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 RICHARD SHORT.
Richard Short describes himself as “Hartlepool’s second most popular cartoonist.” He is the creator of Klaus, a surreal and melancholy comic starring the eponymous character and his friends. His new book, Haway Man, Klaus! will be available from Breakdown Press in late March.
The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
Knowing that the publisher – or at least someone at the publisher – really likes the work can compensate for a lot of shortcomings. Not getting paid for a book isn’t quite as annoying when the publisher has a tattoo of your artwork. So really liking the work and them having some understanding of what you’re trying to do; paying you an advance; putting in some kind of effort to promote the book and getting attention for it. Not just in the few weeks before it comes out, but in the weeks and months and maybe years after it’s out. To be a competent and consistent champion of your work, really.
My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…
All of these answers are in the context of me not doing comics and illustration for a living. Also, all the comics I’ve had published have come from the publisher approaching me; all the submissions I’ve made have been rejected, which suggests I’m not cut-out to answer this one, but anyway …
In the first few years of making comics I was emailing a handful of jpegs to these big commercial publishers and hoping they’d bite my hand off. Apart from the work being not good, I really wasn’t giving them anything to go on in deciding whether they wanted to do a book with me. Some publishers will have submission guidelines on their website but a lot won’t. A publisher like Breakdown Press may not expect a 100-page pdf with a contextualising essay, but a link to a good chunk of comics, or a self-published comic or two in the post, would be good. Sometimes I see book pitches in the DMs of the Breakdown Instagram account and that’s probably not the best approach.
After the first few years I’ve tended to submit completed work to publishers. I’ve pitched translations of existing work to some German and Spanish and Japanese publishers who turned them down, but I wouldn’t think twice about submitting stuff to other publishers if they looked a decent fit. I think it’s important not to be afraid of rejection. There’s a load of reasons why a publisher might not publish a certain book, but an email or a book in the post might start a conversation or bring you to their attention, and open doors to other things.
But again, try to develop a thick skin. Most publishers will already have a longer list of books they’d like to publish than their money and time allows. Getting to the top of those lists might not be immediate. Thankfully, in comics there’s no shame in self-publishing.
A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
I’m really interested in the design of my books. Some cartoonists aren’t and publishers can be surprised and maybe annoyed about you wanting control over the design. I’ve had a couple of publishers who had certain house design styles that didn’t easily accommodate the bolder/simpler design that was a given with Breakdown and which I wanted to retain. I insisted it was in the contract that I had the final say on design, but even then they were changing things at the last minute – there was a graphic designer who wanted to add extra quirky effects and they said a certain colour didn’t do well in that market, and replaced it with beige.
It’s good to tell the publisher your expectations early on. With one publisher I showed them a design before agreeing to do the book, which they approved before we signed. I think it’s important to keep your oar in on these things and keep asking to see the book at every stage, so you’re not marginalised in the design process, and you find it’s gone to print and they’ve used their own endpapers or some weird review quote you’ve always hated.
Generally, when publishers are leaving things to the last minute it’s good to be vigilant, because that’s when things slip through or things get sloppy. I’ve had a book printed with a really pixelated title and pages in the wrong order, because I didn’t get to check the print files. Another publisher changed the name of a character in the translation, just because they thought it sounded better. It baffles me that a publisher would think that’s ok – so maybe don’t take for granted that the publisher won’t make arbitrary choices about your carefully thought-through work.
I’m trying to think of other things I’ve had in draft contracts that annoyed me. Anything that looks to give the publisher rights over your characters, it that’s applicable, or rights over the books in different markets or in different media, or anything that allows the publisher to re-package your work with other work (in, for example, the publishers’ anthology or in third party magazines) without your prior agreement. Anything that takes control of the work out of your hands, really.
I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…
I came to comics in my mid-20s and wasn’t published until I was nearly 30. I’ve got a non-drawing full-time job, which probably suits me better than drawing for a living. I’m not very patient, pragmatic or commercially-minded when it comes to drawing, so I’m lucky I have another way to make money.
Recently, all my illustration jobs are lower-paid as I only really do them for friends. So I suppose I’m doing lower-paid illustration in return for greater autonomy, the pleasure of doing that work, helping friends and being part of their community.
