Over the summer, I wrote a few parts in a series detailing the creation of my comic Rebirth of the Gangster (on sale now!)
In case you missed it, check out these links to the first seven parts-
Part 1: The Birth of the Idea
Part 2: Brainstorming and Outlining the Plot
Part 3: Outline, Synopsis and Chapter Breakdown
Part 4: Scripting the Action
Part 5: Finding the Right Artist
Part 6: Pages in Progress and the Artist/Writer Collaboration
Part 7: Submitting the Comic and Cover Letters
As any aspiring writer, artist, or any other creative person will tell you: sending in submissions as an unknown is hell. And I don’t have anything new to add to that point. The stress of waiting for a response would kill me–I don’t do well with unknowns and things I can’t control, so I would pull out my phone, praying for a new response to pop up in my inbox. I did this obsessively: sometimes every 5 minutes. In fact, I knew it wasn’t healthy behavior and would only lead to further stress, but I still kept checking, just like an addict keeps going back for a re-up of her favorite escape. As of this writing, there are still companies that haven’t responded to my submission (this is pretty standard for unknown creatives, but that fact doesn’t make me feel better).
Eventually, however, a few companies started getting back to me. The bad news: they were all rejection emails. The good news: many of them gave me feedback that I could use to refine my comic. After all, I could wallow in the rejection all I wanted–and I did for a while, crying in the shower like Tobias in Arrested Development–but that wouldn’t help me get this comic off the ground. I like to think we are all on a path of continuous improvement, at least if we have the will to put one foot in front of the other, and I decided to use this experience to make me better, faster, stronger.
Read on for excerpts from emails (or summary of the some feedback, if the email had a confidentiality disclaimer on it), along with my reactions in bold. Some of it I accepted, and some of it I rejected; hey, I want to grow, but I don’t want to be a puppet for publishers.
Email 1 from Markosia Publishing:
The art is a problem for us, and that is half the battle. The publisher does use a different in-house art style than Juan, so I partly see where they’re coming from. But they’re crazy to think that Juan isn’t the perfect fit for this story. So, while this made me review the research component of submissions to check typical art styles of a comic, I largely ignored it. Even more confusing, TJ Comics gave me the exact opposite feedback, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of Juan.”
It also needs re-lettering, not so much of an issue but again it doesn’t help the pitch. This comment was echoed by TJ Comics (so at least they were on the same page with something): “The lettering is not professional and inconsistent. You don’t want to have different font sizes based on the amount of dialogue, and you want to be sure that the captions can be read clearly. The captions are placed cleverly in some spots but immediately the placement of the text on page 1 panel 3 gets muddied by the background.” They were both definitely right about this–and by implication, I needed to spread out my dialogue across more balloons, instead having it all in one or two big chunks–so I went back to the Illustrating board (Adobe Illustrator that is), and fixed this problem, sometimes needing a few tries to get that consistency.
Final Draft pg. 1
First Draft pg. 1
Second Draft pg. 3
First draft pg. 3
Final draft pg. 3
Third draft pg. 3
One other thing that can be off-putting to some people is anything to do with word gangster. It gets people to assume straight away and that takes away from the experience.
Your story sounds deeper than just a regular gangster story and maybe a new title will help with that. I thought about this and came up with the alternate title A Family Affair, which conveys the generational/systemic/secretive motifs I was looking for in the comic, but when asking most people, they preferred the original title. They thought the alternative was too bland (and that might have been what Markosia was looking for–a title that won’t offend or alienate others). But, as I tell my students when talking about writing, your work is only good if it elicits an emotional reaction. So, as far as I was concerned, Markosia was 1 for 3 on their feedback. Let’s see how other publishers fared.
Email 2 from TJ Comics:
Appreciate the submission. We love your passion and enthusiasm.
Whatever you do, don’t let go of Juan. And yes, this is a story best suited to black and white. Two things stick out about the pages. 1) The cover needs a catchier logo and should have some color to it. It also doesn’t really tell us what the story is about. And based on the title and synopsis, it’s not really a “Rebirth” of a gangster, so much as it is a Journey to becoming. (more on that in a moment). Rebirth is supposed to imply the rebirth of the family as a gangster family, but maybe they weren’t digging that thematic idea; it’s also supposed to connect to the national resurgence of crime and stereotyping black people as criminals, but maybe that’s too complex for this company. They were right on that the cover needed color and a catchier logo.
2) The lettering is not professional and inconsistent. You don’t want to have different font sizes based on the amount of dialogue, and you want to be sure that the captions can be read clearly. The captions are placed cleverly in some spots but immediately the placement of the text on page 1 panel 3 gets muddied by the background.
