Jerry Craft, an award-winning cartoonist, creator of the weekly syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz, and children's book illustrator, was a self-publisher before it became cool, producing three paperback collections of the comic strip between 1997 and 2010. Last month, Craft self-published his first work of prose, The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention, an illustrated middle grade novel co-written with his two sons, Jaylen and Aren, and focused on bullying.
In The Offenders, Craft profiles five fictional multiracial kids who come to learn that they are indeed, middle school bullies. In the process, they encounter a strange event that gives them all superpowers -- powers that give each of the young bullies the characteristics of kids they’ve been pushing around. Buck Bievers, an African-American kid (his parents are dentists) who picks on other kids about their teeth, becomes Beaverine and finds himself with the biggest most powerful buck teeth imaginable. Kimmy Kampbell, the school fashionista and blogger, becomes as thin as a paper doll, and so on. The bullies get a taste of the treatment they often handed out to others -- and in the process change their behavior and how they interact with others. And while Craft is African American and generally targets the African-American audience, the kids he writes about in The Offenders swap racial features when they take on their new powers, in order to make it impossible for young readers to identify with any one race. The book also features Craft’s entertaining illustrations of all the kids, depicted before and after their transformations.
Craft, who is married, has been supported by the sales of his books since about 2007. But his work and his interests have always been aimed at kids. He described himself as a “PTA dad,” and he coaches basketball and visits schools to do cartooning workshops. While his own sons and coauthors, Jaylen and Aren, did not have to deal with bullying, Craft said he once attended a bullying workshop at their school that planted the seeds of inspiration for The Offenders. “One of the moms at the workshop stood up and said that the parents who should be there were not,” he said. “Not only are there parents who may not know that their kids are bullies, but there are kids who may not know that they’re bullies, or that something they consider harmless could really offend someone. Bullies don’t often see themselves as bullies.”
The novel is also another example of the reasons Craft began to self-publish in 1997. “Publishers have so many arbitrary rules -- no flashbacks, too many characters,” he said, noting one reason why he opted for self-publishing. “I’ve got two kids. If publishers want to portray kids of color effectively, they need to go outside their conventional pool of writers and artists.”
Craft launched his weekly comic strip Mama’s Boyz, which chronicles the humorous and life-learning situations navigated by an African-American widow raising two sons, in 1992 while he worked for King Features Syndicate, the venerable company that syndicates comics strips to newspapers around the country. Craft worked in the art department at King Features, correcting errors and typos on such classic strips as Beetle Bailey and Blondie, while working on his strip and initially self-syndicating it. In 1995, King Features picked up Mama’s Boyz, making Craft one of a handful of African-American cartoonists in national syndication.
But after a few years, Craft said, he noticed he couldn’t get his strips collected into a book -- he says other black syndicated cartoonists (and there were not many) had similar problems at the time -- and after several rejections, he decided to do it himself. “I didn’t think any publisher would get it. I already knew Photoshop and Quark and how to do layouts. So I went to the library and got Dan Poynter's book, The Self-Publishing Manual,” and he found a printer in North Carolina. Craft convinced well-known syndicated cartoonist Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) to write a forward for the first book and released Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie!; which was followed by Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’: Because Learning Shouldn’t Stop at 3 O’Clock (2007); and the latest collection, Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture: What You Need to Succeed (2010).
By the late 2000s, Craft was still working full-time and working on his comic strip, though now he had a new job as an online producer for the Sports Illustrated Kids website, producing online games, illustrations, and interviews with athletes like the Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. At the time, about 10 years after his first book, he had started sell his second book collection via his own website, though it was primitive. “You had to mail me a check, but schools and libraries discovered the strip and I would get orders for 50 to 100 copies at a time,” Craft said.
He did his marketing and promotion the old fashioned way, piling books in the car, visiting book fairs and literary festivals and schools, and building an online presence himself. “I went to book fairs to sell the books, built a website -- I learned how to do this myself -- there was no social media at the time,” Craft says. Craft says it even took him some time to learn that the children's book market was where his Mama’s Boyz titles needed to be. “I thought they were for comics fans,” he said. But when people started buying copies for their kids, he thought “sure, why not. My own kids read them at early age and loved them. But if I had set out to do a kids’ book, I may have tried to dumb it down and it probably wouldn’t have worked.”
For Craft's first Mama’s Boyz collection, he got a shipment of 2,500 copies, which he stored in his garage. These days, his books are published print-on-demand in short runs or are individually produced and shipped when a book is purchased online. Craft uses Amazon’s CreateSpace and Ingram Spark, a program under Ingram’s Lightning Source POD unit that streamlines the ability of self-publishers to release their books in print and digital simultaneously. For the most part he’s handled his distribution himself, but for the most recent collection of Mama’s Boyz -- after a 2,000-copy first printing, he went back to press for another 2,000 -- he used Baker & Taylor.
Self-publishing is a different animal from when he started in the late 1990s. Aside from the vastly improved printing and order fulfillment technology, he’s paid on a quarterly basis by the POD and digital vendors he uses. And thanks to services like PayPal and Square, the iPhone credit card app, he doesn’t have to rely on having cash to make a sale. “I can swipe a credit card,” Craft said.
Craft spends a lot of time promoting, marketing and selling his book collections. He hops from book fairs to libraries to school events, attending everything from Kids Comic Con, held each year in the Bronx, to the Miami Book Fair. He even teamed up with cartoonists from Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and L.A. to launch Black Comic Book Day, held at venues in all those cities simultaneously. It’s an effort to raise the awareness of African-American cartoonists and their work. It has been held in New York at a variety of locations including the now defunct Hue-Man Bookstore. This year, the renamed Black Comics Festival--the event drew more than 2,400 fans--was held over two days (January 17 and 18) at the Schomburg Library in Harlem, with a contingent of black comics artists holding workshops and giving presentations on women in comics, cosplay, and, not surprisingly, how to self-publish.
Back in September, Craft says he sold about 50 advance copies of The Offenders to a junior high school in upstate New York, and he was able to use the students at the school as a focus group for feedback on the book. Craft says that a teacher at the school was reading The Offenders to her class and when she mentioned one of the acts of bullying in the story, one of the girls in the class gasped. “What’s wrong” the teacher asked? “I just did that to someone this morning!” the girl replied. “She told the teacher she would seek out the kid at recess and apologize,” Craft said. “That was the highest compliment that I could get.”