I had an online meeting with an editor and publisher last night, Chris Staros, specifically to get advice for the first five chapters of Don't Tell My Wife I'm a Cult Leader. He runs Top Shelf Productions and has been in the biz for 30 years and came highly recommended by others that I trusted. Here's a summary of our hour-long discussion.
Most importantly for me, Chris loved the story. Some of the words he used were gripping, excellent, amazing. The biggest unintentional compliment was when he asked if the historical characters I wrote about in Chapter 2 were real. They weren't, but here's a funny side note: I got so wrapped up into developing the character Emma Ludwig that I once googled her name late at night to see if I was being true to her real story. So even I fell for it one time.
Otto and Emma Kessler - Fictional Characters
He also noted that even though he was 180 pages in, there wasn't even an inkling that the cult was taking form. I told him that it's going to be a long, drawn out story and that it might be 30 or so chapters. Chris told me that publishers are very skittish about publishing epic tales and I told him that getting published isn't a primary goal of mine; it's to tell the story I want to tell. Worthy to note: Chris Simms self-published Cerebus the Aardvark from 1977 until 2004 for a total of 300 issues / 6000 pages. Bottom line, he said I should pitch this as "the epic journey of Floyd…" rather than letting folks think it's all going to be wrapped up by issue six.
Cover of Cerebus (Not to be confused with Cerberus)
On that note, he didn't like the name of my lead, Floyd Landers. Said it sounded too much like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons, which is why I named the character that. I asked him what he thought was a "good" name and of course that's a rhetorical question because nobody knows that it's a good name until you hear it.
Regarding the art. He said that the style and layout are unconventional for what is currently trending in graphic novels. My choice of using 12-panel pages in some instances is quite unorthodox and that six is usually the max. He also noted the lack of backgrounds and the simple props and buildings that you see throughout. I told him that the minimalistic approach was intentional so that we can get more done in a shorter period of time.
Then I asked him if the artistic style was a deal breaker for him. He said not at all, but if you want to get published, all of the houses big and small have high standards regarding everything from paneling to gutter lengths and so on, but if you're looking to self-publish, self-promote than you're totally in the clear. He also recommended that I hand draw all of the speech balloons and frames to give it a more organic, less "computer-generated" look.
My takeaway from that part of the conversation was to give some of the backgrounds and props a second look, but no way am I going to start from scratch to adhere to publishing conventions. My audience isn't publishers, my audience is you guys!
Apparently this 12-frame layout is a no-no
Other than that, he gave some tactical advice on the addition of a few frames here and there, lobbied for some more exposition in places to keep readers in the know, especially Chapter 4. There were times where I myself felt the story could use a little more padding at certain points, so having Chris point it out tipped the scales.
Regarding promotion and marketing. There's no quick, easy way to getting the word out. Your hope is to do conventions, post on social media, give talks, etc., and hope that the right people will amplify your name and story and just keep snowballing the good will to a critical mass. There are plenty of published folks who made a name for themselves the self-publishing route and then got themselves a deal.
For myself, I'm more interested in establishing a base of regular readers that I can email when new chapters come out, then leverage that base to give talks at symposia that will aid and encourage others that are seeking to put their art into the arena.