Publishing U: Getting a Graphic Novel Published, Part One

Publishing UOur 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 first 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, provide two vantage points on getting noticed and building a relationship with the right publisher for your book.


Pinging the Radar

CathyGJohnson-cropCathy G. Johnson: I picked up my first two First Second books when I was in late high school or early college, around 2006 or 2007. Those books, Gipi’s Garage Band (2007) and Joann Sfar’s Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East  (2006) really impacted me. Gipi and Sfar are both European artists. At the time, I was only familiar with Japanese and American comics, and didn’t know comics could be drawn so differently. I was very inspired by those books, and they influenced choices I made in college. I stayed current with the titles First Second was publishing while I was studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and for my senior thesis I created a full-length graphic novel titled Jeremiah, with the intention of pitching it to them.

Gina Gagliano, by Mark SiegelGina Gagliano: I remember first hearing about Cathy in late 2012 or early 2013. One of our annual projects here at First Second is to put together a list of people that we’d like to work with, and I remember that someone had put her on that year’s list. I looked up her work, thought it looked interesting, and wrote a mental bookmark: keep an eye on this person.


Making an Impression

Cathy: I first met Gina at MoCCA Fest 2011, which was the April before I graduated college. I made small hand-out booklets with the graphic novel pitch for Jeremiah. The booklets included a brief description of the graphic novel, character descriptions, a plot synopsis, and finished sample pages. I gave the booklets to every publisher at that show. I was new and trying to figure out the publishing industry; this is probably a terrible way to pitch. However, it was a fun and unique experience, and I got to meet a lot of people.

She offered to discuss why exactly she rejected it.
This was a phenomenal opportunity.

I spent the summer after college emailing the pitch to publishers and literary agents. I received many short, polite rejections. My father said he knew someone who worked at Macmillan, who then kindly mentioned my name to their comics division, which just so happens to be First Second. My father’s contact gave me the email address of senior editor Calista Brill after she agreed to take a look at my graphic novel. With this introduction, I wrote a polite email introducing myself, with the pitch attached.

While Calista politely turned down my college graphic novel, she offered to discuss why exactly she rejected it. This was a phenomenal opportunity. I was thrilled to have the input of a professional on my book, not to mention someone from the exact publisher that had put out books that were so inspiring to me. It was a very generous thing for her to do, and to this day I’m still very grateful that she took the time out of her busy schedule to call me.

I took tons of notes during that phone call. One key thing she said was that editors like to receive graphic novels during scripting stages, not when the graphic novel has already been completely drawn. It’s difficult to edit a graphic novel after it’s been finished, because that means re-drawing comic pages. She offered me other positive and constructive advice, and also said she would be happy to read any new pitches. I felt very confident after the call and it made me work harder, with the goal in mind of pitching a new graphic novel to First Second when I was ready.

Gina: Calista Brill is our senior editor here at First Second; she’s wonderful. But my job is more on the marketing and publicity side of things, so I don’t remember hearing about Cathy until a while after Calista first talked to her—about a year or two later, in 2012 or 2013. (As you can see, my dates and Cathy’s dates don’t match up here! She’d met me a whole year before I remember hearing about her.)

Who doesn’t want an email that says,
“You’re awesome; it was great to meet you?”

Concept art by Cathy G. Johnson

Concept art by Cathy G. Johnson

Here at First Second, we try very hard to remember people that we meet at conferences, but sometimes (as you can see) it just doesn’t happen. That’s because when someone from First Second is at a conference, they’re in meetings, speaking on panels, organizing author signings, and taking peoples’ money in exchange for books—all in addition to trying to find great new authors to work with. Conferences are crazy and busy and intense—MoCCA generally gets five to eight thousand attendees!

So if you’re an author who’s made a connection with a publisher you want to work with in the future at a conference, it’s always a good idea to follow up in a week or two with an email saying, “Remember me? We met at this conference; I really like your company, and I’m hoping to pitch something to you in the next few years,” or something similar. (I actually recommend follow-up notes or emails all the time, even if you are 100% sure that the person you met at your conference or event or whatever remembers you. Because who doesn’t want an email that says, “You’re awesome; it was great to meet you?” popping up in their inbox?)

