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A few months ago, the organizers of KidLitGN asked if I could share some of my publishing contacts with them, to help promote the KidLitGN Twitter pitch event.
“Sure!” I said, and sent them a bunch of contact information.
Shortly thereafter, one of the organizers wrote back to me.
“I must say, my stomach dropped to my knees sending an email out to a bunch of editors,” she said. “It makes me appreciate what you agents do even more.”
Reading her words made me smile — in an empathetic way. I still feel a little queasy hitting the “Send” button on a submission to editors, or on an email newsletter to hundreds of people.
It’s that feeling that you have when you’re thinking, “OK, I’m about to share something important with the outside world, something on which I’ve been working hard and have invested a lot of myself. Argh, how are all these people going to react?”
Sending a query letter… submitting a manuscript… posting your work on a very public Twitter event — those things aren’t easy!
As someone who interacts with authors and illustrators all the time, I talk to many people who are working toward getting a book deal. A lot of times, their questions for me are about tactical details like:
- “How do you land a literary agent?”
- “How do you write a good book proposal?”
- “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”
I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as best I can, I subtly try to help them ask different questions — better questions. These are the questions that help you do hard things (and, as we’ve established, building a career as an author or illustrator is hard). They’re questions like:
- “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
- “How can I be more open and generous in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?”
- “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”
Getting published as an author or artist is totally possible. But, in my opinion, your efforts will be more effective if you’ve developed the following nine foundational elements for yourself before you move on to tactical details:
1. Start with baby steps.
Everyone starts as a beginner. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write multi-volume epics like Bone or Amulet, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.
I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success — the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.
And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.
2. Be part of a creative community.
It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.
After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor — in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.
Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.
3. Put yourself out there.
When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:
- “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
- “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
- “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”
I’d argue that all of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are mainly justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it… FEAR.
Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?
However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal. Your biggest problem is being invisible.
You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.
4. Build your online presence.
As one of my favorite writers on marketing for creatives, Austin Kleon, says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”
That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.
Here’s what you need, at a minimum:
- A website.
It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, you’ve got a problem.)
- A “keep in touch” strategy.
In other words, you must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members, or a regular update on your social media channel. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
- An “outreach” strategy.
This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach more people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach (The Tortoise and the Hare is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.
Any of these strategies works. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.
5. Understand your audience.
This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.
But in the case of creating work for children — whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic — you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor or dark fantasy or monster trucks or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.
This is a huge difference between the adult market and the kids market.
As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 — or even when she is 8 or 9!
Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of an 8 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.
So when you’re writing comics for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.
Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.
6. Know the market.
Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. You’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.
Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.
That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.
As an added bonus, having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing. And once you have your book deal, it makes you a more sought-after panelist, podcast guest, or interview subject.
7. Invest in yourself.
Most kids comics creators don’t have a degree in “Kids Comics Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.
If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending some money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.
Here are some of the specific ways you could be investing in yourself:
- Joining industry associations such as SCBWI or The Society of Illustrators.
- Hiring professionals like a developmental editor, web designer, or book publicist.
- Taking a specialized workshop at an institution like the Highlights Foundation or the Center for Cartoon Studies.
- Taking an online course to master a specific skill, on a platform like CreativeLive, CreativeBug, or SVSLearn.
- Joining an online community/education platform like The Illustration Department, Storytellers Academy, Kids Comics Unite, etc.
- Attending and exhibiting at comics shows and/or book festivals such as TCAF, MoCCA, SPX, The Brooklyn Book Festival, The Princeton Children’s Book Festival, or other local events.
- Attending or exhibiting at library or education shows like ALA, TLA, AASL, or your local state library or education conference. (Schools and libraries are HUGELY important for the success of children’s graphic novels.)
8. Learn to Handle Rejection.
The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent 7 years carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.
Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.
Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Maybe they’re overloaded at the moment and simply can’t take you on, even if they love your work. Or they simply don’t share your vision.
Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important — you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.
Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.
In fact, the most important thing you can do is….
When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.
It is persistence.
Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.
As Dr. Seuss said,
“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”
And he should know…. After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.
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