How Do I Break In?

I originally posted this up back in June 2007 on my old Livejournal site, but all of the advice in it still rings true so I thought I’d re-post it here on to my Jim Zub Blog as a way to make sure it stays archived.

Read on…


I don’t know where I first heard someone say “Everyone at cons not already in the industry is trying to break in”, but it’s a great description. Although it’s not actually true, it certainly feels that way. Attend any of the How-To panels at a convention and they’re always packed. Go to any of those panels and invariably the question gets asked:

“How do I break into the industry?”

If it was just about making comics, it wouldn’t even be an issue. Just go make comics. Post them up online or self publish them. Just like that, you’re in the industry.

What they really mean is:

“How do I break in with a publisher?”

Editors and creators should just have their answer to that question on a photocopied handout so they can save themselves endless repetition and add 10 minutes of better questions to the panel. I know that sounds callous and cocky, but hear me out.

Every time I hear this question get asked the answer is almost always the same: hard work, time and determination mixed with a bit of luck and good social skills. It’s almost always a letdown to the person asking because they already know that. They wanted the ultimate secret, some kind of industry handshake or way to stand out from the rest of the submissions.

So, barring just saying “hard work, time and determination mixed with a bit of luck and good social skills”, here’s some important things to keep in mind:

Just like any other occupation, you’ve got to have enough skill to take on the job and be a part of a company’s workflow as seamlessly as possible. So…

A) Have you worked on a comic before?

If the answer is “No”, you need to do so, even if it’s a webcomic or simple photocopied pages stapled together, to show that you can actually do the job and create comics.

If the answer is “Yes”, you need to ensure that it has a similar level of quality to the company you’re showing it to. Remember, you want to show them that you can near-seamlessly become a part of what they already do and be an asset. If your comic isn’t up to par with what they’re already doing, they’re not even going to consider you… in which case you need to create more comics until your samples are good enough.

I used to think 3-6 pages of sequential art would be enough to get a job as an artist, but I’m less convinced of that now. Doing a small number of pages doesn’t show the full spectrum of what the job entails. It may sound like a lot of work to draw a full 18-22 page story but if you can’t/won’t do that, how do you expect to do it day-in/day-out once you break in? If doing that all at once seems too intimidating, start with 6-8 page short stories.

If you create comics on your own, you’ll improve creatively and build up your work ethic. You’ll also get a chance to see if this is what you want to do with your career. Think of it as the minor leagues before you make your way up to majors. Once you have a body of work, it’s much easier to convince smaller publishers to take you on for new work or possibly publish the stories you’ve already created. The more you create, the better you’ll get at it and the more material you’ll have to show larger publishers.

Writers write, artists illustrate.
If you’re not working on it, you’re not growing.

B) Are you applying to the right place?

Does your artwork/writing/coloring/lettering/etc fit the publishers you’re sending submissions to? Again, this is about integrating with what a company already does. Be selective and choose publishers that mesh well with your style/mindset. A handful of targeted submissions are far more effective than shotgunning every publisher out there. Also, make sure you know the name of the person who will be receiving your submission so your cover letter doesn’t say “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern”. That personal touch can go a long way.

Do your research. You’ll save yourself embarrassment and an undue amount of rejection letters.

C) Are you getting socially involved in the industry?

In my experience, even if you have a great portfolio submission it won’t necessarily translate in to a job. Reread that. I know it sounds impossible and depressing but I’ll explain.

These jobs have an important social component. Editors and Art Directors prefer to work with people they know or people recommended by folks they trust – PERIOD. Major publishers generally accept submissions as a PR tactic. They don’t want to appear ungrateful to their fans, so they open the floodgates to submissions but ignore 99.99% of them. With so many experienced and skilled freelancers on the market they have NO reason to hire strangers who send samples out of the blue, no matter how talented they are. Untested talent almost always proves to be more trouble than they’re worth. You need experience and a push from friends on the inside to make it through that barrier.

People talk about being in the “right place at the right time”. What they don’t tell you is if you’re around for enough social interactions with industry people, you’ll create those right places and right times.

Attend a convention. Be friendly, accessible and professional. It’s easy to chat about comics, video games, RPGs and movies with folks at a con built from those hobbies. Keep your art/writing portfolio stashed away and just interact with people. The industry is small enough that the more people you meet, invariably, the better chance you’ll get some kind of social hook-up to a publisher you’d like to work with. You can’t force it. Just be a friendly person and don’t snub any one. You’ll make some lifelong friends who love the same things you do and slowly but surely get closer to your goal. It can take a while, but it works. Seriously.

So… after all that blah-blah this is the kicker, the most important sentence in this post:

Having great work and a social connection with people already working in the field is a rock solid way to break in.

This holds true for comics, RPGs, video games, animation… you name it. There are other ways and outright lucky breaks but you can’t count on those. A good and appropriate body of work coupled with a few solid social contacts is the killer combo. Once your foot is in the door, you can leverage that with more work/credits and contacts to climb up to where you want to be. Along the way you may realize a smaller publisher fits your work and gives you the creative fulfillment you always wanted. Your needs will constantly change as you learn and grow.

