Knowing Is Half The Battle: Kelsey Wroten Gives Advice on the Publishing Industry

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 KELSEY WROTEN

Kelsey Wroten is a freelance illustrator and comics artist, originally from Kansas City but currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Kelsey’s first graphic novel, Cannonball, is out now from Uncivilized Books. Kelsey’s work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, NPR, Quill and Quire, T Magazine, TOPIC, SOI, The Creators Project, Nike, Lucky Peach, Lenny, Nick Magazine, Hershey, Cicada, Warby Parker, Vice, Bust, Bitch, Bleacher Report, Boom!, Slack, Narratively, Magnify Money, Talent Economy, The Portland Mercury, The Pitch, Barkley USA, and many more.

You can find out more about Kelsey’s work by visiting their website or following them on Twitter or Instagram.


The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…

Not only being along for the ride of my process but supporting it. My narrative creative process is very exploratory as opposed to planning based. What I mean is, when I’m writing I tend to find new paths I couldn’t have necessarily outlined. So I don’t like to have strict presuppositions about where a story should go holding me back in that process. Ex. If in a call with a publisher you spitballed a current idea for an event in the narrative that you realize didn’t serve the story later, an ideal publisher would be on board with that and see why it’s necessary for the sake of the story to let the narrative guide you where it wants to go, instead of arbitrarily shutting doors to other possibilities in the planning stage. In other words, the outline is the jumping-off point, but not something to read as law. I haven’t had to deal with a publisher yet who isn’t down to explore, but I could imagine an assumption of expectation could be made if a publisher isn’t very creatively liquid.

My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…

I have an agent (Ed Maxwell at Greenburger Associates) and I can’t imagine navigating this world without one. Those who are as painfully online as I am have surely seen collections of data (notably by Litebox) regarding things like advances and rates for comics and graphic novels. The abysmal rates recorded there happen 1000% of the time when an agent is not involved. Sad to say, but it seems publishing often takes advantage of the unrepresented simply because they don’t know any better. Agents are worth every penny and there are more and more getting hip to the idea that comics are books (wild I know) and some even specializing in graphic novels! This is to say, submitting to a publisher while unrepresented is going to be an uphill battle with a much lower success rate, and much lower gains if successful. I found my agent by tabling at TCAF one year. We got to chatting, liked each other, then took a few meetings. It’s been a wonderful relationship.

A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…

Comics is a unique practice in that no one ever really respects the value of them while at the same time everyone loves them. Usually, demand affects the cost of supply, but not here. I believe I got an email a few weeks ago to make webcomics for some new app at like .25 per page, and after 100 pages or 10,000 likes, I’d make 2.00 a page. Can you imagine? This might be an exaggeration because I don’t remember the actual numbers, but it was something awful like that. This isn’t the only email like that I’ve gotten either. Don’t. Just Don’t. Cause saying yes to awful deals makes it ok for them to keep offering them. Hurts all of us. Some of these comics apps like WebToon get millions of views, and I’m not positive how they pay? Do you know? But it’s not just webcomics. When I was in college I drew a whole graphic novel for a writer on the promise from him he would pay me part of the royalties and that it would make us both money. That was like 2011 and I still haven’t’ seen a dime. Work with people who respect your labor and ALWAYS have a contract. Also, don’t take a huge GN job just because it’s offered because this shit is time-consuming. Working on that graphic novel taught me that I shouldn’t spend time on something I don’t feel strongly about. The work suffers and (let’s face it) you do.

I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…

Exposure! just kidding. I usually take gigs that have no payment for a few reasons. Usually, they are for friends and it’ll be fun, or they are for a cause that I believe is just. The bottom line is, there always is some personal connection to the work. I wouldn’t do work for free if that was absent. Also if the person you are working with is going to try to make money off the work you did for free, and it’s not being donated to a cause or something, that’s hella sus. Usually, they’ll say something like “paying you on the back end” or “you’ll make money when I make money.” Another mistake I made early on. Folks who say “I can’t pay you because I’m not making money off this either” who then sell your illustration in their online shop or whatever are lying to you and honestly, robbing you. This happened in the graphic novel story above, and when I worked with a notoriously awful publisher on some pop-culture based adult coloring books. I’m not sure if they are still around (god I hope not), but they asked for free work constantly and I did it thinking it would lead to more (paid) work! What a fool I was! 

