Deconstructing the Graphic Novel Pitch Process
Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. This entry in our Publishing U series is the second in a two-part history of how one graphic novel went from idea to reality. Cathy G. Johnson, author of the forthcoming No Dogs Allowed, and Gina Gagliano, Associate Marketing & Publicity Manager of First Second Books, are joined by literary agent Jen Linnan for a peek under the hood of what makes a graphic novel pitch stand out.
Gina Gagliano: As you’ve seen from the first part of Cathy’s journey, it’s very possible to develop a relationship with a comics publisher directly, which is not always the case in the larger publishing industry. Many publishers require pitches and submissions to come through an agent. But a good agent is more than just a “gatekeeper”—they’re an advocate and guide for the creator throughout every step in the publishing process, even after the finished book is out in the world. As First Second was considering acquiring Cathy’s graphic novel No Dogs Allowed, Cathy approached Jen Linnan, a literary agent who specializes in illustration and graphic works, about representation.
Once you’ve gotten an agent or publisher’s
attention, your work needs to speak for itself.
Jen Linnan: Submitting a query to an agent and submitting a pitch or proposal to a publisher (whether it is the agent who does this or the creator) are not dissimilar tasks. The first hurdle is getting someone to look at your work. In an industry where “Inbox Zero” is spoken of in the same tones as “unicorn,” this can be tough. But Cathy’s query stood out right away: she was familiar with my clients, had written an enticing and succinct description of her work, and included a list of cartoonists who work in a similar vein. She also gave me a link to her portfolio site, with several finished comics available online for me to read. Even before I laid eyes on No Dogs Allowed, Cathy created a strong visual of how her work would fit in with the books I represent—and, pulling the camera back, how it would be positioned in the graphic novel market.
Once you’ve gotten an agent or publisher’s attention, your work needs to speak for itself. But as Cathy mentioned, often graphic novels (or other works in a visual medium, like picture books) are acquired at the scripting stage, before they’re fully drawn. “How on earth is someone supposed to fall in love with my book when they’re looking at something unfinished?!” The answer lies, again, in how easy you make it for that person to visualize the finished product.
A finished script is the one thing you can
(and should!) polish to perfection.
Cathy’s pitch materials included all of the components I look for when I assemble a submission for publishers, and she gradually upped the ante: the proposal itself included a brief synopsis, character descriptions (and designs), a longer story outline (basically a play-by-play of the plot), and 15 pages taken all the way to final art. Not only did I get a good sense of the story and its cast, but I had a solid chunk of finished pages as a representative sample of what the published book might look like.
Cathy also included a completed script for the graphic novel, which is something I strongly recommend (if not mandate) for submissions. A finished script is the one thing you can (and should!) polish to perfection. A great graphic novel script will include page and panel breakdowns, with clear illustration notes in addition to your text/dialogue. Not only did Cathy’s writing reel me in, but her pacing was excellent; she had a clear understanding of how she wanted the reader to progress through the pages. With everything else I’d seen, I knew that No Dogs Allowed was not only a story I was passionate about, but that it would be a book someday. And I had more than enough evidence to wave enthusiastically at the nearest person and yell “THIS is going to be amazing.” It was no surprise to learn that senior editor Calista Brill was doing the same thing over at First Second!
You’re selling a graphic novel.
The pitch should look good!
Cathy G. Johnson: One of First Second’s established authors, Faith Erin Hicks, wrote a blog post a while ago about what to include in a graphic novel pitch. The blog post was specifically about her book Friends with Boys, which First Second published, so I followed exactly what she had done with her pitch. Gina had also written a blog post about what publishers want to see, and what I gathered was this: Publishers want to see as much as possible. They want to see you have artistic depth and commitment.
As Jen said, my pitch for No Dogs Allowed had a brief synopsis, character descriptions, an outline, and finished sample pages. Also, on every page of the pitch there was at least one completed illustration tied to the book; I believe that every page of your graphic novel pitch should be enticing. Each page is an opportunity to showcase your aesthetic sense, and by golly, you’re selling a graphic novel. The pitch should look good!
Another aspect of my pitching style is I use the short character descriptions to communicate facets of the story that don’t make the outline. The outline should be concise, and the characters give it its flavor.
I took a long time getting to the pitching stage of No Dogs Allowed, and I’m glad I did. There is a lot of trial-and-error that comes with building a good graphic novel, and one big thing that I wanted to get across in my pitch was familiarity with the characters and their world. If everyone who reads the pitch gets the sense that I’m familiar with the story I’ve built, they will have faith in me to complete the proposed book.
So, putting the pitch together took 4 to 5 months, from November 2013 to March 2014. In that time I completed the script, designed the characters, built familiarity, and drew 15 finished sample pages. I gave myself a deadline of March because I knew that would give Calista enough time to go over the pitch before seeing her in person at TCAF, which is in May. I proposed speaking to her in person at the conference in the pitch email.
Calista emailed me within two days saying she loved the pitch, and we spoke on the phone a week later. The graphic novel development took a long time, so even though the positive response was quick, it felt justified.
Gina: One day last August, Calista came to a staff meeting with Cathy’s project for us all to take a look at. We took a look at it, and it got a very enthusiastic round of thumbs up! So Calista took it to our acquisitions meeting.
To prepare for this acquisitions meeting, editors put together two forms. One shows how the book is likely to do financially. It considers the proposed author advance, the cost to produce the book (always expensive when it comes to lengthy full-color graphic novels!), and how many copies we’d sell, along with some other occasionally applicable information like projected foreign sales, mass market editions, etc. The other form gives us the breakdown of who the author is, who the agent is, what the book is about, and what other books it resembles.
These forms and a project sample (for example, some pages of art) are sent around to a team of people at our parent company, Macmillan, who read and review them and come to our acquisitions meeting. People attending that meeting include the publisher, the director of finance, the entire sales team, and staff from their editorial and marketing departments. The editor presents the book, going over why it’s awesome and why it’ll work well for us financially, and everyone around the table who has an opinion talks about it.
So Calista put together the forms, circulated them, and presented the book at the meeting. She’s a very enthusiastic presenter, this book is great, and who doesn’t support middle-grade realistic graphic novel fiction? So No Dogs Allowed was a shoo-in.
Cathy: It’s been a pleasure getting to know First Second. I’m very excited to be making this book with them!
* * *
Cathy G. Johnson is an artist in Providence, Rhode Island. She graduated with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011. She received the 2014 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent from the Small Press Expo, and was recently shortlisted for the 2014 Cartoonist Studio Prize from The Slate Book Review and the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her graphic novel No Dogs Allowed will be published by First Second Books in 2017.
Jen Linnan spent five years at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates before forming her own agency, Linnan Literary Management, in 2012. Her clients include a number of First Second authors!
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.