The Problem with Trade Paperbacks

I recently came across a duplicate copy of a first printing of a comic collection from the early 90s. The title was one of my favorites, a well-done, unique vision that had received lots of critical praise. Judging from prices for used copies on Amazon.com, the book was legitimately rare, since it was listed at over cover. Unfortunately, since the series hadn’t concluded in a satisfying fashion, and since new issues haven’t been published in the last ten years, when I offered the book for sale, I had no takers.

No one knew about it, you see. The fans the title had back then likely either had copies or had given up on the series years ago. Without new material coming out, no new readers knew how good it was. And given the way the creator had drifted out of public sight without at least pausing the title, story-wise, no one was talking up the book as a classic.

Now, I’m not posting this to complain about not making money. (I ended up trading the book for a collection I wanted, making two people happy.) I’m posting this as an example of the advantage serial comics (pamphlets, floppies, whatever) have over book-format collections: visibility.

It takes a certain amount of chatter for a reader to notice a new title. One exposure isn’t enough, especially if that exposure is a one-time shot (like a listing in Previews). One review isn’t enough, either. There’s a critical mass that needs to happen in order for a reader to decide a sample a book, made up of praise and availability and friends’ recommendations and chances to browse.

Even if the book is fabulous, if the author and the publisher aren’t still producing, then it’s likely to be forgotten. There are just too many great choices that are new to spend time and money wandering through last decade’s favorites without the promise of more.

There are authors who can maintain a regular TPB release schedule, bringing out a graphic novel every year. That’s terrific. That allows the audience to plan for new good comic reading on an expected schedule. If the release happens in spring or early summer, it also allows creators to spend the summer promoting the book at conventions, keeping their work in front of both existing and potential new readers.

There are authors, however, who turn out something every half-decade or so. They (or their marketing partners) will have to work harder to make a splash and gain some of that reader attention. There’s a natural attrition in readers, and being known once doesn’t mean you’re still worth paying attention to.

Just a cautionary note to those creators and publishers moving towards graphic novel-only business plans. I think that’s the way to go, I think it looks towards the future, and I think it’s ultimately more rewarding for both artist and reader. But it has its own pitfalls, and this is one of them. You have to remind the customer you still exist regularly, whether it’s with press releases or regular publication or by contributing to other projects.


11 Responses to “The Problem with Trade Paperbacks”

  1. Joshua Macy Says:

    But who are you regularly reminding of your book’s existence with the monthly 32 page pamphlet? The handful of people who shop at direct market comic shops? And then only if Diamond and the retailers deem you worthy. Seems like a mighty expensive and iffy way to advertise your comic’s existence.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Visibility doesn’t demand a monthly pamphlet. As I said above, it could mean meeting a regular TPB release schedule (whether every April, summer every two years, whatever) or keeping a webcomic going (which you also promote and keep visible) or contributing in a valuable fashion to popular message boards.

  3. Ray Cornwall Says:

    So what was the book? :)

  4. Brandon Says:

    Was it Beanworld?

  5. Johanna Says:

    Brandon got it!

    The even more negative side of this discussion is that regular release by itself isn’t a panacea or an automatic win, as Claypool’s recent problems show.

  6. Joshua Macy Says:

    I think regular release is just something that comics shops condition people into looking for. From the point of view of something you look for in a book-store, TPBs should be perennials.

  7. Ray Cornwall Says:

    Beanworld *is* a classic. But it’s not a unique situation to comics. How many people have read “To Kill A Mockingbird” without having it shoved on them by a schoolteacher? Harper Lee’s in the same both as Larry Marder- great while they worked, but disappeared into the night when the work was over.

    Wondering if Joanna remembers “Very Vicky”…

  8. Ray Cornwall Says:

    I MEAN JOHANNA! Stupid wireless keyboard…

  9. Johanna Says:

    I do, Ray — although I never read it, I remember hearing about it. And Hilly Rose. There were a lot of interesting independent books around that time.

  10. yann Says:

    well i buy TPB because i am always tolate to get the real comics. Sometimes i think they should remove the adverts out of the comics and replace them with an additional story; primo it fills space and secondary you can read tru it. With the tpb you don’t have to worry about those adverts and the comments of some readers , ok that is loss for me but i win something i can read tru without flipping tru the adverts always

  11. hostile17 Says:

    TPBs are so great if you really like a title, but didn’t have a chance to collect it on a regular basis. You can just save money and get all the issues in one shot, plus they are more fullfilling than monthly titles, bc you fill satisfied after reading a trade. It’s a tradeoff, but unless you are collecting mint CGB 10 or 9 books to make money off your comics, then trades are really good alternatives

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