So, in brief: Go make stuff and go make friends. 🙂

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this instead of doing paying work. 😛

Leave a comment ?

21 Comments.

  1. I’ll DO IT!!

  2. That sir, is good solid advice. Speaking of social connections, do you wanna have lunch sometime it’s on me. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Chuck.

      My work schedule right now is absolutely slammed and when I do have time I try to get away from work chatter and spend it with family and friends. Maybe we’ll meet at a convention at some point and can socialize there.

  3. Hi:

    Thanks for the advise… but this works only for people that can attend comic cons or similar in the states. What about aspiring writers that live in other countries and have no possibility to attend those events? I’m asking because I’ve read from many artists that were hired by sending samples, but that seems not to work for writers. In fact, the majority of the USA companies do not receive written submissions (if not packaged together with art). In fact, I consider this policy as unfair and discriminative. Can you give some advice to this? Meaning, is there any other way to be considered than to socialize with the editors at cons? I understand reading samples takes a lot of time, but is it not part of the editor’s job to “discover” or attract new talents? (and by “new talents” I do not imply novelists, TV writers or any other writers that have entered other media and seem to be “offered” a gig writing comics, even if they haven’t done that before!). Thanks in advance for your answer and for your time.

    • Writers definitely have an uphill battle because, unlike an artist, it’s incredibly hard to take a quick look and see what a writer is capable of.

      An editor’s job is to make sure their projects are completed by capable people who do the work and sell well. Testing and nurturing new talent is low on their list compared to their current ongoing projects. Trying new people is way more risky and difficult than using people who have a body of work and proof that they can hit the deadline. If someone has other writing work in other mediums (novels, TV, etc.) at least there’s proof they can tell stories, even if they’re not comic specific.

      If you had a choice between people you knew could do the work and others who might not and your job depended on it, I think you’d choose the proven talent too. That’s not discrimination, that’s just common sense.

      Your best chance seems to be creating your own comics and stories to use as platform to show that you can do the work rather than just sending in incomplete sample concepts or scripts. You need to prove you can write stories and deliver quality before people are going to pay you to do it. That’s the simple truth of it. I’m not saying this to be mean, just explaining the reality of it.

      • Jim:

        Thanks for the answer and for being realistic. As far as I understand your comments and advice, I will try to put together a webcomic and run it for a while before sending another submission. Maybe with that kind of material as an introduction I will get some attention.
        Thanks again for your patience and time to comment on this.
        By the way, have a great year 2013!

  4. 😀 will you be my friend?

  5. I have to agree, this advice still holds true today. This is the best explanation to the question that i have ever heard.

  6. Excellent article. I have only had mild success in the comic book industry at this point but every bit that has gotten me to where I am coincides with what you said here. I draw until my fingers hurt, then I draw some more. Without that mentality, good luck! There are so many talented people in this industry that you have to have multiple good qualities. Thanks very much for the spot on writing! 🙂

  7. This was such a good read. I have a lot to look into. I’m trying to develop myself as an artist. I’m fully of ideas and concepts, but so is the next. Creating new and unique concepts is relatively easy for me. I just have a rough time with the presentation. I really appreciate this article.

  8. Thank u for all those great advices and taking your time. i’m gonna read all the others article. 😀

  9. Great post! The “Making comics” part gets a little underrated, in my opinion. Actually getting your comic done is the hardest and most time-consuming part, but also the most satisfying. Getting a publisher interested in it becomes secondary in comparison. (I’m talking about indie comics here, I’m not familiar with others)

  10. Hey, Jim.

    I always peruse the internet for professional opinions on this matter, and I realize I’m fairly late finding this one. That said, this was a very helpful read. I have some questions for you, regarding my situation, if you don’t mind taking the time.

    I have been working feverishly for two years on a graphic novel, which is completed now (185-page script, treatment, pitches, synopses, breakdowns, other promotional documents, etc.), and I have three times now commissioned amateur artists to do 10-page sequential samples from it for submission purposes, all three wanting to work on the project as a 50/50 partner, should it get picked up.

    I had the artwork reviewed by editors (Valiant and Action Labs) and professional artists at NC Comic-Con recently, and they all agreed that the art would kill my chances to get picked up, regardless of how strong the story is. Which was no surprise, really.

    So, I’m now 3k in the toilet without even submitting yet, as I don’t want to burn bridges with publishers on a doomed submission. I am currently being burned by a fourth artist as she has given me one page in a month and has not responded to emails in more than a week.

    The problem is, high quality professional artists don’t seem to be available for a creator-owned project, or won’t even look at a pitch for one, unless the writer is already working in comics. Or possibly a friend.

    I am an award-winning and well published writer in the literary fiction market, but that seems to be largely irrelevant to people in the comic book world. Which, again, is no real surprise, since the two worlds don’t necessarily overlap–not yet anyway.

    Everything I’ve ever done has been to find a way into comics, but it seems like there’s a bit of a lockout until you get lucky. For writers at least. I was surprised to learn that my awards and literary publication history or my MFA in Creative Writing might actually work against me. It also doesn’t help that I live in NC rather than NY or CA, and therefore, can only really attend NC Comic-Con, which isn’t very “happening” yet.

