The late 1970s were a dark time for comics: fewer newsstands carried them, the comics shop market was still in its infancy, and overall sales were declining. It was an unlikely time to start publishing graphic novels, especially because the format didn’t really exist in the U.S. book industry. But that’s exactly what Terry Nantier did in 1976, while still a student at Syracuse University. NBM, the graphic novel publishing house he founded, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in a vastly changed landscape.
In 2017, graphic novels are flourishing and NBM is an established independent publisher. NBM publishes nearly 20 titles per year. Its list features a mix of about 40% American works and 60% licensed, mostly from France but also from Italy, Germany, and Spain. Two of its titles, Sandrine Revel’s graphic biography Glenn Gould: A Life off Tempo and Cyril Pedrosa’s graphic novel Equinoxes, have just been nominated for 2016 Eisner Awards. Its current list includes a series of graphic novels commissioned by and published in collaboration with the Louvre. NBM kicked off its 40th anniversary celebration at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), held May 13 and 14, by debuting a new graphic biography of jazz singer Billie Holiday produced by the Argentine comics team of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo.
NBM was founded at a time when American comics were dominated by the superhero genre, and its groundbreaking list featured a wide range of genres and artists. Over time its list has grown to include true crime books by Rick Geary, literary fiction from such creators as Lewis Trondheim, serious journalism by Ted Rall, and humor by Brooke Allen, as well as works by such comics luminaries as Will Eisner and acclaimed-prose-authors-turned-comics-creators Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.
NBM specializes in literary fiction and nonfiction graphic works aimed at older readers. From its beginnings, Nantier has emphasized the book format (rather than periodical comics) and licensed a wide variety of foreign-language works—especially literary graphic novels from France, where he lived as a teenager. “I discovered over there, in the 1970s, the whole world of graphic novels and how that was booming and making comics so incredibly creative, enabling them to gain new audiences—especially adult audiences,” he said.
Nantier worked to build a market for the category by focusing on books of interest to a wider readership, not just traditional comics fans. He also aggressively pursued coverage of its books in major noncomics publications such as Publishers Weekly and the New York Times.
NBM’s once-robust Eurotica imprint, which carried sexually explicit adult titles, has been winding down due to lack of demand, Nantier said. Over the past five years, NBM’s strengths in general fiction, literary graphic novels, and nonfiction (chiefly biographies) have only grown.
NBM was among the first comics publishers to sign with a bookstore distributor, and today the house is distributed to the book trade by IPG. Libraries have also been important to the comics market since the 1990s, when graphic novels began to take hold with librarians.
“The library market is definitely significant,” Nantier said, accounting for “at least a third of our sales, maybe more.” Bookstores and general retailers such as Amazon, as well as foreign sales, account for about 40% of sales; digital accounts for about 10%–15% of sales, including all the major e-book platforms and subscription services for the education and library market; and the rest is in comic shops.
“We have never been very dependent on the direct market,” Nantier said. He added that the comic shop market can be very good for generating media buzz, but “it’s not centrally important to overall sales.”
Launched on a small budget, the NBM list began with black-and-white books to keep prices low. Now, Nantier said, consumers “are looking more for beautiful packages, almost objets d’art, when it comes to graphic novels—and they are willing to pay for that more often.” Consequently, NBM’s most recent titles offer deluxe hardcover editions, with a larger trim size.
“The vision and the catalogue all along for NBM has been to appeal to a wide audience, not just a certain set of fans, and to impress people with what graphic novels can do,” Nantier said.