When the nominees for the Eisner Awards were announced back in April, I didn’t rush to check them. Not out of any disrespect to the nominees, but because it’s rare that a book I don’t already know about ends up on that list, and rarer still that an unfamiliar name crops up. I was pleasantly surprised to discover several comics I really enjoyed last year were nominated, including E.K. Weaver’s The Less Than Epic Adventures Of TJ And Amal and Ronald Wimberly’s Lighten Up, but was disappointed in the obvious omission of books that came from small presses and self-publishing.
There are a multitude of reasons why self-published works don’t end up on the ballots for awards like the Eisners, but the unfortunate truth that it shows just how out of touch with the actual industry awards and comics heavy hitters are. In much the same way that the Eisners nominations list proves a fundamental lack of understanding about webcomics, the fact that so many of the categories are dominated by such a small group of publishers speaks directly to a worrying ignorance that could have serious ramifications for comics moving forward.
For people interested in branching past publishers they’ve heard of and learning more about the industry, C. Spike Trotman is probably the best place to start. She’s the owner and editor at Iron Circus and publisher of the TJ And Amal omnibus that was nominated, and she has a habit of tweeting pointed, informative commentary about the way that the comics industry works. The average comics reader doesn’t know much about the interplay between publishers and distributors (especially Diamond) and retailers, and while they might remember the way the industry dipped and staggered in the ’80s and ’90s, they likely don’t have as much insight and knowledge as Trotman does. When it comes to the intense barriers standing in the way of publishing success, Trotman is not only one of the best when it comes to explaining what those barriers are, but also knocking them down.
If you’ve heard of Trotman’s company, Iron Circus Comics, it’s probably because of the hugely popular Smut Peddler books, published in 2012 and 2014. They’re only two of the anthologies Trotman has used Kickstarter to publish, and the roster of talent that Trotman can recruit for Iron Circus projects has continued to grow with books like Sleep Of Reason and New World. But Trotman started off in comics making her own; long before Kickstarter was around to help creators get their books printed and into the hands of fans, creators like Trotman used PayPal and similar services to set up ad hoc preordering systems, like she did for her webcomic Templar, Arizona. There’s a mistaken impression that self-published comics are something new, booming onto the scene in just the past few years. But what’s changed is the barrier of entry and just how many people have access to the tools they need to publish their own stories.
Of course, it’s not just webcomics that have prompted creators to make the jump into self-publishing. Both Sfé R. Monster and Taneka Stotts of Beyond Press have their own webcomics, Eth’s Skin and Full Circle. But they also have experience with making zines, and they’re certainly not the only self-publishers making comics who do. Though zines often don’t have the same print quality and or get as much exposure outside of small local communities as more formally self-published comics, they’re both chock full of creativity in terms of content and communities built around them. Events like ZineFest in Chicago and Small Press Expo in Baltimore have long been friendly to both zines and small press comics, so it makes sense to see people gravitating from one to the other.
What binds Trotman, Monster, and Stotts together isn’t just their passion for comics, it’s what drove them to begin self-publishing: a desire to see the kind of comics that they want to read but can’t find anywhere else. It’s a theme that comes up time and time again when you talk to people who publish their own work, either online or physically. Almost every single person expresses frustration with what’s offered by larger publishers and recounts the moment when they decided to start making the comics themselves, if they couldn’t just go to their local comic shop and buy them. For Monster it was a distinct moment when he said something on Twitter about wanting more queer sci-fi and fantasy stories. As is often the case when people point out something that’s lacking in an industry people are very invested in, Monster was almost immediately inundated with instructions to do it himself, if he wanted to see himself represented so badly.
Speaking to Monster and Stotts about Beyond, they joke that no small part of their motivation to make the book and keep making more of them was spite. Told repeatedly that they don’t belong in comics by dint of their exclusion and facing down critics that insisted Beyond had no market, it was gratifying and affirming when over 2,500 people backed the Kickstarter, far exceeding the original goal and raising almost $80,000.
Similarly, Trotman turned to Kickstarter not just to publish her own content, but to make a book of erotica that actually suited her tastes more than what was available from the rest of the market. The 2012 edition of Smut Peddler made over $80,000 and the 2014 volume over twice that with almost 6,000 backers, which only represents the preorders. Part of the goal of any well-crafted self-publishing project is to get enough books printed that the publisher, editors, and creators can sell books long after the backers have gotten the first round of copies. That’s how Trotman has sustained her business well past the end date of each of her fundraising efforts, attending cons and running an online store that can ship books or send PDFs to people who may have missed the initial call for orders.
It’s not all collecting cash and basking in victory, though. Stotts and Monster both confessed that, if they had the chance to let someone else run the business side of Beyond Press, they would. So many people get into self-publishing because of their desire to make creative things, but the day-to-day operations of running a publisher can be enough to sap the drive out of even the most motivating passion project. Budgeting and taxes are an issue, of course, and in the case of publishing an anthology the publisher often serves the dual role of editor as well, following up with creators and providing them with feedback.
Speaking from personal experience, even just getting everyone to submit pages that are formatted correctly can be an issue that drags out for weeks. None of these skills are the kind of thing that require any formal training, but Trotman, Stotts, and Monster all made no secret of the fact that they rely on friends and colleagues and learn from other’s experiences. There are dozens if not hundreds of people who have created an online community of support that regularly discusses the mistakes they’ve made and successes they’ve managed; Trotman has been asked questions about her Kickstarter process so frequently that she’s even created a how-to comic that she sells on her site. By most accounts the greatest tool in any self-publisher’s arsenal isn’t Kickstarter or software, it’s the ability to network and connect with other people that can help ease the transition from creator to business.
