Friday, February 28, 2014

Pitching Graphic Novels, Part 1: NO UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS?

I got an ask about agents and their relationship to the pitch process, but it's a broad topic and one I've been wanting to address in a more expansive form for a while now, so here's part 1.  Not sure how many parts there will be, total.  

Okay, so first off, this ISN’T a how-to on how to get work as a comic artist.  That’s a completely different track.  This is geared more towards folks who either want to write and draw their own comics, or at the very least write them.

Graphic Novels have, since the early 2000s, become one of the dominant forms for the comics medium, and have become an increasingly important subset of the publishing industry in general.  But Graphic Novels (which I’ll henceforth refer to as “GNs”) and the method through which they find publication behave much differently than traditional (prose) publication.  I’ve done my best to succinctly outline that which I feel is essential information.

I bring this up because there are a lot of illustrators, or prose writers, or TV writers, or screenwriters who think of GNs as an easy way to make big money.  It’s neither easy nor well-paying, considering the amount of hours that have to go into one’s production.  And publishers can spot these fly-by nighters easily, because they share a common problem: they don’t understand how comics work as a storytelling medium.  

The only reason that you should be making comics is because it tears you up inside to NOT make comics. If you're doing it for money, or fame, or anything like that, prepare to be bitterly disappointed, as many are.  That doesn't mean that you can't make a living off of 'em, even a good living, and a few folks do get famous.  But the effort expended virtually never correlates to the financial payoff, so keep your expectations low for the first few years.

Comics aren’t just words and pictures.  It’s a unique medium with hundreds of subtle rules and principles that determine its quality and readability.  There are many technical and storytelling devices at play in every panel, and in the transitions between those panels.  An ability to draw and an ability to write do not immediately translate to the ability to make good comics.

Though there are many books (the best of which are still McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS and his practical-application follow-up MAKING COMICS) and academic programs (among them SCAD in both Atlanta and Savannah, New York’s SCHOOL OF VISUAL ARTS, Vermont’s CENTER FOR CARTOON STUDIES, and Florida’s Sequential Art Workshop) designed to teach these principles, and I’d recommend utilizing them if you want to do comics the same way I’d recommend a music program if you wanted to write symphonies, but the very best way to learn these principles is to do so unconsciously, by reading lots of good comics.  A reader’s familiarity with the tropes and techniques of the medium is essential for a comics creator.

If you have trouble figuring out what counts as “good,” ask your local librarian.  If your comic shop has a good graphic novel section (not just a book section; the Witchblade Omnibus isn’t a graphic novel, it’s a trade collection, and there’s a big difference, and a good retailer will know that difference) ask the proprietor for recommendations.  Any books that have won – or even been nominated for – the Eisner Award for best Graphic Album (the comics equivalent of a “Best Picture Oscar") are probably a good bet, and there are websites and books (like Paul Gravett’s excellent – though older – book Graphic Novels: All You Need to Know) that exist solely to recommend good work.

You can read bad work, too, but it’s important to note the difference.  Many indie comics ignore craft, and many mainstream comics ignore storytelling.  It’s important to understand that both are of the utmost necessity.

So you get comics.  You read a lot of them and you understand what makes ‘em good.  You think you can make a good one.  Good for you.  Now you have to find someone who will pay the printing costs, and, ideally, you.  You need a publisher.

Well, you don’t necessarily need one.  Thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated and talented cartoonists in the early nineties (Jeff Smith, Colleen Doran, and Dave Simm among them), the “vanity press” stigma of self-publication that still sits so heavily on the world of prose doesn’t hold much sway with comics.  Most every prominent cartoonist has self-published some comic or art book at some point in his or her career.  But this is an article about pitching, so self-publishing doesn’t really come into play.  You want a publisher.  That’s why you’re reading.

Too often people pitch GNs using the “shotgun” approach.  They get the addresses of every publisher that they can find, plug the right names into a cover letter (sometimes they don’t even take that step, but use the impersonal “to whom it may concern”), and send copies to EVERYONE in the hope that the project will catch the interest of at least one editor.  


