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Nov
03
2016

Comics at The Scholastic Book Fair

If you read this blog and/or follow me on twitter, you know one of my usual rants is about the large swath of comics that gets ignored when “comics” is–as is often the case–taken to mean “the direct market.” I’ve written before about the huge and often-ignored market for kids’/all-ages comics, but today I want to discuss one aspect of that market in particular: the Scholastic Book Fair.

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What’s the Scholastic Book Fair?

If you have a school-age child you probably know about the Scholastic Book fair–and even if you don’t, you may remember the Book Fair from your own school days. If you don’t though, here’s the deal:

Scholastic is a major children’s book publisher and they partner with schools to host short-term “popup” kids’ book stores on school grounds. This is a win-win situation for everyone. Schools get to keep a percentage of the sales, Scholastic gets a guaranteed “captive audience” of customers, and parents/kids get a convenient opportunity to buy well-curated kids’ books at prices that are usually quite low.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an event organized by Scholastic, whose imprint Graphix played a large part in pioneering the kids comics market with titles like Bone and Amulet, would prominently feature kids’ comics. But what I’m betting would surprise most comics folk is the scale of exposure and sales that these books get via the Book Fair. It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but since the Scholastic Book Fair operates entirely outside the realm of the direct market, it’s rarely discussed in most comics circles–because “comics” is so often taken to mean, “serialized monthly comic books that you buy in a comic book store,” rather than, ya know, “the medium of comics.”

Scope and Scale of the Scholastic Book Fair

So, just how big a deal sales-wise is the Scholastic Book Fair? It’s “yuge.” From Scholastic’s website:

with operations in all 50 states as well as in Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and the U.K. The undisputed leader in the field, each year Book Fairs sells more than 100 million books to 35 million children and their families visiting more than 130,000 fairs in preschool, elementary, and middle schools around the world.

As someone who makes comics, the first question that pops into my mind after taking in these (pretty stunning) numbers is, “just how many kids will be exposed to my book if it were in the Scholastic Book Fair?” I crunched a few rough numbers.

To make things easy, let’s just stick to the United States. There are approximately 115,000 Scholastic Book Fairs held at U.S. schools each year. The average middle school in the U.S. has 595 students. The average primary (elementary) school in the U.S. has 446 students.  I suspect that the Book Fair skews more toward middle schools, but let’s just take an average of the two numbers to use as an estimated number of students per school: 521. Obviously every single student doesn’t go to their school’s Book Fair, so let’s just assume, say, only one quarter of the student body actually goes to the Book Fair. If one quarter of the student body (130 students) goes to each of the 115,000 fairs held per year just in the U.S., that’s 19,500,000 kids who’ve potentially been exposed to your book.

I suspect a comic could have been sitting on the shelf of every comics shop in the U.S. since the day Action Comics #1 came out and not have that many eyeballs on it.

And, just based on anecdotal evidence, I’d guess this number is way on the small size. For example, here’s one librarian on her school’s Book Fair:

Similarly, at my daughter’s school 100% of the students go to the Fair; each class is taken during school hours.

How Many Comics Are Actually Sold at the Book Fair?

The short answer is: Nobody knows. Along with school and library sales, sales from the Scholastic Book Fair don’t seem to be included in comics sales data one finds online. The data that usually shows up at places like ICv2 is–you guessed it–just sales to the direct market, as reported by Diamond (with BookScan folded in occasionally for more GN-centric charts).

I did though have in my bookmarks this 2014 Beat interview with IDW’s Ted Adams in which he briefly mentions the Scholastic Fair. From that interview:

The other place that I think is a great feeder system for comics but doesn’t get talked about much is the Scholastic book fairs and book clubs. We’ve had tremendous success with them over the years, most recently in the current Scholastic catalogue there are three IDW products, My Little Pony, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One each of those books in the current catalogue. I just got the sell through on those and it’s also extraordinary, it’s through the roof.

While he declines to cite actual sales numbers, he does say this:

…virtually 100% sell through in significant six figure quantities for all three of those books.

It’s worth noting what Adams says about BookScan numbers–that they don’t accurately reflect the sales of books through the Book Fair.

There’s also the recent curious case of Marvel’s Champions #1 which boasts a stunning 400,000 issue pre-order. The explanation apparently is that it’s been picked up for the Book Fair.

How Does a Book Get Into The Book Fair?

There’s not a ton of information out there about this, but I did have this one short blog post by a Scholastic representative bookmarked. There’s a week-long “boot camp” held where publishers present books to a committee which is tasked with deciding what books get into the fair. This reminded me a lot of the process of selecting Eisner Award nominees (I was a judge one year) and, like the Eisners, the committee is deliberately made up of people with specific backgrounds:

…former teachers, media specialists, booksellers, authors, and veteran Book Fair organizers – along with representatives from our Book Clubs and International divisions…

Also like the Eisner judging process, it seems pretty grueling:

Collectively, they’ll spend more than 10,000 hours reviewing more than 4,000 books this year from publishers across the globe to find the books that will turn kids into lifelong readers.

Comics at this Year’s Book Fair

So, why am I writing about the Scholastic Book Fair all of a sudden? Because I went to the Fair at my daughter’s school yesterday… and I took special note of what role comics currently play in the Fair. Comics are relatively new to the Book Fair, but thanks to the growing critical, academic, and educational acceptance of comics (and of course kids’ readership!), they’re there in force now.