    I was mentored at NC State by Nebula-award winning novelist and short story writer, sci-fi legend John Kessel, and also Wilton Barnhardt, another famous novelist–which has opened a few doors for me, but nothing in comics.

    I have a few agents willing to look at the query for a graphic novel, however, but finding the artist still remains a concern. Because it’ll likely be a one-time chance, so I have to make a big impression.

    However, judging from your thoughts above, it seems that regardless of the art sample or pitch, publishers are not likely to consider my proposal, because their claim of being open to submissions from the unnamed masses is a simple PR tactic, not legitimate.

    I have spoken with a number of other professional working artists online, and they recommended that I write one of my already published stories into a script and commission an artist to draw that, subsequently posting it on my blog for the purpose of showing that I can tell a fully contained story in 22 pages.

    I have done that, but have yet to commission the artist. Once the art is done and it’s up on my blog, would it be better for me as a writer to simply send a query letter via email to an editor with a link to the blog (and that 22 page one-shot) with a list of my awards and publications, rather than waste time in a pointless submission process?

    To explain why I may seem desparate, I was recently diagnosed with a blood disorder; and with a two year old and an eight-month old at home–well, it introduced a bit of uncertainty into my life. And so I feel a clock ticking (whether percieved or genuine), which is why I may seem overzealous.

    Anyway, sorry to lay all of that out there. I just wanted you to understand my sense of urgency.

    Any thoughts or tips you could offer me would be hugely appreciated.

    Thanks so much in advance.

    • I’m sorry I don’t have a catch-all answer to your post here, Josh.

      The comic industry, like any other creative field, is filled with pitfalls. Finding good/professional collaborators is difficult and I have many failed projects under my belt as well.

      Every publisher/editor is a bit different. I won’t be able to give you a tactic that’s going to work with all or even most of them. Quality of the pitch is part of it, luck is a big part too. Going to a major comic publisher without prior comic work is not usually going to get you far as a writer. They just have too much other work to choose from for them to take a risk on a relatively unknown person. You can try directly communicating with editors but some of them may be put off by your approach. If the work is great then I expect that would smooth most choppy waters that result from the cold call communication. That said, I can’t speak for them.

      You’re asking me how to make sure your first shot is a bullseye, but there are way too many unknowns and I unfortunately don’t have the perfect answer or the time to work with you one-on-one on this because I have my own work, career, and life to take care of. I do wish you the best of luck and hope you’re able to find a good fit for your comic aspirations.

      • Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply, Jim. Sorry if implied I needed your one-on-one time donation, that certainly wasn’t my intention. I was just reaching out to someone I admire in the industry about some issues that have left me feeling anxious.

        In any case, I took advice from you and others and held off on the graphic novel submission, and turned one of my previously published short-stories into a comic script. And I actually found a great artist/colorist team who enjoy my writing and approach and we started working on it.

        It’s a 22-page one-shot titled “Shivering,” and we currently have 8 pages up at wareuretales.tumblr.com/shivering. Pages 9 and 10 should be up by Monday or Tuesday.

        We have already recieved a lot of great feedback, which is inspiring, to be sure–and from what many insiders have told me, this should assist editors in gauging what all I have to offer (the artists and colorists as well), and how effectively we can tell a story in the 22-page format, let alone in a graphic novel.

        Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts, and I’m excited for all of your upcoming projects. Kick ass that you’re working with Gail Simone, by the way.

        And if you happen to check out my webcomic and dig it, I hope you’ll let me know.

        Thanks.

        -Josh
        twitter.com/wareuretales
        wareuretales.tumblr.com
        wareuretales.blogspot.com

  11. A Collection of Comic Creation Tutorials and Resources - pingback on April 6, 2015 at 6:56 am
  12. Thanks for this great post, and this awesome blog! I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your tutorial posts. Your blog is super helpful and grounding for us newbs who aren’t sure how to orient themselves to the comic industry and how to learn all the aspects of making comics outside of the writing/drawing part.

    I got my MFA in writing poetry, and until about four years ago, I’d always wanted to write comics as well, but I was too self-conscious to try (I still don’t really understand why). Now that I’ve kicked that sillyness, and after working on a few scripts here and there, I’ve decided I need to at least try. I need to see what I can do.

    As someone who’s only recently started working on comic book pitches, full scripts, and complete story arcs, I feel very lucky to have found your blog and its resources. It’s really everything I was hoping to find, restoring some of my faith in the good of the internet (I’m going to refrain from reading any comments anywhere except for on this blog so I can hopefully keep the good faith going).

    So, Jim Zub, thank you.

  13. It’s true that for all of us who want to break in, we know what we have to do or should do and you sir have illustrated perfectly “the kick in the pants” we need to make those wants come true.

    Thank you.

  14. 😆 Very usefull thanks Jim,your tutorial is what I need it today.

  15. Well, I know what I’m doing at the next convention. I just need to work on some samples and I’ll be ready 😉

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