The comics and graphic novel industry is small (it’s why we all know each other).  There are MAYBE two dozen reputable publishers, and each of them has a specialty.  Sometimes it’s demographic.  Sometimes it’s thematic.  Sometimes it’s aesthetic.  Sometimes it’s a combination. 

What this means is that no project is suitable for more than two, maybe three specific publishers.  Scott Pilgrim is clearly an Oni book.  Not Drawn and Quarterly.  Not Marvel.  Not Simon and Shuster.  It could’ve been a Bodega publication maybe, or even SLG during its heyday, but really, it’s an Oni book.  Seth’s stuff might feel at home at either Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics, and maybe Pantheon.  But it’d be a poor fit at Archea, Boom, or Oni.  So it would not be in Seth's best interest to pitch to those companies.  Now, Seth’s stuff is wonderful, so any of them might jump on the chance to work with him (and, given the purported art-house leanings of Boom’s imprint Boomtown, they might be a good fit, after all), but as a rule it’d be a poor fit.

You should know which publisher your project is right for.


I love Drawn and Quarterly.  I love Top Shelf.  But I don’t think my stuff is right for either.  Aesthetically, there’s a chance it might be suitable (or might have been when I was starting out), but my stories are straight up genre fiction, far more plot driven and less introspective than the work that they publish.  I’m not knocking my work – I try to make sure that the characters are believable, that larger themes are explored, but it’s still straight up genre fiction.  And Oni does straight up genre fiction, and does it very well.  So I fit best with Oni.

You need to know with whom YOU best fit.  Maybe each one of your projects is suitable for a different publisher.  Matt Kindt has worked with most every major comics publisher in the business, and each of his projects is different enough to merit the jump.  Whatever your project, know who needs to publish it.

If you don’t know publishers very well, start looking into them.  Look at the books that are the closest to what you want to do, in tone, look, or subject.  Who published those books?  Visit the publishers’ websites.  Read interviews with the editors.  Understand what they put out and why they do it.  Keep looking until you find one that feels like the perfect match.

Comics are a rarity in the publishing world.  Excepting the mainstream prose publishers who either publish or have an imprint that publishes graphic novels, no one requires submissions to come through an agent.  You can pitch your project yourself (you don’t have to; you can use an agent, but the number of reputable GN-knowledgeable agents can be counted on one hand, and I’ll get to agents later).

THAT SAID, PRECIOUS FEW PUBLISHERS ACCEPT UNSOLICITED PITCHES.  This sounds like a catch 22 (they don’t require an agent, but don’t accept unsolicited material?!), but it’s really not.  It just means you have to be invited to send your pitch.  There are, as a general rule, two ways to go about this.

The first is the most common.  Go to a comic convention or book expo at which the publisher is exhibiting.  If you live in the US, there is probably one relatively near where you live, but even if you have to travel far to get to one, do.  If this is the career you want, you have to go all in.  Going to a con showcases your commitment to that career decision.

Know that publishers are very busy at conventions.  ESPECIALLY San Diego Comic Con.  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GO TO SAN DIEGO WITH THE EXPECTATION OF GETTING TO TALK TO A PUBLISHER.  They’re paying a fortune for space, and need to move a lot of merchandise in order to not go in the hole.  They also probably have lots of meetings set up.  New York Comic Con is the same way.  So they likely don’t have time for casual conversation the way they do at Emerald City Comic Con (Seattle), HeroesCon (Charlotte), Baltimore Comic Con, SPX (Washington, DC), or MOCCA (NYC). So catch them at one of these smaller shows.

Most publishers have set times for portfolio reviews.  RESPECT THESE SCHEDULES.  Everyone and their brother tries the “well, can’t you just look at MINE?” approach, and all it gets them is the publisher’s irritation.  They’ll look at yours when the time comes for it.  It’s hard to wait.  I understand that.  But you have to.  If they like your stuff, they may invite you to pitch something.

