In 2011, writer Dave Kelly and artist Lara Antal formed their own publishing company called So What? Press. Their first book was called “Tales of the Night Watchman,” which continues to this day. This dynamic duo from Brooklyn, NY has slowly gotten their books into 50 stores across the country and has grown their publishing house to include multiple new books from many other creators, including the critically-acclaimed anthology “Breakers.”
The story behind the birth of this indy publisher is almost as interesting as the books they create. Years ago, when Dave was undergoing treatment from cancer, an idea germinated in his mind. During a Christmas party later that year, he met a wonderful young girl that happened to be an illustrator. As their friendship grew, they developed this comic story together. They also developed a love for each other. Together as partners in life and business, they went forth with a common love of comics and started So What? Press. We at Indyfest Magazine had the pleasure to talk to one half of the So What? Team, Dave Kelly. He talked about the future of his work and the hardships of indy comic publishing.
IM: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Why did you get into comic writing? What inspires your writing?
DK: I’ve been a writer since day one. My parents cultivated a positive environment that prioritized Saturday morning cartoons over schoolwork (not their intent) and, here we are. I’m inspired today by the same stuff that inspired me as a kid: Batman, Dick Tracy, Ghostbusters, among other things. The big difference now is that I’m immersed in the world of professional comics creators who inspire me to bring my A-game—which I’m still trying to reach, haha.
IM: As a publisher, you started off with one book, and now you’ve branched out to many other critically-acclaimed books from other artists. What is the next stage for So What? Press beyond your creator-owned books?
DK: Well, we’ve got some cool projects in the works. We just reprinted a great minicomic by Marnie Galloway called Mare Cognitum. We’ll also be doing something brand-new with her next year, called Particle/Wave. This is all in addition to distributing the works that she self-publishes. Expect more minicomics from other artists in the future, as well. We’re always up to something.
IM: You’ve put in a lot of work to get your books into comic shops across the states. With more and more comic shops closing, and comic sales in general going down every year, what are your thoughts on the future for indy comics in general? Do you ever see a day where digital will take over the printed form completely?
DK: Like anything, comics are constantly in flux. Some awesome stores closed this year, but some brand new, potentially awesome stores opened in their wake. There’s always going to be turnover in that area, so I’m not too worried. A lot of the newer stores are more open to carrying small press. A lot of older stores are, too, but you’ve got to push a little harder, sell yourself more.
I’m a firm believer that it’s not print versus digital; it’s print and digital. People love to buy and collect tangible things, which drives the print market. Twenty years ago, people laughed at the state of the vinyl record—now look at it. There will be dips here and there, but print will always bounce back. You have a generation that’s overly screen-focused coming into adulthood right now, but the generation behind them will look at things differently. And who knows where technology will be at that point? A book will always be a book. It’s a perfect form.
Another big proponent of print, insofar as comics are concerned, is small press. Comics are a commercial art. As an independent creator, you’re not going to survive by giving your work away for free or selling it for $0.99 digitally. You’ve got to package your art and sell it to those who want it, at a premium.
IM: Tell our readers a little about Tales of the Night Watchman. What do you have planned for the series and the characters in the future?
DK: Tales of the Night Watchman is about a young woman named Nora who works in a coffee shop and her roommate /coworker, Charlie, who happens to be possessed by a detective from the 1940s who calls himself The Night Watchman. They’re baristas by day, heroes by night. Charlie also keeps an eye on Serena, an androgynous teenager who lives in a tent on a Brooklyn rooftop. He gets her a job at the café as well. It’s a little bit supernatural, a little bit horror, and a little bit indy dramedy.
We’ve got Issue Four coming out at Small Press Expo this month. This is actually our seventh issue, since a few of them aren’t numbered. It’s got two stories. The next installment of our story arc, “The Long Fall,” about an unhinged politician trying to redevelop the Williamsburg waterfront, all the while coming into possession of a fragment he believes will grant him indefinite political power. Of course, things are coming to a head, and Nora and Charlie will have to stop him. This one was written by me, and illustrated by Lara Antal, my co-creator /co-publisher.
The second story is the conclusion of a two-parter, “The Dwellers of Big Bogie”. Again, written by me, but illustrated by Amanda Scurti. This one is all about Nora. She just can’t catch a break on her day off! If it isn’t the espresso machine breaking down at the café, it’s a hideously-fanged, multi-eyed creature abducting children from public playgrounds. She finds herself a hostage in the lair of Big Bogie, the husband of this aforementioned abductor of children—and has to fight her way out to save them.
Like Issue Three, it’s a flipbook. Two stories. Two sides. Two covers. Amanda did the cover to her side. Simon Fraser (Titan’s Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor) did the cover to Lara’s. We’re really excited to get it out there; it’s a good one.
IM: Is it hard to work with an artist with whom you are romantically involved? Do you always see eye-to-eye on the story, and does Lara contribute to the storylines as well?
DK: Haha, Lara has to sign off on everything. We see eye-to-eye on most things, and we’ve worked with so many artists at this point that, unless she’s drawing it, I pretty much say, “Is it cool if we do this?”, and she gives me the almighty yay or nay. I write all the stories, but she’s the first person to read them.
IM: What are some of the biggest frustrations of being an indy comic publisher? Some creators have talked about harsh treatment by fans and comic-con head honchos. Many small press publishers complain they sometimes get the worse end of the stick at comic-cons. What have your experiences been? Also, do you think going to the large comic-cons or smaller-focused cons are better for indy comics?
