The Road to Comic Book Publication: Steps 1-4

So far we’ve been regaling you with tales of our experiences in getting a board game published. While we still have a few more steps in the actual process to divulge to you all, I’ll be taking a few side steps on this blog to tell you about another project I’m working on: getting a comic book published.

Tim Reinert, who’s responsible for writing a fascinating blog about comics and movies (and music I think) at Four Colours and the Truth, and I have been writing comic book scripts for the past 6 months. Whereas our post have so far been about our actual experiences that got us published in the board game world, the posts about the comic book world will be more about our process of trying to get published.

So looking back over the Steps to Publication, I can say that steps 1-4 are the same for comic books.

Step 1: Read a lot of comics.  This is tip number one for a reason. You have to be familiar with what works in the medium that you’re creating in, so just like a board game designer should play a lot of board games then so too should a comic book writer read a lot of comic books. It will also give you an idea of what’s been done before and what’s selling/working right now on the stands.

This is a passion for both Tim and I, so we’ve got this one in the bag. My reading tends to be almost anything that’s not superhero. That is, until I met Tim. Tim reads everything. Everything! His knowledge of superheroes is second only to Mr. Stan Lee himself. Then add to that his love for indie comics and you’ve got yourself a well-rounded bunch of comic readers!

So if you’re planning on making board games, play games; writing comics, read comics; painting pictures, see a lot of art; making music, listen to a lot of music…etc..!

Step 2: Motivation. Same as in the board game Step 2 – staying motivated is key to success. I took what I learned with my board game designer buddy, Sen, and sought out Tim as a partner to work together with on writing comics. I personally find that I am more motivated when there’s another cook in the kitchen. We’re even piggy-backing the same forum that Sen and I use to communicate on board games, to keep track of our comic book ideas. Fortunately, Tim lives down the street from me, so it’s not as challenging as it is with Sen to get together to write!

Step 3: Versatility. We love all kinds of comics, and we want to write all kinds of comic stories. Our one main mantra is to ensure we’re taking advantage of the medium, meaning that we want to tell stories that can only be done in comics. So far we’ve written a fun adventure tale, a quiet noir story, a time travel story and even a superhero story. If one doesn’t light the world on fire, then we’ve got 5 more ideas ready to go!

Step 4: Persistence. So far we’ve been quietly writing away, and tweaking our scripts for the past 6 months or so. We’re just at the beginning of our journey, but if there’s anything I learned from board game designing it’s that if you believe in yourself, then you have to stay in it for the long haul.

So this blog will now bounce back and forth with updates on our board game progress (Sen and me) and news on how we’re proceeding with our comic book aspirations (Tim and me). Enjoy!

Step 18: Approaching a Publisher via e-mail

The most common and easily accessible option for designers to contact a publisher is through the Internet.  If you’ve narrowed down which publishers you think might be interested in your design (see previous step) then the first step is to go to the website for each of them.

On the website you might learn more about their product line, or if you’re lucky, the publisher might even have some sort of guidelines for the games that they publish.  Out of the Box, for example, has a great page on their site that details the kind of games that they produce.  What this means to us designers is that we should ensure the games we’re submitting to a publisher matches up with the kind of games they like to make!  So for Out of the Box, your game better be able to be learned in minutes, played in less than an hour and feature dynamic player interaction.

Submission Guidelines for Out of the Box Games

Each publisher should have somewhere on their website some sort of rules for how, and if, they accept submissions.  If you can’t find any link or information anywhere on submissions, then use the Contact link to send an email asking about submission guidelines.  In this instance, do not disclose anything about your game at all.

Some publishers just won’t accept unsolicited designs.  This means you cannot send them anything.  This is how the big boys like Hasbro and Mattel like to play.  For now, you should just cross them off your list.  In an upcoming post we’ll talk about when you should use an agent.

After you have researched all the publishers on your short list, it’s time to prioritize them. You need to prioritize them because you want to send your game to the publisher you think would best fit, and would be most interested in your game.  Publishers can take their time when reviewing new game ideas (as some get 100’s a week!).  So pick your number one publisher – your best shot!

The most important thing to know here is that you can only send your design to one publisher at a time.  You will not make a good name for yourself if you send your game out to many publishers and then have to contact some of them later on to tell them that another publisher will be publishing it.  These publishers can take a long time, but they might be spending a great deal of effort by having numerous groups of people playtesting your game.  If they put all this energy into it only to learn that someone else is publishing it, then you can expect not to make too many friends in the business.