Story-wise, 24 issues is a lot for an independent/creator-owned comic of this magnitude. Frankly, it’s unrealistic and you would need consistent sales and marketing to justify a series of that length from unknown creators, let alone consistent and increased month-to-month distribution. I see where they’re coming from in terms of the financial worry, but I didn’t want to compromise my vision this much for a financial consideration–I have another job, so my main intent with this comic is to just get it out there and make it as strong creatively as I can. There are too many characters and way too many plot threads when in reality at the end of the day the story should be primarily about Marcus and Hunter. Hmm…what about Game of Thrones? The Walking Dead? The Wire? I guess they’d also say The Avengers and Justice League of America wouldn’t work because there are too many characters in those comics. And wouldn’t focusing more on female characters, a gay character, and Latino characters create a wider appeal, not less of one?
That’s where the strength is, and it’s an intriguing hook to have a successful black character contrasted against a broken white character and the sins of their fathers. But what’s Marcus and Hunter’s real journey? There are some interesting things at play and I think the story could be consolidated to focus on the relationship between Marcus and Hunter and their fathers. Was he so remorseful about killing John that he changed his life and encouraged Marcus to become a lawyer? Is Hunter’s primary motivation to seek revenge by turning Marcus to a life of crime for the sins of their fathers? The real meat of the story is there, that’s the most intriguing plotline. You can still have many of the other characters, but their journeys and arcs should be supplemental to the main characters’. These are all good questions, and just because I have 4 other supplementary characters doesn’t mean I can’t focus on Hunter and Marcus.
Your ultimate endgame is the moral dilemma that Marcus faces and that final confrontation with Hunter. Marcus doesn’t have to be the perfect person, but it seems as though he should have an understanding of right and wrong and not wanting to become the man his father was at one point. That’s the whole dilemma for Marcus outlined in the synopsis and the script, so I’m thinking they didn’t read it closely enough.
This is really a story you could tell (and have solid success with) in 96 pages or less. It would be best suited in print as a graphic novel that could be serialized digitally. I also had other advice to serialize this digitally and then turn it into a graphic novel, so this makes sense, which is what I’ve been doing (not the 96 pages part though–clearly we have a difference about the scope this comic should have).
For future pitches, some advice that I learned over time and a few failed pitches myself. In your cover letter, you’re trying to sell yourself a bit too much. Your story is what matters and what makes it unique. A description of your work and experience should be no more than a paragraph and a brief explanation of the story and why you are telling it should follow. Fair point: as with all writing, especially cover letters, strive to be concise. This is the hardest thing for me to do in a cover letter when I want to impress, but they’re absolutely right.
The one-page synopsis is way too detailed and that was my first red flag that there might be way too much going on in the story. You really want one major plot thread that sticks out with smaller secondary plots subtly weaving their way into the main plot. The secondary plots all do this (Small Spoiler Alert! Katilyn and Lorena go through their own struggles, which helps lead them to the plot of Hunter and Marcus; Randy’s plots within the robbery connects to the framing of his father by Curtis; Dennis and Lizzeth’s romance creates a hole in Marcus and Hunter’s gang, creating tension toward the end to make it seem like the plan isn’t going to work, so that Marcus is able to nominate Devonte and create more tension within this gang –how does this not weave into the main plot?)
You want to hold the reader’s attention with the primary journey and it often gets lost in the smaller details and situations throughout the extended narrative. While I don’t think they have the right perspective on these secondary characters and subplots, it is good advice for me to keep the main journey in mind. So, even though the outline shows that a chapter should focus on a character, that doesn’t mean it is only focusing on the character; I’ve added more Marcus scenes in the second chapter based on this advice, for instance, so this advice is partially helpful.
Thanks for submitting and we hope to hear from you again soon!
Email 3 from Anonymous Publisher:
There was a publisher who said their feedback was not for publication, but I’ll briefly summarize their feedback. They said they couldn’t publish it, but that it was a fun work and that I should consider Kickstarter as a way to publish it electronically and/or in print. While I had thought of this idea before, it was nice to see it reaffirmed–especially the idea that I could start with digital serialization and Kickstarter campaigns and then move to print campaigns for the graphic novel that collects each individual story arc, all of which I did.
Email 4 from Creator’s Edge Press:
Thanks for sending us your work.This book looks fantastic.
But I think I must explain a few things about CEP before we move any further… We are in a position to get your book out to a broader audience, but we’re not comic tycoons with deep pockets. Typically, we ask any creator bringing us a book to pay for the print run (keep in mind that we have a pretty decent deal worked out with our printers, so you get to take advantage of that as opposed to going it alone). The split is 50/50 of the profit (once the price of each book is returned to you on a sale by sale basis) no matter how many sell, we pay out twice a year and we NEVER want to own your book. The property always stays yours.
Basically, I’m interested in the new project and I’d like to read more before we make our final decision.
Also, keep in mind that an outfit like ours isn’t really doing a lot of single issue comics. It’s easier for us to promote a graphic novel of a full story arc and it’s cheaper for you to print them in the long run. It just makes sense all around. We can release the singles digitally to spark a following, but print should be reserved for trades and graphic novels. (things over 80 pages) BTW, setting up a “digital only” contract with us costs nothing. There’s no real money in it (downloads don’t yield much cash), but it will be something we can promote until the rest of the book is completed OR until you can find the cash to print the graphic novel.