DK: The biggest frustration is promotion and distribution. It takes a lot of time and energy to put you and your work out there, and the results are always mixed. The best thing readers can do is tell their friends and their local comic shops that they love a book. Shout about it on the internet. Don’t be quiet. If you love Tales of the Night Watchman, let us know. Let the world know.
There are two kinds of shows out there: comic-cons and small press festivals. They’re very different and serve very different audiences. People who go to comic-cons want to buy collectibles, score free exclusives, and spot celebrities. People who go to small press festivals want to buy comics by independent creators. I love attending comic-cons, but they are not the best market for small press. We table at small press festivals, primarily because it’s the best way to get our stuff into the hands of fans and new readers. I think you can avoid a lot of stress by knowing where your work fits in.
They are so many shows these days. Comics are really thriving in that respect. A lot of creators are making product. Small Press Expo alone is totally nuts. So many people on both sides of the table.
Oh, and if I can say one last thing: We’ll be at table B5a at SPX. Lara will also be on a panel called “It’s a Small, Small, Small Press World,” about small press publishing, Sunday at 2:30 pm, so you’ll get a chance to hear her side of the story, haha.
There you have it. Like Dave says, shout about your love of small press comics you like on social media. These are the folks putting the love, sweat and tears into comics. You can find out more about So What? Press at www.sowhatpress.com and find them the Small Press Expo.
Self-Publishing has been around for a long time, but never to the extent it is today. CreateSpace, Kindle, Kobo, and now Blurb are pushing for your business. When you look at all of the avenues available and what they say you must do to promote your own work, it is staggering.
The biggest ‘Must do’ out there is an Author Platform. This usually helps you sell your book(s) to the public. Many lists can be found on the net for your author platform. All appear long enough to boggle any new writer. How do you navigate them? What are the pitfalls if you don’t do one of the steps? That is something to look at closely.
So never fear: here is how you should build your platform and start selling books. (Note: this applies to self-published, indy-published and traditionally-published works.)
Website! If you don’t have a website yet, get one. Make it stand out with your name. For example, I use DAOWEN.CA. It is my name. It is recognizable. It is set with a .CA extension in order to designate my location (Canada). This is important. Don’t use [name].wordpress.org for your blog; it screams, ‘Don’t take me seriously’.
Social Media. Facebook, Google+, Tumbler, and so many more. Each will allow you to have a ‘Page’ for yourself. Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be the same as your personal page. Make it good with graphics and pictures. You’ll be pushing to it from your website. You fill in your blog post, and the program used to display your website will post forward to the sites for you. Takes away so many steps.
Who’s your audience? Figure it out. Teenage girls or adult men? Narrow down the field and make sure you make blog posts for them. If you target teenage boys, you’re not going to talk about makeup in your blog.
Budget. Figure it out. You need to know how much to spend or determine the max you can spend. If you don’t know, it is a gamble.
Marketing. You need to have a definite plan in place. Marketing is what will get people to see that you wrote a book. Anything else is just a crap shoot. This step covers how you market, what themes you use, and so forth. Marketing is enormous when it comes to advertising.
Your author story. You need to tell people who you are and why you write what you do. An author story will connect audiences to you, make them understand where you are coming from, and maybe, if luck holds out, make people want to purchase the books.
Notification lists. Your social media generally handles this, but for those potential buyers who don’t have such, a notification list is important. Try newsletters, combining your words with links that show how to buy your work; those are always good.
Easy to buy. Many do it. They create a link to the ‘buy’ page that spans three lines in their posting. Use TinyURL or something similar to link to the actual ‘buy’ page for your book, whether it is the publisher’s page or your own site. Don’t make it hard to find or read, or decrease the font size. Make it so they will click on the link.
Link your book. Do you write articles? If so, put links in them referring readers to your book and website. Don’t forget the social media links that will sell your book as well. Every little bit helps.
Schedule. Don’t just post whenever something comes to mind. Post your information at certain times of the day. Check your media to see when people are actually viewing your site and time your posts accordingly.
Promote for free! Yes, there are places you can promote your book and people will look at it. There will be a list of sites following this article. I’ll post it on my website for you to look at.
Goodreads. Though I’ve never had any success with them, a Goodreads give-away is another avenue to get your name out there. Get your author profile and claim your book.
Time your release. Make sure it matches something special that is coming up. Be it a vacation or an anniversary, just make sure it matters.
Create a ‘Must Read’ guide at the end of your book. Advertise your other books (if you have any) or promote other authors. Make sure you are exchanging such with them and they’re doing the same.
Photo. Get a good, high resolution photo of yourself for the book and pages. Make sure you smile in it.
Press releases. Get those going. Nothing says ‘professional’ like a good press release.
Guest posts. One of the greatest ways to get your name out there is to guest post on other blogs. There are several of them and they are all looking for people to post.
Pre-release reviews. Yes, it is nice to get someone to read your book, but how will others know how that person enjoyed it? Get reviews fast. This can happen with give-aways and other promotional releases. Hunt for them and ask those who read the book to help boost your sales, for if they like what you wrote, there is a good chance they would like you to write more.
Cool bookmarks. Yes, it is old school, but very effective. Make sure you print out a bunch of them for people to have. If they see your book and website printed on it, they are more likely to check you out and possibly buy from you.
Be nice. Reach out a hand and shake it with the public. Most people will buy a book from an author who is genuine and smiles. Talk to them about the book, but don’t give too much away. Would you buy a book from someone who just dismisses you when they see you?
Tempt your readers. Insert sample chapters from the next book in a series. Put it at the end of your current book or include something when they buy the first. It will spike their interest, and possibly generate more sales.
