How Traditional Book Publishers Decide Which Graphic Novels to Publish

Have you ever wondered how traditional book publishers decide which books to acquire?

In a recent talk for Kids Comics Studio, I offered a quick overview of how book publishers decide which graphic novels to acquire. While it may initially seem complex, once you understand the inner workings of the industry, you realize that publishing is not rocket science. 

So what exactly happens when an agent submits a book proposal to an editor at a publishing house? 

First, the editor puts it in their ginormous spreadsheet of submissions. Depending on who the agent and creator are, they may prioritize it… or deprioritize it. And hopefully, eventually, they or their assistant finally look at it.

If the editor finds the project promising, they bring it to an Editorial meeting where all the editors at the imprint discuss its strengths and weaknesses. If the consensus is positive, the editor gets the green light to take the project to the Acquisitions meeting.

The editor then prepares an acquisition proposal, which includes a profit and loss statement (P&L). The P&L helps determine the financial viability of the project, and includes factors like printing costs and potential revenue. Since this is book publishing, “potential revenue” is a very, very speculative number. 

Sometimes, the editor punches in their numbers – such as the advance they want to offer the creator, the anticipated printing costs, and the amount of copies they think the book might be able to sell – and discover that the P&L doesn’t work. In other words, it suggests that the publisher will lose money by publishing the book. Therefore, adjustments are needed to make the numbers work.

Often these adjustments involve reducing the amount of the creator advance. Or deciding that the book might actually sell more copies. (Editors use “comp titles” to determine how many copies a potential book might sell. So if they use one comp and the P&L isn’t working, they might look for a different comp that sold a little better.)

As I said, publishing is not rocket science.

At the Acquisitions meeting, key stakeholders from the publishing company – including the publisher, heads of marketing and sales, and other relevant departments – convene to evaluate various projects’ potential. The editor presents the project they’re excited about, and everyone deliberates its pros and cons. The publisher or editorial director then make a final decision on whether the editor is authorized to proceed with an offer.

If the project is approved – hooray! – the editor extends an offer to the literary agent. This offer is typically presented in a standardized format known as a deal memo. However, the specifics can vary, especially among smaller publishers, who sometimes make book offers consisting of an email with a few sentences covering the basics (for example, the size of the advance and royalty rates). 

Negotiations between agent and editor ensue, until both parties reach an agreement on the terms.

Once the deal terms are settled, the contracts department steps in to formalize the agreement. This involves drafting a comprehensive contract detailing the terms and conditions. Since publishers’ legal departments are often overloaded, it may take several months from the time an agent accepts an offer on behalf of their client to the time when the full contract is first delivered.

And once that initial contract is delivered, there is typically another round of negotiations on the “fine print” in the agreement. Bottom line is that it isn’t unusual for the contract negotiation process to take 6 months or more.

For graphic novelists, one of my biggest pieces of advice is: do not accept production deadlines right off the bat. It’s crucial to scrutinize the production schedule carefully, and discuss any concerns with your agent and editor upfront. 

If the schedule looks unrealistic to you, listen to your gut instinct and ask for more time. This is especially important when you’re working with an editor or imprint that doesn’t specialize in graphic novels, or has limited experience with the comics production process.

I hope this overview has provided some insight into how traditional book publishers decide which books to acquire. 

What questions do you still have about the acquisition process? Leave a comment below.

About Janna Morishima

Janna Morishima is the founder of Kids Comics Unite and a literary agent who specializes in graphic novels and visual storytelling. She started her publishing career at Scholastic, where she was one of the co-founders of the Graphix imprint. She then became director of the Kids Group for Diamond Book Distributors, where she worked with publishers such as Marvel, Dark Horse, and Oni Press, and helped launch Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books imprint. In addition to her background in publishing, she has worked as an associate producer for documentary films, and as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten and a teacher in a high school for teens in the juvenile justice system. She later launched and ran the NYC Department of Education’s “NYC Reads 365” literacy initiative.

2 thoughts on “How Traditional Book Publishers Decide Which Graphic Novels to Publish

  1. This is wonderful info. My question is will a publisher pick up a GN after it has been self published on Amazon? I am publishing the 1st book in my series as a picture book on KDP. But the rest of the series will be GNs.

    1. Publishers usually only pick up self-published books if they are *extremely* successful. In other words, they’ve sold thousands and thousands of copies.

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