I don’t talk much about “the process” as a comic book writer on this site. There are a ton of resources available for aspiring writers, from books to blogs to webcasts, that will give you all of the insight you need into becoming a comic book writer (or a better comic book writer) far better than I can. While I do have a lot of experience in writing comics and a handful of publications on my resume, I’m still on the ground floor. That being said, there are some experiences that I’ve had as a writer that are worth exploring. One of which I’m going through right now—the dreaded “pitching” process.
This week, I began pitching my much-anticipated (by some people) all-ages epic fantasy miniseries OREN TAKES FLIGHT to potential publishers. Pitching is one of my least favorite parts of being a comic book creator. No matter how confident you are in your project, pitching will turn you into an emotional train wreck. It’s not something you ever want to do lightly.
With that in mind, today’s post is my “survival guide” to pitching comics. I’m not going to tell you how to get your project published, but here are some pointers that you definitely want to keep in mind when sending your work out into the world.
KNOW THE PUBLISHERS
This seems like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe how many aspiring comic book writers are tripped up by this. There are a lot of comic book publishers out there and they each have their own unique vision. I would recommend familiarizing yourself with the publishers and the books they print before you start pitching. For example, I would never consider sending Oren Takes Flight to a publisher like Avatar, as their comics are filled with blood and genitals—a far cry from the all-ages adventures I want to tell.
If you don’t know what types of comics a company publishers, you really shouldn’t be pitching to them. I would highly recommend buying a few comics from a publisher before even considering pitching to them. Here are some questions to ask about each publisher as you consider them:
1. Look at the quality of the comics they produce. Are you at or above that level?
2. Look at the types of comics they produce. Will your comic fit in their lineup?
3. Look at how they distribute their comics. Are they digital or print only? Does that matter to you?
4. Look at how they promote their comics. Does that meet your vision?
A few years ago, a friend of mine was looking to publish his first graphic novel and was shopping around for potential publishers. When discussing this, he mentioned possibly pitching his comic to Marvel for their Icon imprint. Icon publishes creator-owned comics from some of Marvel’s biggest stars. Their comics include Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, and Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers. Does that really seem like the type of company that would publish someone’s first graphic novel?
KNOW THE PROCESS
Every single publisher has a different process for submissions and some don’t take submissions at all. Knowing exactly what the publisher wants and how they want it will save you a lot of time and energy. It could be the difference between not only being seen and being signed, but also between being seen and being thrown away.
The first thing you need to do is check out their website and find their submissions guidelines. Most companies will spell out exactly what they need in terms of cover letters, number of completed pages, signed releases, etc and exactly how they want it to be sent in, whether it be via email, hardcopy, or at a convention. So, before you send your 25MB file to a publisher unsolicited, make sure they are okay with attachments. Find out if there is a particular editor you need to send it to. If they don’t want unsolicited submissions, don’t send unsolicited submissions.
Here is another fun example. A few years ago, another friend of mine had a great idea for a story set firmly in the Marvel Universe. He posted a pitch for this story on his blog, then Tweeted a link to his pitch to every single editor at Marvel and half of their writers. Some ignored him. Some gave him advice. Some mocked him. He knew nothing about pitching at the time and made a frightening number of mistakes. He didn’t send it to the editor of that character’s title, which would have been helpful. He didn’t understand that Marvel can’t take unsolicited submissions, which would have been even more helpful. And he didn’t know that Twitter is the last place you want to pitch a comic, which would have been most helpful of all.
Flash forward a few years; this same person is now one of the hottest up-and-coming writers in the comic book industry. He has worked with major companies and produced some really great stuff—all pitched exactly how the publishers wanted.
KNOW HOW TO BE A PROFESSIONAL
More than likely, you are a nobody in the comic book industry. Even if you have some really great contacts and have had work published by big companies, you are probably still a nobody. You need to accept that and go from there. I’m not saying this to hurt your feelings. I’m saying it because it will affect everything you do from this point forward. No one knows who you are and so you don’t have the luxury of saying/doing whatever you want. You have to be a professional. Think of it this way, even though comic book writing will most likely only ever be a hobby for you, it is still a job. You are applying for a job when you pitch a comic.
