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 JESSI ZABARSKY
Jessi Zabarsky is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Chicago with her cat and forty-three plants. She was raised in the woods and will one day return there. She’s best known for Witchlight, a comic about relationships, family, and figuring out how to be whole again. Zabarsky also published Two of Us and a Pingu Zine for Shortbox. She can be contacted for commissions, freelance, and other inquiries at jessizabarsky (at) gmail (dot) com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
To pay me fairly, to promote my work as much as they reasonably can, and to work with me to make the best version of the comic I have in my heart.
My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…
You don’t have to have an agent before talking to a publisher, and you don’t have to have a publishing deal before talking to an agent. If a publisher reaches out to you and you don’t have an agent, you can tell them that you’re interested, but you want to wait to proceed until you find representation. If they’re worth working with, they’ll understand and be fine with that, as long as you don’t take forever. If you have a comic you want to pitch to a publisher or already think a publisher is interested, you can email agents telling them so. Look up how to write query letters, then adapt everything you find about literary queries to comics. There are also lists out there of agents that work with cartoonists, if you do some searching. Pick ones who have represented work similar to yours, and read their guidelines carefully, they all vary!
In my case, I’d heard rumors that a large publisher was interested in repackaging Witchlight, so I started querying agents. I got a few rejections, but mostly I just didn’t hear back. Random House emailed me with an offer, so I emailed all the agents I hadn’t gotten a firm “no” from to update them. My current agent responded very quickly, and several others responded over the next couple days. Your own path might be similarly weird and slapdash, just always be professional and considerate of people’s time. Thank everybody, even if they reject you!
A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
If a publisher is unwilling to clarify parts of a contract or make reasonable changes, I’d take a step back. Adjacent to the comics industry, I’ve had people react aggressively or act offended when I’d ask simple clarifying questions. At the time I was more easily convinced that I was in the wrong, so I hurried to end the confrontation, but that was an early sign of how the working relationship would develop. In contrast, when I was negotiating the Witchlight contract with Czap Books, I asked very similar questions and was given straightforward explanations and accommodations where they could be made. The things I asked about ended up never coming up at all, but having that early reassurance set the tone for the whole relationship.
I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…
I’ve done a lot of work for free or for very little pay, and I don’t regret much of it! In each case, something besides money was offered: a chance to practice a skill, creative freedom, working with someone I admired, drawing characters I loved, work I had rights to republish and sell myself, comp copies of a cool book to table with, or even the dreaded exposure. If you can afford the lack of income, the time the work would take, and the stress/energy drain it’d come with, doing a short comic or illustration here and there can be a good way to get some of those non-monetary benefits! Especially when I was in college/just graduated, I did a lot of one page comics for zines or as guest comics for webcomics I liked. They helped me make and strengthen my connections to other artists and gave me more of a sense of belonging in the community, at a time when I had very little of those things. It also made applying and tabling at shows a lot easier, when I could list a bunch of zines I’d contributed to and had copies of! Make sure to be realistic about what your resources are and how much a project would take (then tack on extra time and energy, it’ll always take more than you expect). Projects where you have a lot of control over how big your contribution is are good, because you can scale it to how much you’re getting back from the job. Even projects that turn sour can be good experience, just be sure to learn from them. Try to make your mistakes on the small potatoes jobs, then you’ll be all set for the bigger ones!
If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…
I’d look into the person making the offer and the company they represent if there is one. Do they have a website and does it look like garbage? You can also name search on social media and see if anyone else has had experience with them, or ask friends in the community. Seeing how the person responds to simple and direct questions can be enlightening — the most sketchy person I’ve dealt with wouldn’t spell out exactly how he wanted to publish my comics, or even exactly which ones. His emails felt like he was sending fast, half thought out responses to a bunch of people, hoping to just get someone to agree with little effort, and I later learned that was exactly what was going on! If you haven’t heard about a publisher literally at all and you’re getting some bad vibes, at the very least pump the brakes.
An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…
Secret Twitter, where I do all my yelling and agonizing. I’m grateful to have trusted friends who are both peers in the industry and a smidge more level-headed than me. If you don’t have those kinds of relationships yet, honestly, DM me. I can’t promise to respond quickly or give perfect, fool-proof advice, but I’m happy to help where I can! Just remember I’m not actually an “organization”, I am but one small, tired person.