Kids receive a catalog in advance of the Fair and this year’s catalog prominently featured (not surprisingly) Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts–certainly the most anticipated kids’ GN of the year–on the front cover.

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How about the Fair itself? Here’s what I saw comics-wise…

So here’s a half-table that was all comics. This is the first year that Scholastic supplied “Graphic Novels” signage. You can see that this display skews heavily–but not entirely–toward licensed books: Powerpuff Girls, Grumpy Cat, etc. I was generally surprised that there wasn’t more manga, but you can see a few here. I suspect  stand-alone stories are selected pretty much exclusively for the Fair, which excludes most manga, since the majority of it is multi-volume.

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I was surprised at first to find only a single stack of Ghosts in a middle shelf. Roller Girl, by the way, is an incredibly popular GN that I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned once anywhere in the comics press. I’ve read my daughter’s copy and (despite having really weird lettering/word balloons) it’s a wonderful story. If you get a copy for your kid, be prepared to immediately invest in some roller skates!

Here’s the other big comics display. This ran prominently along the top of several shelves, again with the new “Graphic Novels” signage. It featured some manga, including Yona of the Dawn, that are exceptions to the stand-alone rule (although they only had one volume of each). Night School seems like an interesting choice: OEM horror.  Zelda, Dr. Who, and Halo are licensed properties. Marvel’s Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel were the only superhero books there, but direct market folks likely know Lumberjanes as well. Sunny Side Up (by the folks who do Babymouse) is also incredibly popular with kids, so no surprise there.

Here’s something interesting: I’d not heard of Trouble Makers, so I looked it up. It’s apparently a “Scholastic Book Fair Exclusive.” I didn’t know that was a thing. The book sounds interesting, though.

At the checkout, the Ghosts mystery was solved. It’s apparently so popular that they just kept a stack of them right at the cash register. They were down to two when I was paying for our books.

img_20161102_132657Also: not comics per se, but it was nice to see Kate Beaton’s Princess and the Pony for sale:

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The Bottom Line

Well, we don’t actually know what the “bottom line” is, but my suspicion is that this is pretty much you if you get your comic into the Scholastic Book Fair:

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We may never see any hard numbers on comics sales at the Scholastic Book Fair, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Fair is a major sales/reading vector for comics that we should probably be paying more attention to.

4 comments

1 ping

  1. Kat Kan says:

    Raina Telgemeier’s SMILE came out in early 2010, my school’s SBF included 8 copies. I had to reorder TWICE and sold out each time – that book was my biggest SBF seller of all time (been running SBF here for 10 years). For Fall SBF, we received a total of 24 copies of GHOSTS. Didn’t quite sell out, but sold most of them. Bought two copies for my school library collection, have a waiting list of students who want to read it. Everyone from gr. 2 through gr. 8 love Raina’s books. Another title in the Fall SBF is JUST PRINCESSES from Silver Dragon/Zenescope’s all-ages line, it was (I think) misplaced in the Easy Reader case. I booktalked it to middle grade students, and several purchased it. So, in addition to the books sent in the Graphic Novels boxes, several titles were scattered throughout the regular book cases. Tracy Edmunds posted photos of her school’s book fair and how they featured the graphic novels.

  2. abhishek says:

    Ben, a long chain of things led me here, middle was reading a couple preview pages of Oyster wars, and i ordered it, i think the post was 2015, and then i landed on this article.
    i did a GN with Image,”Krishna- a journey within” and they are fantastic folks, but what surprised me was the reveal of this great divide between the trade books and comics in the states.
    plus, the comic book sites hardly ever talk about anything beyond the two main stream (and here i’m not taking as a creator but a patron of comics) so much good work’s being done in comics.
    Crunching number have been hard for comics, esp creator owned and blending in with the trade book market is a great route. i hope it happens.
    nyc mocca book fair, and a few other host a blend.
    i wish more eyeballs were on some of the original GN stuff then monthlies, which seem to be turning into a re hash market, exception of a few good books.
    hope you find this comment, happy to have discovered your work and book.

    Abhi
    https://www.instagram.com/abhiart/

  3. Ben says:

    @Abhi – Yes, I remember seeing a write-up about your book not too long ago! I’m glad you had such a positive experience with Image. I’ve heard great stuff about working with them as well.

    There is absolutely a weird divide between trade books and individual issue comics. But (and this makes it even weirder) there’s no *lack* eyeballs on original GNs. Sales of GNs are really, really healthy. It’s just that they often seem to get ignored in the general comics conversation, press, etc.

  4. abhishek says:

    Thanks Ben, so glad some stuff from the book discovered you it’s been a while, working on the whole book devours years, you’d know, i’m almost close now be patching the first vol of my new book.
    monthly reaches a lot many people, i’ve had some interesting talks with artists, where they divided their GN into single issues. probably the price point helps sample it to a larger audience.
    but at the same point also in your write up “to pick the right pub” is so so key.

    definitely Gn’s doing much better with archia/boom like places image still is a more monthly driven place.

    all in all i think comics is a thing of passion, n good comics a way of life:)

  1. The Huge Comic Market No One Knows About – Comics Worth Reading says:

    […] Ben Towle has an impressive rundown of a huge market for kids’ books and comics: the Scholastic Book Fair. If you’re not familiar (although if you went through the US school system, you likely are), […]

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