If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…
I’ve not had any too-good-to-be-true offers, but I’ve asked around before signing anything with publishers if it seems not-quite-good-enough. Sometimes I didn’t like the look of their catalogue, or I’d not seen them at shows and they didn’t seem to have much of an audience. But asking other people, privately, diplomatically, helps to get a better picture. I’ve asked other artists, other publishers, festival organisers or comics writers their opinion on this or that publisher and that really helped.
Actually, I had one book that came out with a publisher who was very prominent in that country, and after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, including a free holiday (haway!), the book quickly faded from view in their promotion and social media and everything, and then a new set of books came out and I never heard from them.
But it’s hard to guard against that with bigger publishers – if the book doesn’t set fire immediately then it gets lost in the churn of new books. Maybe the lesson is to manage your expectations if you’re getting into publishing with bigger publishers.
An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…
My comics-publishing history is very low-key and low-stakes, so I haven’t had to call on intervention (who can you call when your publisher prints your book cover in beige?). If I needed advice I’d be speaking to other cartoonists, even if it’s just to have a proper whinge.
My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…
I really feel that I still have no idea about promoting my work, but I’ve taken a maximal approach to saying yes to pretty much everything that’s offered – every show and festival (even if we’re stood in a village hall with a sale-per-hour), every little anthology or zine, every magazine (from Adobe’s magazine to Watkins Spiritualist Bookshop magazine). There might be a better argument for maintaining some exclusivity, but that seems like more work, and I can’t say no to a bit of attention.
I’ve done things I wasn’t exactly chuffed about – narrated slideshows, live-action performances, talks with a host who hadn’t read the book, 24-hour comic challenges – but then I sortof enjoyed them all and good things have sprouted from them; I did a 24-hour comic challenge and walked into the hotel bar at 1am and Frank Santoro, Michael DeForge and Seth were there drinking. We did a talk in an Italian bookshop to a few dozen people, but one of them was the editor of Linus magazine, which started publishing my comics (Olivier Schrauwen later mentioned that he found that talk really embarrassing, as we were trying so hard – mortifying stuff).
I think at shows people like to pick-up cheap things aswell as the things they’ve had their eyes on pre-show, so it’s always nice to have a flimsy zine or a free postcard alongside the big book.
Importantly, I think, give your books to artists and publishers you like and who you want to know your work. It can be embarrassing, and they might not want it, but then they might love it; “shy bairns get nowt” as they say (although bold bairns can also get nowt).
To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…
Comics seems very tied to Instagram at the moment. It can be disheartening to think about numbers online – followers and likes etc; yours and other people’s. Seeing some garbage dribbledrabs comic with 10,000 hearts and your brilliant new piece is limping along with 10 likes from your sister and best friends. Especially now, in lockdown, when you can’t go to shows and get that actual interaction with buyers and people who like your work and lift your spirits. I’m not yet mature enough, at aged 39, to not let this bother me, but it obviously shouldn’t.
Another cartoonist pitfall, I think, is the urge to be constantly, visibly productive. If you’re not producing a syndicated strip then there shouldn’t be any pressure on producing finished work every day. I don’t hold, say, Tim Hensley or Frank Santoro in any less esteem than cartoonists who are posting new work on a daily basis. It’s ok to work away in private making something good, or making something bad with a view to making it better.
Anyway, that’s two very pat observations. Things I wish I didn’t care about and which I try to remind myself don’t matter.
I think I’d probably find comics (or any creative endeavour) intolerable and impossible if I didn’t really enjoy doing it – really believe that the thing I was spending my time on was the best possible thing I could do and I could put all my energy, ability and interests into it.
I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…
That what seem like distant comics dreams might actually be fairly quickly realised, and you might run out of unfulfilled ambitions before you know it and have to find some other motivation to keep making comics. You might find yourself on the other side of your ambitions with a bunch of books in different languages, some nice reviews, no money in the bank and little prospect of any recognition beyond the comics world. That could, potentially, be pretty deflating, if you don’t have an intrinsic urge to do the comics you’re doing.