San Diego Comic Con has come and gone, but in the weeks leading up to it, I found myself regularly answering questions about some of the best ways to show your work and submit proposals to publishers. This culminated in a big post on the Mike Allred message board that took enough time to make me realize, I really should just cut and paste the text and put it in a permanent location.
So, what follows is a slightly altered/expanded version of said post. Note that there is no one method for everyone, and I really can't stress enough that you have to research who you are pitching to and prepare to bend to their guidelines. But this is a pretty standard approach to how to put a comic book proposal together. It's how I pitched Spell Checkers, actually, so it does work.
This is wisdom I gathered from a decade of experience as a comic book editor, and six years as a freelance writer. I know a thing or two about a thing or two.
First things first, sit down and get to work.
The more material completed on your comic book, the better you are. Some publishers might not even take notice if you don't have a completed book, and I think even if you don't have all the art, at least one full draft of the script is a good thing to have in hand. You might have a really good, full outline, but you really learn so much more doing the script and a lot of folks also have problems going the distance. Finish one script, prove you can do it--to yourself included. No publisher is impressed by a short pitch and nothing else.
General rules of thumb for putting a pitch package together:
Half-page of the basic overview of the book. Think of it as a back cover blurb plus a rundown of what kind of book it is in terms of genre, format, creators, page count, etc.
Then a full synopsis. This is a detailed outline of the full story, about 1 page per issue/25 pages of script. Don't be cute, don't hide details to create a mystery. If you end it with "and the killer is...well, you'll have to hire me to find out," straight in the trash you'll go.
Script-wise, a minimum of the first chapter/first issue should be included with the synopsis. That's probably the maximum you want for the pitch, too, you don't want to scare them off by sending in a huge brick of a manuscript. They should be able to tell if they want more at that point.
Art: minimum of 10 finished pages, but anywhere up to, again, the complete first chapter or a first issue. You can maybe do the first 10 inked and the rest penciled, even. Enough, though, to give your potential publisher an idea of what your book will look like. Make sure, also, that they are sequential. Don't just show the exciting fight scenes. It's great that you drew five epic battles, but if you can't show you know how to get from one battlefield to the other, you're not much good to anybody. It'd be like interviewing for a job as a chauffeur when your only driving experience is NASCAR.
If you're an artist who isn't pitching a story, then have a variety of pages, but still include some essentials. Also, don't bring your life history, just bring recent work. I don't need to see that you sucked two years ago to tell that you're good now.
Writers without artists can skip the last stage, obviously, though having an artist on board makes a world of difference. As always, don't decide to draw it yourself. This working out for you is the longest longshot you can come up with.
Include your contact info. You laugh now, but you'll feel like a royal doofus when you forget to do it. Also, double-check who you've addressed the material to. It's easy to mix-up names when preparing multiple packages. It'd be a good idea to find a current comic by the publisher, too, so you're sure you're looking for someone that actually still works there.
After you've gotten all that done and put the material in the hands of prospective editors and publishers, you're going to need a whole lot of patience. It takes time to read these things, and especially if you hand off the material at a convention, keep in mind how many other people did the exact same thing. I wouldn't halt working on the rest of the book waiting for responses, I'd either keep at the project at hand or start planning the next; you have to consistently be a self-starter if you're ever going to make it in this business.
Webcomics, of course, are a viable option for developing your stories, and a great idea in general because it allows you to build interest in your work and also prove that you have initiative and can stick with something. Start off working on what you need for that pitch package to send to a publisher, and have that in the can as your lead-off in terms of starting your webcomic. Then figure out a schedule for regular updates, and while publishers are examining your pitch package, you'll still be on track and adding more and growing your name. It also gives you a great way to push your work back under any publisher's nose, or even to start the process to begin with.
If you can travel to cons, do it. Nothing like meeting a potential employer face to face. You can bring minicomics or your pitch package with, but if the editor tells you he or she doesn't want to take it because things get lost leaving conventions, listen. In particular, if they say, "Send it to me," LISTEN. Careers have been sunk because some chucklehead failed to follow-up after a convention meeting. They aren't going to come looking for you, because you've just proven you aren't serious by ignoring their invitation.
Again, whatever is in your mini could also be online, and then you have your zine version for sale.
Avoiding digital at this point, though, just seems the wrong option. And unless you are pasting up your zine and copying it all by hand, you're most likely going to have scans of the material anyway. I think if you're traveling to cons, you should have a paper copy, a digital copy, and a place to download the whole thing, and let the potential employer decide what was most convenient. If you can get your hands on some cheap, small flash drives, also cool. Personalize them and hand them out. At this point, C.B. Cebulski from Marvel has even encouraged people to show up with their portfolios on their iPad. Multiple options and ease of access is never going to hurt you.
Remember, this is a job interview and no one owes you a thing. You can be the most talented s.o.b. on the planet, but so what? Be confident, but be polite, and listen to what people tell you. If you get an actual critique of your work, that's a big thing. Pay attention and take in the info, don't get defensive. You can decide later if the editor is wrong and you don't want to take it on board.
Also, before you try to force your material on another working writer or artist, maybe you should read this. I know some people bristled at the caustic nature of the piece, but most of the creative professionals I knew breathed a sigh of relief that someone finally said it. Detractors of Josh Olson's essay often made the blanket claim that each and every working writer or artist is working because at some point someone took the time to look at their material and offer some kind of mentorship, but that's not entirely true--not if you're talking about people who don't have a job requiring them to do so. An editor may be required to read your work, but I am not, and neither is any other comics writer. I never pushed my work on anyone I didn't already have a relationship with. Get to know people, be a human being, and they'll hopefully ask you to show them what you're doing, but don't think you're entitled.
Also, if you're going to reach out for professionals for advice on how to break in, be succinct in your query and don't send the same e-mail to every person on your list under the pretense that it's being sent only to them. I recently had three friends all get the same letter from a wannabe writer seeking advice that not only took three paragraphs to get to the point, but it began with the same "I love your work" opening line. He just changed the names in the salutation. I hate to break it to you, but comic book people talk to each other. We know who you are!
Anyway, I hope this is helpful. If anyone has questions, ask in the comments and I will do my best to answer and maybe update the above to include that, as well.
That said, I don't care if you don't like the way I said you should do it, nor do I want to hear any whining about how much effort it's going to take. If you're thinking of going off, back up four paragraphs and try again. I'm giving it to you as straight as I can, and if you can't take this, you're not ready to get out there and sell your art. This stuff is hard for a reason, and there are plenty of other folks out there ready and willing to do what it takes if you can't.
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All text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich