Independent comics publishers are always working with talent fresh from the freelance side of the comic book industry. How do they find great stories, with authors, artists, colorists, and letterers that can support their publisher vision? WWAC sat down with five publishers who are kicking in the doors in the comics world to bring diverse, different, exciting books to print.
I interviewed several dedicated founders, artists, and directors. I’m pleased to welcome Taneka Stotts, founder of Beyond Press, an Eisner-nominated publisher focused on queer voices and voices of color. I’ve also brought into the conversation Steenz Stewart, Associate Editor of Lion Forge, a publisher committed to printing diverse comics for all ages; Marcos Martin, artist and co-founder of Panel Syndicate, who joins us from the realm of creator-owned DRM free digital comics; Spike Trotman, founder of Iron Circus Comics, who comes to this chat fresh from the smashing success of their latest Kickstarter. Finally, from creator-rights and intellectual property focused Scout Comics comes Editorial Director Michael Sanchez. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!
Through what venue do you primarily discover creators you want to partner with, as a publisher?
Stotts: Twitter, Tumblr, and actual conventions where I can buy and meet creators in person.
Stewart: Lion Forge finds creators from all over. We have a submissions portal which is where a large portion of our new pitches and portfolios come from. Last C2E2 we did a portfolio review and I can expect that we’ll continue to do them. I know I found several potentials from that. We also are at a ton of conventions nationwide. We’ve also been to Angouleme and TCAF! Our editors go through the artist alleys and find new talent there. Also there’s usually an editor or two hanging about the Lion Forge booth at most cons, so you might be able to catch one of us to exchange business cards. We also use databases like Cartoonists of Color database. What’s nice about that database is that you can sort by writer! Oftentimes I find it’s harder to find people that ONLY write when looking through Twitter threads or lists of cartoonists.
Martin: In our case, because of our small infrastructure we don’t seek out creators but rather let anyone who’s interested contact us. So far, for that same reason, right now we’re really only open to established authors who have a better chance of the model working out for them.
“In case anybody is skeptical about the likelihood of a pitch being accepted via open submissions, I’m here to tell you, it totally happens and it’s totally a thing.” – Spike Trotman
Trotman: Iron Circus has open submissions, and I find a lot of folks I work with through there. In case anybody is skeptical about the likelihood of a pitch being accepted via open submissions, I’m here to tell you, it totally happens and it’s totally a thing. But that’s not the only way! I’ve also hired and signed contract with folks I’ve talked to in Discord chats, at conventions, folks who have approached me on Twitter. I have very few limitations on venues, although maybe the convention one is pushing it. I’m pretty busy then. But honestly, if the idea is good enough, it won’t matter. That was where and how Brian Wolf floated Hex Americana, his queer witch rally racing graphic novel. I signed him after the show!
Sanchez: We usually accept submissions through our website, but we also crawl through the convention circuit regularly. On the rare occasion we also go through artist portals and see if anyone has something that really sings.
Is there a process you have, to evaluate the creators who solicit their work to you?
Stotts: Yes, but it depends on the project. If it’s for an anthology, how well they followed the guidelines is a first step for evaluating the work solicited to me. If they do not follow the basic steps, then I move on to the next team that did.
Stewart: If I’m looking at an artist, first and foremost, I look at their technical skill. Figure drawing, Color theory, varying line weights….Then I look at their sequential chops. Is their plot relatively simple to follow? Do they know how eyes move across the page and what an artist must do to create balance on the page? Then I look at the story. Does it grab me? What’s the elevator pitch? Why should they be the ones to tell this story? If it has all of that, then we talk to them about an official pitch and take it to acquisitions to discuss if we think it’s a good fit for Lion Forge!
“If I’m looking at an artist, first and foremost, I look at their technical skill.” – Steenz Stewart
Martin: We don’t really have a submissions policy of any kind, although we do sometimes look at portfolios and have discovered either very promising, albeit unknown creators, or excellent pros we hadn’t heard about for some reason.
Trotman: Oh, yeah. The submissions page on the Iron Circus website has a lot of steps, a lot of requirements. That’s because that’s the page people who don’t know me personally are most likely to use, so I have to make sure it’s all as formal and above board as possible. For their peace of mind, and mine! There’s a release to sign, a specific format I want the submission in, all kinds of stuff. It saves everybody a lot of time, I think.
“We give as much as we can a read, sometimes several reads, and see if the product has a clear and intense narrative.” – Michael Sanchez
Sanchez: I don’t know if I would call it a process (which makes it seem like there’s a science to this). What we have are good folks with different sets of lenses and perspectives reading stuff all the time. We give as much as we can a read, sometimes several reads, and see if the product has a clear and intense narrative. Does it elicit emotion? Does it have a strong opening, a hook that will keep people coming back for more? Is it professionally and stylistically grabbing?
How do you reach out to a creator that you want to have on your team?
Stotts: Email. Always email (even if I know them in person, which it’s still email)! So make sure your emails are correct and easy to find.
“Make sure your emails are correct and easy to find.” – Taneka Stotts
Stewart: EMAIL! It’s super important that both writers and artists have their information easy to find on their social media accounts and business cards.
Martin: Whenever we talk to a creator who’s interested in working with us, our only request is for the work to be available as DRM-free files in our pay-what-you-want model. Everything else, from format to art style or story genre is up to each author.
