The following is a guest post written by Trident Media Group literary agent Mark Gottlieb for TCK Publishing.
Graphic novels have been on the rise, particularly those in the areas of children’s nonfiction, memoirs, and slice-of-life-type stories. Surprisingly, very few editors have typically operated in the graphic novel space, due to lower book advances and book publishers’ view of graphic novels as comic book magazines. There were even fewer literary agents in the graphic novel space, due to almost no such deal-maker category existing in publishing industry trade outlets.
Growing Sales for Graphic Novels
Today, there are review and deal announcement categories in book publishing trade outlets such as Publishers Lunch, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, etc. These are places where publishers and literary agents can announce their graphic novel deals and see graphic novels reviewed by major trade publications.
A recent addition was even made to the New York Times Best Sellers List—a section where best selling graphic novels were featured and ranked. (Although at one point this section of the list was removed, those in the comic industry lobbied for the section to be added back again.)
Thanks in part to such measures, the number of graphic novel publications is growing in places such as school and library markets, as well as major book trade outlets such as Barnes & Noble.
Who Reads Graphic Novels?
Many of the titles that have made the best sellers list are young adult and middle grade-focused. These graphic novels often adapt classic works of literature into graphic novel form, or focus on the area of younger nonfiction memoir and personal narratives. All are excellent ways into the graphic novel publishing sphere.
Much of this is also due to a paradigm shift: younger generations, such as middle grade audiences, are keener on reading in the graphic novel medium than before.
There are two primary generations working within and digesting graphic novels.
The first and more familiar is the generation that likely read superhero comics in their younger years. Their parents often viewed their comic book collections as trashy magazines, and would likely have discouraged or forced their kids to throw out their comics in order to get them to read the classics, or something else parents felt would be more worthwhile.
Those kids that suffered the loss of comic book collections (that would have gone on to be of great value, much to their chagrin), went on to become interested in graphic novels. It made for a generation of graphic novel readers and publishers that were very laid back with their view of reading and publishing graphic novels as a labor of love.
The newer generation of graphic novel publishers and graphic novelists exists on the precipice of a paradigm shift that is taking place in graphic novel publishing.
They are sometimes those children that had their comic book collections thrown out, but more often they are the parents of children that are reluctant to read most anything. Today, parents have kids with shorter attention spans taken up by iPads, video games, the Internet, TV and computers. Those parents would be grateful if they could even get their kid to pick up a comic book to read!
It is by and large this group that has encouraged worthwhile publications in the graphic novel sphere, with the hope that graphic novels are something their kids will read. Of course, they might enjoy reading graphic novels on their own as well. but either way, they’ve come to expect more of graphic novel publishers and publications. Such a generation has sought not only to help get graphic novels published, but also to make a viable career out of this type of publishing, as opposed to a hobby of reading comic book magazines.
Tips for Creating a Successful Graphic Novel
Books that appeal to a wide range of ages work well in the modern graphic novel publishing landscape. Young adult–crossover graphic novels are a meeting ground, as this genre appeals to a wider audience than a novel aimed solely at a middle grade or young adult audience.
Real-world issue or subject-driven graphic novels work very well in this area of graphic novel publishing.
Take, for instance, Eisner Award nominee Jason Walz’s Last Pick, available from First Second/Macmillan Children’s Books. Last Pick explores the dangers of minimizing the worth of others by labeling them. Called a mixture of Judd Wick’s Hilo and Craig Thompson’s Space Dumplins, the book tackles the surprisingly deep philosophical questions of personal worth and loss.
At first blush, Last Pick sounds like a classic young-adult sci-fi read: Aliens abduct all of the “able-bodied” people on Earth. Those left behind were spared because they weren’t good enough: too young, too old, or too “disabled.” Now it’s up to a brother and sister to rally the “rejects” as the alien nation gains control over the human race.
Last Pick deals with real-world adult issues that are easily addressed within the graphic novel medium; parents and their children alike can enjoy and learn from the book.
Another good example of a slice-of-life graphic novel with a personal narrative is Kenny Porter and Zach Wilcox’s forthcoming graphic novel The Fearless Rider (Graphix/Scholastic).
In this Miyazaki-esque story, a young girl runs away from home with her pet ferret in an attempt to recapture the happiness she felt before her best friend moved away. The coming-of-age story is appealing to audiences of any age.
Another driving force in the graphic novel space: nonfiction subjects. A good example of this is Christina De Witte’s Ultimate Survival Guide to Being a Girl, styled in the tradition of Adulthood Is a Myth and Hyperbole and a Half. De Witte approaches seemingly mundane but highly relatable situations with a healthy dose of humor and wit, which explains her universal appeal.
How to Submit a Graphic Novel to Literary Agents or Publishers
Part of the Trident Media group literary agent Mark Gottlieb “brand of literary representation” is that I have often sold graphic novels to book publishers based on proposal materials, and it has sometimes resulted in six-figure deals for graphic novelists. But creating a graphic novel in full takes a lot of time and effort.
Your submission should first and foremost be comprised of a full graphic novel script. Think of the graphic novel script as resembling a screenplay, but instead of including stage direction, it has corresponding page and panel numbers with directions for the artist of the graphic novel.
Included in that pitch package to a potential graphic publisher is also some sample and/or spec art. This is usually comprised of some sample pages from the graphic novel artist to show how the words might play with the art on the page. I often encourage the artist to include one or two color samples, if possible, to show how the graphic novel might look once colorized. The spec art is usually a character sketch art or other rough sketches or scenery.
Along with the art and script, I encourage graphic novel creators to include a description and an outline or synopsis. I also ask that creators provide a one-paragraph bio, containing relevant writing/artist experience and credentials. Your bio can include a headshot and a link to a website and/or social media account(s).
Graphic Novels: Not Just for Superheroes Anymore
It is clear to see that the landscape of graphic novel publishing is changing, both from within and without. Publishers and readers have become more demanding in what they have come to regard as a sometimes serious and largely respectable medium within storytelling.
While many of the big comic book publishers such as D.C., Marvel, and IDW are tied up in perpetuating their superhero licenses and brands, savvy new graphic novels are coming out, thanks to more open-minded graphic novel publishers. There is plenty of space for adult literary graphic novels, although such publications are more limited and tend to exist among publishers such as Pantheon, Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly.