plummeted, Grindstaff said.

While comic book publishers have yet to adopt print-on-demand on a large scale, the technology is not new to publishing in general. A number of international publishers already use CreateSpace, Amazon's print-on-demand technology, for everything from literary fiction to academic monographs, and technology publisher O'Reilly Media has been working with Ingram since last spring.

3. Ubiquity as a digital strategy.

While Ingram banks on the continuing viability of paper—"Print is not dead: it is just evolving"—other publishers are looking ahead to when digital comics and graphic novels dominate the market. At least, that's the strategy espoused by Papercutz Graphic Novels, as Marketing Director Jesse Post explained: "We want to be there when kids come to e-books." Post argued that young graphic novel readers still seem to prefer print, whether for the tradability of traditional comic books or for a tangible sense of ownership, or both. Accessibility, he said, is another reason: Not only do few young readers own e-reading devices, but the ease of paging through a comic book in idle moments remains unmatched in e-reader interactivity. Still, Post foresees that e-readers will take over at some point in the near future, though he couldn't (or wouldn't) say when. In the meantime, Papercutz aims to "be everywhere" in digital comics, just as it attempts to be ubiquitous in the world of print comics. The company's digital strategy includes releasing its comics in as many formats and on as many platforms as possible, a workflow it may need to streamline for more effective digital distribution.

4. Proprietary e-publishing platforms.

One of the largest international and fastest-growing domestic graphic novel markets is for manga, Japanese or Japanese-inspired serial comics that can run to upwards of 50 issues per storyline. VIZ Media is a major publisher and distributor of manga in the United States and has, over the past few years, built out a proprietary digital publishing platform that offers readers universal access to its properties across devices through a single account. Manga fans can register for accounts through vizmanga.com, purchase e-books with one device—an iPad, say—and may then read the same book on a Kindle, Nook, or Android device by logging into their VIZ accounts. This setup addresses the same digital distribution challenges as Papercutz, while opting for an entirely different bid for ubiquity.

The panel offered an informative snapshot of current thinking in graphic novel marketing and distribution, a landscape prone to rapid change and full of promise for creative and flexible publishers. In all, publishers and readers alike seem unsure of where the comic book and graphic novel markets will move next, apart from a vague but shared confidence that digital sales will expand, and fast.

These key trends have a number of implications for K-12 teachers and librarians, who may find their reading lists and acquisition options changing as more publishers gain the capacity to publish e-books or multiformat titles. The growth of tablet use in classrooms may also find publishers' forecasts dovetailing with school and district technology plans. Publishers may form relationships with districts to provide K-12-friendly graphic novel content compatible with district-approved tablet readers, for example, or may partner with technology companies to market content, devices, and learning platforms in a single package. Graphic novels and comic books, while a booming genre, are just one of many areas of K-12 publishing witnessing such rapid change.

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