Categories are your friends. Make sure you place your book in the right area of Amazon, Google, Kobo and all the other retailers you list with. An incorrectly-categorized book will not sell, for no one wants to read science fiction when they are looking for memoirs.
Write series. Not every story can have a second or third book, but some can. Take the time to carry on the story of a hero or their sidekick. The possibilities are endless when you can push out three or four books on the never-ending adventures of the characters people love to read about.
Advertise back. At the end of your book, make sure you list the titles of books that you have previously published. The chances are if they like your writing, the reader will want to seek out other books that you wrote, so help them find those books.
Promo kits. Graphics, images, links, and excerpts are great when trying to sell what you have. Make sure they are on other blog sites, as well as Facebook and Twitter.
Podcast tours. Yes, the podcast is a great way to get yourself noticed. Take the time to connect with someone and have an interview done online. You will be surprised at how many people will seek out your writing if they like what they hear.
Networking events, expos, and conferences. Make sure you write a proposal to present at an event. Gain connections and increase your credibility. This will develop networks and possibly influence others to buy your books.
Email signatures. Every email you send out is a call to buy your book. Others will see a link to your blog and click it out of curiosity. Once they are there, you have them.
Workshops. Non-fiction writers can teach others about what they have in their books. This is a good way to generate sales. Just think of all those survivalists who teach others how to do what they do. Every one of them has a book to sell, and most people who attend their events will buy that book.
Redesign your book cover. If you find the book cover is not attracting attention, then redesign it so it does.
Launch strategy. A book launch requires a lot more prep and strategy than just a few posts on Facebook and a couple of tweets. Plan your launch and get a plan put in motion. Don’t just rely on word of mouth; get to it with your author platform.
Affiliates make money. Sign up for an affiliate program with other book sellers. Get a plan, offer a commission. Make sure they work for you and you work for them.
Contact. Add a way for people to contact you at the end of your book. It could be as simple as your website, and it can have a ‘contact me’ page on it, or a link to your social media page.
Write like it is your business. Your website and social media pages are your outward-looking face to those who will never meet you. Make sure they are professional and don’t portray you as a hobbyist or wannabe. You are committed to selling your book; make it look like that. You are a writer; make it professional.
Urgency. Use time-limited coupons, giveaways, and other contests to get people interested. Do this on your website and use social media to point to it. The more clicks you get, the better off you are.
Use local merchants. Get a number of copies of your book and ask local stores to carry it on consignment. Make sure they can capture 40 percent of the sales for their profit, and you have more books out there for the public to read. This generates a relationship with a retailer who can be your best friend.
Become an expert. Make sure you tie your books in with something that you know. You are an expert of something and if it’s in your book in some way, it’s a jumping off point. Use it. Exploit it.
Fiverr. Yes, it is cheap, but there are sellers out there who will submit your book to many free websites and push your press releases to the world. Use them.
Connect with readers. Yes, online is great, but in your face is better. It is easy for someone to ignore an email, but when you are there talking to them, it is magical. Make sure you put forth a good face.
Skype a book read. This is easy. Arrange for someone to record your thoughts and read excerpts from your book. Sometimes, all it takes is a few lines to perk someone’s interest.
Vacations that work. Going somewhere? Take your books with you. Sometimes all it takes is someone asking you what you do. You’re a writer? Yes. Have a book ready, for they may find it interesting enough to buy a copy. When that happens, others may ask them where they got it. That person will point to you. Who doesn’t want their book signed by the author?
Promote others. Get friendly with writers in your genre. Promote them and they will promote you. This is an easy way to make money and friends who will praise your work.
Advertise. Facebook ads are not as expensive as you think. Google ads can boost just about anyone. There are so many ways to advertise, it is not funny.
Free is bad. But sometimes, a free giveaway will generate sales later on, especially if you wrote a series.
Bundles sell. Take it from your telecommunications or cable supplier. Bundle your books with a small discount and people will by two, instead of just the one.
Fans are great. Talk to your fans about spreading the news of your books. Get them to talk to others about the great author they just purchased a book from.
These are the top 46 things you can do to get your work out there. How many are you doing?
Matt Jorgenson is the author of Extraordinary Ostriches, Possible Particles and the Bifurcated Homunculus, The Hermaphroditic Shaman and the Missing Bottle of Ketchup, and Coagulation —A Clot of Stories. He earned a BFA in studio art glass from Illinois State University, Normal and has worked as an independent contractor for a glass art gallery. Matt has also dabbled in computer animation. He has always been driven by the need to create and the desire to share his creativity with others. This month, he talks to Indyfest about his writing process, inspirations, goals, and motivations.
IM: Where do you write?
MJ: I do the bulk of my writing at home with my laptop. There’s a chair in the den/dining room I use when settling in for a long session. There’s a pub table in the kitchen I switch to when I’m on a roll and family obligations need to be juggled. It’s good to switch back and forth between the two, as it’s easy to stand up and work at the pub table. I do little isometric exercises to stave off the aches and pains of prolonged sitting and get my blood pumping.
When traveling or trying to break through a tough plot point, I will break out a legal pad and a pen and write longhand. Cars, hotels, the basements of extended family members, and bars are some of my favorite places for this approach.
IM: Do you have any special rituals when you sit down to write?
MJ: Big glass of ice water. Hot coffee. Wordless music, typically EDM or House. Since I tend to write fast-paced, intense stories, I find that a high level of beats-per-minute in the ambient music of my writing area keeps the energy flowing. Lyrics interfere with the emerging flow of words.
