In last month's column I parenthetically mentioned graphic novel publishing imprints that are a part of large traditional publishing companies. Several prominent publishers have established themselves with strong graphic novel showings in recent years—Macmillan's imprint First Second has published several well-received graphic novels, most notably American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang; Random House's Pantheon imprint published Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels and is now making news with Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli and A.D.: After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld; Simon and Schuster publishes graphic novels in both its adult and children's imprints, with work by former indie comics creators Hope Larson and Ariel Schrag. And those are just a few examples.
The graphic novels published by these large companies do not compete with superhero comics. Rather, their genres, subjects and style place them next to graphic novels published by independent comic publishers. Recently I've come across a few interviews and reviews that explore some of the advantages large publishers have over indie comics publishers.
Established, traditional publishers have decades of experience in selling to the bookstore market, which graphic novels are just starting to break into. While traditional publishers have been hit by hard times lately, they're still daunting competition for any company wanting to establish itself in what is, essentially, their market.
Paul Levitz, President of DC Comics, talked about the experience and organization of traditional publishers in a recent interview with ICV2: "When you go to a world in which the large publishers are sending you out a galley version of the graphic novel six months in advance, and are announcing on the back cover the five-step marketing program that they’re doing for it, it’s a lot harder for the little guy who’s launching it from home to do it."
I'm not sure why discussions of independent publishing always use someone publishing from home as an example when there are plenty of independent publishers who have been around for a decade or more and have employees and offices. In any case, it's not just the single-employee publishers that need to hustle to keep from being crushed under the juggernaut of the publishing establishment.
Editors have felt the slashing impulse in the recent cuts at publishers. However, the editorial tradition of close work with authors and detailed feedback remains, as Hope Larson spoke about in a recent interview with Dash Shaw: "... I've always worked from scripts, even for short comics—I all but begged for editorial feedback....I wanted someone to tell me what those things were so I could fix them before the book was drawn and winging off to the presses," she said. "I never got any feedback for Gray Horses. Oni Press was in an, um, transitional place at the time, and my book slipped through the cracks. I sent the script to a few friends, but they weren't much help, either. That was when I realized that if I wanted a real editor, I'd better jump to a book publisher." (Larson recently clarified that remark on her Twitter, stating, "I have no beef with Oni Press these days.")
But there is, at least in my experience, a tendency for independent publishers to practice a less hands-on kind of editing. Some of this, as Scott McCloud noted in response to Larson's interview, is a part of the indie comics do-it-yourself culture. Some of it also is that small, independent publishers often don't have enough staff to support editors dedicated to only editing. Independent editors wear a lot of hats. However, speaking as someone who has worked on both sides of the editor-creator relationship, I agree with Larson—a good editor with the time to make detailed notes will make a good work better.
Many independent comics publishers deliver beautifully designed books, especially art comics publishers like Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics. However, a lot of still too often seem to underestimate the value of sophisticated design. Books are more and more becoming art "objects," and small graphic novel publishers need to keep up with the trend.
A recent Forbidden Planet review of the Walker Books Ltd. edition of Glister by Andi Watson in comparison to the Image Comics editions: "The Image Comics edition seemed somehow throwaway, a thin black and white volume," writes Richard Bruton. "But Walker Books have given it beautiful colour covers, with a matching pink colour shade on the internal pages. It all seems far more substantial and beautifully complete this time around."
The review also speculates about Walker Books, a U.K. children's book imprint, and its greater ability to reach the audience Glister was intended for. Bruton notes that Image's main focus is not children's books and the comic book store isn't a common place to find little girls, but "Walker Books knows an awful lot about children’s books regardless of gender."
A lot of this criticism is hard for us indie publishers to hear. It seems as if we're always going up against someone with more money and more resources. However, the book market is undergoing changes now, with large publishers increasingly having to cut costs and staff. Perhaps now is the time—a pop culture moment that New York Times writer Kurt Anderson defines as one in which "both entertainment and art appeal to niches, cultural tribes that range in size from tiny to smallish"—to be aggressive, observant, and active in order to define our space in the market that emerges after troubled times.
Of course, we can also be leaders in the new, rising markets—such as electronic distribution. But I'll get into that next month.
Jennifer de Guzman is editor-in-chief at the independent comics publisher SLG Publishing.