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 Keren Katz.
Keren Katz is a cartoonist, writer, and the non-fictitious half of The Katz Sisters Duo. She is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts’s MFA Illustration Program and Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. She is the author of two graphic novels: The Academic Hour and The Backstage of a Dishwashing Webshow (Secret Acres) and was nominated for the SPX Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist. Her work has been published in anthologies by Fantagraphics, Smoke Signal, Locust Moon, Rough House, Ink Brick, Retrofit Comics, The Brooklyn Rail, kuš!, Carrier Pigeon, and Seven Stories Press. Katz is the 2018-2019 Center for Cartoon Studies fellow, and recipient of the SVA Alumni Society 2013 Micro-Grant, the Sequential Artists Workshop’s 2014 Micro Grant, the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art’s 2015 Silver Medal and Award of Excellence, the 2018 Slate Book Review, the Center for Cartoon Studies sixth annual Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic (The Academic Hour), and the Cartoon Crossroad Columbus Emerging Talent Prize.
She is part of Gnat Micro Press — a non-profit community for publishing experimental poetry and comics and the Tel-Aviv based Humdrum Comics Collective. You can find out more about Keren on her website and you can follow her on Instagram.
The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
*Please note, I’m referring to small press
I have had (and still have) the privilege of working with publishers who believed in my work, my motivation, and my potential even before I had a publish-able body of work and the most important thing they have done for me is invest and nurture my growth as an artist. I felt there was room for my work years before it was ever even published because I felt that people in the community were accepting me as a friend and fellow comics lover. Having a direction to move towards enabled me to make a ton of progress on my own while still feeling part of this world. They are continuously pushing me along and encouraging me to try new things. The key, for me, was to define my own expectations of myself as an artist: what my number one goal and dreams are. Once I proclaimed it (alternative graphic novels!), both in the types of things I was making and sending out and in person, I also found the right home for my work. I think of my publishers as my primary audience. I look up to them and it thrills me to know they are taking the time to read my work. When I sit down to write a new story, I am writing with them in mind.
I think it would help people who are looking to work with small press publishers to know that a lot of the considerations of what they publish or not has nothing to do with the quality of the work, but how much the publisher has to offer the artist: in terms of resources, availability, editorially and production-wise, asking themselves; would this book be better off with us or with someone else. A lot of times they will also mention artists to their fellow publishers when the opportunity arises. I’ve seen this happen many times at shows.
Knowing this, and knowing that most small press publishers (the ones I know, at least) work as a community, supporting their peers, sharing knowledge and friendship, really helped me not to be discouraged and know that it’s only a matter of finding the one that could help me become who I want to become.
Once you’ve found your publisher, or once they have found you, it’s helpful to define what you want your book to be, and have a discussion with them about what will help you make it. Every artist needs different things, whether it’s time, space, financial support, close editing, help finding references, and reading recommendations (coloring assistants -if this is a bigger more established press). I’m in this field for artistic growth and exploration, which is a different track from those who comics is their main income source. I work with publishers who give me freedom and encourage it. My main publisher, Secret Acres, helped me translate who I am as a person into a long-form book, and were able to do so because they know me as a person and as my friends. It was also important to work with publishers who are very involved in the community that I was interested in being part of and were tabling and distributing in the places I wanted to be. As someone who lives on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, this was crucial to me.
I recommend reading “Koyama Press Thanks…” on Facebook and the Secret Acres Scuttlebutt and Retrofit Comics festival posts.
My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…
I’ve learned by making ALL of the possible mistakes (which is also important to mention, so you don’t feel like you’ve burned any bridges by making mistakes, there is always a way to become better and more aware of your interactions).
In general: make their job easier for them by being prompt, writing short precise sentences to get your point across quickly (unlike the scrolls I’ve written here…hahaha), sending easy to access files/links/hardcopies depending on what they themselves ask for. A lot of publishers will list their pet peeves and preferences for receiving submissions on their websites. If you can, it also helps to format your book proposal in a similar way to the series of books/magazines you want to be published in. Familiarize yourself with their work, note how they have changed over the years, and try to figure out what they are moving towards, read their books and show your support.
In conventions, handing out mini-comics is a great way to share your work, but before you hand it over, ask if they have room in their luggage for it, or if they would rather you mail it. Don’t push them to get feedback. Keep in mind that if they like it they absolutely WILL give feedback. Also keep in mind that if they haven’t responded to your inquiries or don’t remember you, it’s not necessarily because they didn’t like the work or you, but simply, that they haven’t gotten to it yet.
Show persistence and enthusiasm by making a new thing for each show, and if your mini-comics submissions were welcomed the last time, keep sending out new ones. Maintain the relationships you have begun to form. The submission regime and constant tweaking and customization could be also helpful for the development of the story even without any feedback returning your way. Eventually, you will make an impression.