Aside from that, I have this thing I do just before I actually write. I don’t really have a name for what it is. Essentially it’s “getting out of the way.” It’s not a trance or suspension of thought as such, because I’m definitely involved in teasing out word choices and revising sentence structures along the way. Perhaps it’s entering into a partnership with my muse? Whatever it is, I can definitely feel it “click” into place as I’m about to write. Some sort of psychic gearshift, I suppose.
If you’ve ever run a custom computer where you can load and toggle between several different operating systems, it’s kind of like that. My day-to-day consciousness is still there, but when I boot up the writer OS, I have to toggle back and forth between that and the day-to-day stuff.
IM: Could you tell us something about yourself that we might not already know?
MJ: I have an MBA in technology management. I worked in a tech support role for a group of technical writers who used an SGML based publishing system that offered output to a variety of formats (e.g. paper, pdf, online help) in multiple languages.
The company actually paid for me to get my MBA. I got the job initially with “just” my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I remember being at either an information mapping class or an SGML class, and there was this guy in the class who worked in IT for the Military and he was livid that Lucent Technologies had hired someone like me, with only a BFA, into the job I had at the time. I got a kick out of it.
IM: Do you have a set time each day to write, or do you write only when you are feeling creative?
MJ: As far as I can tell, I have three basic modes: burn, churn, and incubate. I’m good at writing thousands of words per day when I’m off and running on a new project. I’ll work three to five hours per day when I’m burning. I start early, because I have to make time for family obligations during the day. And, when I’m burning, I will stay up as late as it takes to hit whatever daily word count I’ve set for myself. Staying up late makes the next day HARD, which is why I try to start early. It also kicks the creative process in gear and it’s easier to drop a few hundred words here and there if my creativity is already up and running, just idling patiently as I do dishes or help a kid with homework.
Incubation is a mode I inhabit either between projects or when I’m letting a project with some serious meat on it “cook” for a bit. I do very little project-oriented writing when I’m in this mode. I’ll draft clever bits for social media or play with words in my journal, just to keep a handle on my craft. However, when I’m incubating, I become a voracious consumer of content and information produced by others. I’ll binge watch Netflix, re-watch favorite movies, read both fiction and non-fiction books, listen to dozens of podcasts while out walking the dog, find new situations to get involved in, or go on adventures. Modify my meditation routines. Clean the house. Host parties. Organize. I basically try to cram as much novel information and experience into my psyche as it can handle. This serves as great preparation for…
The churn. All of this new stuff spins around in my imagination like laundry in a tumble dryer. There’s an abundance of kaleidoscopic juxtapositions of all these experiential and informational treasures that begin to form exciting alliances, teams, or partnerships. This is a thrilling and exhausting process. I really red-line it until my mind, body, and soul all begin to reject opportunities to take in new stuff. I know the process is getting close to completion when I start returning unfinished library books to the library and don’t excitedly download the new episodes of my favorite podcasts. When watching Jeopardy, napping, and neighborhood walks with my dog and my sweetie seem like all the excitement I can handle, I know I’ve hit the mark. I’ll typically rest then for at least two or three days, sometimes a week. Then either I come to a new project, or back to an existing one with a freshness and aliveness that just oozes out onto the page.
IM: What’s your best advice to other writers for overcoming procrastination?
MJ: For me, it depends on why I’m procrastinating. Different reasons require different solutions. So, I’d say, start with why? There are four main calls to dilly-dallying that I run into including; the “blank page standoff,” the “this is getting good and I don’t want to break it,” the “I love the world I’ve created and don’t want it to end,” and editing.
I’m pretty good at addressing the blank page. It’s a zone I’ve learned to slip into quite well. Just sit, hands on keyboard, stop thinking, and start typing. If I’m coming back to a “stale” manuscript and feeling a little rusty, I’ll just start a few random writing projects to loosen up. Ones with no goal, no point, no agenda.
Next to editing, feeling like I’ve created something good and don’t want to ruin it is probably the most powerful motivator I have to finally sort out my stamp collection, or clean out my tackle box. I have to take a very disciplined approach. What works best for me is to start asking the story questions. What about this? When did that happen? Why does she act that way? This allows me to focus my attention on the unwritten meat of the text. I can always add a few veggies and garnishes during the editing process.
When I’ve fallen in love with the world I’ve created in a story and don’t want it to end, there is only one failsafe mechanism that I’ve discovered to move forward. Start another story. I typically have at least two to three story projects/manuscripts going at a time. It’s a trick I play on myself. Instead of dreading the end of the one I’m polishing, I started telling myself how exciting it’s going to be to finally get back to that other project.
Editing for me is really hard. Fortunately, my sweetie helps out with that. When I edit I have to break it down into five-to-ten-page chunks and reward myself with something small, like half a beer or a pickle, then onto the next chunk. Repeat until done. Eventually, the momentum will start to take over, usually once I’m past the halfway mark of an editing session.
IM: Where/when do you first discover your characters?
MJ: Initially I don’t think of them as characters. It’s kind of like arranging furniture. I need something tall here, wide there, elegant there. I often just plop them in for the energy they lend to the development of the story. When I’m unable to sit at my laptop and write, I will often sketch out backstories for some of the characters with pen and paper, based on what seems reasonable according to how they act/function in the story, and then weave those details back in later.
IM: What inspires your story/stories?
MJ: I suppose, most of my stories are inspired by a frustration with the status quo and comfort zones. Particularly, when there is needless pain or discomfort. A little orderliness and predictability can be nice, sure. What breaks my heart is watching and listening to people take a rote approach to life that’s making them miserable. Whether it’s their job, their relationship, their sexuality, drug of choice, inherited system of morality, or favorite hockey team… hanging on to some inherited or cultural obligation that blocks a person off from experiencing all that’s great with the world as they tick closer to death is truly tragic.
