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Engaging With Fans

Fans have acquired something of a bad image. You only have to think of ‘Comic Book Guy’ on The Simpsons, obese, obsessive, oblivious to social skills and personal hygiene. The ubiquitous term ‘fanboy’ was coined first among predominantly male American comic book collectors to insult their most overzealous, sycophantic brethren. A more derogatory word ‘otaku’ arose in Japan to denote nerdy types hooked on manga (comics), anime (animation) or anything to an unhealthy degree. The very word fan itself is an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’ and all that implies.

"Loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix."
Jeff Albertson,  Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons

Yet despite their occasional extremes, fans here and abroad have proved essential to the growth over the past thirty years in graphic novels and manga. When regular high-street outlets for comics dried up, fans started specialist distributors and shops of their own, dealing on a firm sale basis, not on sale or return, thanks to the guarantee of a loyal customer base.

It was the fans who helped grow this market from a despised subgenre to a booming, high-profile sector. A good number of them also ‘subverted from within’ by working for general bookshops and taking charge of graphic novel sections there. Others could exert their influence working in publishing companies, a few even starting their own, notably Titan Books. And a large proportion of writers and artists in comics today, from Alan Moore to Posy Simmonds, found their vocation from avidly consuming, and usually creating, them as they were growing up.

So the power of fans should not be ignored, by publishers or booksellers, but how do you best engage with them and tap into their knowledge. With so many fans online, the internet plays a crucial role. Andrew Whelan, UK Marketing Manager of manga pioneers Tokyopop, is about to launch a proper UK website to mirror the US version which gets nearly 12 million page views a month. "You can create a profile with your avatar, upload photos,  artwork, join forums, vote in polls. This is one way we decide sometimes what to publish by placing a number of first chapters on the site and seeing which is the most popular."

Feedback from their fully interactive fansite is vital to Vanessa Neuling at Random House’s flourishing manga line Tanoshimi. "We’ve already had close to a hundred replies to our request for online reviewers to review the latest titles ahead of publication." Olivier Cadic at Cinebook listens to readers too; when fans of René Goscinny, writer of Asterix, demanded more of his stories, Olivier Cadic lined up his hilarious, devious vizir Iznogoud to debut next year. Titan have revamped their site, adding dedicated ‘microsites’ for some of their bigger titles, while First Second offers surfers exclusive artists’ blogs, sketchbooks and sneak peaks.

Virtual interaction is all very well, but there is nothing like meeting face-to-face, at conventions and other public events. Jonathan Cape support their authors on graphic novel panels at literary festivals, so far in Bath, Ilkley and Manchester, and launch their major autumn titles at the cutting-edge Comica Festival at London’s ICA, the choice of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Carlton and SelfMadeHero too.

Another strategy is to set up imaginative fan events yourself, such as in-store signings, reading groups and art contests. Laura Hassan at Cape came up with the idea of a Graphic Short Story Prize with The Observer and Comica, which also proved a canny way to discover hot talent for the future. Since 2005, Tokyopop have run over 200 ‘ReCons’ for manga maniacs with bookshops nationwide. Whelan reports, "Our record attendance was 347 at Waterstones Metrocentre Gateshead who spent over £3,500 in two hours. ReCons have grown so much since we started.  We have a van full of kit such as 50 inch plasma screen, PA  system, banners, sponsorship from Nintendo. No other publisher is doing this, Tokyopop is unique with the amount of fans we meet. Our offices in Germany, Japan and LA all now want to do the same thing.  Average attendance is over 100, but at Waterstones Metrocentre Gateshead we got 56 cosplayers and over 120 pieces of art entered as well, this is bigger than some local fan conventions."

On New Year’s Eve in 2007, Tanoshimi sponsored a manga event on London’s South Bank, where Neuling arranged "J-pop DJ’s, geisha, cosplay, competitions, goodie bags for early attendees, and premier screenings of new anime." It all sounds like a fantastic way for fans to start a whole New Year of enjoying comics.

Gatherings Of The Clans
Almost every weekend of the year, somewhere across the country, dedicated fans of manga and graphic novels are getting together at conventions. These range from modest local events organised by and for fans themselves, often in hotels, arts centres or universities, to slick, commercially-run ‘Expos’ filling venues as big as London’s ExCel and Birmingham’s NEC. See my Events listings web page for details of future events near you.

Sometimes, the high price of admission and sheer monomania can be offputting to all but die-hard aficionados, but publishers and booksellers alike can benefit from appealing to these niche audiences. Artist Al Davison‘s presence at Japan Ex drawing manga caricatures helped promote sales from his Coventry-based bookstore Astral Gypsy. Titan Books were not the only publishers to take part in last September’s massive London Film and Comic Con at Earl’s Court, successfully selling their books but also holding launches and signings with star guests and strengthening their profile in their target readership’s eyes.

From anime cosplay (costume playing based on Japanese animation) and The Book Palace‘s British comics nostalgia shows to American SF cults Star Wars and Serenity, there are also many events focussed on specific interests and franchises. Ellie Graham at Titan points out one way to stay abreast of all that’s going on. "Since our authors are experts on their subjects, they’re excellent for picking us up on things we might have missed." Don’t underestimate the opportunities these assorted gatherings of the clans can offer.

Posted: June 15, 2008

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller in 2007. The photographs used to illustrate this article were taken at recent Tokyopop Recon events in the UK.


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Tokyopop UK

ReCons on YouTube:
Gateshead, August 2007
Newport, October 2007

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