Know that being a customer helps your chances of getting facetime with an editor.  They’re there, first and foremost, to talk to customers, and a guy dropping his giant portfolio over their wares keeps them from being able to do this.  Buy a book, or two, or three, and you can spend your customer chat times talking shop.  Seriously.  Spend money at the publisher’s table, and they’re not looking past you to try and make sure they don’t miss a customer.  YOU’RE the customer.  You have their attention.  This isn’t nepotism; it’s economics.  It also showcases that you genuinely have an interest in the material that they put out, which is important.  And it’s important that you have that genuine interest.  If you don’t, then the publisher is, in all likelihood, a poor fit for you.

Let’s say that the publisher gives you that time window in which you might make your pitch – that fabled “elevator opportunity.”  What do you do with that opportunity?


It doesn’t matter how great your idea is.  If the publisher isn’t familiar with your work, they just won’t care.  What you do, when given that opportunity, is MAKE them familiar with your work. So what do you do with this window?  You give them something that is already finished and ready to be consumed.

Publishers are more likely to have a genuine interest in your pitch if they’re already fans of your work.  If they don’t know your work, they’re unlikely to have ANY interest.
This is especially true of writers.  Nobody reads a script.  Scripts are such a chore to read.  It’s hard enough getting editors to read the scripts that they’re working on (no offense, editors), much less some nobody’s probably-terrible epic (everything is a probably-terrible epic unless proven otherwise).
How do you make the editors fans?  DO REALLY GOOD, REALLY SHORT COMICS.  The shorter the better.  Everyone has time to read three pages.
A good short story shows an editor the following crucial information about you:
  1. HOW you tell a story.  This is essential for them to see in order to determine whether or not you fit what they’re looking for.
  2. That you CAN tell a story.  You gave them an entire narrative experience.  You gave them structure.  You gave them a beginning, a middle, and an end.  This is proof of your awesomeness.  It’s harder to tell a good, cohesive short story than it is to tell a story at novel-length.  Every single thing in the short has to serve the whole, or it stands out like a sore thumb.  Showing that you can provide all of the necessary information and edit out all of the unnecessary stuff means that the editors can rest easy knowing that you can apply the same principles to your book-length stuff. 
Short comics to avoid:
• A prologue to the story you want to pitch.  This doesn’t whet the publisher’s appetite for more.  It just shows that you can’t tell a complete story.
• A story with the characters from the big story that you want to do, especially if, God forbid, it requires a character sheet.  If you can’t give us everything we need to know about a character in the actual story, you’re not a competent storyteller, and they won’t give you a shot at a big book.

Seriously, make stand-alone short stories.  Read Emily Carrol’s “His Face So Red” as a good example.  It's one of the best short comics to come out in recent years.  There’s a great one-pager from Adrian Tomine from years ago that speaks volumes for his ability to tell a story succinctly.  Read Eleanor Davis.  Read Lucy Knisely.

Do what they’re doing.  And make it available to everyone.  Make it good, and you may not need to put it in front of an editor.  Someone else will do it for you. 

So have a comic ready.  THAT’S your elevator pitch.  You give them something awesome that’s already done that requires a minimum time investment.

If you’re a cartoonist, that’s pretty easy.  If you’re a writer, it’s a little tougher.  What do you do if you’re a writer?  Write the shortest possible comic that you can, and hire somebody good to do the art. 
“But I have a friend from high school who can draw, and will do it for free,” you say.  No.  If you want it to reflect the quality of your writing, you need to find someone good and well-suited to the subject matter.  There are plenty of newer and mid-level artists who are great but who probably could use some extra work, especially if it’s short and easy to handle.  You can meet them at cons, just going around the artist alley area.  Don’t ask them to do it for free, or for exposure, or whatever else.  If they want to do a project for exposure, they’ll do their own project, or they’ll work with a writer who already has a following or a reputation (or at least that’s what they should do).  Treat it like an investment in your future, and if you feel like paying for something that’s not going to make any money isn’t fair, then think of it this way:


So if you look at it from a purely financial standpoint, the artist is paying, too, with his or her time.  Count the hours you spend at your day job that will go towards the payment of the artist against the highly specialized hours that said artist will have to put towards the pages.  That artist could have spent that same amount of time doing something else and getting money for it.  

Also, if you’re spending a thousand bucks to see a great four-page comic find completion, you’re going to put a heck of a lot more energy into making sure that the script is perfect before ever bringing it to the artist. 

