Publisher Round-Up: Pitching De-Mystified
As an editor on the anthology, Scott Snyder Presents Tales from the Cloakroom, one of the most asked about and one of the more mystifying aspects of making comics among our group of creators is the pitching and submissions process to publishers. How does one pitch a publisher and what are they looking for? What publishers accept unsolicited pitches? How competitive is it? Will anyone actually look at my pitch or does it go into an editorial blackhole from whence no pitch can escape? All valid and oft asked questions.
I was able to entice five editors into revealing their secrets on the pitching process with their respective publishing houses and also give a ton of great advice to newcomers who are looking to break in. The following round-up has six questions.
1. With the general health of the comics market, are you looking to accept more submissions and are you looking for certain types of books, such as young adult or graphic novels?
Chris Fernandez (Publisher, Mad Cave Studios): Mad Cave is absolutely looking into publishing more titles, graphic novels included. There are some big announcements around the corner that I’m personally very excited to share with the world. We’re also very serious about our young adult imprint, Maverick.
Up until just a couple of months ago, the only way that Mad Cave accepted submissions was through our talent search. That being said, we are always looking for new creators while paying attention to what’s going on in comics as a whole. Mad Cave is now officially open to submissions for creator-owned work. There’s a portal on our site that allows creators to submit their work for review. The response has been overwhelming, but in the best way.
Josh Sobek (Managing Editor, Source Point Press): We are always looking at submissions, even with a focused direction you’ll never know what you can find if you don’t look. We try to stay relatively versatile, some themes may trend but you have to cast a wide net if you want to reach a broad audience. We certainly are interested in young adult stories as we look to expand our kids’ line.
Sebastian Girner (Editor-in-Chief, TKO Studios): TKO is always looking for submissions or even just to reach out to creators, writers, and artists, and have conversations. Not just about projects they are doing or are ready to pitch now, but projects they might want to work on or develop in the future. Because TKO both takes submissions and also develops projects and ideas in-house, we like to keep lines of communication open and easy, as you never know when lighting on either side might strike.
Chris Warner (Senior Editor, Dark Horse): We just look for good projects. It’s a bit of a trap to look for “certain types” of projects. What’s hot today can be cold tomorrow. We’re publishing more graphic novels than we once did, and the market is more accepting of the format, but we still publish pamphlet comics and hope to continue to do so. It’s a good idea for a creator to be flexible as to format. Could it be either a comics series or a graphic novel? If the answer is yes, that’s a plus.
Will Dennis (Freelance editor, Image, DC, Comixology)
When I was at Vertigo, writers used to pitch me straight ideas and if I liked it and we could get it approved, then we would set up to build the rest of the art team. If I’m doing a book at Image, usually the creative team has already pitched the book to them and then I’m brought on to project manage. For Comixology it’s been a mixture — some of the projects, Comixology has approached me to edit a book or in the case of the Scott Snyder books, we went to them with a proposal for all eight titles as a package.
2. Can you give the audience an idea of how many submissions you receive on a yearly basis and how many do you accept for publication?
Sobek: If I were to ballpark it, we get well over a hundred a year. We have review meetings to narrow the numbers down to what we want, so each month we might pick a handful.
Warner: I wouldn’t hazard a guess at the number, but Dark Horse gets a lot, hundreds certainly. Of unsolicited submissions, we accept very few, but you can’t get published without trying. One bit of advice to creators: don’t make the project too ambitious. Unless you’re a topline known talent, your forty-issue epic will not get picked up. If your project starts with a manageable arc and has the ability to move forward with new arcs, as with Hellboy or Black Hammer, that’s great. But if your story truly needs forty issues to be told, you’re digging your own grave. Flexibility is key.
Girner: I personally get at least a half dozen submissions a week, sometimes more. Some come to us as story pitches, some as full projects with artists attached and scripts written. Again, there’s no one way to pitch TKO. Of the books we’ve published I’d say we’re about 50/50 in terms of receiving submissions and developing something in-house, where we might approach a writer and artist with an idea we had and start a conversation to see if it piques their interest.
Fernandez: Well, seeing as we have just opened submissions for creator-owned work, I couldn’t give you an exact year number, but it has been overwhelming. We have been in communication with a few creators about potential projects and are looking forward to announcing them in the near future.
