Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 5

Over the past few weeks I’ve discussed some of the background behind my current attempt to break into the comic industry as a writer. Now, however, it’s time to get into the meat of it a little bit as I discuss how you go about getting published these days and where I am in my own efforts.

As I’ve mentioned before, there aren’t a lot of comic book publishers these days who look at writing submissions. One of the driving forces behind this trend is the internet. Thanks to both online comics and the way the internet has made self-publishing viable from both cost and time perspectives, many comics book publishers feel that there is a large pool of proven talent available; instead of having people send in samples to try to prove they can do comics, the idea is that you can prove it by actually doing comics. Plus, many publishers are just that – publishers. They are looking to print and distribute finished products rather than develop talent and create properties from scratch.

In other words, most publishers are putting the onus on the writer to become their own editor and producer, and once the comics are done, then the publisher will look at it and decide it they want to hire the writer or publish the comic themselves. This is perfectly reasonable from their point of view, but for writers who just want to concentrate on their writing it can be a bit of a hurdle.

It’s certainly not insurmountable, however. For the purposes of this exercise, then, we’re going to go ahead and ignore these other self-publishing options and focus on what opportunities there are for writers in the current market. In order to give yourself the best chance to break into the business as a writer there are two main things you need to do: research publishers and tailor your submission to fit their needs. Let’s take a look at what I mean and how I used these concepts to shape the actual submissions I have sent out so far.

Research Publishers

This seems pretty obvious, but the first step is to figure out which publishers accept submissions. I’ve heard a lot of editors saying they receive mounds of unsolicited submissions, even at companies that clearly state they don’t accept them, so even though this appears to be a no-brainer it’s not. When I decided to start sending out pitches, the first thing I did – before I even began working on any of my story ideas – was to go online and start visiting websites of various publishers in order to see what kind of submission guidelines they have.

I was prepared to share all this with you, my beloved readers – the fruits of my hours of hard labor – but then I discovered that someone else has already done the dirty work and posted it online. Had I known this I could have saved myself a lot of trouble, but now I am passing those savings on to you.

Optimistically titled “The Submission Guidelines for every Comic and Manga Publisher in the Universe”, the full listing – which can be found here – does, in fact, give a great deal of detail about submission guidelines for a lot of publishers and even more helpfully provides links to their websites. This is important, because as nice as this resource is, it does have one flaw – it was posted in March. You would think that it would be up to date – and it is, relatively speaking – but even just a few months later I’ve already found a few companies that have since changed their guidelines, usually for the worse as far as writers are concerned. For example, Penny-Farthing Press, which is listed here as accepting writing submissions (and whose website also states this), doesn’t actually accept writing submissions any more.

So this guide, while handy, should really be your starting point. Check out every website yourself and if you have any doubts, email the company for clarification. Once you know which companies accept writing submissions, you can start in on the second half of the research process:

Tailoring Your Submissions

There are two parts to tailoring your submission for a specific publisher. Firstly, research their line of comics to determine what kind of stories they publish; and second, format your submission according not only to their submission guidelines but also to their publishing preferences.

Often those last two are one and the same. A good example of what I mean is Antarctic Press, one of the few publishers who still accept unsolicited writing submissions. Antarctic Press includes a lot of important details in their submission guidelines. They point out that in today’s market, many retailers are wary of ordering new ongoing titles for unproven books. Because of this, Antarctic prefers to publish one shots or mini-series rather than ongoing series. The idea is that a retailer will take a flyer on a new product if it’s just a commitment of a couple months. Then, if the series takes off, an ongoing can be done to capitalize on this success. Essentially it’s a way to limit liability for both the publisher and the retailer and this should be kept in mind when crafting a pitch for Antarctic.

This is one of the main reasons I am trying to not work on a pitch without having a specific publisher in mind for it. Let’s say you have an idea for a space opera. Not knowing just who might be in the market for it, you sit down and come up with the greatest story ever imagined, a rousing, 100 issue epic that will blow the doors off the industry. Then, with this accomplished, you check out Antarctic’s submission guidelines and discover you’re totally boned. All of this could be avoided by simply not working out the details of your idea until you know the correct format to frame it in. I’m a big believer in the idea that structure determines story, and this is especially true in the world of mainstream comics, where you have a finite number of pages every issue to relay your story in; it’s not a novel where you can ramble around at your own pace, the pace is dictated in large part by the form.

So a better way to approach your idea would be this: you look up the submission guidelines, discover they want a 1-4 issue, self-contained story to test the market and then you craft your tale around this instead of the other way around. You can save yourself a lot of work and a lot of heartache this way.

And, of course, there's the other half of the equation: don't send horror comics to a romance publisher. In our example, Antarctic Press does publish a fairly wide array of comics, but for the most part the specialize in manga-inspired science fiction. That epic space opera may have a shot, but even if you follow their guidelines to the letter, a story about Archie Andrews is probably not going to go very far. I'm not suggesting you should pander to the publisher; writing what you think people want almost always ends up with bad writing. But you should be smart about which projects you pitch to which companies.


The submission process can be most succinctly summed up this way: creating a story to fit a market is much easier than creating a market to fit your story. Researching your publishers will not only tell you which stories you should write, but how you should go about writing them.

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