So you’ve got some comics.  Give them to the publisher AFTER having a conversation with them.  If the conversation is super-duper awkward, rethink that publisher as an option.  There was a publisher whose output I admired, but after having lengthy, uncomfortable conversations with two different editors at that company I realized that I had no real desire to work with them.  If face-to-face interaction is rough, then presumably the work relationship will be, too.  Think of it like dating, kind of.  Don’t consider marriage if the dates are cringeworthy.

Another thing to keep in mind: NEVER, EVER, EVER talk about why your project is better than something that the publisher has put out.  Every publisher has duds, sure, but this only serves to hurt you.  One, it makes the publisher defensive, and it makes them immediately dislike you.  Two, it instantly holds your work up to increased scrutinizatiom.  They’ll be looking for any and everything wrong with it.  And, more than likely, you’re entirely missing the point.  Your art may be better than (book X), but your storytelling may be worse, or vice versa. 

If you haven’t made a story yet (which you should), at least make a sketchbook.  A mini-comic filled with drawings that are amazing.  Let’s just assume that you’re amazing. 

If your stuff is great, or if you’re particularly charming (never discount being charming), the publisher may ask you to send him/her something.  This means you can send a pitch proposal.  The publisher may give you his or her card.  Don’t lose it.

It’s also eneitrely possible that the publisher won’t look at your mini right away.  DON’T EXPECT THEM TO.  If it looks like something that they think will engage them, they’ll hold on to it and read it in the airport.  A lot of stuff never makes it out of the hotel room (most editors are kind enough to throw away the stuff that they consider unsuitable for their company in the hotel rather than in their con-floor trashcan where your heart will break when you see it sticking out as you walk past), but short, good-looking, can-be-used-as-a-bookmark-because-it’s-small-and-light-and-won’t-weigh-down-their-carry-ons have a good chance of getting a read.  If the publisher likes it, then you can expect an e-mail.  Unless you’re too stupid to put your name and e-mail and website/twitter/whatever on the comic itself, in which case you’re completely screwed.

The second way is to send a sample like this in.  If you live in America, you have no excuse to not go to these shows.  If you don’t go before “breaking in,” then the publisher rightly has no expectation of you going afterwards to promote your book in the manner necessary to make it financially worthwhile for them to publish it.  But let’s say you live in the Philippines.  Or Sweden.  Or wherever.  No chance at all to meet face to face.  Then, and only then, can you mail stuff in without asking. 


You mail a short, awesome comic.  Maybe a sketchbook.  You send it to specific people (not the office, not to whom it may concern, but to a specific editor).  You include a letter explaining what that editor did to catch your attention.  Here’s a sample letter for that kind of thing: 

Ms. Kilpepper,
I saw that you were the editor on the first monster-heavy work that Chutney Jones did (I’m a big Jones fan), and so I looked to see what other projects you edited and found a whole slew of great monster comics with which I was entirely unfamiliar.  Some of those books inspired me to write and draw my own comic, “Cthulu vs Mothra,” as a storytelling exercise while taking breaks from a longer project that I’m putting together.  I include “Cthuluhu vs Mothra” here in the hopes that you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed Frankenswine, Draculover, and Cities: No More.  Thanks so much for helping to see such great comics find their way to readers.
All the best,
Mortimer Kraut

You’re genuinely looking for editors who share common interests with you.  Not unlikely, given that we’re all storytellers and story affcianadoes.  Unlike traditional publishing, editors are credited in most comics, so it’s not difficult to find out who edited what.

Notice that letter said absolutely nothing about pitching something, but there IS a line about working on something else.  This gives the editor the option of asking you about that project  without putting her in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse a look.  It’s a delicate dance.

