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.
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:
@ben_towle In my small school, 100% of students come to book fair, 95% buy at least one book. I hold 2 book fairs each year.
— Katharine Kan (@TeenlibnKan) November 3, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.