You’ve been working on your comic for what probably seems like forever and finally, you feel that you are ready to share it with the world. Of course, you can always go the route of self-publishing, but that carries with it a number of obligations and expectations — printing, shipping, marketing — that you may not have the desire or the knowledge to take on. Thankfully, there are a number of amazing small press comics publishers who are constantly looking to expand their catalog and bring new voices into the world.
Unfortunately, though, as much as there are ethical publishers who want what’s best for the artists they publish, there are also bad actors who prey on the talents of young and new creators.
Part of the goal of Fieldmouse Press, the nonprofit press that publishes SOLRAD, is to advance the comics arts. We see the continued social and economic success of cartoonists as integral to that goal. SOLRAD has devoted and will continue to devote resources to this area of focus.
To this end, we are running an ongoing feature at SOLRAD called KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE where we both feature an artist every week and ask for their advice about navigating the world of comics publishing, best practices for the business of comics, and other general advice. Today on KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE we’re featuring tips from ANDREA TSURUMI.
Andrea Tsurumi is an author, illustrator, and cartoonist originally from New York who now lives and draws in Philadelphia. The creator of ACCIDENT!, CRAB CAKE, and numerous comics, she’s also illustrated children’s books, news articles, and book covers. She received a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts. When she’s not inventing croissant-based animals, she likes reading about ordinary and ridiculous history. The third book in her Kondo and Kezumi series will be out this spring.
The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
Upfront, I should say my background is in indie comics and children’s books, so I’ll try to address both of those here.
I expect any publisher, whether a small press run by one person or a big corporate publishing house, to be clear and honest about what they expect from me and what I can expect from them.
That means everything has to be set out in a contract and discussed.
When I was starting out I felt such huge reluctance to ask for changes or clarification, or to say frankly what I wanted, even as a starting place for negotiating. Part of that was because I was embarrassed I’d expose my inexperience, part of that was my general avoidance, and part of that was this pressure and desperation starting out to try to get jobs and get published — so you don’t want to jinx it, you know? It’s the kind of thinking that makes new artists work for exposure, and people take advantage of that. That sense of powerlessness and scarcity is incredibly unhealthy. What I’ve learned is that a sign of a healthy business relationship is being able to talk frankly about expectations — it helps you, it helps the project, and if your publisher or client won’t do that, they’re not going to be great to work with, either because they’re trying to get something from you or they’re well-intentioned but disorganized. Before I had an agent, as a freelance illustrator, I mocked up a contract to send to clients if they didn’t have one of their own, and I’d try not to start working before they signed it (editorial can be rushed).
I expect different things from a comics publisher than a children’s book publisher. An indie comics publisher will design, print, ship, distribute, and, maybe. market my books. Most of the small comics presses I’ve worked with are basically one to several people running on a shoestring budget, so I don’t expect an advance or much editorial input, if any. Since I’m not making money from them, I especially expect to keep all my rights. A children’s book publisher is much bigger and better funded, so I do expect editorial and artistic direction, and for the publisher to provide marketing, publicity, and school and trade distribution (to different degrees — you still have to self promote in kidlit). Dealing with children’s book publishers is dealing with huge corporations, so you especially need a good agent.
My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…
Research a ton! Find the places that are going to be the best homes for your particular type of work and get to know the editors/art directors/agents that you want to work with. When you’re writing to these people, show that you know their work and are specifically interested in working with them (ie don’t send a form letter). Research how those people want to receive queries and submissions and follow their guidelines. Submitting takes time (at least several weeks, maybe a few months) and it takes repeated tries. It’s totally normal to make a list of agents you want to work with, send out submissions to a handful at a time, get a round of rejections, send out to the next batch, repeat.
If you’re specifically interested in illustrating children’s books, you can start sending promo cards or emails to art directors without having an agent. Do your research for this and send out a thing every few months or so, as a way of keeping in touch and getting your name out there. Art directors will bookmark artists they want to work with and possibly contact them later.
When you’re signing with an agent — find one who really understands your work and who you feel comfortable talking to.
