The absence of a book deal isn't stopping writers, illustrators and artists from getting their work out there. With self-publishing websites like blurb.com, free software applications and copy machines—the way skaters have been making zines for decades—printing is the easy part. Upfront costs and distribution, not so much; the DIY publishing crowd is up against disappearing bookstores and e-readers that sell titles for a fraction of what a hard copy would cost. Yet, there are still plenty of print devotees out there, sticking to the waning medium for various reasons.
Darlene Horn is a writer, and her husband Paul is a comic artist. Together they recently self-published The Girl with the Donut Tattoo, a graphic novel based on Darlene's food-blogging adventures on myburningkitchen.com. Inside, cartoon Darlene—the girl with a donut inked on her biceps—blogs about "taco stuffed lobster," hoping it will kill the cupcake trend. In another story line, "The Trials and Tribulations of Eating with a Food Blogger," Paul and Darlene point to the same menu item, implying that they each want their own. In the food-blogging world, ordering two of the same dish replaces sloth as a deadly sin.
In 24 pages, the writer-illustrator team makes fun of self-anointed food critics and the proliferation of food bloggers through a series of hyperbolic stereotypes and situations based on true stories; in between, Darlene takes it one step further by indulging her audience with some downright naughty recipes. The mixed-genre book arrived just in time for Comic-Con, where convention-goers scarfed all 100 copies of Darlene's premiere graphic novel for $5 a pop; the print job itself cost Darlene around $400.
"A publishing company might not have gone for the cuss words," Darlene says of her graphic novel (her next, she says, will focus on tubular meat). "I'm going to make the transition from donuts to wieners," she laughs.
Paul just spent his 10th year at the convention, where he has a booth in the small-press area for "Cool Jerk," his self-published comic strip that's been running in one form or another since the early '90s. It first appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal in 1991, when he was a graphic artist and illustrator for the paper, and it ran for four years before Paul relocated to San Diego. The comic follows the exploits of college kids Armpit Beachhead and his girlfriend Puppy Fizgig.
Since becoming his own editor and boss, Paul's taken "Cool Jerk" places he otherwise wouldn't have if it were still printed in a mainstream publication. Once he decided newspaper publishing didn't hold the brightest future for his story line, he took it to the web with the creation of cooljerk.com, where the strip—a new one out every week—has remained in black-and-white, newspaper-comic form.
Despite the success of making money doing what he loves, Paul acknowledges the struggles independent artists face at a time when comic-book stores are disappearing—or charging more than ever for comics that cost a mere 35 cents when he was a kid.
"Most comic-book readers today aren't kids," he says. "They're adults, college-age or older, that got hooked 20 years ago."
Paul has his books printed in Hong Kong because it's 50-percent cheaper than printing locally. While there's the drawback of the books taking six weeks to arrive by boat to Long Beach—and then go through customs in Compton—it's easier than shopping books around to traditional publishing houses. He self-distributes, too, and "Cool Jerk" is currently sold in 24 shops across the U.S.
Modern zine art
If there's a deeper underground within self-publishing, it's zine-making, which Louis M. Schmidt, owner of Double Break Gallery in Bankers Hill, has turned into an art form—literally.
Along with Chris Kardambikis, his former UCSD grad-school classmate, Schmidt curated the DIY-publishing art show Do Anything, on view at Space 4 Art through Aug. 11. In 2010, Schmidt and Kardambikis co-founded the publishing label Gravity and Trajectory and will release their fourth zine-inspired "art book," Tagged, this fall. For it, they reached out to their network of illustrator friends, and artists vying for space in the book applied by "installing" their illustrations on its blank pages.
Schmidt says it's the very process of self-publishing that drives his art.
"I credit it with the rapid maturation my work has undergone as I have become indebted to self-publishing as a medium, rather than simply a vehicle for exhibiting art," he says.
He's published roughly 20 art books since 2007, been featured in zine-related exhibitions in Madrid, Budapest and Leipzig, and his work is included in the book Behind the Zines: Self-Publishing Culture, published by Gestalten in 2011.
Schmidt's latest, a 34-page zine called Ghosts, is on view at Do Anything. Currently, he's working on two more, slated for release at both the New York and Tokyo Art Book Fairs this September. In Tokyo, Schmidt will have his first-ever booth.
"I came to grad school to make zines—something kids have been doing at Kinko's forever," he laughs. "Using those [copy] machines is a direct, tactile experience of discovery. It's much more palpable than if I were to do it digitally."
A purpose for publishing
Billy Barnes is a local artist whose connection with books runs deep. Both of his grandparents are published authors. And, while Barnes was growing up, his single mom always made time to read books to her kids.
For years, Barnes, an aspiring painter and writer, has worked at the San Diego Center for Children, where he uses storytelling time to help abused kids forget about their traumatic pasts, if just for the duration of a book. Recently, he wrote, illustrated and published his own: The World Through Eight Creepy Eyes.
Barnes used the online publishing site blurb.com to put together his book about a young man pondering the value of life as he watches a helpless spider trapped under the glass of a coffee table. It's an allegory for Barnes' struggles as a 30-something.
This first book is a test to see how readers will react to his storytelling—this time, an adult memoir and children's book in one. He hopes he'll find a direction to take his career in the process.
"The ultimate goal is to have my own publishing company," he says. "With social media and programs like Kickstarter, the possibility of raising funds and doing it myself is possible."