When you send your pitch to a publisher, make sure it looks professional. I’m not saying that you have to set it up in InDesign and have it look all fancy. That isn’t necessary. It is, however, necessary for you to check your documents for spelling and grammatical errors. You need to use clean looking fonts. You need to address people cordially. You should send your pitches from a professional looking email. Take mine for example firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s my initials and my last name. It is simple and professional. Do not send submissions to a publisher from email@example.com. No one ever wants an email from firstname.lastname@example.org, especially not publishers.
Even outside of the pitch, professionalism is important. Don’t trash Image Comics on Twitter and then pitch a comic to them. If you get a rejection letter from Ape Entertainment, don’t call their editors a bunch of ignorant assholes on your blog. Social media is an amazing tool, but it can be your worst enemy. And don’t just think about publishers. Consider how you interact with comic book professionals both online and at conventions. We comic pros talk to each other. You treat one of us like garbage and we’ll tell others. That could come back to bite you someday (sometime I’ll tell you about how a comic book review I once wrote nearly derailed a story I wrote a few years later).
KNOW HOW TO BE HUMBLED
When I was in college, I was writing tutor for the English Department at my college. One of the first things that I told any fellow student before we would go over their essays and my notes was that my criticisms were not meant to insult or demean them and that anything we were about to discuss in no way reflected on who they are as a person. I remind myself of this every time someone buys one of my comics, reads one of my scripts, or considers one of my pitches. I put all of who I am into my writing, but my writing is not all of who I am. Sometimes I’ll write something shitty, but that doesn’t make me a shitty person (even if I worked on it really, really hard).
If you can’t take criticism and you can’t take rejection, you need to stop right now. Find a new hobby. Comic book writing, like any creative endeavor, is risky. People won’t like what you do. They will tell you it isn’t good enough. Sometimes they will be right and other times they will be wrong. Listen to what they have to say and learn from it. Don’t let your feelings get hurt and don’t let it derail your dreams. You have to take rejection gracefully or you’ll never make it in this industry. No matter how good you are, you aren’t good enough.
I have two examples for this concept.
Not long ago, I was approached by a young comic book writer who has more passion for writing than almost anyone else I’ve ever met. He loves comics and the only thing he wants to do with his life is write them. He showed me some scripts, told me some stories, and asked for advice. I was upfront with him about the fact that his stories needed work. Some of them were hopeless. I told him about the realities of being a comic book writer and the tough road ahead. I tried to give him pointers, but instead of listening to me and accepting what I had to say so that perhaps he could learn from my experiences, he freaked out on me. He sent me nasty emails about how he was tired of people telling him he wasn’t good enough and yaddayaddayadda. I didn’t read the whole email. I never will. His profanity-laced reaction to advice was unprofessional and arrogant. Until he learns to control that, he has no hope of making it as a comic book creator—at least not at the level that he wants to reach.
A while back at a convention, I was listening to some professionals trade stories about the late Michael Turner. Someone brought up the early part of his career, before he became a bonafide superstar. Marc Silvestri discovered Turner at a convention and hired him to do someone background art for various titles over at Top Cow, which is how Turner broke into the industry. In addition to this, Turner would spend hours working on his own creations and was often told that what he was doing wasn’t good enough or wasn’t different enough from what was already out there. He could have easily given up and accepted his fate as being the guy who draws buildings behind the action drawn by the guy you paid to see, but he didn’t. He kept at it. He tried to soak up as much drawing knowledge as he could from the other guys at Top Cow. He studied his favorite artists, but still pushed to develop his own style. It took years, but eventually he was able to create something memorable. It took a few more years for him to get work published at the Big 2. Today, Michael Turner is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of the last few decades—a legend taken from us before he even hit his peak. His optimism and work ethic, alongside his general likeability as person, are the first things people praise.
You have two choices when people tell you they don’t like your work. You can get angry and lash out at them or you can work at fixing your mistakes and developing your style. You can be the guy remembered for his tirade or you can be Michael Turner. I’d rather be Michael Turner.
I strayed a bit from the art of pitching, but I think there are some good lessons here. If you want to get published, you have to work hard, you have to know the best places for your stories, you have to know the rules of the game, and you have to be willing to take some bruises without being a dick. If you can do that and you just so happen to have the right combination of talent and luck, you’ll find success.