In regards to the talent search, for those unfamiliar, we usually open submissions for about a month, with about the same lead up time for the announcement. For the talent search submissions, we require a set page amount from writers, usually around five to eight pages, and three to five pages for artists. In that short span of a month, we receive hundreds of submissions.
Dennis: Nowadays I’m often not the decider or dealmaker so I’m not seeing lots of cold pitches. But I have anywhere from 15 -25 active projects at any one time so maybe that gives an idea. Back at Vertigo, I would probably see a few pitches a week (so between 100-200 annually) and maybe approve 5-10 total? But that’s what made Vertigo “Vertigo” ….you had to be in that 5% to make it!
3. Have you ever received a pitch and thought, “Oh wow, this is going to be a big hit.” What made it stand out and did it become a hit?
Fernandez: The first book that comes to mind is Stargazer by Anthony Cleveland and Antonio Fuso. I loved the outline from day one. I think what made it stand out for me was a few things. One of them being how much I love that Anthony included personal aspects of his own life experience into the story. I am also a fan of the characters and how the narrative changes from past to present so flawlessly. Plus, Antonio’s art adds a whole air of mystery to the story that fits the nature of Anthony’s writing brilliantly. It did become a hit and even went back for a second and third printing. Happy to say, at the time, it was Mad Cave’s hottest title.
Girner: When Juni Ba sent me the pitch for Djeliya it was as sure a slam dunk as had ever crossed my desk. I maintain that Juni is one of the most talented, most exciting young cartoonists working today and I’m so proud that TKO was able to publish his graphic novel. His ideas, his energy, his thoughtfulness, all jumped off the pitch pages in a style that was like nothing I’d seen before and genuinely electrified me. And seeing Juni’s star rise even in the short time since the book came out, I’m glad to see that I was right.
Dennis: I’m not sure about it being a “hit”….that wasn’t usually my motivation (and honestly I never had a lot of huge commercial “hits”) but yes there were times when you would hear an idea and know immediately that it had potential to be an amazing book. THE KITCHEN was a great example of that….Ollie Masters approached me at convention in London (I can picture exactly where) and gave me the pitch that was basically “The Sopranos but with all women running the gang”. It was more sophisticated than that….but I knew immediately. My brain started doing the math on “had I seen this before?” And when I figured out I hadn’t it was one of those eureka moments. My next words to Ollie were “who else have you told and can you wait for me to get back to New York and the Vertigo offices before you tell anyone else?!”
Warner: There are so few “huge hits” that I never think that in regard to any submission. Is the story compelling and unique? Are the characters interesting? Is the art killer? If so, let’s give it a shot. These are pretty much the same considerations today as thirty years ago. You hope a project will do well, but you have to rein in your expectations.
Sobek: Unfortunately, we can’t afford to think in those terms since it’s a huge gamble as to whether or not something will be a “hit”. We discuss a lot with each pitch: where it fits in our lineup, how we think it would be received, if it would do well enough to continue, etc. There’s certainly titles we like and hope will do well, and we do our best to give it its best chance to reach its audience.
4. Are there any pitches you decide to publish, and they eventually don’t end up working out? What are the pitfalls creators need to be aware of when this happens?
Sobek: There could be many factors to this. Our schedule is tight and planned out months in advance, so we need to be sure things will be ready to print in time. Reader attrition can be tough, so we try to keep issue counts low enough to manage that, and page counts per issue should fit into certain ranges because the cost of printing depends on different types of binding. Mostly, creators should be open and flexible to suggested changes, and keep up good communication.
Fernandez: So, yes. There are many times when we have been very positive about a pitch, but it just doesn’t end up aligning with our offer or what the creator expects. The only pitfall I would tell creators to be conscious of, particularly up and coming creators, is to understand that a publisher’s job is to sell comics. So, these negotiations are never personal, at least we believe they shouldn’t be.
Dennis: Yeah, sometimes it happens….it just never comes together in the actual execution of the script or art. Or sometimes the creators get better offers and it goes on the backburner forever or sometimes people just flame out and can’t deliver. That happens more than you would think….there’s a lot fear of success in comics.
Warner: There have been projects that flamed out and never made it to print, but those are commonly due to the creator not getting the work done and management losing patience and confidence in the project. When this happens, the creator probably knew, or at least should have known, that the project was in trouble anyway. The moral of the story: Get The Work Done.
