When Terry Nantier and Jim Salicrup started Papercutz in New York City in 2005, the children’s graphic novel market barely existed at all.
Today, the graphic novel market is flourishing: graphic novel sales in North America have grown from about $295 million in 2005 to more than $460 million in 2015, according to pop culture news site ICV2—and the children’s graphic novel category and Papercutz are an important part of that growth.
Papercutz publishes between 50 and 60 books per year (the house launched with 10 titles in 2005), most aimed at children ages 8–12. The company’s catalogue includes bestselling licensed media properties, foreign imports, archival collections of classic comics series such as Dennis the Menace and the Smurfs, and original graphic novels. The house recently expanded to add Super Genius, a Papercutz imprint for teenage readers.
Despite modest national sales of children’s comics—as well as book-format graphic novels—11 years ago, Nantier and Salicrup saw a market ripe for expansion. Tweens and teens were snapping up manga in bookstores. The comics shop market—also known as the direct market, a network of about 2,000 comics stores served by Diamond Comics Distributors—was a different matter. Almost entirely independently owned, comics shops catered to hard-core comics fans, mostly adults devoted to superhero comics. “Back in 2005, if you wanted a formula for complete failure in the comic store market, try coming out with graphic novels for children in a manga style,” Salicrup said.
So Nantier and Salicrup aimed the Papercutz list at bookstores and placed their graphic novels in the general children’s section. “We were specifically getting away from the [then-newly-launched] graphic novel section, which was mainly manga and superhero stuff but for an older audience,” said Nantier, who already had years of experience in the book market as the founder of NBM, a separate literary graphic novel publishing house originally launched in 1976.
The first Papercutz list featured a manga-style graphic novel revival of the classic Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys adventure series, a format Salicrup described as a “safe risk” for bookstores. “It was taking something that was all new and different, but giving it characters who had been around forever and making it a little easier and more accessible,” he said. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys graphic novel series are still in print and have together sold more than 800,000 copies.
Next, they added reprints of Classics Illustrated comics—not the venerable original series of the 1940s that adapted classic prose literature into comics, but a more recent revival from the 1980s by the now-defunct publisher First Comics. These First Comics reprint adaptations, among them Wuthering Heights, The Jungle, and The Invisible Man, featured acclaimed contemporary artists such as Rick Geary, Peter Kuper, and Gahan Wilson.
With the burgeoning sales of those books, Papercutz greatly expanded its offerings. The company added French comics licences, including the popular Ariol series, the story of an anthropomorphic school-kid donkey by Emmanuel Guibert, and Guillaume Bianco and Antonello Dalena’s Ernest and Rebecca series, the story of a girl and a magical microbe buddy. The turn toward translated European properties was not surprising given Nantier’s 40 years of experience as publisher of NBM, which is a fixture at the Frankfurt Book Fair and publishes an array of licensed literary European comics titles.
Papercutz also picked up the graphic novels license for Geronimo Stilton, a bestselling prose series (Scholastic publishes the chapter books in English) starring a time-traveling squirrel, which originated in Italy, and the house has sold almost 1.5 million copies in English
“We did so well that Italy ran out of graphic novels for us to translate and publish over here, so we’re now creating them ourselves,” Salicrup said. Under the supervision of Papercutz, Italian authors write stories, then Papercutz translates them and American artists, colorists, and letterers complete the books.
For a while, Lego’s Ninjago and Bionicle series were two of Papercutz’s most important licenses—Nantier said it sold more than two million copies of the two series—though Lego moved the licenses to Little, Brown last year. But that’s the risk of any license, Salicrup explained, and it was an incentive for Papercutz to begin to publish original properties.
Papercutz’s first original title was Deb Lucke’s The Lunch Witch, published in March 2015, which sold 10,000 copies last year. It followed that up with The Red Shoes and Other Stories by the Glasgow-based team of Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers, who create comics under the name Metaphrog. “We have increasingly published author-owned properties where we try to flip the model and perhaps be the licensor,” Nantier said.
There are plenty of other new projects in the works: a Barbie-licensed graphic novel line, and a licensed line of classic Disney graphic novels from the Disney comics studio in Italy, including the Disney adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, titled Mickey’s Inferno, and X-Mickey, which features the famous mouse in X-Files-type supernatural escapades. Papercutz continues to publish graphic novels based on a first-look deal with children’s TV network Nickelodeon. And in November the house is publishing Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, a YA SF graphic novel offering diversity—the book has a multiracial heroine—that was originally published in France but created by noted American cartoonist Jessica Abel.
Almost all Papercutz titles are available as e-books, and Nantier said about 8%–10% of Papercutz sales are digital, adding that he thinks e-books may be paused right now, but he expects the market to grow.
As the bookstore market for children’s and YA graphic novels has evolved, Papercutz books have also become more welcome in the comic-shops market. “A lot of the comics retailers have become more sophisticated,” Nantier said. “They understand this stuff better and they really like having families come in on the weekend. It diversifies their audience away from the Wednesday audience [new periodical comics arrive in the direct market each Wednesday].”
Publishers have taken note as well. “Almost every publisher now has either bulked up their kids’ line or is offering stuff that 10 years ago they would never have considered being part of their comics mix,” Salicrup said. “It’s one of those obvious things, that you need to have kids’ graphic novels if you want to have a market in the future.”