Before Christmas I began writing an analysis of how The Rainbow Orchid had fared since its launch in August. I started going all over the place with the piece, so I'm going to keep this more focussed, looking at the book's critical reaction, sales and its place in the UK market.
The Rainbow Orchid volume one was very well received. Out of 36 full-length reviews (that I've seen) just three were negative. Even if you multiply the negative reviews by 10 (which is a true reflection of how the author's brain perceives them), then the good reviews still outweigh the bad.
The two main aspects that people have been critical of are the 'prologue-like nature' of volume one, and artwork that is sometimes a little stiff. I don't actually disagree with either of these. To quickly answer the criticisms, I'd say that the story was always conceived as a single full-length work and the pacing is exactly how I want it (even if it is a little unfashionable to not have explosions and fight scenes, or at least a zombie, every couple of pages). It has been the book's fate to be published in three volumes, and maybe it doesn't show the story off as well as it could, but it is nice to have it out and available now rather than sometime in 2011. As for the artwork, I'm improving all the time - volume two will be better, and volume three will be better still. The art in volume one is actually six years old, and I sometimes struggle to promote a book that I know is such old work - but it's got my name on it, and I can only present the book as it is, flaws and all.
Conversely, the good reviews have been very nice about the artwork, and the flipside of the comments concerning volume one's introductory nature is that people have got to the end and have immediately wanted to know what happens next and when they can get volume two, which means there must be something in the story that grabbed them after all.
Coverage within the online UK comics press has been wonderful and very supportive. Wider mainstream coverage has been almost non-existent, except for a lovely review in the Financial Times, a nice mention in The Independent just before Christmas, and some super support from LoveReading.co.uk. There have been a few big articles on comics in the press in the past few months, but unfortunately The Rainbow Orchid didn't get a look-in, which is a little disappointing, but you can't have everything! I'm really grateful for the fantastic coverage I have received.
I know I'm the centre of my own universe, and so I naturally view the world from that very biased perspective, but I did think that maybe RO would get a little bit wider coverage than it did, the main reason being that it's still not very common for the UK to have a brand new comic work published by a mainstream book company. The real heart of the UK comics industry is most definitely the independents and self-publishers, and the big wider world of book publishing - while getting more and more interested in comics - is still a tough nut to crack.
As a matter of interest let's take a quick look at the Amazon graphic novel charts as they appear on 31 December 2009 (not very scientific, but an interesting reflection of what's selling now). In the weeks immediately after its launch, The Rainbow Orchid troubled the number one spot in the Children's Comics & Graphic Novels category two or three times and has been in and out of the top 50 and 100 many times (it changes hourly and the Christmas period saw it back in the top 25 on a regular basis). It also got into the top 100 general Comics & Graphic Novels a few times, though that is a harder chart to break.
What do these charts consist of, and how many of the titles are original UK comic works? If we don't include reprints or collections, foreign works (i.e. US, European or Japanese manga - which are pretty much all reprints and collections anyway) or adaptations of literary works (i.e. not works written originally as a comic) then the numbers are interesting.
In the Children's Comics & Graphic Novel chart I count four titles in a hundred (six if you include the 2008 and 2009 Beano Annuals, but I'm not certain of their content): Salem Brownstone (Walker); The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby (Scholastic); The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (Bloomsbury); and The Rainbow Orchid (Egmont). (When I did this count a couple of months ago, it was pretty much the same).
In the General Comics & Graphic Novels chart I count two, though I am being rather strict: Logicomix (Bloomsbury, though the book is not by UK creators) and Dark Entries (Titan). There are also two books that are difficult not to consider original-works UK books, despite having US publishers, because of the creative teams: From Hell (Top Shelf) and Scarlet Traces (Dark Horse). When I analysed this chart a couple of months ago, Bryan Talbot's excellent Grandville was also a mainstay of the chart (and will no doubt be in and out of it again in the coming months).
I know I'm being very skewed here, and for me 2009 has been one of the best for fantastic graphic novels (thank you NBM, Cinebook and First Second!), but from the point of view of a UK 'graphic novel' industry, it's a revealing exercise.
Overwhelmingly, the UK comic book industry is made up of reprints and collections - and I'm in no way questioning the value and quality of these books, many of which I own and love. 2010 will certainly see comics go from strength to strength with more strong material from David Fickling Books, Escape Books, Blank Slate Books, Jonathan Cape, Walker Books and many more.
2009 saw the graphic novel book charts dominated by Watchmen, riding high on the wave created by the film adaptation. The other big-sellers (though nowhere near the Watchmen numbers) have been various Batman titles and manga, mainly Death Note. The arena of children's graphic novels is dominated by Egmont thanks to Tintin and Ben 10, with Asterix making up much of the rest and Artemis Fowl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer getting a look-in.
The Rainbow Orchid sales started slowly and suffered slightly from distribution problems with Waterstones (still not fully resolved, but getting there), but it was spotted quite widely in Borders (R.I.P). My local independent bookshop sold a fantastic number, and I've done really well with sales through my website and at various comics festivals. In the weeks just prior to Christmas it seems RO did good business on Amazon, with plenty of chart action almost daily. So, although I don't know exact sales figures for The Rainbow Orchid, in the 20 weeks since launch, and comparing with the recent 40-week Nielsen top twenty charts published by The Bookseller (which don't include every outlet), I can be pretty happy with how things have gone so far.
A big part of sales is the marketing, and I've not been able to market the book as effectively as I'd like due to the fact that when volume one came out, I had to spend my time working on volume two. I'm very lucky to have Egmont as a publisher who, along with my agent, are taking a long view with The Rainbow Orchid. When all three volumes are completed and available then I can't wait to get out there and get promoting, and though it's not a flash-in-the-pan success, I've every reason to feel optimistic about the future of the book.
Thanks for all your support so far - I'm so lucky to have it. Here's to 2010.