W.W. Norton, the oldest and largest independent publishing and distribution house in the country, will distribute Fantagraphics Books to the book trade starting this September. Founded in 1923, W.W. Norton is considered one of the most influential and distinguished publishers and distributors in the country, famous for its Norton Anthologies of Literature, and a list of authors that includes Sebastian Junger, Michael Lewis, and Patrick O'Brian. Norton also distributes books from a sterling lineup of publishers including the award-winning art book publisher Thames & Hudson, as well as prestigious small houses like Verso, New Press, and New Directions.
Fantagraphics is just the most recent comic publisher to announce a change in bookstore distribution. Dark Horse (see 'Dark Horse Moves to LPC For Bookstores'), Marvel (see 'Diamond Moves into Book Distribution'), and Image (see 'Image Signs With LPC For Bookstores') have all signed new deals for bookstore distribution during the past few months. These changes are the result of the increase in the number of bookstore-friendly trade paperback comic collections from publishers, and more importantly, the increasing acceptance of the comics medium by the literary establishment (see 'NY Times Lauds Chris Ware,' 'Safe Area Gorazde Reviewed in NY Times'). It is apparent that comic publishers believe that there are increasing opportunities in mainstream bookstores, and that they are looking for more high-powered distribution in order to take full advantage of the situation.
With a roster of artists that includes Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Gilbert Hernandez, Bill Griffith, Gil Kane, Arnold Roth, R. Crumb, and George Herriman, Fantagraphics Books is uniquely well positioned to take advantage of the increasing acceptance of comics in the traditional bookstores. Fantagraphics' current book distributor, Seven Hills Book Distribution, just doesn't have the clout that Norton has. 'Norton is the standard-bearer for the kind of literary and independent-minded distributor we've always admired,' states Fantagraphics' Books Eric Reynolds. 'Simply being affiliated with them lends tremendous credibility to our line in the eyes of booksellers. The potential synergy is very exciting to us. Take a cartoonist like Joe Sacco: another Norton affiliate, Verso, publishes books by high profile essayists Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said, each of whom have written introductions for Sacco's books (Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, respectively). There's also a book about the history of organized labor in the U.S. that Sacco recently illustrated for the New Press, another Norton affiliate. Being able to provide booksellers that kind of instant literary context for an often-misunderstood medium like comics is invaluable.'
These opportunities for increased bookstore distribution are a relatively recent phenomenon. As Reynolds pointed out to ICv2, 'Five years ago I doubt whether Norton would have been interested in distributing us.' As the newsstand declines as a venue for comic sales (see 'Newsstand Sales Slipping Across the Board'), bookstores are likely to be increasingly important venues where 'civilians' are exposed to the comic books. Whether bookstores can act as effectively as the newsstand once did in feeding new customers into specialty stores remains to be seen.