Recently, I’ve been learning about the Toltec concept of Mitote, which is basically an inner demon made up of all the baggage a person has accumulated in life about how they are supposed to live. Maybe I’m simultaneously exorcising my inner demons and forging a tool or weapon out of my personal experience that others can use to confront theirs. A tool or weapon in the form of a book.
IM: Do you get “lost” in your writing?
MJ: Yes. I know method acting is a thing. Sometimes I think I get really close to method writing, to the point where I might try to ape the patter or idiosyncrasies of a character in real life. I’ve used social media to create a sort of mock-up of an idea or scenario I’m developing.
IM: Who or what is your “muse” at the moment?
MJ: Clinically, it’s always been adrenaline. Let’s use thrill-seeking or excitement and see how that works. I think there’s something redemptive about well-choreographed intense experiences. Making it through a haunted house or scary movie might steal power from traumatizing nightmares.
I love to go fast and fly high. To push my limits. With that, it’s important to know what they are, and not exceed them too much at once. I’m becoming more technical about this, because I like helping others find their thrills.
The thing is, it’s way more than just extreme sports/physical peril that gets me going. Comparative philosophy, trying to stay abreast of developments in quantum mechanics, social justice activism, experimenting with different chemicals or spiritual/religious practices, lucid dreaming, watching babies take in the world around them for the first time, cooking, going to large arena concerts with impressive light shows, long walks in the woods where I’m tuned in to the dense hush of the forest, an hour and half in the hot tub.
It’s anything that forces me into—or allows me to be fully present in—the moment.
See, I thought thrill-seeking and excitement sounded too small.
IM: When did you begin to write seriously?
MJ: Writing, and reading before that, has always been a coping mechanism of sorts, imaginative escapism. First with reading, I used books as social shields to deal with being shy and somewhat intimidated at school, both in high school and college. I quickly realized the power of stories to alleviate uncomfortable feelings and wanted to try my hand at the magic-making power of words. So, seriously, as a coping mechanism, I began to write in middle school.
Now, seriously, as in publishing, the adventure began in 2003. I had never forgotten the power of words and stories. I was in a tough spot personally and financially… just a ridiculous amount of fear and uncertainty in my life. I had discovered the user forum on the Fangoria website in my desire to track down buzz about the release of Rob Zombie’s movie House of 1,000 Corpses. There was a section of the forum called “Self Mutilation,” where users would post and discuss their own creative projects. I was up late one night with a painful urinary tract infection, waiting for the pain meds to kick in, and I decided to write a story exploring the pain as a way to cope. That story, “Urethra,” which I basically wrote live on the forum, a chunk at a time, became the catalyst for a number of us to band together and self-publish a book. My first time self-publishing. We even got a mention in Fangoria magazine.
IM: How long after that were you published?
MJ: That book was titled Self Mutilation as a nod to the forum section in which it gelled. The book was released in fall of 2003. This was back when CreateSpace was still BookSurge and hadn’t yet been acquired by Amazon. A couple of us started doing horror conventions to promote the book. We partied hard, met really cool people, and had a lot of fun.
IM: What makes a writer great?
MJ: I’m not sure I can answer this question. Great at what? Pulp, drama, sci-fi, literature, westerns, journaling, ad copy? What age group? For what audience… to what end? I think writing can be a marketable skill that an individual sells in many different types of marketplaces or it can be an intensely personal undertaking. A passionate act that doesn’t need a reader, aside from the originator, to have value. I think, maybe, if someone has a desire to write, and they do, that’s great.
IM: What does the process of going from “no book” to “finished book” look like for you?
MJ: First, an intense flurry of writing. Immersion in the developing story. Long daily sessions of virtually unedited writing. Until I hit a wall. Not a barrier or an obstacle. A wall. There’s this sense that the ending is near. Then I mothball it for a while. Do other stuff.
A week or six months later, I will print it out, do a full read, and edit what I have. This reacquaints me with the story. Ideas about how to finish start to percolate and I begin looking for a cover artist. I look for someone whose creative strength is visual art. Someone willing to read the manuscript and go with it. I love the collaboration, the surprise, seeing what they pick out from the story for cover art.
I typically hand off a revised draft to my wife at this point for additional editing and then hunker down, finishing it up and polishing the final draft. It helps if I’ve booked a show or festival or other event and have time pressure at this point.
My wife and I will iterate through the story several times, trying to tweak it and catch stuff we missed while the cover artist is finishing up the artwork. Then I just upload everything to CreateSpace, clear any errors and, if time permits, I’ll order a hardcopy proof before finalizing everything. Then it’s off to the next show with the latest book.
IM: How has your life experience influenced your writing/stories?
MJ: If I hadn’t found such solace in books as a teenager and young man, I doubt I’d have written much. I have such gratitude for the authors who helped me cope, or hide, or escape. Big thick books to get lost in… short stories to snack on… fascinating infographics to puzzle over. Books have always been a haven a sorts, a safe place for me. A lair.
If I could provide, for a few dozen or a few hundred pages, that solace to someone else… I’d call that success.
IM: Have you? Or do you want to write in another genre?
MJ: From this point in time, I feel like I always want my writing to be intense; each story or novella more like a ride at an amusement park than acres of prose. I think this would work in several different genres. I do naturally gravitate to horror and sci-fi, because these have been my biggest influences over the years. I wouldn’t hesitate to let a story take me into a different genre if that were what was called for… I like to let the story drive. I want to be as surprised as the reader.
