graphic novel class 5 - pitching
I’m going to take you through the process of a graphic novel in a series of posts. This is from my perspective, as a writer and artist who makes fantasy books for middle grade and young adult readers - but hopefully it will be helpful even if you’re interested in making a different kind of book!
Taking a post away from the nitty-gritty of making the graphic novel, to talk about…
Making a graphic novel pitch
NOTE: this post is about pitching to publishers. I’ll talk about self-publishing in another post since that is its own beast!
Drawing comics is very hard, so if you can find someone to pay you up front to draw a comic, that is generally a good thing! This someone will usually be a publisher. I’m writing this post at this point in the graphic novel class because you should start thinking about pitching once you have a finished script. If you’ve never made a comic before, I recommend having a script—but you also can start pitching once you have a solid outline. I pitched The Witch Boy with a script; all my subsequent books have just had outlines.
I do NOT recommend drawing the entire comic before taking it to a publisher. Editors like to weigh in, and changing words is exponentially easier than changing art. (“Let’s set this in a strip mall instead of a roller rink” requires the changing of a few descriptive words in a script vs. redrawing pages and pages of comics.)
I DO recommend having some sample art. This should include character designs and a few sample pages (look at the discussion in class 3 about what designs to prepare for your story). A publisher may ask for more samples—I pitched The Witch Boy with three fully colored pages, and Scholastic came back with a request for 24 more fully colored pages. It was my first big book and they wanted to make sure I could actually make comics. With my agent, we negotiated a testing fee and talked them down to 24 pencilled pages, and I did the work.
In class 2, I talked about making an elevator pitch—a few sentences, a paragraph at most, that sum up the story. This should go right at the top of your pitch.
You should also include a sentence about the format of the book (is it a graphic novel? a story collection? the first in a series?), the age range, and the genre. For The Witch Boy, I said it was a ‘middle-grade graphic novel about magic and friendship’. For The Girl From the Sea, it was a ‘young adult graphic novel about a supernatural summer romance’. These are the kind of crunchy, book-industry things that publishers like to hear so they can imagine what kind of book you’re making. If you’re not versed in those terms, that is super okay! Think of five books that feel like they would be on the shelf next to yours. See how they’re described in press releases and reviews. For age ranges, a loose rule of thumb: middle-grade is for ages 8-12, young adult is for 12-18.
You can also include comps, which means comparing it to other pieces of media. Think: “Lord of the Rings meets the Breakfast Club” or “Smile meets The Great British Bake-Off.” In the film world, this is expected—an easy way to describe a story to executives. Personally, I don’t do this with comics, for a few reasons. One, I can rarely think of good comps. Two, I can’t guarantee that I see an already existing story in the same way as the person to whom I’m pitching. If you find comps helpful, go for it, but I don’t think they’re necessary for comics pitches.
Below your pitch is a summary. This should be a few pages long at most. If your outline is nice and tight, use that! If you got ramble-y, prune it down until you have something succinct. It should tell all the major story arcs, but it doesn’t need to include every scene. For example, say something like, “As Morgan spends more time with Keltie, she drifts away from her friends”, rather than listing every activity and conversation this entails.
Finally, it’s time to share the art. For my books, the most important pieces are character designs and drawings of characters interacting (check the discussion in class 3 around designing for your story). You can also draw key moments from the book. Lastly, sample pages are super helpful to show the style you’re imagining.
Here’s the art I sent in when pitching The Girl From the Sea:
I chose this scene in particular mostly because, well, it’s cute and funny and I wanted to draw it. But more importantly: it shows the stakes, the interaction between the girls, and what the fun of the story will be. It establishes Morgan’s internal voice and Keltie’s bubbly personality, and shows the setting.
So that’s your graphic novel pitch. Short description, a mention of genre and age range, summary, character designs, sample pages. If you have a script, put that in last or in a separate document. You can make the first, text-heavy part more visually engaging by peppering in illustrations.
There are a few ways to get a pitch in front of the right people. Agents are the most common way.
Agents represent you, along with a ‘stable’ of other, usually similar artists/writers. They cultivate relationships with editors and publishers. They keep an eye on the book market, knowing what’s in and what’s not, knowing what seasons are better for pitching and when it is a fallow period. They know the intricacies of publishing and contracts.
Your agent can read your script and pitch, and give feedback. They can help you figure out what genre to pitch it as, and what age range. They will figure out what publishers are a good fit, and will get you in touch with them. If the deal closes, they will negotiate your contract. For all this, they take a cut of whatever money you make, usually 10-15%. In my experience this is super worth it—they only get paid when you do! (If you ever hear from an agent who is asking for payment just to represent you, before they’ve closed any deals for you—that is a scam. You will probably never pay your agent; they will get the checks, take their cut, and then pay you.)
If this sounds good and you want to find an agent, it will require some research. Here are some databases, although be aware that they skew towards prose. In my experience the easiest way to find a comics agent is to connect with other cartoonists and ask about their representation. Ask if they like their agent, and—if you know each other—ask if they could introduce you. This is something many established cartoonists will be happy to share so don’t feel intimidated about reaching out to people with this specific question!
