What You Can Do to Get Noticed by a Comics Publisher
Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the ninth post of our Publishing U series, Gina Gagliano, Associate Marketing & Publicity Manager for Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint, First Second Books, outlines some of the unique avenues available to graphic novelists, and explains how traveling them helps attract the attention of publishers.
Gina: It turns out that if you’re a graphic novelist, there are some particular opportunities available to you that aren’t necessarily available to a prose writer or a picture book author/illustrator. That’s because the comics industry is extra-awesome (or at least extra-confusing) and there’s a whole culture of people out there who are specifically interested in the comics medium.
From college courses to online opportunities, if you’re interested in breaking into the graphic novel publishing world, these are the areas to think about exploring first.
If you’re doing exceptional work and taking advantage of any of
these opportunities … it’s pretty easy for you to stand out.
Mini-comics: The ‘Short Story’ of Comics
Mini-comics are a common step before full-on graphic novels for authors, though they’re a great comics form in their own right. They’re typically staple-bound stories ranging from between 8 to 32 pages. (Though they may be longer or shorter, in color or black and white, have elaborate screenprinting and sewn bindings and cut-outs and all sorts of other crazy stuff—glitter! googly eyes! gatefolds!—if the author is really excited about the production process.) There are mini-comics distributors that stock and distribute these short comics nationally. Comics stores frequently sell mini-comics; libraries sometimes carry them in a zine collection. Comics creators sell and trade them at conventions, and send them to publishers as calling cards.
Mini-comics are the comics analogue to the short story, and it’s perfectly possible to have an author come to the attention of all the graphic novel publishers in the U.S. just from their mini-comics work. If you’re not ready to start off your career in comics with a 200-page graphic novel, a mini-comic is a great way to try out the medium. As a publisher, we keep a box of them around the office by authors and illustrators we want to keep on our radar. In fact, if you’re an author who is doing mini-comics as a step to making graphic novels rather than as an end in itself, we recommend that you send your mini-comics to the publishers you want to work with to make sure you get on their radar!
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Webcomics: Find Readers and Hone Your Style
Webcomics are comics that are posted serially on the internet, usually for free (though they may be ad-supported). In fact, there are authors who have been making their living off of webcomics for decades now. Because there are a whole lot of people making comics and putting them online, there are also publishers that pay a lot of attention to them. And webcomics are reviewed widely across the pop culture media, too—from the biweekly Webcomics Wednesday series right here on The Booklist Reader to io9, which has a reporter who spends about 75% of her time just talking about what webcomics are awesome.
Doing comics online is a great way to start finding readers—and a great way for an author to figure out their art and storytelling style along the way. As a publisher, we also actually think that doing a long-form webcomic in college is also a great way for aspiring graphic novelists to get a handle on how to structure scheduling a long-term book commitment.
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Conventions: Know Your CAKE from Your APE
You’ve probably all heard of the San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con. They’re two of the biggest comics conventions on the annual comics convention circuit. But there are a lot of smaller shows all around the U.S. They range in size from attracting hundreds of people to hundreds of thousands. And in that mix are shows that are specifically designed to promote emerging comics artists and small-press work, like the Alternative Press Expo (APE), the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE), Comic Arts Brooklyn (CAB), Comics Art Los Angeles (CALA), Kids Read Comics, the Maine Comics Art Festival (MECAF), Small Press Expo (SPX), Staple, the Toronto Comics Art Festival (TCAF), etc. We were looking at this list last year and realized—there are months when you could literally go to a different comics festival every weekend. And sometimes there are even two on the same weekend.
These conventions and festivals promote the hundreds of authors who attend and exhibit, and a significant percentage of exhibitors at these small-press shows are students still in college. I’ve been to shows that had high-school students and even middle-school students exhibiting to sell the comics they’ve made themselves. If they can do it, you can, too. These shows sometimes have awards; they always have programs where authors can speak. And publishers exhibit and attend and speak at these shows, actively looking for new authors to work with. If you’re nervous about exhibiting at a show like this, try attending one first. You’ll get the opportunity to buy cool comics, meet some great authors, and you can start introducing yourself to people in the industry. You could even volunteer and get to know all the people running the show—small-press festivals always need another pair of hands!
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College: Advanced Degrees in Comics
There aren’t many colleges in the U.S. with a program that specifically gives a degree in comics. (I think there are, like, seven.) Some of them have a different focus than others, but they all have teachers who are working comics professionals, which is key! That means that most graphic novel publishers already know all the professors and instructors at all those programs. And the publishers have probably spoken at all of those college programs, as a visiting publisher. As such, publishers have a high likelihood of meeting talented students they’d want to work with in the future. In addition, students in these programs get to learn from professors with extensive industry networks that the students can tap into, if their work is ready.
If you’re 100% sure that you want to pursue a career in comics, attending one of these programs can get you the contacts you need to get your work published. And a few of them (like The Center for Cartoon Studies and The Sequential Artists Workshop) also offer short-term summer classes if you can’t take a few years off from the rest of your life to get a new college degree.
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Does doing all of this sound intimidating? The market for graphic novels has been growing rapidly in the past decade (it’s up 13% in the past year!), but it’s still pretty small. That means if you’re doing exceptional work and taking advantage of any of these opportunities instead of hiding your comics in your basement and never showing them to anyone, it’s pretty easy for you to stand out—because everyone in the industry will have heard of you.
Getting your comics work discovered can be
as easy as using a copier or posting it online.
Why do comics have all these cool, extra opportunities? For many years, until a decade or two ago, there was almost no way that you could make a living off of being a graphic novelist. (It’s still extremely difficult for writers and illustrators to earn enough from making graphic novels to pay all their bills.) On top of that, most bookstores and libraries didn’t carry graphic novels, so there weren’t opportunities in those spaces for comics creators to share their work (and earn money) by partnering with already-established local literary venues. So authors went to the convention circuit and to the internet instead—and we’ve ended up with an industry that has a very low barrier to entry. Getting your comics work discovered can be as easy as using a copier or posting it online.
Not a graphic novelist? The science fiction/fantasy industry shares some of these opportunities. They have an amazing convention circuit and an extensive short fiction publishing landscape. If your writing interests extend to that genre, they have a wonderful community to get involved in as well.
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Gina Gagliano does the marketing and publicity for First Second Books, Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint. She also writes on publishing-related topics for the First Second blog.