WE ARE gathered here today to mourn a trusted ol’ friend and weekly visitor: the New York Times’s graphic book bestseller lists.
The sense of loss among authors and publishers, readers and retailers is profound.
Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang (“American Born Chinese“), the two-time National Book Award finalist, said he was “saddened” by the news. Rock-star cartoonist Raina Telgemeier (“Smile,” “Drama”) tweeted: “I enjoy being in a position to champion great work in comics when I see it. Having the @nytimes as backup was redeeming, rewarding, rad.”
The words “New York Times bestseller” are a boon for most any author, of course, but within comics specifically, they have been one of the few effective badges of honor since the graphic-book lists began in March 2009. (The Washington Post does not have separate graphic-books lists; those titles appear within the main hardcover and paperback lists.)
“It is a gold star,” Paul acknowledged.
For an industry that has spent decades working its way into the mainstream, 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.
Paul said that despite the death of these lists, “the Times is expanding its graphics-book coverage.”
“Those are areas that we intend to cover in other ways to reach readers,” Paul said. ” … People have an understanding of how much work goes into the list and [of] the infrastructure that these lists require.”
(The Times says it is discontinuing 10 lists total, including four e-book lists, two middle-grade lists and two young-adult lists. Paul assured that the Times’ “major lists,” including four lists devoted to books for young readers, will live on in print. In addition, such lists as Paperback Trade Fiction, Paperback Nonfiction, Advice Miscellaneous, Business, Science and Sports will continue online.)
“Comics will still be counted on the main lists,” Paul tweeted, “as they were before we spun them off separately.”
“Obviously the bar will be raised a little bit higher for books to become New York Times bestsellers,” Paul told The Post.
Industry figures said that they look forward to the promised expanded coverage, but emphasized the vitally high-profile status that the graphics bestsellers lists have had.
“Moving to eliminate the Graphic Bestseller lists seems like a misreading of the medium’s importance and its ever-growing interest to readers,” said First Second Books editor Mark Siegel.
“The Times may not fully realize how significant their list has been to the development of our art form,” said editor Leigh Walton, whose Top Shelf imprint launched the best-selling “March” trilogy, the third installment of which was the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award.
“For decades, the majority of comics media, retailers and hardcore fans have been devoted to a narrow slice of content,” Walton said. “But a whole new generation has arisen outside of that market, supporting diverse content from diverse creators — and the Times list has reflected that huge mainstream demand when the comic industry’s own metrics have not.”
Because comics are an art form and not a genre, the Times’s putting graphic books within the larger collection of “genre lists” has drawn criticism from some people in the industry. Yet many felt the power of the bestseller list was worth the label.
“Sometimes we had qualms that the Times treated the comics medium like a genre,” said Peggy Burns, publisher of Drawn & Quarterly, a relatively small, independent outlet. But “when [we] made the New York Times Graphic Bestseller list … it felt like the Times really supported the underdogs.”
Paul noted that she is a fan of graphic books, that her three children “love reading in that format” and that graphic novels are a great tool for reaching young “reluctant readers.”
Paul also pointed to the paper’s coverage this week of Rep. John Lewis’s illustrated civil rights memoir “March” after the title won an unprecedented four American Library Association awards as a sign of its commitment to graphic books.
“I was there at the National Book Awards when Rep. Lewis spoke” about not being able to get a library card as a child in the segregated South, Paul said. “It was incredibly moving.”
But it is precisely “March’s” success — the book topped Amazon’s bestseller lists this month after President Trump publicly feuded with Lewis — that made the move feel especially counterintuitive to some. (Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“The New York Times has been such a strong supporter of graphic novels, [and] I hope they will continue to do so in other ways,” said Yang, the Library of Congress’s national ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Yet, “the timing is unfortunate, with everything that’s been going on with ‘March.’ ”
(Paul noted that the discontinuation of some “genre” lists had been planned since last year.)
Some cartoonists lament what lies ahead, given not only the data that lists provided but also their symbolic power.
“I can say how fantastic it was to point to the success of Raina Telgemeier’s comics whenever I ran into someone who didn’t think girls read comics,” graphic novelist Faith Erin Hicks said. “It’s hard to argue with ‘Smile’ [being] on the New York Times bestseller list for over five years, so I’ll miss being able to say that.
“Or rather, I’ll still say that,” Hicks continued. Now, “I’m just sad I won’t be able to say that ‘Smile’ has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 years.”