Small is beautiful for The Distribution Engine, a new book distributor with a very specific focus: Bringing graphic novels from small presses in the UK to comic shops in the U.S. The company launched early this year and has already built its catalog to 30 titles from seven different publishers: Soaring Penguin Press, Fanfare, Knockabout Comics, Accent UK, Time Bomb Comics, Subversive Comics, and Markosia.
Many of the publishers that The Distribution Engine represents already have book distribution deals with larger distributors such as Diamond, but they hope that by banding together they can increase their visibility. "We have been around, but a lot of us get lost in the Diamond catalogue," said publisher liaison Nora Goldberg, who is also a publishing assistant at Soaring Penguin Press.
For example, Soaring Penguin published Ellen Lindner's The Black Feather Falls, a 1920s-era murder mystery done in an Art Deco style that was originally serialized on the Act-I-Vate website. "We hadn't sold much with Diamond, but at shows or when we or the artist would bring it to shops, it would sell out," Goldberg said.
Goldberg understands that a big distributor may not want to devote a lot of resources to a small press that represents only a tiny fraction of their business, but distribution is vitally important to those small presses. "We need to have a way of selling our publications successfully to support ourselves and these talented artists—otherwise what is the point?" said Goldberg. "Yes, we are all very proud of the material we publish, and we know that it is of an amazing quality, but that only goes so far if we can't get it to the readers."
In addition, she said, "there is the issue that because as small publishers we don't always have a chance to have a physical presence in North America, we aren't able to do the groundwork that you need to develop your brand recognition, which is something DE can help amend by its presence at the shows of behalf of these publishers."
Part of The Distribution Engine's strategy is a strong presence at comics conventions, where they sell books to the public and meet with retailers. They launched with a booth at Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) in April, and they will be exhibiting at Wizard World Chicago later this month and at Montreal Comic Con in September. There’s also a Distribution Engine Facebook page.
The Distribution Engine started with a single book: "The title that really got this started was Peter Pan by Regis Loisel from Soaring Penguin," said Goldberg. "It was an insanely successful series in France, to a degree that most American series could only dream of matching,” she said. Soaring Penguin translated the entire series into English for the first time, and collected it into one edition to publish in the UK. “We managed to get the North American rights, and are releasing it there this October. But we have met shops in the U.S. that had found the UK edition, brought it back to the States to sell, sold out, and didn't know of a way to get it back into the shops,” Goldberg said.
To help create the channel they needed, Soaring Penguin publisher John Anderson teamed up with Ken Goldberg, who is based in the U.S., to found The Distribution Engine. "The U.S. can be a bit intimidating as a market when going at it alone,” Goldberg said. “Banding together seemed like the best method to try to get our materials noticed.”
The Distribution Engine will take orders via its website rather than issuing a print catalog—Goldberg said that is what retailers have said they prefer. "With this in mind, we are working on a sort of online shop where they can decide what backlist and new titles they want or need," Goldberg said. The Distribution Engine has a small group of independent sales reps, under Ken Goldberg, and they are also using social media and comic cons to promote the company.
Some of the seven publishers are already familiar to American readers; Knockabout publishes the collected works of Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wonder Warthog) as well as work by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, while Fanfare has racked up an array of Eisner nominations for its line of manga and European graphic novels, which includes the final volume of Jiro Taniguchi's The Summit of the Gods, Hideo Azuma's Disappearance Diary, and Jean Regnaud and Émile Bravo's My mommy is in America and she met Buffalo Bill.
Upcoming titles include Paco Roca's Wrinkles (Knockabout), a story set in a retirement home that has been made into an animated film; Sally Jane Thompson's Atomic Sleep (Markosia), a story about a teenager dealing with being the new girl at a boarding school; and Bearlands (Subversive Comics), which Goldberg describes as a "hilarious/adorable/disturbing comic series about zombie teddy bears."
"The UK has amazingly rich and advanced small press/independent publishers scene," Goldberg said. "This is a culture that didn't have the access to the big name comic houses—so we had to create our own. When it comes to original material, the UK has so much to offer, but as we are an intimate community, where every publisher is on a first name basis with each other, we can only go so far,” she said.
“But even looking at the review sites [in the U.S.], you are seeing graphic novels that you may not realize originated in the UK, many of them having been bought by U.S. book publishers, as the UK publishers don't always have the resources to sell them in North America."