IM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
MJ: As a highly creative risk taker, it’s been so hard to realize that some people just aren’t. And many of those people are okay with that. I think, in order to keep going in my creative pursuits, I’ve had to wrestle off urgings from others to “conform”— get a job, be an adult, visit a therapist, etc. This may have a sparked a defensiveness… an us/them dichotomy in me that just isn’t necessary. Realizing this has opened me up to a much greater love of humanity, in all its diverse shapes and forms, that’s capable of transcending petty misunderstandings… most of the time.
Oh, the anything-but-glorious slush pile where unsolicited manuscripts go, when finding an agent to represent you is no longer an option (or one you were never fond of in the first place). Traditionally speaking, this is the metaphysical stack of electronic manuscripts publishing houses go to in the hopes of finding that ‘something special’ overlooked by the myriad of agents out there.
Now, there are plenty of “Do’s and Don’ts” lists and advice circulating the industry telling authors what they need to do to get noticed, and yet, you’d be surprised at just how many authors still get confused by the process. I think it’s time to show you exactly what the specialists mean. Here’s what I learned recently in an interview with DAOwen Publications.
Note: The following are actual excerpts from the introductions and final salutations of query letters submitted for consideration:
Follow the Submission Guidelines
“P.S. I know that you did not request for the short list of characters, but I wanted you to see that the story doesn’t end with the first book, that it goes much further and with every step there is a new someone who makes this story blossom.”
“[My book] is published as an ebook only on Amazon. It doesn’t have an ISBN and is not available for print anywhere. […] I just wasn’t aware ebook publication factored into traditional publishing […]”
Hint: Find the guidelines, follow them exactly. One of the easiest and fastest ways to get rejected is by ignoring the submission instructions—and they’re not the same for all publishers.
Know Who You’re Talking To
“Dear Agent, Thank you for taking into consideration my query […]”
“Dear Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications, I am forwarding a manuscript to you which is the full story of a book I wrote in 2006.”
“Hello, my legal name is Xxxxx Xxxx, the novel I wish to send you is over 170k words long […]”
“Dear Editor, I am very pleased to be emailing you with this query for my 88,700 word novel […]”
Hint: If the guidelines don’t specifically tell you who to send your query letter to, then it’s time to do some research to show this publisher that you’re serious. Go to one or more of the following pages on the website in question: About, Staff, Contact Us (or something similar). Read over the profiles of the people working at that publishing house and determine who best to send your query letter to—sometimes you get lucky and find a title right by a name, e.g. Jane Doe, Submissions Editor.
Don’t Get Personal
“I am not sure if this is relevant but I am a Buddhist, so I believe that luck give chances to everyone.”
“I am a self-employed homebody who shunned the academic world in order to care for my two children and fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming an author.”
“These are the only real setbacks I am experiencing at this time. So, if being paid means working extra hard, the reality is that it won’t happen that quickly due to the lack of available tools that I can use, and the fact that I have to “borrow” toilet paper from public restrooms in order to stay in my home for more than a few days with any level of comfort…”
Hint: You are writing a business letter, not explaining why you can or cannot do something. The only time it’s relevant to talk about yourself in a personal way is if it has direct bearing on the content of your book— i.e., if your book is about a runaway teen who gets pregnant, revealing that you’re basing your book on real-life experiences brings authenticity to your work, even if you write fiction.
Don’t Make Demands (or Requests)
“Please let me know how you feel about this and how it might be improved, or who else may be interested in this type of story if you are not. Thank you.”
“I am only looking to sell the print rights to [my story] and will only agree to a contract that includes a reasonable advance.”
“170,000 words is the perfect length for an epic space opera standalone that crosses the genre barrier, wanting the reader to ‘stay with it for as long as the story can stretch’—if you’re in love with a book the last thing you want is to end too soon; that was my logic for not being satisfied with a novel of average length.”
Hint: Unless you are already a successful author (either traditionally or self-published), you should not be asking for or demanding anything of the prospective publisher. First time authors generally get royalty advances from large traditional publishing houses, and only if that publisher is absolutely certain they have a book that will sell to the masses. Be humble, be professional, and be aware of industry standards.
Edit, Edit, Edit…
“I am native Italian and that’s why you’ll find my English a little odd—in the novel the fact the main character is Italian hopefully justifies the ‘accent’ of the writing style.”
“[…] I thought I would just make a quick point about the piece, as the repeated use of pronoun in the opening was actually a concerted stylistic choice which perhaps I didn’t really explain.”
“My fantasy novel consists of three parts, the first of which is now completed in the first book of the trilogy. I really hope for your positive reply as I am pretty sure that my generation would love to read this.”
Hint: If you don’t see something amiss in almost every example provided in this article (grammar, sentence structure, improper or irregular word usage, etc.), then you should consider hiring an editor to review not only your manuscript, but your query letter and synopsis too. Realize that you can have someone professionally proofread or copy edit your manuscript multiple times, but if what you really need is a substantive/content edit or a stylistic/line edit, then a dozen or more proofreaders will not help.
The owner and chief editor at DAOwen Publications, Mr. Douglas Owen, took time from his busy schedule to speak with me for one important reason: his belief that the term ‘Slush Pile’ reflects writing that no one wants when in fact, for small publishers especially, it should be more accurately termed the ‘Possibility Goldmine’. Owen’s advice is to carefully consider the above points before putting together your query package. If you give a publisher absolutely no reason to reject your submission, you will leave your manuscript to speak for itself.