Small press is run by individuals who have sooooo many things they have to read and do and address all year round, not to mention the stress of shows. People have contacted me for my work years (!) after I’ve sent out a mini-comic, or left something in consignment at a store, or submitted to a competition. I’ve also had multiple rejections over the same comic that was eventually published elsewhere. It’s important to keep this in mind; that it’s just how it is….respect their time and efforts, but don’t be deterred by lack of response. Keep going. Nothing you make will be lost.
Don’t let anything discourage you from the goal you set for yourself. Be determined to move forward and don’t compromise on what you want to make or where you want to be, aside from accepting constructive criticism, of course. In the end, I think anyone into comics wants there to be MORE voices, more unique voices, more comics, not less.
Your goal may change at any given point, but until it changes, stick to it, fearlessly, day after day. My father taught me to begin each day of work by asking myself: what is my dream? What will make me really happy? Where do I want to be if I could be anywhere? And then make every decision that day accordingly, allocate my energy accordingly. It’s important to do things with 100% confidence because it takes so much energy and sacrifice from you, and from those close to you and, of course, from the publishers who want to know you are equally invested in what you are making as they will be.
Fortunately, this type of stubbornness and “head-on” approach comes naturally to me, but it would have also been useful to know that every time I sent an email and didn’t receive a reply, that every time I was rejected or ignored or gotten a really discouraging review, or almost kicked out of art school…. that there was someone out there who would have responded positively, I just hadn’t gotten to them yet and I just hadn’t made the best version of the thing I wanted to make yet.
A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
“There is no budget, but you’ll get exposure” is a bad sign and an outdated notion in an age where there are so many ways we could achieve exposure ourselves utilizing technology without someone exploiting our efforts.
I am not a lawyer (by all means consult a professional one and take my words with a grain of salt!), but here is what I look out for:
- Regarding contracts: pay attention to the balance of what you are committing to give to the publisher and what the publisher is committed to giving you. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship. The publisher is giving you a lot beyond timely payment: publicity, submission to shows, presence at shows, distribution, compensation on international translation. It’s a good idea to discuss these things openly.
- Beware of signing away your copyright and your moral rights. Ideally, you should be keeping all of your copyrights and simply granting the other party a license of use to your art. This license should have an expiration date, should detail all of the uses, publications, and languages your art will be used for, and should be fair in terms of exclusivity (it is common for a publisher to expect exclusivity of use, but there should be details on what happens when the edition sells out, or what happens if the project is canceled, etc….ideally they are allowing you to use your own art for self-promotion, portfolio, exhibitions, keep your original art).
- I stay away from “work for hire” contracts and from the words “perpetual”.
I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…
- If it’s for a good cause or a non-profit organization you believe in.
- If it’s for a barter, like housing, food. I sometimes barter with other artists in exchange for their expertise like “video editing”, photography and documentation of my exhibitions, music production, use of performance spaces.
- If you are working with a brilliant art director or designer who will help you improve your work, or be a good reference or contact in the future.
- If through it, you will get to go on an unexpected adventure, or a learning experience, learn a new skill, get to try out new media, find a new audience.
- I do illustrations for fringe theatre and I’ve learned so much.
If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…
I always Google first. Usually, a lot comes up. I consult my teachers, mentors, friends.
An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…
I am part of a few private online communities for both illustration and comics with peers and former classmates whom I trust and confide in. We collectively accumulate information about copyrights, resources, competitions, fees, contracts, and also consult each other anonymously about any specific problem, client, brief, etc. This has been a crucial tool for me, but again, this is a privilege for those who are already part of a tight community.
I recently learned of a much larger scale proactive project through my friend Ilan Manouach, currently looking for collaborators. Here is a quote from their Mission Statement which also addresses the problem of information shared exclusively within small pocket communities within this field:
“We want to make comics a safer and more inclusive environment internationally for everyone, everywhere. We plan to act in two ways: through ComicsLeaks whistleblower platform and by creating a diverse, international network of specially trained “guardian angels” within the field. These members of the collective will map the field(s), define the goals, plan the strategy, develop the tools together, and take the change to their communities.“
My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…
Enjoy and celebrate your time in this world of comics! If you enjoy making things, curating a beautiful table for yourself and your friends, share what and how you make things online, even share your misdirections, you will also pique the interest of others. Every single person who is moved by your work and buys your comic might as well be the entire world buying your comic. You have made something for someone and that is at the core of everything.
I try as best I can not think about numbers of followers, number of books sold……but it’s easy for me because comics is not my source of income, so there are no financial stakes which is very freeing to be a little silly. I assume the larger publishers expect an online presence and followers when they consider their authors and who is more likely to generate sales. When I started tabling I would only sell a book or two per convention, and it was my friends who bought them. After ten years of shows, with a new book for every show, people have started buying my unsold first editions retroactively…. I think it takes the stress away to think of it as a marathon and not a sprint.
