Figuring out how to get a book deal for your graphic novel can sometimes feel extremely confusing! But we just wrapped up the first annual KCU Pitchfest, a competition of kids and YA graphic novel pitches, and one of the great things to come out of it was the overarching feedback from our industry judges about what makes a pitch successful. And yay, we’re going to share their tips with you here!
Let’s start by reviewing why publishing can feel so opaque and confusing. (It’s not you!)
First, the industry is complex and can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who are just starting out. There are many different publishers, each with their own unique requirements. Additionally, the industry is constantly evolving. This can make it difficult for comics creators to keep up and know what publishers are looking for. Finally, it’s highly competitive, and many comics creators struggle to get their work seen by agents, editors, and art directors. This can make the process of breaking in feel overwhelming.
But breaking into publishing is just like any other difficult skill. It requires hard work, persistence, and time. The most important factors in helping you get your first book deal are:
- Having a strong online portfolio of work that showcases your skills and abilities as a creator. This portfolio should showcase your best work and be presented in a professional manner.
- Building relationships with other comics creators, editors, and agents in the industry. You can do this by being active on social media, going to shows and conferences, and/or joining industry associations, online groups, and meetups. This can help you to get your work noticed by both peers and potential publishing partners — and make friends (which might be the most important thing)!
- Putting in the time and effort to learn about the publishing industry and how it works. This can help you to better understand what publishers are looking for and how to present your work in a way that speaks to their needs.
- Being open to constructive criticism and feedback, and being willing to revise and improve your work based on this feedback.
These are solid pieces of advice you’ve probably heard before. But beyond that, we got some specific, detailed, practical tips on how to pitch from our judges.
Read on to get the full rundown!
Editors and Agents’ Top Tips on How to Create an Effective Graphic Novel Pitch
- Make sure your short synopsis includes a clear plot–not just a general concept. Explain what the beginning, middle, and end of THIS specific story is, in addition to the main theme/point of the story. Make it easy to envision what the book will be about.
- Think big picture about the intent behind your pitch. For success in the younger market, it’s important to think about the themes and what you’re trying to say overall. How are you highlighting that theme in the synopsis both in the big picture and in the scene you’re choosing to share for your samples that you send to agents and editors?
- Don’t try to do too much in your short synopsis and push in social issues that didn’t really resonate in the story. It can be distracting and weaken the pitch. If your story is a fantasy, action adventure, keep it at that without issues such as environmentalism if it isn’t a side or main focus in the story.
- Don’t comp to mega bestsellers in the pitch; instead find something more current and thematically similar in the market.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a compelling title. Resist the urge to just name your book after your main characters. It works sometimes but more often than not, there’s a more enticing title that would grab readers quicker.
- Make sure your pitch is clear about the book’s target age range, and that the art style or the content are right for the proposed age group. Know the difference between chapter book, middle grade, and YA categories.
- Do your research regarding the suggested page length of books for your intended age group. Make sure your project isn’t too short or too long. For example: publishers currently want 200+ page books for middle-grade, for YA it can be longer (but not full-color or it’s too expensive), and elementary level “chapter book graphic novels” can range from 80-160 pages.
- Make sure your suggested page length is a multiple of 16, which shows that you understand the printing process. (Books are bound in batches of 16 pages.)
- Don’t get too elaborate or complicated with your script format. Take a look at standard script formats and make sure your script is as readable as possible. Your eye should know where to go and how to parse the information on the page intuitively.
- For authors, don’t feel the need to include art for your pitch. It just muddies the power of your words, and if the reader doesn’t like the art, it hurts your pitch’s chances.
- Ensure your comic isn’t overly wordy. Embrace the power of silent panels, and not explaining everything in dialogue or narration.
- That said, good dialogue is ESSENTIAL. Even if you have narration in your story, it’s the dialogue that drives the story along with the art. Get lots of feedback on your dialogue before you submit to agents or editors.
- Avoid mundane conversations that go nowhere. Even a chat about making the morning coffee should give some insights into a character’s personality, mood, and even hint at the story. Don’t waste your words and don’t waste readers’ time without a reason!
- Secondary character clichés (like the arrogant jock and the timid nerd) are out. Modern children’s writing often has secondary characters with depth and nuance. If you decide to use character clichés, look out for ways you can twist the clichés to reveal an inner world that contrasts with that cliché.
The Sample Art
- The art and text should be working in tandem to tell the story, and each panel should be differentiated visually in some way so that each serves the purpose of working to further the story that’s being told.
- When it comes to pitches, you have to leave the publisher/agent/etc. wanting more. Sometimes the opening of your book is not the most compelling part. It’s even better if your sample pages end with a cliffhanger or intriguing moment.
- Make sure your sample pages don’t feel unfinished. Of course a pitch is just a part of the ultimate book, but seeing only one or two completed color pages out of the full pitch makes a “will this person make their deadlines?” warning bell go off in the editor’s or agent’s head. You can include both colored and penciled pages in the pitch, but make sure at least a handful of pages are rendered as “final art.”
- Does your art suit the topic, genre, age, and tone of your story? Blind test a page or two with some friends who have no idea what your story is about. Ask THEM what they think it’s about. If they’re saying it’s a zombie apocalypse story for adults when it’s supposed to be a humorous horror mystery for kids, you may need to rethink your style.
- Avoid overworking your colors. “Good” color in comics is rarely realistic. Great color is visually appealing in the same way color in good graphic design is used: expressively but minimally. Look at your line work: if you use clean lines, you may want to go with clean flat colors without shading. If you have grungy, textural lines, then consider grungy textural colors. Color should be thought of as a design element in comics rather than a reflection of reality as seen on a television screen.
- Make sure your action is always clear and that your characters’ body language and facial expressions are easy to read without feeling over-the-top or forced. Character expression in graphic novels reads somewhere between illustration and animation. Finding that middle balance where characters feel alive but not caricature-ish (or like wiggly limp noodles) can be tough stuff!!! Seek out that feeling of “alive but not like an animated still” middle ground.
- Avoid art that feels like something out of life drawing or a still life class at all costs! “Beautiful” art isn’t always easy to read art! Make sure it’s easy to read FIRST.
- Does your art feel contemporary and fresh or does it feel outdated? Ask SEVERAL outside opinions, and be prepared to shake up your style if necessary!
- Artwork can make or break a submission, but it’s the writing that carries it the rest of the way. The two cannot exist alone, and both must be stellar in order to satisfy your readers expectations!
- Be thoughtful and deliberate with your font choices, especially with an eye toward readability. Nowadays, digital lettering that looks hand-lettered in a style to match the art is particularly desirable.
- Think carefully about whether you want to use all-caps or lowercase font (also known as “title case” versus “sentence case”). For younger readers especially, lowercase/sentence case fonts are usually easier to read. Legibility is paramount in books for kids.
- Make sure your panel layouts are not confusing. Pay attention to the flow of dialogue with the placement of speech bubbles. Are you sure that readers with no prior knowledge will read the dialogue in the order you intend?
- Pay close attention to the visual flow and how crowded your pages are getting with both panels and text. Crowded text is a red flag.
- Word balloons are an integral part of comics. Consider hand-drawing your balloons or creating digital balloons where the line weights and style match the lines of the art so they feel integrated.
Don’t Give Up!
Don’t give up when you really believe in a story. The process of sharing your work, entering competitions, and getting critiques from peers and professionals is to help you make your stories and pitches stronger. Take feedback, keep revising, and know that your work will get better with every edit.
We’d love to hear from you! What were the most important tips for you in this roundup? Is there anything you’re still confused about? Leave a comment below!