Native Realities is an all-Native press with a creative mandate to publish stories that empower Native and Indigenous youth. Rather than concentrating on the past, NR seeks out stories with Native content that eschew the stereotypical portrayals of Native characters as historical objects. Instead, the stories coming out of NR tell of the lives the dreams of Native and Indigenous peoples in modern and contemporary times. Earlier this year, INC comics found a new home as an imprint of NR. Established in 2012 as the first all-Native comic book publishing company, INC has graced the comics scene with such titles as Tales of the Mighty Code-Talkers, Kaui, and Super-Indian.
This month, NR CEO and Publisher Lee Francis talked to Indyfest Magazine about NR, INC, and the road ahead.
IM: How did Native Realities Press come to be?
LF: Native Realities was originally the online journal of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers that I started back in 2000. We were one of the first online journals, though I didn’t know it at the time. We ran for about three years. About a year ago, I realized there was a need to expand beyond the offerings of INC. In other words, we needed more than just comics; we needed books by Native authors directed toward a Native audience, from a Native perspective (shout-out to the work of Debbie Reese and #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Also, we had some comic book creators who had their own imprints and we wanted to give them the opportunity to keep their imprint while we handled distribution (as in the case of Captain Paiute and Mr. Theo Tso).
IM: Who are the people behind NR? What are their backgrounds?
LF: Right now, it’s just me. I handle most of the back office work—editing, promotions, distribution. We are establishing a review board currently and have some very strong allies in the work, though, which helps with the “behind-the-scenes” stuff. My background includes editing, teaching, and writing, as well as organizational management. Since it’s only me, though, the work is sometimes slower than I would like.
IM: Looking at your website, you have several imprints (INC, etc.). How do they differ?
LF: INC Comics (INC stands for Indigenous Narratives Collective) is a collaborative imprint that a number of the comic creators all have input on and work with. The other imprints are usually the ones the creator brings with them or has already established. INC is the in-house imprint and works as a collaborative, creative unit.
IM: Let’s talk about the books you’re currently producing. Kaui is billed as “A Polynesian Tale of Beauty and the Beast”. What elements would you say set it apart from the European version(s)?
LF: I think our work is set apart from the European version as it brings in more of the Hawaiian connection. Kristina brings in elements of Hawaiian stories and culture. So it has the Beauty and the Beast framework but is actually based on a similar Hawaiian story.
IM: Who is “Beauty” in this story? What is she looking for? What makes her tick?
LF: Kaui is the beauty. At the beginning of the story, she is a bit of a selfish young woman, who is looking to have a good time and hang out with her friends. As the story moves forward, she gains deeper insight into herself, and her culture, and the importance of the stories she grew up with.
IM: And the “Beast”?
LF: I don’t want to give away too much about the Beast, so as to save some for the readers. However, his backstory is also one of selfishness and redemption. That’s all I’ll give. J
IM: What can you share with us about creator Kristina Bad Hand?
LF: Well I don’t like to speak too much for our creators, so I’ll tell you our interactions with her. We met Kristina (‘we’ being myself and Arigon Starr) at the Denver Comic-con three years ago. She came by our booth and introduced herself as a comic book creator. We asked her to do some work for the cover of the Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers Anthology (due out next spring), and she pitched the idea for Kaui (and a number of other titles). She is currently working on the next Kaui installments, as well as editing for INC. I would say that she is a triple threat: good writer, good artist, good promoter.
IM: You’re also shedding light on an often-overlooked chapter of WWI with Tales of the Mighty Code-Talkers. Can you share some details about how these soldiers and how they affected the outcome of the war?
LF: So, the Code Talkers program stretched from World War I through Vietnam. The first two stories we have released focus on the Choctaw and Cherokee contributions to the Army in WWI. The soldiers who were trained as Code Talkers were Native men, mostly from rural and reservation areas. Often, they were students at Indian Boarding Schools (though not always). Their impact on the war(s) was tangible, as their Code was their heritage language and had an immediate impact in the field. A number of Marines I have talked with credit the Navajo code with saving hundreds, thousands of lives, and being the breakthrough for the war in the Pacific.
IM: How is the story conveyed in your comics?
LF: We use creative non-fiction to address the larger issues around the Code Talkers program. Annumpa Luma (the first Code Talkers comic by Arigon Starr) details the Choctaw regimen, though it uses fictionalized names. Radio Silence (upcoming in the anthology) discusses the issue of Boarding Schools and how Native children were punished for using their language, only to be told fifteen, twenty years later that it could save the world.
IM: What can you share with us about creator Arigon Starr?
LF: Arigon Starr is amazing! She is the driving force and lead founder of INC Comics. She is an amazing writer, artist, performer, promoter, you name it!
IM: Any chance of Super-Indian joining your backlist?
LF: That would be wonderful!
IM: What do you look for in an NR submission?
LF: Quality, authenticity, and creativity! We are looking for stories that strive to give you the most original and authentic representations of Native and Indigenous peoples through stories and texts that educate and entertain children, youth, and adults.
IM: How are you marketing and promoting your titles?
LF: We have our website, word-of-mouth, our mailing list, and we are connected with a number of schools (Native and non-Native). We’d like to get more reach over the next year, once I have additional time to dedicate to the promotional aspect.
IM: When creators sign on with you, do they retain the rights to their characters/creations, or do you purchase them?
LF: Unless we develop the work out of INC, creators keep their rights, characters, and creations. If they do sign with INC, then we try to make sure that we have a good agreement that helps to support the creator and the continuation of their work.
IM: What’s next on your horizon? Any new offerings that we should keep an eye out for?
