The idea of the illustrator as author allows illustrators the creative freedom to develop their
work, both in terms of their visual work and their written and narrative ideas. Self-publishing
provides a way in which that work can then find an audience. In many cases the form of the
self-publishing is dictated by the nature of the work itself; those interested in rough and ready
lo-fi illustrations might gravitate towards fanzines, while those whose work is quieter and more
considered may opt for the artist’s book as a format to work in.
Link to posts and material on my Book Design Blog and Landscape Photography
Fanzines are magazines for fans, shortened to fanzines or simply zines. They represent niche
interests from football to cinema, music to other subcultural activities. Fanzines have been
around in one form or other since the 1930s but really came into their own during the punk
era, when do it yourself (DIY) was the watchword.
Fanzines generally have a fan base of like-minded individuals who both read and contribute
to publications. Their publication is often irregular, with different titles springing up for a few
editions before disappearing again. They are distributed at zine fairs and conventions, music
stores and independent bookshops.
“For the most part fanzines, or ‘zines’ remain hidden,
flying beneath the radar of mainstream publishing and
conventions.” Teal Triggs, 2010
Many fanzines are commercially printed but most rely on the humble photocopier to produce
limited edition, small scale (A5–A6) publications. Illustrators have contributed to fanzines as
well as used this format to present their own ideas and examples of work.
While mainstream comics are either printed in their own right or live within larger publications
and newspapers, many budding comic artists began their careers by self-publishing. Viz, the
British high street adult comic, started life in a bedroom in Newcastle upon Tyne, produced by
brothers Chris and Simon Donald with friend Jim Brownlow. This low risk approach meant that
Viz was able to find an audience before it began to grow as a commercial enterprise.
Illustrator and artist Gary Panter emerged from the early punk scene in America. He produced his
own comics before rising to prominence illustrating record sleeves. A generation before Panter,
but very much in the same tradition, Robert Crumb developed his comics through underground
publications as part of the 1960s counterculture.
Artists’ books are well-made, limited edition publications that are usually based on one thematic
idea and are presented as pieces of art in their own right. There is a long tradition of artists
using the book format as a platform for their art. Artists’ books, unlike fanzines and comics,
place more emphasis on the form of the book, either in terms of the book’s format and how it
relates to the content or simply through the quality of the materials used. Artists’ books can be
printed and hand-bound or be completely hand-made.
Do some research into self-published comics, graphic novels, artist books or fanzines. Visit your
local bookstore or find examples online. Find examples of self-publishing you find interesting or
entertaining. Think about the form of this work. How has it been produced and what materials
are used? Can you find examples of inventive use of paper, binding, folding or printing?
As a starting point you may want to access artists’ books in the V&A collection:
“Doing a fanzine in the Noughties is all about the process
of making it, and having that direct impact on an
individual, who will (hopefully) cherish the object you’ve
lavished effort on.”
The growth of the internet and the development of new digital platforms such as the Kindle
has fundamentally changed our ability to access information. Illustrators have been keen to
use the internet as a platform to publish and present their work. It is not simply a question of
swapping paper for digital; the internet also offers new ways of thinking about reaching an
audience. Instead of trying to hone your content to appeal to as many people as possible in
order to make your publication financially viable, the internet allows you to connect with niche
audiences scattered across the globe. This means there’s less of an imperative to compromise
and, because publishing online is less expensive, it’s easier to take risks.
The shift from paper-based to digital publishing presents a less certain future for illustrators.
Book covers, magazine articles and other forms of editorial illustration have always been a
mainstay for jobbing illustrators. Book jackets are a visual way of setting out the author’s and
publisher’s stall in a bookshop; they’re there to catch the eye of the browser, draw them in,
connect with their sense of interest. Digital bookshops function through search engines and
tagged words rather than visually, so whether digital readers will see book cover illustrations in
the same way is uncertain.
There are a number of ways in which illustrators can use online publishing:
• within the content of websites – a digital equivalent of simply having your illustration in a
• portfolios showing examples of their work
• self-contained content presented as pdfs (downloadable documents which can be read
using a variety of technology) or as interactive content on websites
• companies such as Blurb have pioneered a model of online publishing in which users
upload their book content and viewers can access it freely online or pay for a one-off
paper copy to be printed and posted to them.
Thinking about self-publishing
Self-publishing your ideas can take many forms. The key to all of them is having content to be
able to communicate; there’s no point self-publishing if you’ve got nothing to offer an audience.
However this content doesn’t have to be a great opus, nor does it have to compete at the
highest level. Some of the most entertaining examples of self-published work are based on very
simple ideas, such as Mark Pawson’s ‘Die-Cut Plug Wiring Diagram Book’.
Before you self-publish it’s always worth considering who your work is for, who the audience is.
Identifying an audience, however loosely, will help frame your work, how you title and describe
it, what form of self-publishing you opt for and how you approach marketing your work.
Giving a title to your work is something that illustrators rarely do; after all, most illustration sits
within the context of somebody else’s text, so why title it? As a simple rule of thumb, publications
should have a title and a subtitle (sometimes called a strap line). One of these elements needs
to be descriptive, while the other is more about the unique identity of the piece. Usually the title
is more evocative than the descriptive strap line, for example ‘Kapow! A book of cartoon noises’.