Girner: The pitfalls of publishing are many, and even when you have a surefire concept, a great script, a wonderful art team, you can never account for forces outside your control. But I can say that TKO doesn’t publish anything we don’t 100% believe in. And we try very much to be open and transparent with creators we deal with. Both Tze Chun, our publisher, and I have been on the other side of that process, pitching projects we wholeheartedly believe in and want to create, and have felt that sinking feeling that it might not happen. We try to avoid letting that happen to our creators.
If we like a pitch, if we want to work with someone, then we will make it happen. But I always want to encourage creators and people who submit–don’t just submit pitches to get a deal. I mean, of course that’s the goal, but if a pitch, if even two or three don’t end up going anywhere, what matters is that you’re making contacts, and making an impression. It is still a win if an editor like myself gets a sense of a creator through pitches and conversations. I want to know about where your heart is, where your mind is, what your themes are, your interests. If I get a clear sense of a creator, it puts me in a position where, when the right opportunity comes along on my end, I can snap my finger and say, “I know just the person!”
5. How much of a factor is a creator’s social media following and the brand they’ve built when considering pitches?
Dennis: Obviously, it’s become a bigger factor over the last decade or so. If you’re on the fence about a pitch but the person has a huge following than you might naturally be more apt to approve it. But it’s never a top reason nor is a particularly good reason. If the book isn’t good on it’s own merits than it’s really not something I want to be involved with.
Sobek: This is very important, as creators have to effectively brand themselves in order to sell their work. We pay attention to how hard a creator works to put their title in people’s hands, and that effort is definitely talked about in our submission reviews.
Girner: I won’t say “none” but not as much as one may think. We’ve published pitches from well-established creators with built-in readerships and fanbases, but also published several debuts for both writers and artists. I said it before, if we like what you’re doing, if we like your story, we’ll make it happen, whether it’s your first or your thousandth comic. Each of our books comes together differently, and is run a bit differently, to ensure the creators have both creative freedom and the support and structure they need to do their best work.
Fernandez: It plays a certain factor. But it’s not at the forefront by any means. Mad Cave works with international creators to develop masterfully illustrated art with a focus on character-driven storytelling and fresh takes. What matters most to us is being aligned in our mission. We are an honest and passionate team here, we all love what we do, so we expect that same compass from the people we bring into the family.
Warner: Social media presence is helpful building an audience but comes in a distant second to established credentials in the market. A social media following helps a creator sell directly to fans, in crowdfunding, for commissions. But comics publishers sell to retailers, and retailers care most about those market bonafides: where have you been published? That said, it’s important for creators to have a social media presence and to self-promote wherever possible. There’s fierce competition for readers out there, and a creator needs to roll up their sleeves and get in the fight.
6. What’s your best piece of advice for creators who are looking to work with you and haven’t been published before?
Warner: Be really good! That’s job one, and everything else is just window dressing if the work isn’t strong enough. Most importantly, be honest with yourself. If your work isn’t as strong as the vast majority of books on the stands, we’re not going to publish it, so why send it? And for the love of God, don’t ask to just be given a chance! This is a business. Be professional. One last thing, just to mention my own pet peeve: I absolutely despise “it’s Deadwood meets Die Hard meets Downton Abbey” high-concept claims. Do you really want to tell me that your story is just a mashup of other people’s ideas? Show how your work is original, not how it’s derivative.
Sobek: Learn everything you can about how every step of the creation process is done, and absolutely have your work edited by more than one person. Be open to input and constructive criticism, and be willing to say that one idea might not work now, but maybe another will. Don’t be discouraged by a rejection, but keep creating and moving forward toward that thing that will work.
Dennis: The old Jim Rome Show adage applies…”have a take, don’t suck.” Meaning have an idea that is fresh and execute it well!
Girner: Don’t pitch us what you think we want. Pitch us what YOU want. The thing you want to do most. The story that you’re most excited to tell, that only YOU can tell. It’s that energy, that passion, that attracts me personally to a pitch, to a story, and to a creator.
Fernandez: If you haven’t been published before, just keep working at it. There are many talented individuals out there that you are competing with every day. Never stop working on your craft. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I think a perfect example is previous Mad Cave Talent search winner, Jarred Lujan. He did not win the first time he entered the talent search, but he stuck to it and was able to win on his second attempt. Now, Jarred has published many titles across the industry and is currently taking part in DC’s Milestone Initiative that develops new talent in comics. So, yeah, definitely keep at it!
The interview responses have been edited for brevity.
Featured artwork image by Max Dall’Oglio.