LF: The rest of the Kaui story is on deck. Captain Paiute #1 will be out this month. The Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers anthology will be out soon. And we have two other titles in development: one young adult and one picture book. So, lots of good stuff coming up!
IM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, that we haven’t touched on?
LF: I think we covered it all!
IM: Finally, how can we purchase NR titles and how can we keep up with you online?
LF: Check us out at: www.nativerealities.com or our FB page: https://www.facebook.com/nativerealitiespress
Arvid Nelson is a comic book writer based in Massachusetts. After graduation, he worked in film as a production assistant on a variety of projects (such as Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, The Toxic Avenger Part IV, and a documentary about The Paris Review), before becoming a writer.
He has worked for various publishers including Dynamite, DC, Dark Horse, and Marvel on work-for-hire projects, as well as putting out his own creation. He has worked on X-Men, Thulsa Doom, Kull, and JSA comics but is best known for Rex Mundi (Latin for King of the World ), which he published through Dark Horse and Image Comics.
Arvid tells us more.
IM: What is Rex Mundi about?
AN: In short, a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery. But I’ve been honing my book blurb pitch for years, so here goes: Paris, 1933. Europe is still in the grip of feudalism, sorcerers stalk the streets at night, and secret societies vie for power. Dr. Julien Saunière’s murder investigation becomes a one-man quest to uncover the deepest secrets of Christianity.
IM: The Rex Mundi comic began three years before Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code came out. Did its release help Rex Mundi (in terms of increasing interest in Grail lore)?
AN: Sadly, it sucked all the oxygen out of the air for us. We had a lot of interest from Hollywood, but doors started slamming shut when Da Vinci Code blew up. No one wanted to compete, I guess. I mean, good for Dan Brown. I’m just happy I got to tell the story. But it does annoy me when I hear Rex Mundi is a Da Vinci Code “rip-off”.
IM: What is Zero Killer about?
AN: Vicious gangs struggle for supremacy in a New York City ravaged by nuclear war, while Zero, an outcast bounty hunter, sees a chance to escape to “Africa,” a semi-mythical land untouched by the radioactive fires.
IM: What is Band of Crows about?
AN: Frost giants have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Sorcery is the only means of survival, and sixteen year-old Therial has just failed his final test, forcing him to go on the run when family rivals torch his home. He awakens a power inside him at a steep price— slavery to the darklings, a shadowy race bent on humanity’s destruction.
IM: You seem have an interest in mythology from around the world. Are there any cultures whose mythology and folklore you’d like to use in the future?
AN: First (I think “First” is more respectful and honest than “Native”) American religions fascinate me. A lot of common themes, Louise, from the Aztecs to the Algonquians. I’m actually surprised at how deeply the stories resonate with me, given that I don’t have a familial connection.
IM: The Band of the Crow is a novel, rather than a comic. Was it difficult to adjust to writing prose, rather than scripts?
AN: Hoooo boy. Writing a novel seemed so easy in the abstract! But there are so many technical considerations you don’t even think about while you’re just reading. It’s been a humbling experience.
IM: You’ve worked with a range of publishers. Is working for large publishers like Marvel different to working for small press publishers?
AN: Not only is every publisher different, but every editor has their own way of doing things. My philosophy in working for hire is always the same: “be a good boy scout”. Deliver scripts on time, and be receptive to change.
IM: Would you self-publish?
AN: Rex Mundi started out at Image Comics, which is self-publishing, in a lot of ways. Would I do it again? Absolutely! It’s wonderful having a publisher help with the million and one things that attend on producing a comic, but I do miss the glory days of patching together Rex Mundi all by my lonesome.
IM: How do you market your books?
AN: I sort of didn’t ’til now, so I appreciate you running this piece! I’ve realized, a little too late, that marketing’s really important. The idea that “good writing markets itself” is totally naïve. EricJ, the first artist and co-creator of Rex Mundi, was great in this regard. He understood the importance of marketing and worked hard at it. It contributed hugely to our success.
IM: Rex Mundi is available in six languages. Was it challenging to market them in foreign language markets?
AN: It could not have been easier, and this is one way in which Image Comics is very different from self-publishing. They— and then Dark Horse—have a foreign licensing specialist who handled it all for us.
IM: What appearances do you have lined up?
AN: None, unfortunately! But now that The Band of the Crow is finished, I’m more active again. Who knows what the future holds?
IM: Do you think the internet has made it easier for people to self-publish, and distribute their self-published work?
AN: Yes, but there’s so much available online that it’s really hard to stand out. But not all hope is lost! Producing an online comic in the run-up to Rex Mundi’s debut was a huge part of our success. We did it every week, without fail, for a year. So consistency, dedication, and passion are, I firmly believe, the road to success for everyone.
IM: How important to do think it is for creators to have their work in bricks- and- mortar shops as well as online?
AN: I hope it’s always important. Comic book stores are one of the few commercial institutions that haven’t been corporatized, disrupted, and chain-stored. I’d be sad if ten years from now, Amazon shuttered every single independent comics store. So I always go to my local store— it’s worth it!
IM: What future projects have you got in the works?
AN: A few for-hire things I can’t talk about. I’d also like to do a story set during the Roman Civil War—we’re talking a few generations before August Caesar. For some reason, all TV shows and movies about Rome are set during the reign of Augustus, and for me, personally, it gets a little old. There are literally hundreds of years of fascinating stories to explore.
IM: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
AN: Please, follow me on Twitter @arvidthetwit, “like” my pro FB page, facebook.com/arvidtheauthor, and check out arvidland.com. I’m really making a go of this whole marketing thing, and I truly make an effort to come up with interesting stuff to post.