My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…
I’m pretty bad at promoting my work online, especially lately. As far as I can tell I got my small following by accident. People like gifs, cute things, anime and video game fan art, and never fan art of 70-year-old picture books, which is all I ever want to make. At the very least, keep up with the changing media spec requirements of the different social platforms! It sucks to spend hours on something and then realize Twitter will bury it or Instagram won’t even deign to upload it. If all you can make quickly to take advantage of a trend or challenge is something dumb and bad, that’s still going to do better for you than something amazing that takes you until a couple days later to post. Ration your energy, set rules for how long you’re allowed to scroll and fixate, and avoid thinking that any one piece of work is going to blow up for you. Make stuff for yourself and your friends and post it for kicks, the Algorithm is pitiless and catering to it will only end in tears.
At cons, for years I’d make a small mini comic (or a very long and technically involved comic/flip-book that I used a drill and embroidery floss to bind in the convention hotel room, learn from my mistakes) to give out to artists I admired. I found it was most painless to buy something from them, then give them the mini afterwards so I could quickly run away. Put your name and social media handles in the comic!! I don’t think this led directly to any paid work for me, but sometimes people remembered me and that gave me the confidence and power to make the next comic.
When you want to start tabling, I’d definitely recommend starting at small inexpensive ones first! There’s less pressure and a higher chance you’ll get in. There’s also better odds they’ll be flexible about you squeezing five people behind a table — uncomfortable but extremely cost-efficient. Each person can bring one or two comics instead of trying to fill up the whole table themselves, and you can all pitch in on an anthology zine to sell for a bit more. Everybody should bring their own little tablecloth to mark their bit of the table, so customers don’t think it’s all one person’s work. It can be frustrating when someone says they’re making their first pass and they’ll be back around, but IMO it’s way better to respond in a friendly and understanding way. In my experience, half of those people do come back if they remember you as someone who was pleasant to talk to.
To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…
A second, locked social account is so essential for blowing off steam into a sympathetic void. Sometimes you really have to yell or cry or have messy opinions, but do future you the favor of doing it in private. Next, unless you’re a very specific kind of person, you need other interests and creative outlets besides your main thing. It’s really restorative for me to make things just for myself, that I’ll barely post online and have no intention of ever making money off of. I like quilting, knitting, weaving, and doing other small crafts here and there, usually while watching low budget sci-fi or fantasy shows. Try to treat those activities as essential recharge time, not as rewards for getting “real” work done (I still struggle with this constantly).
My friends outside of comics are also really valuable to me, because they remind me that I’m a whole person outside of my creative work, and they’d still like me even if I quit comics tomorrow. Accessing professional mental health care can be hard for a lot of creative folks, but if you can, jump on it. Try not to wait until you get to a breaking point. Some practices have sliding scale fees or other compromises they can make to help you. My first therapist was actually a child therapist, because that’s all that was available in the rinky dink town I lived in after college! It wasn’t a perfect fit but it still helped me move forward. If nothing else, journaling regularly has been incredibly good for me recently. It’s another “just for you” thing — don’t think about someone else needing to read and understand it, just barf your feelings out once a week so they don’t jangle around in your head so much.
For physical health, those hand stretches people pass around really do help. So does taking short breaks, having a regular bedtime, going for walks, and occasionally eating a vegetable. If you lose track of any of these practices, don’t beat yourself up, just get back on it as soon as you’re able to! If you hate one kind of exercise or veggie, try a different one. Taking care of yourself is, in my experience, a constantly changing set of hurdles and you just have to do the best you can. Drink some water and get your flu shot.
I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…
That I was better at art and more capable than I thought I was, and I should just go ahead and apply for those cool jobs. I probably still would’ve gotten rejected a lot, but at least I’d have built up my thick skin and cover letter writing skills from creative opportunities instead of all those weird craigslist landscaping gigs I tried to trick into hiring me. Nobody is keeping track of how many times you get rejected, so just go for whatever you have the energy to apply to. Plus, maybe you’re actually pretty competent and you didn’t know it!
I also wish I’d known that I could just say when I didn’t know a thing and ask someone to explain it. It’s not great to demand that strangers teach whole skills to you, but you can ask friends and coworkers a lot of stuff! If you come at it from a place of honest curiosity and knowing that ignorance doesn’t mean you’re dumb or bad at art, it’s a pretty good experience. People like to feel knowledgeable and helpful, and they’ll feel more comfortable asking you for help in the future!
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