SPX 2018: Adventures In Publishing With Robyn Chapman, Taneka Stotts, Der-Shing Helmer & Andrea Colvin

by Hannah Means Shannon

The Adventures in Publishing Panel at Small Press Expo hosted Moderator Robyn Chapman (Paper Rocket), and publishers Taneka Stotts (Ascend Comics), Der-Shing Helmer (Ascend Comics), and Andrea Colvin (Lion Forge) to talk about their work in comics.
Chapman introduced herself by explaining that she runs a micropress, Paper Rocket, with zines and minicomics out of her apartment, but for her career, she works at a large publisher, First Second.

Ascend Comics is a new publisher, which launched in 2018, and both Taneka Stotts and Der-Shing Helmer were on the panel. Their anothology, Elements: Fire won an Ignatz Award and an Eisner Award this year. They are working on their next anthology Elements: Earth. Helmer is also working on an anthology, Alloy. Stotts and Helmer use some modern marketing like Kickstarter for publishing.
Andrea Colvin from Lion Forge is an Executive Editor at the publisher and has a background with larger publishing outlets beyond comics. Lion Forge have a young adult imprint, Roar, and also a middle grade, as well as an 8 and under imprint.
Chapman asked the panelists if they could describe what their jobs are like, including the tasks they perform. Stotts said that she’s an “uncertified therapist” for creators who would like to tell stories. She answers hundreds of e-mails, and tweets out her “anger and pain”, she said to audience laughter.
Helmer is new to editing, and underestimated the amount of time spent answering e-mails. She says you have goals in mind, and you do your best to maintain that standard and cultivate good relationships with artists you’re working with.
Colvin said e-mail responder becomes a job and you have to resist that. Sometimes she doesn’t answer e-mails, which is terrible she admitted, in order to put the comics first. She feels like she’s a therapist, too, but there’s a “dichotomy”, because on the one hand you are looking at things like panel transitions and at the same time, you’re trying to figure out the market, and where “the holes are in the market”. She needs to publish things that can find an audience to keep publishers working and making money.
Chapman asked how they are, personality-wise, as editors.
Stotts said that she’s neurotic going through the production steps as a “hands on process”. You can’t be in “auto” mode and expect something beautiful to happen. You need to be there with the creators the whole time, Stotts said. It’s not editing, it’s curating, if you’re not involved, she concluded.
Helmer has worked with many editors, and is now working with a number of people who have never had an editor before, so she has been very clear in making sure expectations are clear. She questions creators to make sure they know why they are working on a project and what their goals are to create clarity. She finds that the clearer she is with her critiques, too, the less painful the process is for everyone.
Colvin said that every really great project she’s worked on has been painful to produce, and that some pain is part of the process. Sometimes she’s working with new creators, sometimes with people who don’t want to edit work they’ve already completed. Occasionally things are near-perfect from creators, but delivering feedback, and the method of delivering feedback, is important. If it’s not a licensed project, it is the creator’s project, and helping creators reach their goals is important.
Chapman observed that it can be hard to get books in front of audiences for publishers, and asked how the panelists reach readers. Stotts said that Twitter is very important, and can be an important way to create friends in publishing, including librarians, writers, reviewers, distributors, and more. She said you should take Twitter seriously, and use it to be positive and serious. If you have a “shitpost” Twitter, have a separate handle for that, which you may even choose to “lock”. As a publisher, she researches online to see if she wants to work with people, and she’s looking for positivity. Tumblr, Kickstarter, and Patreon, are also really important, though the last two make money.
Helmer agreed with social media pull, but also reminded to make sure that links work, and that you’re cross-linking between various pages and platforms that you use. Especially in reaching readers who have previously supported you to let them know you have new projects on the way.
Lion Forge takes a different approach, Colvin said, since they are able to spend a lot of money. She, personally, is still on Facebook, and does meet people that way, but Lion Forge has social media people who run the accounts. She finds shows help her meet people, but generally Lion Forge believes in investing in marketing and sending creators to shows to reach out. That is quite different than the “big 5” publishers, she feels, that Lion Forge will market creators and their works in this way.
Chapman asked the panelists for advice for those wanting to be editors and publishers. Colvin said that knowing the market is important, and often asks people who are interested in working in the field questions about the market, and finds they don’t know enough yet, and haven’t read widely. You can also read books about editing, and talk to other editors about it. You can also “go with your gut” if you’re reading comics and sense that something is “off” with a given page, Colvin added.
Stotts got into editing through Slam Poetry and editing chapbooks, she said. She got into publishing comics, but became aware that bad panel layouts and spelling did not help. Professionalism is needed. Reading comics will definitely help. She began to take notes when reading comics, tabulating the number of words on the page and panels. She fell in love with letters and read great comics, basically, teaching her storytelling. Utliizing tools that are available online is also an option for helping visualizing comics if you are a writer rather than an artist. Start small, she advised, rather than diving in, but be a person who is not afraid to ask for help or take criticism.
Helmer got started in webcomics, over 10 years ago now, and one of the things she loves about webcomics is how many are just terrible. She “hate reads” them and writes essays to herself about what she’s critiquing. She does it to learn what problems can arise in comics. She feels she needs to explain what she loves and what she hates, clearly. Choices should never be random from the creative perspective, and as an editor, you need to understand the choices people are making.
If you want an editor or publisher to publish your work, look at their previous publications, and look for presences on social media where announcements are made, Stotts said. Helmer agreed and said that matching your topics and subject matter to certain publishers, she said. Also, always follow closely the directions on submissions pages, because those who don’t read and follow the instructions will simply be thrown out of the process by the publisher.
Colvin said that Lion Forge has a submissions page, but they publish widely generally, from superheroes to humor and literary works. Their motto is “comics for everyone” and value diversity and inclusivity, she added. Whether you think a work has mainstream appeal or not, they might be able to find a home for it. Please don’t send portfolio links, since even though that could be great, it doesn’t help with a business approach. An elevator pitch, plus synopsis showing all that will happen in the book, perhaps a few pages of script, but definitely some pages of sequential art, with bonus points for suggesting what type of book it would be on the market, are what Colvin is looking for in a submission.

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