Starting February 5, the esteemed New York Times dropped graphic novels from its bestseller lists—i.e., Hardcover Graphic Books, Paperback Graphic Books and Manga. Among graphic novel publishers, this maneuver is seen as a serious blow to the future of graphic novel publication.
“In recent years, we introduced a number of new lists as an experiment, many of which are being discontinued,” New York Times VP-Communications Danielle Rhoades Ha said in an email to ICv2's Milton Griepp. “The discontinued lists did not reach or resonate with many readers.”
The graphic novel bestseller charts date to 2009, with George Gene Gustines of the Times marking the significance of the launch in the Arts Beat blog with the pronouncement that “Comics have finally joined the mainstream,” a cultural milestone for the comics medium.
“We read the ‘did not reach or resonate’ comment as ‘didn’t get enough clicks,’” wrote Griepp, “but note that publishers and comic creators have used the ‘New York Times bestseller’ moniker frequently as a way to provide a widely accepted measure of a title’s popularity. So even if direct traffic was less than the Times wants for the amount of labor it took to produce the lists, they certainly spread the brand and credibility of the Times to a broader audience.
“We see this as a retreat,” Griepp continued, “— by the most important publication in the U.S. from one of the fastest-growing and most influential parts of pop culture, even though [as promised] the Times may increase other forms of [graphic novel] coverage.”
According to Ha, “The change allows us to expand our coverage of these books in ways that we think will better serve readers and attract new audiences to the genres.”
But, saith Griepp, “The lack of understanding that comics are a medium, not a genre, is not reassuring. And even if there are more reviews and other coverage, there is no way that the number of titles affected by such reviews can ever come anywhere near the number of titles to which publishers were able to append ‘New York Times bestseller’ for the past eight years.
It’s an unfortunate event for the comics business, which has been growing (particularly in the graphic novel format, which, coupled to comics sales, topped $1 billion in sales in a recent report), and one sign of the seemingly inexorable forces that are pummeling the newspaper business at the Times and elsewhere.
“Regardless of the reasons for the move,” Griepp went on, “the impact on comics will be negative, particularly on the front lines of the medium’s battle for legitimacy, such as schools and libraries. And we find it hard to believe that it will ultimately be good for the New York Times.”
The decision apparently came directly from the Times book review editor Pamela Paul, who took to Twitter to defend her decision:
“Quick note to fellow comics/graphic novel fans: the Times is not cutting back on coverage of these genres/formats but rather expanding on coverage in ways that reach more readers than the lists did. To wit: new graphic reviews by comic artists, more reviews and more news and features about the genre and its creators. We are big fans, and want to recognize growing readership. Stay tuned.”
For an industry that has spent decades working its way into the mainstream, said Michael Cavna at Comic Riffs, “the death of the graphic-books lists feels like an odd setback that runs counter to recent trends. Just this month, Publishers Weekly reported that according to Nielsen BookScan numbers, all types of adult fiction books decreased in sales in 2016 — except for graphic novels, which increased 12 percent over 2015.”
Although all the comics publishers were troubled by the decision to cut the lists, said Calvin Reid at publishersweeky.com, “some publishers criticized their accuracy and were not especially worried that their elimination would hurt the category.
“Ted Jones, CEO of IDW Publishing, one of the largest independent comics and graphic novel publishers in the country, said he was disappointed to see the list go, but: ‘We liked being able to say something was a NYT best-seller but I don't know that it ever really impacted sales.’
The issue is discussed at even greater (not to say tedious) length in the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com, Rants & Raves, Opus 363).