I don’t recommend reaching out to an agent until you have a pitch OR an offer from a publisher. Here is a post about how to write a query letter to a potential agent. I got my agent because First Second reached out to me about illustrating a book. Once we were connected and she’d negotiated that deal, I started developing the Witch Boy pitch with her.
Ah, I imagine you’re saying, but how did you get an offer from First Second without an agent? That came about from…
I started making inroads in comics in two ways. I published a webcomic and updated it consistently, showing that I could stick to a project and that I actually knew how to make comics. I also made mini-comics both of the webcomic and other projects, and sold them at comic festivals. Whenever I met an editor (and there are usually editors at comic festivals!) I would give them my mini-comics.
You can do similar networking online, but the in-person nature of a comic festival is really powerful, from meeting peers to being inspired by panels to finding new work; and if you have the ability and we ever make it out of this godforsaken plague, I recommend them highly! A few of my favorites are MoCCA Fest, the Small Press Expo, and TCAF. (These are primarily located in the North American east coast area ONLY because that’s where I lived when I was getting started—let me know your faves in the comments!) They’re generally smaller, art- and book-focused festivals (rather than big, franchise-focused events like San Diego Comic Con) and it’s an amazing chance to form connections with editors.
So, I met editors from First Second at MoCCA Fest and gave them my library-xeroxed, hand-stapled mini-comics. The comics were nowhere near perfect but they showed that I had a perspective, could finish a project, and had a storytelling sense. I kept in touch (you aren’t being annoying; editors are used to this) and eventually they had a project for me.
Here’s the caveat that I share whenever I talk about my career journey: I am white, able-bodied, cisgender, and middle class. I lived in a place with comic festivals. I could afford art school and afford to make work on the side. It made me anxious to meet these editors and give them my comics, but I could overcome that anxiety.
It’s difficult to track the specific ways privilege affects our paths, but like the gravitational pull of a black hole, I know it’s there and it’s something I always want to bring up. Not with the intention of being discouraging, but to let you know that everyone has their own set of privileges and oppressions, and you should never compare your career journey and milestones to anyone else’s.
Editors and pitching
So let’s say you know some editors. You have an agent, or maybe not, but you definitely have a pitch. Getting it in front of an editor is the next step.
The editor is an expert on what their publisher is looking for. They can help inform what the story will be. When I pitched The Witch Boy, my agent and I went to a ton of comic publishers, basically just sending them the pitch packet with a brief cover letter from my agent.
One of them offered to publish it as a series of four 22-page comics. Since I wanted to do a graphic novel, that wasn’t a good fit. Another offered more money I was offered from Scholastic (my dream publisher) but wanted me to draw someone else’s book as well. We took that larger number, showed it to Scholastic, and they increased their offer a bit.
At Scholastic, we pitched to my amazing editor Amanda Maciel. She had a few pieces of advice for me. I went in thinking it was a Young Adult book, and she said it felt more Middle Grade, and so I should age down the characters (Aster went from 16 to 13). She asked for me to come up with an idea for a sequel so she could sell it as a series, since Scholastic publishes a lot of series (for the record, I just wrote a few sentences that ended up having NOTHING to do with the actual sequel, but it was a way to demonstrate that this story could expand). Once I’d made these changes to the pitch, she took it to the wider publisher and pitched it to them. She basically became my book’s advocate in a place I could not go: the Scholastic Acquisitions boardroom.
Once the book was ‘acquired’, or sold, there was a period of contract negotiations that my agent mostly handled. It’s standard to be offered an advance—a paycheck upon signing, and another upon completion. These can vary wildly in amount, depending on the size of the publisher and your status as an author. This is not the only time you’ll make money from your book—I’ll talk about royalties and film rights in another post—but it is meant to be a paycheck to tide you through the creation process. You can find some data on this in the Comic Page Rates Database here.
It is not always enough to live on, which is one of the deep frustrations of this industry and something we need to see change on in the future. Low advances prioritize people who can afford not to take another job while drawing their book, thereby creating a system divided into those who can afford to make books and those who can’t. I wish I had something fun to say here but I don’t, it really pisses me off!
Editors and writing
ANYWAY. A good editor is a powerful resource. They can give you feedback on your story, talk through thorny plot points, give opinions, and hype you up. If you sell a book, I encourage you to form a relationship with your editor. Feel free to talk to them about the book as much as you need. It is, quite literally, their job to help you make the best book you can!
Keep in mind that the perspective of anyone working at a publisher will always come from a place of wanting to sell books. They’ll look at what’s popular, currently and generally, and draw on that experience to give input. This can be really helpful—it’s insider information you probably don’t have access to—but trust your instincts, too!
An example: blue book covers were “in” when I was finishing The Witch Boy, but I knew I wanted a moody purple cover. Once it was published, I felt like the cover made it stand out and was glad I’d stuck to my guns. Figuring out what to fight for and what to listen to is an ongoing dance whenever you’re making art that’s tied (in some way) to a company. Hold onto your vision, enter conversations with good faith, and learn what you can.
This was a long one, and I know it’s a topic with a lot of nuance! Drop any questions or comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!