PLEASE share and support the work of your peers. I’ve received many opportunities in this industry because someone advocated for me and visa versa. Every one of us sharing work and ideas is shaping this medium and affecting it, driving it forward. Trade books (you can put an “I accept barters” sign on your table), write fan letters (snail mail letters), tell people if you liked their work. Learn as much as possible from people you consider mentors. Put yourself in a position to learn, whether as an intern/assistant, attending a panel, listening to their podcasts, reading their work. You will be lead towards interesting places, I promise.
Offer workshops, initiate panels and events, say Hi to people you have met and gave you zines, make friends, socialize in professional gatherings without the purpose of self-promotion (I’ve made this mistake many times and felt so bad after because I missed the chance to have a meaningful conversation with someone who loves comics and who knows comics). Form groups and table together. Collectives allow you to pull more resources together, get bigger tables, better quality production, save on shipping, share housing and travel, be more visible in festivals in a sea of people, gain awareness and learn from each other’s processes and insights.
I realize it’s a privilege to be able to travel and to hand out entire print runs as freebies or barters with little chance of breaking even. This investment may be paid off only years later by getting invited and flown in to those same conventions, given the opportunity to apply for grants, residencies, receive honorariums for talks which covers travel and get offers for higher-paying jobs from people you met while traveling (I think you will always be more likely to be hired if someone knows you personally despite the fact that the job itself can be done remotely). Nonetheless, it does require A LOT of financial resources to get started and for me, being a part of a tight art community via the schools I attended helped a lot. Therefore the community and the sharing is super important and, again, the more we are aware as a community to the voices who might get thrown out of the game due to lack of resources, the more we will benefit.
Submit to anthologies!
To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…
Reading requirement: Kriota Willberg’s Draw Stronger by Uncivilized Books. It’s about thinking of yourself as an athlete. Acknowledging that your profession is not just the product of your wrist and brain at work. Your entire body is and should be involved, learn to use it. At the same time, don’t push yourself, know your natural rhythms and don’t beat yourself up for things and habits that seem to be unlike anyone else’s. I can’t sleep at night, I crash during the day, I procrastinate, I poison myself with caffeine and bad eating habits, I have days of pain and days of just staring into space and days I beat myself up for not being able to sit down and concentrate. The more we talk about it, the more we can help each other, and the more we are relieved of the guilt that is an unnecessary punishment.
I also found that I go through the same cycles of deadline panic every single time, but by now, I trust that my body and mind will not allow me to zigzag in and out of focus in a way that steers me completely off track. I trust myself to come around when I really really really need to. I trust my friends to help me push through (Send care packages to your comics friends who are in a tight crunch to let them know you have their back!). I have found that I work best around others so I initiate a lot of communal drawing events and curate open interactive drawing festivals and “summer camps” with my friends and fellow artists. These bizarre drawing jamming party events not only help me generate my own comics work, but they have created jobs for me I hadn’t even considered.
Lastly, through the form of graphic medicine and the articulation of your own experiences, your work will encourage and impact people who have similar obstacles outside of the comics community. The practice of storytelling and of self-care could be a tool of greater social impact, empathy, and lay ground to a structure of a caring environment. At the same time, reading the increasingly expanding corpus of graphic medicine narratives, even if the particular subject does not correspond with what you are dealing with, will help the processing of your own story.
I am extremely in awe of the work and research of the 2020-21 classes at The Center for Cartoon Studies, where I first came across this terminology.
I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…
I wish everyone had the same support I had. I think it was the crucial turning point for me. My classmates and friends supported my work from the very beginning and encouraged me to stick with it. If I was facing the industry without this support, I might have bowed out. Everyone I met in the conventions was my friend before they were my colleague. And I felt that I was more present in this world as a person, long before my work was ready or mature enough. It remains my driving force in this world. I want to meet people through creating books more that I can define to myself what kind of book I am making. In that sense, I’m still learning and reading and taking classes, while being supported and encouraged to do this learning. My process is completely visible on my pages.
Put yourself in a position where something extraordinary can happen. Move away from your comfort zone as much as possible, both in story, in appetite for reading, in what you choose to draw with, write about, in what you say yes to (except for abusive jobs, of course). If everything is planned, or if you follow someone else’s career path then there’s a good chance of fulfilling your goals, but sometimes, there are more exciting adventures beyond what we can imagine, and they are worth the risks. The best things happened to me when I was least expecting an adventure, and while I was, as I always am, reluctant to leave the house at first.
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SOLRAD Presents: The Lighthouse in The City – September 16-22
Sound advice, Keren!