Each publisher will have different rules on what the first step will be.  Some will want a description of the game while others might ask for the full rules.  I’ve never seen a publisher request the full prototype without having any knowledge of the game yet.  Some will require you to sign some sort of form to protect them from being sued in the future.  Sign it. In an upcoming post we’ll talk about non-disclosures and copyright protection.

When describing your game, be careful not to do too many comparisons to existing games: “It’s like Dominion – but with dice!” as that makes your game sound unoriginal.  Instead, review your elevator pitch that we talked about in a previous post and work that into your description.  Don’t be too hasty with this step.  Show some people what you’re thinking of writing to get their input – does it grab them and make them want to know more?

Once you’ve sent off what they have requested, then it’s time to play the waiting game.  The waiting game sucks – let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos.  Here’s another instance where Persistence is important – but also as important is knowing where the line between persistence and annoying is!  I’d give them 2-3 weeks before any further contact.  If you have an email, then a friendly follow up with no expectations is fine.

This is where Versatility comes in handy, because while you’re waiting to hear back from the publisher, you should be working on your other designs.  Remember that it’s not just rare to get a game published – it’s rare to get your first game you’ve ever designed published!  Sen and I designed about 10 games or so before Train of Thought and Belfort got picked up.  We still have those 10 designs and hope to tweak them and get them out there eventually – though some of them we know will never be marketable in its current state.

So that’s one way to get your game in front of a publisher.  You might have noticed that I didn’t share too many stories about what Sen and I have done in this regard – and that’s because we haven’t had any success with this method.  That’s not to say it’s impossible of course, but as you’ll see in the next post, we have a much better way to get our game in front of publishers: go to a convention.

-Jay Cormier

Think of the e-mail submission as sending your resume to a prospective employer – putting out the feelers, as it were, to see if they are at all interested in your game. In this step, you are not selling the game – but the idea of the game. And there’s a lot more “meta” to that than you’d think…

You need to tell the publisher why your game will sell – what makes it worth their while to invest time and money in? If a company only publishes one game a year, why should they publish yours?

Here’s some more rules of thumb to follow in respect to putting an e-mail submission together.

Be DESCRIPTIVE yet SUCCINCT

Tell the publisher what your game is about in as few words as possible, hitting the key points in a clear manner. This is where you have to sell your game. You need to have a clear vision of what your game is and be able to articulate it into words. And definitely fulfill any criteria the company asks for, like including time spans, age ranges, component lists, etc.

Jay and I spend a lot of time working on our sell sheets. We will attach these to our e-mail submissions in order to make the e-mail itself more succinct. The sell sheets also have the advantage of having photographs of the components and usually an example of game play. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. For something as abstract as a non-existing boardgame, it’s always a good idea to make the concept as concrete in the mind of the publisher so they know what to expect if a prototype is requested. The sell sheets help make our games “stick”.

Be UNIQUE

Everyone and their dog will be interested if you have something new to offer the market. Z-man, for example, states this on his website, verbatim:

“We also look for original mechanics or ones that have been used before but now offer a unique twist or a unique blend with other mechanics.”

But don’t draw comparisons to existing products – no one wants to publish a game that’s “like Monopoly, but better!”, even if it is better in truth. There’s just very little market for it.

Tell the publisher why your game is different and why it will sell. If you can identify new markets for the company, that is a good thing. For example, if you see your game being popular not only with serious gamers but also in the educational field, highlight the possibilities of the game.

Be FOCUSED and do your RESEARCH

Don’t just spam every publisher out there. If your game is a card game, but Company X doesn’t publish card games, please don’t send them a submission e-mail. Because when you *do* have a game that they might be interested, they may remember you as the designer who couldn’t read. Find the companies that do what you want to do well (e.g. Amigo for card games, Kosmos for 2 player games, Gigamic for wooden abstracts, etc.) and focus all of your attention on getting your game in front of the company that you feel your game fits the best with. 

It pays to research the company you are submitting to in other ways as well. Telling the publisher that you are interested in working with them is one thing, but telling them WHY you want your game to be published by them in particular is an excellent way of showing them you know both the business and their business. Some of the “whys” may be because they have an excellent track history or they are leaders in social party games. Or because their art and component quality is always high and your game would benefit from their skills. Or because they are a local company and you want a fully-Canadian product (if you are Canadian like we are, for example!). If you can tell the publisher why your game fits perfectly into their existing product line, you will be one step ahead. You can either fill a void in their line up (e.g. Tasty Minstrel doesn’t have a dexterity game yet) or fill their niche market (e.g. Twilight Creations is a good “first stop” for horror related games).

Be PROFESSIONAL

Make your e-mail readable. Bullet lists, white space…all important stuff to consider. Use spell check and make it look professional. You need to be serious about even something as simple as an introductory e-mail if you expect the publishers to take you seriously.