If the publisher/editor likes your work, they may reach out to you.  More likely, they’ll ask you if you have a pitch the next time that you see them at a show.  The more they see you, the more they get to know you, the more comfortable around you that they feel, the more likely it is that they’ll want to work with you, if your work lines up well with their idea of what they publish.  Comics, and publishing in general, is a long game, a VERY long game, built on interpersonal relationships that yield professional opportunities when the right time comes.  That may be five years after you meet someone.  It may be ten.  Don’t feel like not getting work with a publisher right away means that you shouldn’t cultivate that relationship.  As a rule, editors are brilliant, exciting people, and a real benefit to know from a personal standpoint.  Never working together does not mean that a relationship is wasted.  You’ll be better for it.  Sometimes such relationships DO yield work and publishing opportunities, and that’s great, but never let that be your only goal.  You’re meeting like-minded folks who love what you love and do what you do, and that’s a real treasure.  With luck, someone with whom you have a good relationship will want to publish your stuff, and that’s the best of all possible worlds.

It may seem like this is a lot of rigmarole to get to the point that you can even pitch your GN, but there’s good reason for it.  A lot of folks feel like a victim here, like the industry is  purposefully doing everything it can to make it impossible to break in.  That’s not the case.  Publishers desperately want great comics, and they desperately want people who are great at making them.  But no one has the infrastructure in place to sift through the thousands of submissions that would come in if permitted.  Most publishers are understaffed for the amount of content that they put out, and there’s no real scheduling or financial justification for doing so – the odds of payoff are just too darn low.  Top Shelf is one of the only reputable publishers to accept unsolicited submissions, and though its publisher Chris Staros goes through thousands of submissions each year, I think that he has only ever published one of them (Matt Kindt’s Pistolwhip).  Staros does this (I assume) because he’s patient and kind and makes a real effort to help burgeoning talent with a clear voice find an audience, and he refuses to let a single one slip through the cracks.  And, of the thousands and thousands and thousands of proposed projects, he caught that single one.  But most publishers are unwilling (or, more fairly, unable) to put in those hours with such infinitesimal odds of return. 

Sometime later this week (I hope) I’ll get into the pitch itself. Also, keep in mind that the stuff I write is a direct result of my own experience and of that which I've witnessed with friends, but that there are always going to be exceptions and that as the industry changes, so too do the circumstances regarding employment within that industry.  The stuff I write right now may not be applicable in six months.  But I am doing my best to be open about what my thoughts on the matter are.


  1. Awesome advice, Chris, especially everything you wrote about establishing an actual relationship with the publisher. This is much more important than wowing someone with a cold pitch. Publishing isn't Hollywood; we just don't have those situations where you have three minutes with a studio exec or your career is finished. It's much more like dating (good analogy!) than most people realize, and that's true for prose publishing, as well.

    Throughout that "getting to know you" process you'll not only learn whether or not the working relationship will be a satisfying one, but also what the publisher is looking for, their strengths and weaknesses, and how those things evolve over the years. If they're smart they'll be evaluating you the same way.

    When I was an editor I remember one creator who essentially stalked us at shows (and over email), with a regimented routine: two or three minutes of small talk, then excruciatingly long and ceaseless pitches and requests for work from him, sometimes even requests for connections to other publishers, all while he looked over my shoulder for anyone else he needed to try and schmooze with. I never hired him for anything. Anyone I did hire was either my own recruit or someone who took the time to get to know each other.

  2. What a useful post - thank you! You've covered massive ground in demystifying this process, and brought up a number of things I hadn't even considered before.

    I struggle with writing concise, effective emails, and your example email to Ms. Kilpepper was particularly impressive. I actually said "Wow" out loud after I read it.

    Very much looking forward to future installments!

  3. Great post. I think creators overlook the importance of two things: building personal connections, and having something--anything!--to show to someone. "Personal connections" doesn't mean insincere glad-handing and schmoozing; it means that the nice kid you met at a con that one time may be in a position to buy your work five years later. And having something to show, even if you photocopied and stapled it yourself, puts you ahead of 9/10ths of the wannabe "writers" and "artists" who never write or draw a thing.

    Also: act like a pro, not a punk. Take criticism gracefully. Genuinely try to hear what they're saying instead of getting defensive. Don't whine or argue with a "no": it won't change their minds and they'll remember you next time.

    Creators don't believe that there's no magic formula or secret handshake. Yet everyone I've ever met who's succeeded tells a different story about how they did it. Get your work any way you can; plant a hundred seeds and one or two will bloom. You also have to get lucky, but luck favors the prepared.