A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
Never work with anyone who will not sign a contract. Never work with a publisher who says they discourage their clients from working with agents because it “complicates the process.” If anyone wants all your rights or wants you to do work-for-hire, they damn well better be paying you for the privilege, and even then don’t do that unless you really think the trade-off is worth it. Anyone who makes you feel bad for asking questions or for asking for time to consider a large contract is sus. Also, I haven’t personally encountered this, but I’d be wary of working with anyone who talks down lots of other people — it’s unprofessional at best and toxically cliquish at worst. Once you get a big contract — with an agent, or with a big publisher, take it home and talk it through with a lawyer (or in my case, several anonymous lawyer friends who translated the legalese).
I’ve always been bad at naming my own rate — it’s one reason I’m so grateful to have an awesome agent now. Before though, I’d ask around, or I’d scale the amount to the client. Like, say, a drawing for the goat nonprofit down the street might be done for free or for some goat hangout time, but the same drawing for a consulting company or a big company would be $$$.
Additionally, and I still don’t know how to work around this — but sometimes your publishers sign their own contracts with bigger publishers for distribution. Talk to yours about how this impacts you – the bigger group might never send you annual sales numbers, etc. I’ve definitely been surprised where an anthology I did work for signed a bigger deal with another publisher and then that work got printed by the bigger group without any renegotiation or extra advance. I liked the result because those books got distributed further, but I didn’t like not having a say, but I’d signed the contract without realizing that.
Some extra freelance illustration stuff: in addition to having the sketch and final delivery dates in there, the advance, royalty (if applicable), the exclusive or nonexclusive rights, you want to state as clearly as possible what you’re delivering and exactly how the client is allowed to use them (just for the hardcover cover, not the paperback edition, etc.). Include something in there about the number of rounds of sketches you’ll be willing to provide before any extra work starts costing $X/day – this is a good way to protect yourself from the “jobs that never die.” For freelance illustration and for kidlit, there’s the kill fee (usually 1/4 or 1/2 the advance) —- the money the client pays you if they cancel the project but you’ve already done sketches or finals.
I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…
If it’s to raise money for a cause I care about, or if it’s so I can experiment with something I’ve been dying to try. And if it’s something that’s not going to take a ton of time and loads of effort (if it was, I’d be better off just doing it for myself as a portfolio piece or a pitch on my own schedule).
In comics, I’ve done a lot of unpaid anthology comics stuff because I wanted to make a thing that other people would print and when I was starting out I did a lot more of these to get my name out there. That means it was even more important that I keep all rights — so I can display them on my website, make promo out of them, etc. That said, pretty much all my work in indie comics has been unpaid or low-paid or self-published, so I don’t expect to make any sustainable money from it.
In editorial — tbh I’m not a strong editorial illustrator, but when I graduated I thought I’d try to support myself through it. And I found out that I prefer long deadlines to short ones and that there was no way I could amass enough editorial work each month, especially at $100/spot (before taxes), to support myself. I tell my students that saying “I’ll support my children’s book illustration through freelance editorial” is like saying “I’ll support my acting through dancing” – it’s not a sure thing. Editorial that pays all the bills doesn’t really exist anymore, I don’t think? Except for a few people? Unless you’re also getting corporate clients?
If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…
In children’s books — I’d run it by my agent. I cannot tell you how helpful and supportive he’s been in looking out for me and my career.
In comics — Now, I’d run it by my agent. Additionally, I’d run it by some of my friends and peers in comics and illustration. A lot of times someone knows someone who’s worked with that client or done a similar job and can help give you some perspective. I’m still grateful to Tom Hart for encouraging me to turn down an offer to draw someone else’s graphic novel back when I was just out of college. I was working full time at a desk job in publishing and desperate to get published myself, so this offer was hugely tempting, but there were red flags scattered all over it — the author had never done a graphic novel before (which means double the time/work in adapting), they wanted me to work in a new style, and they wanted it in 6 months for several thousand dollars. Actual money! But — when I sat down and did the math, I’d be working triple-time, doing the longest project I’d ever done thus far, and would have to basically quit my day job to do it, which put that advance in perspective. And there’s no guarantee that a hastily made graphic novel was going to get royalties or attention when it came out. When you’re starting out, it never feels like you can say no, but you can say no. You need to protect yourself and your work and your time. $20K might sound like a lot for an advance, but if a job takes all your time for 4 years, that’s $5K a year while you can’t do other projects.