This is another place where a well thought-out and artfully done sell sheet can work in your favour. It shows that you’re committed to your own product and that you’ve invested time not only in the game’s design, but in the promotion of it.

So, now that you’ve written up a finely crafted e-mail and attached your sell sheet, hit “Send” and await a reply. Be courteous and timely in your own replies. Also, be wary of hounding a publisher to reply. If you don’t hear back from them, wait a week or two before resubmitting – they may be out of the office at a convention or in the midst of inventory / end of month. Remember: they are running a businsess. And nobody likes a pest.

Jay’s lying when he said we haven’t had any success this way. If you measure success in getting our prototypes in front of publishers, then we’ve had success via e-mail contact. But it is true that we haven’t had any of our games signed based solely on e-mail submissions. Our best chances of being signed and all of our actual signings have come out of our attendance at game-related conventions.

We feel getting face time with the publishers is uber-important. To parallel hunting for a job, if sending a sell sheet and introductory e-mail is akin to handing in a resume, meeting a publisher face-to-face is like having a job interview. It’s make or break time and it happens in real-time in real-space. You need to have your game face on, your elevator pitch smoothed out, and your prototype in readily-playable condition.

So our next segment – Going to Conventions – is one you won’t want to miss if you’re serious about getting your game signed. And if you’re reading this blog, you probably are…

-Sen-Foong Lim

Quote about Creativity

Saw this quote today and made me think about how true it is even for board game design!  It really talks to my belief of how much persistence is needed to become successful in this field:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work … It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions … It’s gonna take awhile … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

 

Step 4: Persistence pays

The third part of my lovely acronym MVP is the P…Persistence!

in 1981 Abbott and Haney sold 1100 copies of Trivial Pursuit and lost $60 on each of them. They stuck with their idea and 3 years later in 1984 they sold 20 million copies.
Fortunately for Abbott and Haney they had a great game, and possibly more importantly they had persistence. They could have tucked their tails between their legs and counted their losses after 1981, but they believed in their game and stuck it out.
In this business you have to be persistent. Sen and I started seriously designing board games in 2005 and it’s taken 5 years to get one game to market. Mind you we both have “real” jobs and have only been able to work on this in our spare time.
In those five years we’ve submitted over 14 games 20 times to a variety of companies. So we’ve had our fair share of rejections. With only two of those games being published we’re only batting .100 so far. That’s actually a pretty decent average so far from what I’ve heard from other designers in the industry.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, when you get rejected from a publisher they will give you some feedback on why they don’t want it. Sometimes it’s things that you can’t do anything about – as was the case when we submitted our game Junkyard to Buffalo Games.
They loved the game and kept it for a few months while they deliberated over it. They said it fit perfectly with the kind of games they like to publish. Unfortunately they ended up passing on the game because the components were made out of wood and they only had experience in making games with cardboard because they manufactured it themselves. Not much we could do as it was imperative that the game be made out of wood…or possibly plastic.
However, sometimes you get feedback that can help your game! For our game Jungle Jam we were rejected by R&R Games because the scoring was too fiddly. They said that everyone enjoyed playing it but the parent playtesters were worried that the scoring bits would be lost.
Fiddly Scoring Bits
We were saddened of course, but after thinking about it we found a way to include the scoring onto the cards themselves thereby allowing us to remove the scoring pieces altogether! This game is now currently back out being shopped to other publishers.
Adding scoring onto the cards!
I look at rejection as a part of the process, but there are ways to reduce how much rejection you get, which I’ll get into in a future post! Just remember that if you believe strongly in your games, stick with it. Be cautious with how much of your own money you pour into it because you could lose it all – but as long as it’s only costing you time, keep with it!
-Jay Cormier

With every bit of feedback we get, not only does the game that got rejected get a bit better, but all of our games get better. Because we subscribe to an overall design ethic / aesthetic, many of our games have similarities, however subtle. So sometimes, when we get feedback that changes how we look at one game, it can possibly change how we look at some of our other previously designed games and it definitely affects how we proceed on current and future designs.

To bluntly state “man, they don’t know what they’re talking about – our game ROCKS!” after getting the rejection letter is just being egotistical (even though many of our games do, in fact, rock ;) ). It’s only through getting feedback that we can really improve our product and tailor it not only to gamers, but the publishers who have sometimes very different agendas (i.e. $$$) than the people who will end up playing the game itself. And so we must expose our work to constant criticism and feedback. It’s all in how we choose to view the responses, really.

“We must learn from the past to change the future”.

There’s a game in there somewhere…

-Sen-Foong Lim