If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…

Hm. I’ve never had this happen, it’s usually a long, arduous process. So I can’t answer this one.

An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…

Luckily this is another thing I’ve not had to explore. But I know the comics community is very supportive and full of resources. We are a really cool bunch by and large.

My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…

I struggle with this personally. It feels icky to promote yourself sometimes. I don’t know if it’s the compulsory mid-west toxic humility talking or what, but where some creators will be their own biggest fan, I am my own biggest troll. I can’t stop myself from saying hateful things about my work when people ask me to try and not seem like a narcissist. The risk you run with that humble mindset is having folks believe you! So why not pump up their opinion of you instead of deflating it? My therapist and I will one day get through this. My advice, don’t be like me. If a person comes to your table asking which one is your favorite, tell them all of them are. If you have a new project you are excited about, post about it 20 times a day without shame. Not once, at one am, on a Tuesday, and wonder why no one cares about your new book haha. There are invisible skills that allow your book to be noticed, and one of those is online charisma.

To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…

This is another tough one. My biggest suggestion is to find a non-drawing-related hobby. It can still be creative. I’m learning guitar, and I play a lot of Magic The Gathering. The point is, you need to get yourself out of that headspace from time to time because it’s draining. I imagine an orange being juiced. Sometimes when I’m in desperate need of a recharge, drawing feels like I’m white-knuckled trying to twist the last drops of juice out of a mutilated orange. You’ve got to replenish yourself. Become a bright round juicy guy again. There is the productivity cult in which we all live, but there is also a subculture of beatified suffering in the world of art. Not just comics. Suffering is the path to genius. A happy artist is not a talented artist, etc. These are all fictitious. Some sort of gatekeeping, or perhaps an ego protecting construct to at once, embrace their own suffering and demonize those who flourish. The artist is starving not because she’s not good, but because she is a genius and the world doesn’t “get it.” If she started to make money, it’s because she has “sold out.” It’s weird. Read Cannonball, that’s basically what that book is about in a nutshell. In school, kids used to get pat on the back for only sleeping 3 hours a night. Those students were more “dedicated” than others. So I started sleeping less. It’s a terrible thing to buy into. Instagram upholds this dynamic. My second biggest suggestion is to only use Instagram sparingly if you are sensitive to it. There’s nothing that makes you feel like an unproductive slug than seeing thousands of new artworks a day. I worked as a clerk at a Panera Bread in 2008 (their heyday haha) during the hectic lunch or dinner rush, the endless stream of customers all started to feel like one faceless endlessly hungry being. I found myself asking “aren’t you full yet!? when will you stop eating!?” and I feel the same way about Instagram. I wish it wasn’t necessary. Twitter is worse in an entirely different way. But maybe I’m just getting old. That seems to happen younger and younger these days. Soon 23 yos will be elders in the online art world. The third suggestion, if you struggle with your mental health, get help. My life has improved so much since I started seeing a therapist.

I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…

It’s not a drawing contest! Or a popularity contest! any other kind of contest for that matter! Your work is important. Don’t put off trying to create some original content because you lack confidence as a storyteller and know that your fairytale retelling will get you more likes! Or think your drawings are not good enough (read: industry-standard enough which is another toxic fiction). The truth is, we need new stories and new approaches to art for comics to grow! This is the yearnings of your soul we’re talking about! In my opinion, we need new things, not retellings, to get us out of the perpetual hauntological loop we’ve fallen into as a culture. Comics might have the courage to think outside that box of the remake ad nauseam thing Hollywood seems to be into to avert the element of risk a new idea always has. I really want people to know they have my encouragement (at least) to craft a unique narrative without fear of it losing “like potential”. Risk is inherent to creative exploration. If there is no risk, it’s not creative. A saucy bit of wisdom, if you are trying to please everyone, you please no one. So think about the narrative you want, not the one the feed wants. Try to keep those separate if you can, it can be hard.  And, on the practical side, once you start your career going on a certain trajectory, it might be hard to turn around. So start it with creative sincerity not based on what you think the market wants. If that first GN I told you about HAD been popular, I’d be stuck drawing other people’s frontier horror comics and never trying to write my own. How awful would that have been for me? (maybe that question is too dubious ha). 

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