Sit down and calculate how much time this is actually going to take and then add some more for buffer. The incredible Carey Pietsch made a chart to estimate how long a graphic novel might take you.
An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…
With comics? I’d still rely on my friends/peers. With children’s books? My agent would be my first line of assistance, and then there are a number of trade organizations like SCBWI but honestly, I’m not sure, sorry. I so badly wish freelancers could unionize.
My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…
Online — have a website that acts as your online “hey this is how to contact me” presence. I don’t know what to do about social media — maybe pick one you can stand? And don’t feel like you need to be on every platform all the time, it doesn’t help.
Cons — get to know people you enjoy and respect and check in with them. Someone once told me to think about networking in terms of building relationships over time, which was so much more appealing. If you’re meeting editors or art directors or publishers, be calm and introduce yourself. If it’s a quick encounter, keep it brief and take your cues from them. If you’re chatting, then why not talk about some book or something you both enjoy (plenty of things to nerd out about)? I think in the late 2000s, when I started going to cons, there was this feeling that you could be Discovered! there and now that’s totally different.
Find your people and support each other. I’m so bad at promoting my own stuff, but I will go full airhorn promoting my friends’ work. It’s so much more fun to do appearances, panels, etc as a team. Be open to welcoming other new people, too.
To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…
I …. don’t really know how to answer this. Partly because offering tips like, get regular exercise and take breaks (while being actually good advice) might give the impression that if you just do XYZ, you’ll save yourself from burnout. There’s a way of talking about self-care and productivity and time management that just turns everything into one more Thing you need to do or perform to keep yourself producing content. One more thing you’re probably failing at while being overworked or underpaid. I’m genuinely not sure how to be mentally healthy in a way of life where your value as an artist and a person is tied to how much you’re paid, how much you produce or whether you’re full-time or not. I’m not sure how everyone can take care of their physical health in any industry where it’s hard to get healthcare.
I do think the idea that in order to get respect or worth as an artist you need to have a full-time career in it (regardless of whether your industry even pays enough to make that possible) is really unhealthy and probably unrealistic? It definitely encourages the kind of back-to-back constant working that doesn’t leave time for anything else, and castigates anyone who doesn’t have the time to pour into this because they’re raising kids, are caretaking people, trying to live a healthy life, can’t work the constant hours, etc.
A conversation that’s stayed with me was when illustrator Ana Aranda talked with me about making your life about more than illustrating. I’m a longtime workaholic and I’d been so focused on making art as a way to justify my life, I didn’t make time for any hobbies, and so I got to a point where I was scared if the art went away, I’d be left without anything. Really not healthy. Bad for my life and honestly, bad for my art.
I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…
Comics — I wish I’d known more specifics about how much time/money different jobs took in the industry so I could adjust my expectations. I would’ve wasted less time feeling bad about not knowing stuff.
Children’s books — Take more breaks between books. Take the effort to meet other authors/artists and hang out. It’s a solitary profession and it’s so much more enjoyable with company, and you learn so much about other people’s way of approaching things. K-Fai Steele, who is as brilliant at community building as she is at bookmaking, introduced me to the idea of looking up kidlit archives to see how other authors/artists made work. Because the job is decentralized, I think there’s this feeling of you starting the timeline fresh, you know? But seeing the sketches and notes and “well this is bad, erase it” annotations of the people who came before you a) is super educational and b) makes you feel part of something. The Free Library of Philadelphia has a huge art archive that anyone can make an appointment to see, once restrictions lift, and loads of other libraries probably have the same.