Also, while Cathy mentioned above that it might not have been a great way to go about it, her pamphlet pitch was actually an excellent idea. It’s awesome for us publishers when comics authors have some small representative comics sample they can hand us, because it gives us a quick preview of their work so we can figure out if we want to see more later. (Go go visual medium benefits!) So if you have something like Cathy’s pitch, you should mail or email it to the publisher as well as handing it to them. Because in the rush to get your whole booth packed up and ready to go, things often get lost, mislaid, and (eep!) even sometimes thrown away.

If you don’t want to email until you have a solid project under your belt, that’s fine, too! But try to put yourself in the way of the publisher you met at any future events—conferences, festivals, book launches, coffee shops, etc.—and reintroduce yourself each time with, “Hi, it’s X person, the author of ABC Comics. We met last year at the Society of Illustrators original art show.” Clearly identifying your name, your work, and where you last met are always helpful triggers for publishers who are probably meeting lots of people!


Deciding to Work Together

Cathy: Calista’s phone call was so generous—others had rejected me with little feedback. She saw potential in me, enough to ask for future pitches. Her positive assurance made me want to work with First Second.


Concept art by Cathy G. Johnson

I spent the following three years working on shorter comics and developing my skills. I attended comic-book conventions, where I met other people in the industry. I sold my self-published comics and received generous feedback. I built a web presence. All during this time I held the goal of eventually writing a new pitch for First Second.

It was at a convention in late 2013 where I talked with Casey Gonzalez, who was working with First Second at the time as a freelance editor. She reacted positively to a graphic novel idea I mentioned. She encouraged me to send a new pitch to them. I was ready. With Casey’s input I developed a new pitch for First Second, and that pitch became No Dogs Allowed.

Gina: The first time I remember meeting Cathy in person was at TCAF, in 2014. Before I headed out to that show, Calista Brill and I sat down and went through the list of authors we work with who would be attending the show. “You might see Cathy G. Johnson at this show,” Calista told me. “We talked about her as one of our creators to watch, and I have a great pitch from her that we’re developing now; I think we’re going to be working together.”

When you sign up with a publisher,
it’s usually good to put more effort into your
decision than pulling a name out of a hat.

Cathy came up to me during the show and reintroduced herself to me; she made some comments on First Second’s marketing and told me that one of the reasons she specifically wanted to work with us was because of our success in getting books out to readers. That really impressed me because a) she identified me correctly both by name and as the person who deals with the marketing and publicity, and b) she had something to say that indicated she’d done more research into our company than just reading one of our books. Choosing a publisher is a big commitment, and I always sit up and take notice when authors say something to indicate that they’ve put some thought into it. (FYI aspiring authors: making a graphic novel often takes two or three years, and then there’s an additional year of production after that. So you’ll probably be working with them for three or four years. When you sign up with a publisher, it’s usually good to put more effort into your decision than pulling a name out of a hat.)


Concept art by Cathy G. Johnson

Since then, I’ve seen Cathy two more times, and she’s impressed me upon each occasion. At last September’s Small Press Expo, I was at the Ignatz Awards ceremony, where Cathy won the Ignatz Award for promising new talent. Upon accepting the award, Cathy made a great statement about the comics industry’s problematic attitude towards women, challenging us all in the room to think about our behavior and be better. Not only was this an excellent and well-spoken sentiment, but it was also the tagline for much of the media that picked up the awards announcement. (Check out this coverage on The Beat!) Then, at Comic Arts Brooklyn in November, I ran into Cathy again, and she told me about RIPE—the Rhode Island Independent Publishing Expo, which she organizes.

She’s also been shortlisted for this year’s Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Webcomic, for Dear Amanda. Webcomics are an excellent way to get your work out in an inexpensive way, and hey—sometimes there are even prizes!

Publisher familiarity! Awards! Organizing conventions! More awards! It’s pretty easy to see why Cathy pinged on our radar. And over the past few years, after she kept showing up, we knew we had to work with her!

Check back next week for Part Two of Cathy’s story. —Ed.

*     *     *

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.

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.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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