Fantagraphics Goes Underground

fukitorcoverFantagraphics launched a little September surprise yesterday with the announcement of its FU imprint, which, according to the press release, is designed to "publish books and print projects appealing to a smaller, more rarefied readership." FU will publish small runs of unusual books, and will make those books available to select stores and at the ever-growing number of festivals around the country. The first two books are the collected Fukitor by Jason Karns (read his TCJ interview here) and Jonah Kinigstein's The Emperor's New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the "Art" World. The announcement piqued my interest because, as a publisher, one of the major struggles is dealing with the limited audience for beloved projects and the realities of an increasingly fractured market that may not benefit from standard book trade terms. Fantagraphics seems to be circumventing some of the cost of these labors of love by cutting out the trade distribution discount, outsourcing the production to just one person (designer Jonathan Barli)  and printing small runs, thus keeping overhead to a minimum. It's an interesting move, and leads off with two genuinely fascinating books, the first by a highly controversial cartoonist (and subject of much debate on this site) and the second by a longtime graphic critic of the art world, whom I published ten years ago in The Ganzfeld 4. I shot off some questions to Gary Groth to scratch my itch. 

DN: Who is the editorial director of this imprint?

Gary Groth: I am.

Why Fukitor? That seems like a particularly controversial choice.

Both books could be considered controversial choices. One is certainly a prime example of transgressive art and the other is a relentless attack on modernist art and beloved and successful artists such as Warhol, de Kooning, and Schnabel. I'm glad you asked me this because I've been wrestling with this for awhile. Jim Rugg, an artist I like and respect, was the prime mover behind Fukitor (he edited the collection). I am admittedly more ambivalent about it than Jim, who is a passionate advocate, but I ultimately concluded that its mockery and ridicule of the more idiotic aspects of pop culture makes it worthwhile (and funny). I know, of course, that that is not everyone's interpretation, and I don't discount the possibility that it is both a symptom of as well as a response to a rancid pop culture, which makes it a more difficult work to navigate.

I think it's a publisher's obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable "literary" comics or solid, "good," uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it's important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.

What qualifies a project for, uh, FU? For example, why is Fukitor more of a risk than, say, Twelve Gems? Or Kinigstein from that outsider artist you all published a few years back. The mission for FU as stated is hard to distinguish from the mission of FB as published.

There's really no point in publishing a book that's going to sell 300 or 500 copies in the mass market (which we have done, albeit unintentionally). Such a book literally loses thousands of dollars for the publisher, makes nothing for the distributor and the wholesaler, and, because of the return process, nothing for the retailer, and an inconsequential amount for the author.

By "that outsider artist," are you referring to Norman Pettingill and the book Backwoods Humorist? [Ed: Yes] That's a good case in point. It's a book I worked hard on and am particularly proud of —I wrote a biography of the artist and Robert Crumb wrote an intro— and it sold terribly. So, the question for a book like that comes down to this: Do you publish it in such a way as to make a small profit or that loses a significant amount of money? That particular book is problematic because it sold better than we expect an FU book to sell but much worse than a mass market book has to sell in order not to lose money.

FU is primarily for books that are simply not going to sell to a mass readership.

emperorsclothescoverDoes this signal a shift in FB’s trade publishing program away from riskier titles?

No, it absolutely doesn't. In fact, more like opposite: It allows us to publish less commercial work than we ordinarily could, which work could eventually, if we get enough word-of-mouth and good response from the FU edition, be turned into a book distributed to the book trade.

Are these print-on-demand projects? If so, are they digitally printed?

They are not print-on-demand. We are printing a set number, and going back to press if it's warranted.

Is there enough of a craving for these kind of projects to justify the production cost and editorial time?

The point is that you don't need an intense mass craving to sell 250 to 500 copies of a book.  At least that's my assumption. I could be wrong. But, I developed an economic model that were we can print and publish 250 to 500 copies of a book, keep overhead low, streamline marketing, and do all right. I think that's worth trying. We could have a much larger discussion about the realities of publishing. This is one effort to change those realities.