Trotman: However I can! I talk to them at conventions, I message them on Twitter, I email them. I’m pretty informal about it. I mean, this is comics. We make funny books, let’s not kid ourselves. I’m not going to, like, I have an assistant call you and do a, “Please hold for Ms. Trotman.”
“Engagement and follow through are incredibly important.” – Michael Sanchez
Sanchez: For the most part we’re speaking to these creators because they are actively reaching out to us. Engagement and follow through are incredibly important (though not to the point of over-saturation). Otherwise we check out all the channels we can, whether it be social media or an active Kickstarter profile.
What kinds of questions do you ask creators when you interview them about their qualifications?
Stotts: Usually we have a form that has all the basic information we would like to know. However, I find the curveball question is usually to ask a creator to provide a bio….That is where things can get interesting.
Stewart: I think this depends on the project and the creator. If I’m looking for someone to work on an ongoing single issue comic I need to know how fast they work. That’s something a lot of creators don’t focus on. They want beautifully illustrated 100% perfect pages. Which is great. But not always efficient if that perfect page takes you a week. Or if they’re wanting to do a middle grade book, I’d like to know what books they’d liken their pitch to. Or which middle grade book is their favorite.
Because with that particular age range, you have to be very cognizant about how it’s illustrated, story progression, and reading level…all things you consider after having read a lot of middle grade books. Basically at Lion Forge we want to see that they’ve done their homework and they know what kind of story they want to put out.
“Basically at Lion Forge we want to see that they’ve done their homework and they know what kind of story they want to put out.” – Steenz Stewart
Trotman: Not a lot, honestly. By the time they’ve submitted something and I’m interested in their work, I already know a decent amount about them. I’ve read their submissions packet, I’ve seen their webcomic, I’ve scanned their Twitter, I bought a mini from them last con. I have an official questionnaire I like to have creators fill out, but that’s more about promotion stuff, not “Do I really think you can make a comic book.“ If I didn’t think they could, they would’ve never made it to the interview stage.
Sanchez: Creator specific questions are a toughie since that’s more of us building a rapport with anyone we’re interested in. We need to make sure that they have a great story, but also that they have the experience and the willingness to get it all out on time and without a loss in quality. Readers notice when things take a dip and we want to make sure these passionate works have the necessary bones.
Please tell us about a phenomenal experience you had finding a creator.
Stotts: Well with Genué we actually met through a mutual and the experience of both being underpaid and overworked. We decided we would get paid together and so we do.
Stewart: I actually really enjoy outreach programs like portfolio reviews, editor days, and talent dinners. This way I can get to know the creator face to face before I look at their work. Putting a face to work makes the interaction a lot more meaningful for me. I mean email is great, but once you get to see how someone feels about their comic in their eyes….That’s rewarding.
“…All our experiences when dealing with creators have been incredibly positive.” – Marcos Martin
Martin: Fortunately, all our experiences when dealing with creators have been incredibly positive. From established pros to up-and-coming creators, they have all been very understanding of our working terms and open to our suggestions about their approach to the project.
Trotman: Ha ha, that’s easy, that would probably be signing Melanie Gillman, author of As the Crow Flies. Mel absolutely did NOT have to go with ICC; they had offers from other publishers, but they put their faith in me! That was enormously validating, and I hope they don’t regret it. That book’s gone on to sell a metric ton in distribution, win all sorts of honors and awards… I’m even flying Mel out to ALA in New Orleans next week so they can accept one of those awards in person! It’s been a great experience, ICC’s first big triumph in major-league distribution.
Sanchez: Without being specific, it’s the most fun when we find creators at conventions. They often nervously show us their portfolios. Then, after we sign them and their books blow up, it’s fun to look back at that first meeting and the progression from that moment to success.
Okay, now tell us about a time when it wasn’t such a pleasant experience interacting with a creator.
Stotts: Any and every time I’ve had to let a creator go from a project.
Stewart: No one likes a creator that doesn’t meet their deadlines!
Martin: (please see above)
“No one…is so important they get to go to print unedited.” – Spike Trotman
Trotman: Yikes, well. Have you ever heard the saying, “The authors that don’t believe they need editors are usually the ones most in need of editing?” I had an experience like that while overseeing one of my anthologies. No names, but an invited creator turned in a story that wasn’t up to scratch, and I told them, politely, that we would have to workshop it. They replied with “I don’t have time for this, take it or leave it.“ So, I left it. I don’t know who that primadonna act is supposed to work on, exactly, but it doesn’t work on me. No one with ICC is so important they get to go to print unedited.
Sanchez: Again, without being specific, any time a creator lies about something, that is a relationship killer. It’s only happened once or twice during Scout’s existence but it is such a bummer when it does.
Have you ever heard of or used the Cartoonists of Color or Queer Cartoonists database(s) to look for creators?
Stotts: Yes, and I’m on both!
Stewart: Yes! I also happen to be on it.
Martin: I’m not sure about Brian (K. Vaughn) but I’m sorry to say I haven’t. But I’ll be sure to look it up!
Trotman: Ha ha, I admit, I’ve vanity-searched it! I’m in there twice. 😀
Sanchez: No, but we will now!
Thanks to each of these incredible independent comics publishers for joining the discussion, and for sharing some of their vetting practices.