There may be a mistaken impression that self-publishing is here to put large publishers out of business. Not only is that not likely—since there will always be folks more interested in Batman than they are lady-friendly erotica—but that’s not the goal of most of these creators. There’s no easy way to quantify just how much of the industry is made up of small press or self-publishing outfits, with so many avenues for fundraising and selling available. At the time of writing, Kickstarter had over 160 live projects in the comics category. Even assuming that not all of them will be funded successfully, it’s staggering to see just how many projects are in process at any given time. Add to that the thousands of webcomics and digital titles that are produced without ever needing a fundraising effort and the shape of the comics industry changes substantially, becoming even clearer that self-published content is not a replacement for DC or Image or Marvel. Instead, it’s a different offering in the same medium, something that need not appeal to everyone in much the same way that capes and cowls don’t.
That said, it can be frustrating for people to watch as a large publisher comes in to distribute and reprint a book that they helped fund, but as Trotman rightly points out, it can be a lifesaver for inexperienced or overwhelmed people when a professional business with more resources offers help. Navigating shipping costs and rules can be daunting, let alone filing for an ISBN number or working with distributors and retailers. There are self-publishing projects that, despite being successfully funded, crash and burn after the fact because the organizers just don’t have the resources that they need to get the books printed and into the readers’ hands.
Rather than self-publishing replacing traditional or traditional taking over small press, larger publishers are starting to take note of what’s been happening in a subsection of the industry that’s been growing steadily for years. Iron Circus is working with Image as part of the Creators For Creators program, providing grants for up and coming creators and giving them a publishing slot at one of the two publishers. Oni Press has partnered with Rosy Press to help distribute the print edition of the latter’s widely successful Fresh Romance series. Image printed the physical copy of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye, originally published online with a pay-what-you-want price tag. It’s no coincidence that all this is happening at a time when comics are enjoying more attention and pop culture integration than ever before, but it’s the perfect storm of an increase in overall popularity and new access to audiences because of the internet and Kickstarter that’s making all this possible.
The challenge, as more traditional publishers realize the market share that self-published and small press books own, is how to categorize and recognize their achievements. It’s no real surprise to fans of either, but both Beyond Press and Iron Circus have books that won Lambda Literary Awards a few weeks ago; Beyond for last year’s anthology and Iron Circus for the aforementioned The Less Than Epic Adventures Of TJ And Amal. It’s an immense achievement for both of these small press publishers, not to mention a happy coincidence that I spoke to both prior to their wins. But it also speaks to the fact that the best LGBT offerings out there in comics are not coming from the largest publishers. It’s long been true, and not just of comics, that larger companies tend not to take large risks. There’s too much riding on the success of any individual product and massive institutional inertia, which leaves smaller publishers to pick up new and innovative ideas, pushing the boundaries of the industry.
But larger publishers like DC, Marvel, and Image have not only the name recognition and press attention to dominate awards shows, they also have scores of employees that qualify to vote for the Eisner Awards. The Eisner nominees are chosen by a panel of judges from a pool of work submitted by publishers, but voting on the nominees is open to any industry professional. Even webcomic creators, most of whom cannot submit their own work for consideration, are eligible to vote. But this system is skewed heavily toward larger publishers, who have the resources to manage submissions and scores of employees who can vote for the comics put out by the same folks who sign their paychecks. Many small press and self-publishing groups are not included in the initial call for submissions, and may not know if they qualify to submit. Even worse, there are creators that participate in books like Beyond and New World or Smut Peddler that don’t consider themselves industry professionals, because they have a different day job or because self-published work doesn’t have the same air of credibility for some as working with a “real” publisher. Imposter syndrome is a hell of a drug.
There’s no easy fix for how to address just how profoundly self-published comics are excluded by the rest of the industry when it comes to recognition, but having a serious conversation about how we talk about publishers is a great place to start. I still hear “the Big Two” all the time, as if DC and Marvel are the only mainstream comic book publishers. Image books regularly outsell both DC and Marvel, and there’s no reason to keep thinking of comics as beginning and ending with them just because they’ve been around for a long time. Publishers should be discussed as belonging on three different spectrums: size, ownership, and venue. DC and Marvel are large publishers with corporate-owned intellectual property that offer both print and digital comics; Image is the same, but has creator-owned intellectual property and can’t by any real stretch of the imagination be called an “indie” publisher anymore. Shifting away from outdated and inaccurate labels for publishers will go a long way in calling out just how much of the industry’s focus is on a single end of a single spectrum, excluding everyone else.
Though readers are wolfing down independently published books from small press and self-publishing outfits, publishers are slowly starting to realize what all this can mean for the industry, and awards like the Eisners are either still completely unaware or willfully ignorant of the ways in which comics are changing. Beyond Press and Iron Circus Comics are bringing comics to people who have long felt excluded, and there’s a lot that traditional publishers can learn from them when it comes to authentically and truthfully appealing to audiences that have been marginalized or outright forgotten previously.
While the success of specific books like Smut Peddler and Beyond speaks to a niche in the market that wasn’t previously filled, the real legacy of projects like that is the long-term impact it has on the creators. Monster and Stotts have plans for a second Beyond book in 2017, and Stotts is launching fundraising efforts for another anthology called Elements next week. On top of the Creators For Creators program and running four separate Kickstarters to print five books in the last 12 months, Trotman has also started posting weekly announcements of the new projects that she’ll be publishing in the coming years. As is the case with many self-published creators, once they’ve been bitten by this particular bug it’s pretty hard to shake. We as readers, and the industry writ large, are better for it.