If you’re thinking of self-publishing anyway, give us a try. If we enjoy a book, we’re going to try to get it into the hands of others who will like it. It’s just that simple. But we’re not as big as even Arcana (especially now that they are under the Boom umbrella). We’re pretty grassroots and mostly make our bread and butter at cons and shows. Also, keep in mind that while we will submit the book to Diamond, they are not the end-all-be-all of our sales. In fact, as the industry changes, large outfits like Diamond are having less and less faith in small press and indie books. What I’m getting at is: Don’t count on Diamond. At all. Our main focus is conventions, shows, direct sales, etc. The more people we can get the books out to the better. But we cannot depend on the distributors. Just want everything to be as clear as possible.
Now I’d like to take a moment to talk about our company structure. CEP is a network of creators helping creators. So, when one creator of a CEP book goes to a show, while their book is the star (obviously, because you are there to sign books), the rest of our titles are available. So, you do a show near your home town with your book and the others in our library, the same thing is happening with the other creators all over the country. You are getting exposure at every con we attend and you don’t have to leave your house. And CEP tries to pay for tables at the bigger shows, so all you have to do (if it’s in your area or you are travelling to it) is show up and sit at the table. Any money collected from the sales of books is sent back to us. Any sales of art, personal swag, etc. is yours to keep.
But, if you pay for the table at a local con (as CEP can’t pay for every show), you keep all money from sales of YOUR book to offset your overhead. Your book is still selling and the CEP brand is getting out there. We’re happy.
Let me know if this is something that interests you and we can talk further.
Travis Bundy (CEP Art / Submissions Director)
Thanks for your quick and detailed feedback. I need to look at it a little more closely, but here’s my first response:
1) I’m still interested in working with you, but maybe more to publish the story arcs/graphic novels instead of the individual issues: I’d probably go digital for individual issues if I’m working with you.
2) Would you be able to send me a quick run-down of printing costs through the printer you use?
(divided by page count, black and white vs. color, and number of copies being printed–if there are other categories you normally use, of course throw those in)
It all depends on what the end size of the book is (dimensions and page count), Let me know what one one volume would be and I can get an approximate cost.
Also, if you plan to do it this way, we would require at least the first 2 graphic novels to be completed before committing to the project. No offense to you, but we have to be sure about people’s level of commitment before we involve ink and paper lol!
The size would be standard comic size:
7 inches wide x 10.5 inches
The page count for individual issues would be 22 pages, but the page count for graphic novels would be 132 pages.
Thanks. What is your address? We typically ship half the books to us and half to you (250 each – 500 total book run) and I need them to calculate shipping costs into this. That way you can sell them on your end as well and have them available for cons.
I sent my address to him, but I’m not putting it here.
I got some numbers back from my printer.
To do a 7×10 book, 132 pages + cover, 500 copies your cost would be $3,886.02. That’s roughly $7.77 per book. If we sell them for $15, we give the cost to print that copy back to you off the top and then split the remainder 50/50. So, per sale, you’d get $11.39 and we would get $3.61. If we sell directly to stores, it will be less, (as we could only charge half of the cover price to the store), but we won’t take a cut on those sales. And any copies you sell on your own the money is yours to keep. But we let you set your own pricing on your book. If you want to sell it for more or less, just let us know.
If this sounds like something you’d like to pursue, we’d want to see the full first book before we could make our final decision. But you should have all the nuts and bolts in place before we move forward.
Thanks for getting back to me and outlining your model with specifics.
Would it be an issue if I sold the individual chapters digitally (so I can afford to keep paying Juan and possibly bankroll some of the printing costs) and then sent the graphic novel to you to print? Or would you not like the fact that it’s available in a different format in smaller chunks earlier?
If you want to do the digital sales on your own, we are totally fine with that. We can also sell the copies digitally, but honestly it really should be written off as a marketing expense. There’s very little money in indie digital sales. My recommendation would be to do a kickstarter campaign and ask for a bit more than is needed to print. That way, you can pay him up front and then more on the back end per sale.
If we get the rights to print a graphic novel, we’re good. In fact, one of our titles already had issues printed before the GN. So it’s all good. Preferably we’d like our imprint on the digital copies as well, but it’s not necessary if it’s an issue.
Let us know! Thanks!
I thought about taking them up on this offer when I was in my first few issues of the series, but it on further thought, it seemed more like a vanity press option. And even if it wasn’t a vanity press, it still seemed like too much of a financial investment to work with a company that doesn’t have that wide of a reach, making it unlikely to offer a good return on that investment.
After all of this feedback and some reflection I decided to self-publish individual issues digitally and compile each storyarc into printed editions. It’s definitely an uphill struggle, but I think it’s worth it for the creative control and financial freedom that it lends itself to. In fact, you can get the first printed edition now, collecting issues 1-6 and the first arc, “Meet the Family”.
Before I started self-publishing, I had to examine digital platforms, so stay tuned for that, my last installment in “Creating Rebirth of the Gangster”.
And, after I found the platform, I did run a successful Kickstarter campaign, which I covered already–happy reading and creating!