I’m a fan

For the first time in its history, this week’s issue of The Bookseller is part comic book, with its front cover and lead story written and drawn by comics creator Karrie Fransman, part of a group called The Comics Cultural Impact Collective, which aims to raise awareness of the cultural impact of comics in the UK.

In her correspondence to me, Fransman wrote: “Comics are a rich part of British culture, an art form that dates back as far as the Bayeux Tapestry and even further to prehistoric paintings on cave walls. But our research reveals significantly more cultural funding goes to the (comparatively more modern!) art forms of orchestras, opera, ballet and poetry. And, despite 115 comic conventions occurring every year in the UK, publishers still often struggle to tap into these large audiences.”

The graphic form holds the potential to open the world of literature to a wide range of under-served readers

Across the next two pages, Fransman expands the argument. Comics (including graphic novels, manga et al) can be both print and digital, the format improves literacy and can often be used to convey information in ways written text does not. They are a big deal for young people, and not just because of Alice Oseman, but also popular among adults, with a more diverse audience than other books or art forms. This is also reflected in who makes them (ish).

This week’s Graphic Novels Preview has books from publishers from Faber to HarperCollins to Thames & Hudson, and authors from Stephen Fry (illustrator Jesús Sotés) to Ai Weiwei (with Elettra Stamboulis). The graphic form holds the potential to open the world of literature to a wide range of under-served readers, writes previewer Waterstones general fiction range manager Nessa Urquhart.

And yet (because there’s always a but), the sector, in retail terms, remains disproportionately small here (Japan’s manga industry has a global market value of $12bn, cites Fransman), while in the UK the return (via Nielsen) is closer to £50m (of which manga is around £30m). Add in Alice Oseman and Jamie Smart (they are classified into children’s by Nielsen), and this is a market worth closer to £70m, just coming off its pandemic peak. But I wonder, like Fransman (and I’m sure many others), how much it could really be worth with a bit of a collective push? I don’t say this lightly, and neither do I write this because publisher support in The Bookseller for this spotlight is noticeable for its absence (ahem), but because there is clearly a disconnect between what the fans/creators want and what the market is able/willing to provide.

This kind of gap between supplier and audience is not unusual (subscription boxes are another good example of fan demand outstripping production). At its purest, publishing is a business that wants to follow the fashionable maxim of giving readers what they do not yet know they want, and then repeating this at scale. But increasingly publishers and their teams have also learned how to hear from audiences direct about what they crave, with social media amplifying these desires. Sometimes the customer is also the beacon.

* As Fransman adds: “Kapow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!’ is a heading everyone is sick of seeing in the UK comics community. The UK’s attitude to the medium has lagged behind other countries for a while, with comics being seen as juvenile or a gateway into reading ‘proper’ books. But if you take a look at our article you can see the evidence shows there is a large and diverse audience reading comics in the UK (competitively larger and more diverse than many traditional, and better funded, art forms!). France, Belgium and Japan already invest heavily in comics. And South Korean and Taiwanese governments are following suit. We formed The Comics Cultural Impact Collective this year to raise the value of comics in the UK. We are gathering research, improving funding, creating an infrastructure organisation and raising awareness. We’re really excited to be sharing some of our initial findings in The Bookseller and hope the UK book industry will join us in better supporting UK based creators and engaging with this sizeable and enthusiastic audience of comic lovers. You can get in touch at thecomicsculturalimpactcollective.org”.

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